Story: Land ownership

Page 3. Provincial administration of land

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General principles

The provincial councils, set up in 1853, had the right to control land policy and, more importantly, to spend revenue from land sales. Regulations varied from province to province, according to regional geography and the political economy that existed in each provincial council. There were three general principles:

  • Land titles came from the Crown and were available to the public. Initially, the deeds of transfer were the basis of this record, but from 1870 the Torrens system was introduced, which formally registered land titles with the aid of a map.
  • Freehold land could be sold by auction, with the reserve price being specified in law.
  • Pastoral land would be leased at low rates, with the leaseholder having the right to purchase small areas for cultivation or building a home.

However, it was not long before this last provision allowed leaseholders to strategically buy fractions of their runs in order to control the rest of the land.

Spotting and gridironing

Spotting involved buying key sections on a run, such as land at the entrances to valleys and gorges, or strips along waterways. In this way, for a low cost, runholders could control large areas. To gridiron, a runholder bought 20-acre (8-hectare) sections along roadsides or waterways, leaving 19-acre (7.5-hectare) strips between them. Sections less than 20 acres had to be sold by auction so, because only someone with limited funds would want such a small block, the runholder could outbid any challengers.

Provincial differences

Although provinces sold land in varying ways, most tried to make land available to settlers who had little money but were willing to work hard. Settlers were usually required to live on the land and improve it.


From 1858, Auckland province encouraged immigration by granting newcomers 40 acres (16 hectares) for those aged 18 or over, and 20 acres (8 hectares) for each child. The province made over 4,000 grants to military settlers, usually retired soldiers and their families, who could protect the civilian population. There were similar grants in Taranaki. From 1870, Auckland allowed settlers to select 50–75 acres (20–30 hectares) for each person aged 18 or over and receive the land without payment if they built a house and worked the land for five years. Westland also adopted this homestead system.


Wellington province granted smallholders areas of 40–200 acres (16–80 hectares) on deferred payment, on the condition they improved the land (a system also used in Hawke’s Bay). There were provisions for settlements such as the Hutt Small-Farms Association, the Foxton Special Settlement and the settlement of Scandinavians in northern Wairarapa. However, Wellington also gave sheep and dairy farmers the right to buy land in blocks of at least one square mile at the low price of 7s. 6d. per acre. A small network of merchants and farmers connected to the provincial government quickly came to control very large areas, especially in the Wairarapa.

South Island

Canterbury’s provincial government, which leased out land for as little as 12s. 6d. per 100 acres (40 hectares) to sheep farmers, was not so generous in its freeholding policy. The minimum price for rural land was £2 per acre. In Otago the standard price of rural land was initially 10 shillings an acre. This rose to a minimum of £1 in 1860, but buyers also had to make improvements worth £2 to secure the title. Small farming became established close to Christchurch and Dunedin. As in Wellington, large sheep farmers subdivided their runs when it was profitable, and some runs close to towns were broken up in the mid-1860s.

Results of provincial policies

In much of the North Island, especially bush areas, there were many small landholdings, but on the east of the South Island and in the Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay, where pastoral farming dominated, there were some large landowners who held thousands of acres, usually in leasehold, but in exceptional cases freehold. By 1862 one man, the runholder William ‘Ready-Money’ Robinson, owned 84,000 acres (34,000 hectares) of the Cheviot Hills estate in North Canterbury.

How to cite this page:

Jim McAloon, 'Land ownership - Provincial administration of land', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 March 2024)

Story by Jim McAloon, published 24 Nov 2008