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Story: Wardell, Henry John

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Wardell, Henry John


Pastoralist, businessman, wool industry leader

This biography, written by K. F. O'Connor, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Henry John Wardell was born at Dunedin on 12 August 1890, the third child of Georgina Wardell and her husband, John Wardell. Harry’s parents were cousins; they had immigrated to New Zealand in 1886 with two of his father’s brothers from County Antrim, Ireland. The three Wardell brothers established wholesale and retail grocery businesses, first in Christchurch in 1887, then in Dunedin and finally in Wellington, each retail firm owned and managed separately.

Harry, his sister and three brothers were brought up in the Quaker faith; his parents helped form the Society of Friends in Dunedin and remained supportive members for many years. Harry was educated at Arthur Street School, Dunedin, and at Friends’ School in Hobart. After leaving school he gained business experience in grocery retailing in his father’s shop, then, aspiring to pastoralism, he worked for two years on the Omarama station in the upper Waitaki district. When the Department of Lands and Survey subdivided Omarama into a dozen leasehold properties, he entered the ballot in April 1915, winning a run and naming it Otamatapaio after the mountain stream draining it to the Ahuriri River.

The property was almost completely unimproved and its boundary fencing unfinished. Wardell camped in a tent and, stocking the land lightly with merino sheep, employed a boundary keeper while he completed the fencing and built a temporary wooden cottage. In 1916 he left his brother Wilfred to look after Otamatapaio and went to serve with another brother, Cecil, in ambulance units in France, Belgium and Italy until the end of hostilities.

In 1919 Wardell returned to Otamatapaio and erected a woolshed and shearers’ quarters, later adding a homestead. During the year Cecil and Wilfred purchased leases of the residual Omarama run and an adjacent property, farming them together in partnership. On 22 November 1920, in Eketahuna, Wardell married Annie Dorothy Matheson, who was also from a Quaker family. Wilfred later married Ruth Mary (Molly) Matheson, Dorothy’s sister.

Otamatapaio was a steep, semi-arid and poorly balanced run with little country suited to ewes or for raising hoggets. Wardell built up sheep numbers to about 5,500 between 1920 and 1928, but reduced them below 5,000 during the depression, despite the widespread increase in flock sizes at that time resulting from poor demand for sale sheep. Thereafter he kept the flock at about 4,500 for many years and concentrated on improving its genetic quality through highly selective purchases of merino rams. He also put more than 200 acres under irrigation, developing them as hay meadows and pastures for feeding selected sheep during critical seasons.

By the 1940s high country pastoralism faced many problems. Many of the farms created by the subdivision of large runs were too small to be farmed successfully; little headway had been made in the battle against rabbits; and because of wartime acquisition – with wool auctions suspended – fine wools like merino had insufficient price margin over strong wools for the enterprises to remain viable. In 1939 high country runholders formed what eventually became the High Country Committee of the Federated Farmers of New Zealand.

In 1944, following his exposition to the government of the unfairness of its pricing of fine wool, Harry Wardell was recruited to the High Country Committee. In 1948 he presented evidence from the Omarama district to the royal commission on the sheep-farming industry. Having carried out an analysis of historical records and collected factual and budget evidence, he set out the underlying causes of the difficulties experienced by pastoralists in the high country: the problems resulting from excessive subdivision remained, high rents made it difficult to afford improvements, and there was little government research and monitoring of the condition of the land.

In 1945 Wardell was elected to the newly established New Zealand Wool Board. The following year he was one of three members of the board who represented growers on the New Zealand Wool Disposal Commission in its dealings with the Joint Organization established in London with other Commonwealth producers. This body completed the task of selling the accumulation of stockpiled wool in Britain with fair outcomes to New Zealand growers in 1951. The government then set up the New Zealand Wool Commission in an attempt to ensure minimum or floor prices for wool sold at auction. Wardell represented growers on this commission from its inception until 1960.

His service in the wool industry was noteworthy for its impartiality. Although he represented merino producers on the New Zealand Wool Board, he also worked to assist the producers of crossbred wools. His efforts on their behalf extended to establishing good relations with wool-growers in other countries in the Commonwealth and the Americas, thereby helping win fairer treatment internationally for New Zealand crossbred wools. During his time on the Wool Board Wardell promoted industry-financed research through the International Wool Secretariat, and negotiated research in New Zealand into the production and preparation of wool and the end use of wools. He was elected deputy chairman of the board in 1953 and chairman in 1956. In the 1960 New Year’s honours list he was made a CMG. Following the sudden illness and death of his wife early in April 1960, Wardell withdrew from the Wool Board chairmanship and all public affairs.

Over the years he and Dorothy had developed the Otamatapaio homestead and surroundings into a pleasant environment for their four children and for social gatherings. Harry had also retained close links with the family business interests in Dunedin. Cecil had left Omarama in 1938 to help his father there. After Cecil’s death in 1952, Harry divided his time between Dunedin, North Otago and wherever the affairs of the Wool Board demanded. In 1956 he sold Otamatapaio to a son and bought a home in Oamaru.

In Oamaru on 17 June 1961 he married Molly, the widow of his brother Wilfred. The couple lived in Oamaru, where Harry died on 22 December 1972, survived by Molly and his children. High country farmers remembered Harry Wardell for his leadership in researching and presenting their situation to government and the nation. He won improvements to the administration of land, and demonstrated for his pastoral farming successors the value of honest, factual socio-economic research as a model for later participation by high country farmers in public issues.

How to cite this page:

K. F. O'Connor. 'Wardell, Henry John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5w9/wardell-henry-john (accessed 13 July 2024)