Kōrero: Rural workers

Whārangi 1. Large sheep runs

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Early farming in New Zealand was dominated by large sheep runs in the east of the North and South islands. Elsewhere in the country, small family farms were slowly cut out of the bush.

Runholders and shepherds

Huge sheep runs were developed in the open tussock country of the eastern South Island in the 1850s and 1860s. Settlers had to find unoccupied open land and run sheep to establish the right to lease it. They needed capital to build up flocks and pay shepherds. These farmers were known as runholders. Large high-country farms were called runs or stations, while large lowland farms were often known as estates. On lowland estates, as well as running stock, fields were ploughed and crops and grain grown.

The labour force

As farms were set up, there was a demand for labour. Tussock lands had to be burnt and ploughed, bush cleared and swamps drained. Rural occupations were many and varied. There were bushwhackers, drainers, shepherds, cooks, blacksmiths, bullockies, musterers, drovers, shearers, roadmen, ploughmen, threshers, fencers, saddlers, packmen, rouseabouts, gardeners, grooms, maids, general farm hands and more. Some were permanent workers on salaries, while others were itinerant contracted workers.

There was a distinct hierarchy on many sheep farms. The manager or owner was at the top, followed by the head shepherd, then the shepherd, then often a married couple who lived on the farm, the wife doing domestic tasks and the husband farm work. Skilled workers such as shepherds earned more respect and money than unskilled workers such as farm hands.


Permanent hands like shepherds and cooks were usually paid a salary. Seasonal workers received wages, which were reasonable during shearing or harvest periods but poor at other times. In the late 1850s general hands on a salary earned £40 a year. Workers could earn higher rates working per day, but they did not have job security. The rate for a day’s work was 7 shillings, or 10 shillings for skilled workers such as blacksmiths. Head shepherds made around £60 a year, which rose to £100 in the 1870s because of demand for their skills.

Many hands make light work

In 1880 Te Waimate Station in South Canterbury had 57 permanent hands on its books: ‘The Manager, the Book-keeper, 7 Shepherds, 1 Stockman, 20 Ploughmen, 1 Head Ploughman, 2 Fencers, 1 Drainer, 2 Grooms, 4 Men’s Cooks, 1 Gardener, 1 Packman and Rouseabout, 4 Bushmen, 2 Bullock Drivers, 1 Waggoner, 1 Blacksmith and 1 Striker, 1 Carpenter, 1 Saddler, 1 Married Couple, 3 maids in house.’ 1

Permanent hands

Shepherds – the boundary keepers

South Island landowners and leaseholders were often English and had little experience in pastoral farming. Many employed Scottish shepherds. Before fences were built, flocks of sheep had to be watched so they didn’t wander over the station boundary or get attacked by wild dogs.

Shepherds lived lonely lives. They often patrolled the boundaries on foot, and slept in small huts, with dogs as their only company. After four or five years, some salaried shepherds had saved enough for a deposit on a small farm – the dream of many rural workers.


Large farms employed their own cooks, and cooks’ assistants known as ‘slushies’ who served up the meals. At shearing or harvest time the workload was considerable and cooks had to triple their quantities. They would already have been up for an hour before waking the men at 5.30 a.m. Shearers then often worked for an hour or two before breakfast.

The food was usually cold or hot mutton, potatoes, bread, salt and pepper. Cooks baked bread and also a popular alternative, the ‘brownie’ – made of dough, mutton fat, brown sugar and sometimes currants. Bread or brownie was doled out at regular smoko breaks along with large amounts of tea served in tin pannikins. Farmers often struggled to get cooks and some went through them at a great rate. Good cooks were valued, as food was important for farm productivity, and poor food made it difficult to keep workers.

Cooks who fed the workers were mainly men. On larger stations maids were employed in the homestead.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. E. C. Studholme, Te Waimate: early station life in New Zealand. Dunedin: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1940, p. 93. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Carl Walrond, 'Rural workers - Large sheep runs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rural-workers/page-1 (accessed 27 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008