Settlement of the Southland plains began in the mid-1850s. The shore whaling stations had all closed by 1850, and runholders, including some former whalers, took up pastoral leases. Closer settlement took place south of the Hundred Line Road – named after ‘hundreds’, an old English unit of land area – from Centre Bush to Scotts Gap.
Both Campbelltown (now Bluff) and Invercargill were surveyed in 1856. Bluff became the port, and Invercargill the service town for the new farming districts, in due course displacing Riverton as Southland’s main town.
The growing settlement and population led to calls for separation from Otago, and Southland, between the Mataura and Waiau rivers, became a province in 1861.
Most Southland settlers came via Otago. But in March 1875, 339 Scottish men, women and children arrived at Bluff from Scotland on the Christian McAusland. Most of the men were shepherds or tradesmen. The 32 single women comprised 24 domestic servants, three dressmakers, two tailoresses, one housekeeper, one factory girl and one laundry maid.
Gold: boom and bust
Bluff and Invercargill benefited from the flow of miners to the goldfields in Otago and the few in Southland. Gold was found at Orepuki and Waikaia, but these fields were never as productive as Central Otago.
The gold rushes passed, and with them much of the province’s revenue. In 1870, bankrupt Southland reunited with Otago.
But from that same year colonial premier Julius Vogel’s development programme brought in immigrants and financed new roads and railways.
From the 1880s the advent of refrigerated shipments of meat and dairy produce to the United Kingdom energised the Southland economy. Within eight years, four freezing works opened – two at Bluff, in 1885 and 1892, and the others at Makarewa (1887) and Mataura (1893).
Farmers and businessmen competed to set up freezing works. An entrepreneur with few assets, the future prime minister Joseph Ward, built up a trading business in Bluff that included the Ocean Beach freezing works (though he became overcommitted and got into financial difficulties).
Grain and dairy
Grain, mostly for the local and Australian market, was grown on the Waimea Plains north of the Hokonui Hills, but declined in importance as pastoral farming became more profitable.
A cheese factory was built at Edendale in 1881 – the first in the country. By 1932, the province had 80 dairy factories.
Morton Mains malady
In the 1920s, a disease was causing lambs to starve and die in lush pasture on the plains known as Morton Mains, near Invercargill. Scientist Donald Frederick Sandys Wunsch diagnosed it as cobalt deficiency in the soil. The problem was solved by spreading superphosphate with added cobalt on the pasture.
The biggest early problem for farmers was rabbits, which had become established in the sand dunes between Invercargill and Riverton/Aparima in the 1860s, and spread throughout the province by the early 1880s. The carrying capacity of one Southland farm fell from 50,000 to 20,000 sheep. The plague eased in the 1890s, but recurred in the early 1920s.
Drainage and lime
Much Southland lowland was swampy – a result of a high water table and low evaporation rates – and many drains were needed to make it suitable for farming. Rain also leached the soil of nutrients, especially lime. Early farmers became pioneers in the large-scale use of lime on pasture.
The rural population increased steadily from the 1870s until about 1911, as did the number of farms and the volume of production.
Invercargill’s population doubled over the same period, from about 6,000 to over 12,000. The town acquired substantial buildings, municipal utilities, a massive water tower (still standing) and electric trams.
In the 1920s farm output continued to increase, but the rural population did not – agriculture became capital-intensive rather than labour-intensive. Yet Invercargill continued to grow: by 1936 the city’s population of nearly 26,000 was greater than that of Southland county.