Champion of the Small Farmer

by Mike Crowl

written for The Sir John McKenzie Historical Writing and Poetry Award
and subsequent winner

Sixty-three years ago, Claude Bingham remembers climbing Puketapu to complete some stone work on a new cairn that had been built there. "The wind was so strong," he says, "when I parked my bike it almost stood up on its own." The windswept cairn still stands in commemoration of one of Otago's finest politicians, Sir John McKenzie.

For all his fame, John McKenzie was at heart a farmer with a simple and burning conviction: the right of the farming peasantry to have access to the soil.

His concern for the small landholder sounded like a war-cry throughout his life, from the time as a child in Scotland, in the first half of the nineteenth century, he saw Highland crofters uprooted from their land to his high profile days in New Zealand's Parliament.

McKenzie came from a family which farmed on the Ardross estate in the Highlands of Scotland. All around them people were being dispossessed from the land that had given them life for generations. These same people were, in many cases, forced to emigrate to countries on the other side of the world, in the hope of beginning life afresh.

When John was seven, he went with his father to see at first hand the effects of the dispossession. They found crofters trying to live in makeshift tents in a cemetery attached to the church, unable to camp anywhere else without being thrown into jail. The effects of this sight never left him, and fifty years later, as an MP, he spoke in Parliament of 'poor people evicted from their homes in a most cruel manner, unable to get a place to stand on, except for the cemeteries.'

On top of this, a brutal assault by thirty-five constables on farmers' wives in Strathcarron who had refused to accept eviction notices, an area close to the McKenzie farm, sickened young John. Loathing of the wealthy landowner was added to his concern for the poor, and coloured his thinking and actions for the rest of his life.

John left school at 13. This lack of education was to affect him later, especially when it was thrown in his face by his opponents.

He went to work on his father's farm, but being one of ten children saw little hope of gaining his own land. By 1860, the colonies had beckoned him, and at 22, with his newly-wed wife, Anne, he set out for New Zealand aboard the Henrietta. Ten passengers died during the voyage, and John himself came off the ship on a stretcher, a shadow of his normally robust self.

His constitution was strong, and in the healthy air of his newly-adopted country he made a quick recovery. Leaving his wife behind in the care of friends, he and two other young men set off walking round Otago to look fro farming work. It wasn't long before the rebuffs they met showed John that life in the new country was rapidly taking on the characteristics of the old. Wealthy landowners were already accumulating land, and setting dogs on itinerant unemployed men.

Nevertheless, he did find work, with Waikouaiti's famous Johnny Jones. Collecting up his wife from Dunedin, he settled with her in a little cottage on the south-eastern slopes of Puketapu Hill, near Palmerston, after making the trip from Dunedin on Jones' schooner. John was no light-weight, and a man of no small stature, yet he was carried ashore from the boat by a local Maori woman name Big Belle.

John's job was as boundary rider over Jones' extensive lands; rider was rather a misnomer, as initially he had no horse. instead he walked the four or five miles to his sheep each day, and back again once they'd settled for the night. This meant long lonely days for his young wife, at least until their children began arriving. At that time there was no settlement at Palmerston.

Soon, through his hard work, John was promoted to head shepherd, and later to manager of the Puketapu run. By 1865, only five years after their arrival in the country, McKenzie was able to purchase 80 acres, at 10/- an acre, from his former employer.

Meanwhile, John McKenzie was not idle in other spheres of his new community. Being by 1866 the father of three children, he had an interest in education - in more ways than one. He had already begun to be involved in local administration, as the secretary of the recently-founded school, and realised his own educational lack.

English was a second language to him, since he and his wife spoke Gaelic as their native language. Now the disadvantages of this became more and more apparent, and a rule was made that only English was to be spoken in their home. The rule was not always adhered to - sometimes the parents fell into Gaelic in order to conceal matters from their children. And in later parliamentary days, it was not uncommon for McKenzie to find that his English was just not ready enough when he was roused about a particular matter. At such time she reverted to Gaelic, to the confusion of the Speaker of the House.

While his study of the language was going on, he foresaw a need to be involved in local government to prevent the problems that beset Scotland from overcoming his new home. Already he was aware of landowners who were licensed to use large areas of land that did not belong to them; his concern was that they would not have the opportunity to buy up this land.

However, before he could do anything about it, the Otago Waste Lands Act was passed. This Act gave these very landowners the lease of the land they had been using. McKenzie was more fired up than ever, fearing that with the influence they had on Government, the landowners would soon be taking over large areas of land, squeezing out the small farmer.

For all his desire to prevent exploitation, he failed to be elected to a seat on the Provincial Council, and had to wait another term. Meanwhile further Acts of Parliament hampered the small farmer, and the mood of the people began to swing against runholders, to such an extent that when McKenzie once more ran for office, he succeeded in gaining the Waihemo electorate against a prominent runholder.

This was the beginning of a political career that was to span the next thirty years. He brought to his office not only a sound practical knowledge of his subject, but an intensity of purpose that flamed hot throughout the country's changing attitudes to land ownership.

