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Early Runholding in Otago, by Herries Beattie

17 December 2010

When the first pioneers ventured into the interior of Otago in the 1850s and 1860s, they were motivated by either one of two main drives: the quest for grazing country, or the search for gold. Both activities have left an indelible mark on the history of the province. Gold prospectors scoured nearly every river in the region, no matter how remote – their activities however were short-lived, and had all but ceased within 20 years. Today, all that’s left of gold prospecting times is a myriad of names on the map, and a bunch of abandoned machines and buildings. Runholders, on the other hand, occupied every piece of land that was even vaguely suitable for sheep, burning forest and shrub-lands if necessary. They pushed into the main valleys and up to the toe of the mountains, stocking the high country, which they took on lease from the crown. Many of these leases still run today. Every tramper desiring to explore remote ranges will sooner of later have to ask for permission to walk through private land to access the conservation estate beyond. Likewise, any curious outdoor enthusiast who starts reading about the history of his favourite stomping grounds, will soon find out that this is intimately tied in with the antics of the early run-holders, who in many areas preceded trampers and climbers by several decades. This volume is not only highly relevant to tramping in Otago and Southland; it casts light on a chapter that is often neglected in the history of exploration of the region’s backcountry.

The 158-page volume is divided in three parts: 1 – “A composite picture”; 2 – “A particular scene”; and 3 – “An official view”. The first part starts with a chapter on the origins of run-holding, where the Australian concept (which was ‘imported’ to New Zealand by early settlers who often relocated from across the Tasman) is compared to similar establishments in other areas of the world, mainly North and South America. A strong anti-american sentiment in the author comes across quite strongly in the first pages of the book. The following chapters deal with the nature of the country in its primitive state, prior to grazing; the most  important animals on pastoral runs (horses, cattle and sheep), and with the (surprisingly varied) multi-ethnic work-force striving to make a living from the land.

The second part describes life on Puketoi Station from the station’s diary, which was filled in almost daily from 1858, when the run was first occupied, until 1869, when the run was sold. A unique document and an invaluable piece of history. The third and final part looks at pastoralism in the broader context of early settlement of Otago, the local government and legislation. The latter dictated not only the size of runs in different parts of the province, but also their tenure – and the bizarre concept of ‘lease from the crown’ that still holds today.

In this book, the author does not give a detailed history of each run in Otago, when it was taken up and by whom – a wealth of would-be-interesting information that falls outside the scope of this work. Beattie paints a picture of the life on the stations instead. We get to learn about the first dwellings, what they looked like and what materials they were built from; about the hardships endured by early settlers and animals alike when trying to adapt to a new country; and about countless anecdotes that broke the monotony of everyday life, often recollected by old-timers in newspaper articles half a century later. We are indebted to Beattie for jotting down a slice of history of the back-country of Southland and Otago, which is still highly relevant today.


Beattie, H. (1947) Early Runholding in Otago. Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Co Ltd, Dunedin, 158 pages

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