The 1876 sale of the vast Piako Swamp by the Government to a group of wealthy Auckland-based land speculators created arguments and ill-feeling throughout the country. It also opened the way for the eventual development of some of New Zealand's most productive pasture.
The 32,000 hectares (about 80,000 acres) of peat swamp and wetlands had been bought by a group of investors headed by retired Captain William Steele for half the advertised five shillings an acre, with the undertaking that the balance would be spent on draining the extensive area and building a road from Taupiri to the east side of the swamp. These were unimaginably vast and expensive undertakings, when the only means available were men with shovels and horses.
Much of the boggy land was covered in tall manuka or flax, with stands of ancient and huge kahikatea and rimu forests. It was inhabited by huge flocks of ducks, pukeko and other wetland wildlife. In places, men and horses were in danger of sinking out of sight. Draining the area must have been a daunting and seemingly neverending task for those employed to do the work. It was so wet underfoot that they could not even set up work camps, but lived in tents a few miles away, where they could at least dry out at the end of each day and find dry firewood to cook with. It was intensely physical work and proved too demanding for many who took it on.
While the Government was prepared to make considerable concessions for anyone brave enough to take the financial risks of developing the area, and reaping whatever profits came from it, Sir George Grey, then MP for Auckland City West, accused fellow parliamentarians and members of the investor group - Thomas Russell and Frederick Whitaker - of a secret deal with premier Sir Julius Vogel over the sale. His attempt to stall the sale to allow time for the issue to be debated in the House and for the public to be informed, was defeated after a rowdy and acrimonious debate.
His detractors accused Grey (unfairly) of wanting to keep the huge swamp undeveloped or, in one humorous exchange, a place for "amphibious settlers who would have their farms as much underwater as above it". The MP for Dunstan, in Otago, V. Pyke, said the only question that needed an answer was if the government had made a "good or bad decision for the country".
Grey's opposition to the sale was, however, based on much loftier ideals than his opponents gave him credit for. In a formal letter to governor Lord Normanby, Grey said the land sale had been made in secret with no public or official notification as required by law and that, "every regulation had been broken". His most severe criticism, however, was that the Government had sufficient funds to develop the land, which would have made good and profitable farms for at least 400 families instead of being used by speculators to make profits. He said the land had been taken from the Waikato tribes under the confiscation policies of the Government of the time, and then unlawfully passed by ministers of the Crown to their friends, which had brought discredit to the Crown and the British Empire.
It was a relatively unknown side of Grey, that he was genuinely concerned for the struggling pioneer settlers.
He was also a stickler for proper processes to be followed and was a staunch opponent of conflicts of interest by elected members. Everything was, as far as possible without jeopardising national security, to be done in the open and exposed to public scrutiny. He had no time for land speculators and saw them as little more than social parasites, pushing prices beyond the reach of the hardest working settlers who lacked the financial means to buy their farms. His sympathy for poor Pakeha settlers did not, however, extend to the original Maori owners of the Piako Swamp, who could only watch in frustration as the Pakeha invaders squabbled over their ancestral homeland.
Lord Normanby and Grey were well known to each other and had clashed over constitutional issues a number of times before the Piako Swamp sale. Such serious accusations could not be ignored and a Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry was established, which found that Grey was correct: The land had, indeed, been sold to Russell and others at a much reduced price than that advertised and that the regulations requiring public notification had not been complied with. Ironically, in spite of that finding, the commission said there was no evidence of corruption by ministers and there were no grounds for disqualifying them from being members of parliament.
Grey was said to have been astonished and furious at the outcome, for which he blamed Vogel, but had little option but to accept it. The controversy had soured the public image of Vogel and he was replaced three months later as premier by Henry Atkinson, who himself only lasted little more than a year before he was ousted by Grey, who held the post for the next three years. By then it was too late to overturn the Piako Swamp sale.
The task proved, as predicted, too much for the speculator group and, although they had made commendable progress, the venture was eventually taken over by the Waikato Land Association. By 1880, almost 26,000 hectares had been partially drained and much of it was cultivated for crops and pasture. This included the magnificent Woodlands Estate of about 9000 hectares, which is still considered by some to be the jewel in the Waikato agricultural crown.
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