His conviction that he was right about what he thought sometimes put him at odds with those who were, in truth, on his side. Over a matter relating to the disposal of land through which the Main Trunk Railway was to be run, McKenzie was not prepared to compromise politically in order to achieve his ends. He thought that if he was right, then it should be plainly obvious to all involved.

The Otago Daily Times over the years never had much time for McKenzie, and once stated that "he was so convinced of the justice of his policy that he could hardly bring himself to realise that his opponents were not activated by motives of personal hostility." A contemporary cartoon from another newspaper shows him pinning the ODT to the ground with a hefty sword.

Newspaper bickering was small beer. Julius Vogel, who had been a champion of the settler, in 1876 abolished the Provincial Councils, centralising Government, and effectively taking away the closer control local government had on land abuses.

Now John realised he must take action on a national level. In 1881 he defeated his opponents by 300 votes and became the elected member for the Moeraki electorate. In Wellington, with his 6ft 4in stature and 18 stone weight, he proved to be a man not easily ignored. As a Senior Whip in 1884, for instance, he quickly used his bulk to gather two men and brought them in by the scruff of the neck.

It was not a good time to be in Parliament. A recession lingered over the country, and many settlers left for Australia, at one point at the rate of 1,000 a month. The "Continuous Ministry," composed of various political alliances and coalitions, added to the general instability.

McKenzie continued to fight for the small man. A clause he introduced into one of the Land Acts became known as the McKenzie clause. It prohibited any farmer whose land was capable of carrying 20,000 sheep or 4,000 head of cattle from buying more land. Naturally it was not popular, and was side-stepped by a process called 'dummyism,' where a landowner bought more land than allowed by using the name of other men who, if brought to task, were prepared to swear that they were the true owners. Naturally these dummy owners were well paid for the privilege.

McKenzie was pleased to be elected to a Parliamentary Committee to look into suspected cases of dummyism, and succeeded admirably at his task by exposing a Tasmanian-based company in the first inquiry.

However these victories were not final, and during the next term in Parliament, when he was in opposition, much of McKenzie's good work was overturned. The then Minister of Lands, G F Richardson, opened up for sale all the land which had previously been set aside for lease.

Next time round it was different. In 1891, the newly-formed Liberal Party, under John Balance, put McKenzie in the position of Minister of Lands. He was now in a position to act, and quickly introduced the Land Bill of 1891 to the House. It was unfortunately not a well-drafter Bill, and the Upper House, now composed of even more Conservative members than before, massacred it.

The Liberals waited another year, and passed a second far more successful Bill, even though within it McKenzie was called upon, for once, to compromise a clause he especially favoured.

John McKenzie was seldom a popular man in the House, especially with the Opposition. They took great delight in reminding him of his lack of education when they could not irritate him any other way. He was even accursed of corruption when a land-subdivision scheme at Pomahaka failed. But McKenzie was not a man to be corrupted, and eventually his name was cleared. His desire to divide the country and get it to produce more was proved successful in 1893 when land in the Cheviot hills which had previously supported only 80 people was opened up to settle 600.

Lengthy and heated debates during the election of 1893 took place over whether the landowners should be compelled to sell their land, and McKenzie found himself opposed by a fellow Ross-shire man, also by the name of McKenzie. However, his support was great in the Waihemo electorate, and he and the Liberals were returned to Parliament.

They introduced legislation that could compel landowners to sell if necessary, although this was seldom required. But the fact of its existence tended to cause sellers to accept peaceful negotiation.

During this term also, McKenzie founded the Department of Agriculture, to help farmers with the problems that beset them. He was at the peak of his success, and proved that all the effort in making land available for small men, as well as great, had been worthwhile.

However, ill health began to trouble him. New Zealand doctors were unable to diagnose the problem, and even an operation in his homeland failed to restore his health permanently.

On returning to New Zealand he was elected unopposed again. Within a year he had tendered his resignation. He was appointed to the Upper House in the hope that he would occasionally be well enough to take his seat there, but it was not to be. In mid-1901, he died.

The year after his grand Highland funeral, a cairn was built on Puketapu in his honour, but because of poor construction, it collapsed within a decade. A new and more permanent one was built in 1929. Like the man it commemorates, it stands foursquare and solid, a fitting tribute to the 'small farmer' whose work endures.


Puketapu Hill is close to Palmerston, in Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand.

Johnny Jones was an entrepreneur who owned and operated whaling stations in New Zealand.  He established a farming settlement at Waikouatiti on the Otago coast to provide produce to support his whaling crews.   Waikouaiti is a little further south than Palmerston.

Moeraki is now better known for its famous 'boulders:' a number of large round stones sitting in the main beach at Moeraki (this link is slow to load but has some great pictures of them).   More are appearing in the sandhill on the beach as the surface is worn away.    A number of broken ones lie further along the beach.  

Otago Daily Times - one of the earliest, and longest surviving newspapers in NZ.

On 14 August 1901 the Caledonian Pipe Band of Southland led the funeral march of the popular Sir John McKenzie, Minister of Lands. The procession slow-marched all the way to Palmerston cemetery and took 3 1/4 hours to travel the 6-8 miles!   (Now called the City of Invercargill Caledonian Pipe Band, it's believed to be the oldest civilian pipe band in the Southern Hemisphere.)

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