Early Pastoralism in Marlborough


Marlborough's earliest pastoral history was one of initial squatter land occupation, battling the twin scourges of rabbits and sheep scab, and eventually, compulsory division of the huge sheep runs by the Crown.

Burnt Whare hut near the Acheron River on Molesworth Station [Joe Maxted on righBurnt Whare hut near the Acheron River on Molesworth Station [Joe Maxted on right, Ernie Stephens on the left]. Photographer unknown. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives. Click to enlarge

Nathaniel Morse and Dr John Cooper were the first Europeans to bring sheep into the Wairau Valley in 1846.  In the same year, Frederick Weld with cousins Charles Clifford , William Vavasour and friend Henry Petrie, leased what was to become the Flaxbourne Estate. Clifford wrote: "I went to him (Te Puaha, a Māori chief), was very kindly received, and soon agreed upon a lease of all the land from the Vernon Bluffs down the East Coast to Kekerengu for £24/annum."1

In August 1847 they drove 3000 sheep purchased from Australia, from Port Underwood to Flaxbourne: "Crossed the Bluff River with sheep.  Had to throw them all into the water, a day and a half's hard work," wrote Weld in his diary.2

Soon flocks of sheep were being driven over Tophouse from Nelson.  Initially, the majority of Marlborough's first pastoralists were squatters, as the New Zealand Company had no legal titles to grant land ownership.3  Eventually the land was bought by Sir George Grey4 and the Company surveyed and allotted 34,219 acres for 14 year leases, with the Crown able to take over the leases at any time.5

A feud broke out between two groups, known as the Original Resident Land Purchasers and  the ‘stock owners'. Led by Dr David Monro, the land purchasers argued they had a ‘prior moral right' to exclusive rights to additional pasturage licences, which would have given them use of an additional 196,000 acres of Wairau and Awatere land.6

By 1853, there were more than 57 large sheep stations covering more than one million acres.7

Marlborough's historic large sheep stations included:

Horse teams at Ugbrooke Station circa 1910, with Henry Vavasour second from left. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives.
Click image to enlarge

The Vernon Run : south-east of Blenheim. One of Marlborough's oldest sheep runs (5240 acres running 2500 sheep) taken up by Henry Redwood. 

Ugbrooke Station:  13,000 acres in the Awatere Valley running 11,000 sheep and growing crops, originally acquired by Henry Redwood, then William Clifford, then bought by H.D. Vavasour in 1897.9

Meadowbank Estate : 19,000 acres grazing 7000 merino sheep and up to 200 acres of turnips, owned by G.T. Seymour.10  

Molesworth: consisted of  Molesworth, Tarndale, St Helen's and The Dillon and was taken over by the Crown in 1938 after rabbits, heavy snows and the decreasing value of wool took its toll.11

Rabbits and sheep scab drove some farmers off the land. By 1864, hillsides were alive with rabbits which devastated pastures. Rabbits were public enemy number one, with nine million rabbit skins exported in 1882. Sheep scab, a highly infectious disease caused by a parasitic insect, causes wool to fall off sheep and lowers stock condition.  Farmers battled the disease for nearly 60 years, with Marlborough being the last region to be declared ‘clean' in 1892.12

Starborough. Marlborough MuseumStarborough station. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives. Click to enlarge

By the turn of the 20th Century, all of the best, most accessible land was held in large estates which became a problem for the Government as population rose - the problem was acute in Marlborough.13 [In 1903, the total number of sheep in the district was about 826,500, of which 760,000 run in the Sounds country, and 174,000 in the southern district around Kaikoura. The total export of wool for 1903 was12,700 bales].14

In 1894, a Lands for Settlement Act was passed by Parliament which allowed the Crown to compulsorily take estates and award compensation. One of the Dominion's most important land law cases at the time concerned Weld and Clifford's historic 46,600 acre Flaxbourne Estate.  Within four years, about 300 people lived there.15

Between 1899 and 1915, 22 Marlborough estates covering a total of 224,090 acres were acquired by the Government  and divided into 550 properties.16 

2009 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. MacDonald, C.A. (1933) Pages from the past: some chapters in the history of Marlborough. Blenheim, N.Z.: H. Duckworth (E.H. Penny and Co). pp. 196-197
  2. Provincial Centennial Supplement 1859-1959. (1959, November 1) The Marlborough Express, 12
  3. Provincial Centennial Supplement, 12
  4. McIntosh, A.D. (Ed.) (1940)  Marlborough a provincial history. Blenheim, N.Z.: Marlborough Provincial Historical Committee, p. 91.
  5. MacDonald, p. 202
  6. MacDonald, pp. 95-96
  7. Provincial Centennial Supplement, 12
  8. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand : industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations. V.5 Nelson,  Marlborough and Westland provincial districts. (1897-1908) Wellington, N.Z.: Cycyclopedia Co. , p. 360
  9. The Cyclopedia, p. 359-360
  10. The Cyclopedia, p. 357
  11. Provincial Centennial Supplement, 17
  12. Provincial Centennial Supplement,17-18
  13. McIntosh, p. 289
  14. Cyclopedia of New Zealand: Nelson Marlborough, Retreived from NZETC: http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-Cyc05Cycl-t1-body1-d2-d1.html
  15. McIntosh, pp. 290-291
  16. McIntosh, p. 291

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  • I am seeking information on my g-great grandfather, George Leatham (circa1834 - Jan 1894), who apparently had Leatham Station and Leatham River named after him. I believe he was managing what later became named after him some time after he came to NZ from England in after his wife died in 1871.
    He died in Wellington, and is buried in Karori Cemetery.
    I am trying to find who owned Leatham Station, and what larger run was it a part of originally.
    He came to NZ as a widower with 4 children, and was apparently a gardiner from Beckford, Gloucestershire. I have not managed to find when he came to NZ, but he may have spent time beforehand. His son, Charles John Leatham, was the groundsman at Hutt Park raceway, and married my great grandmother son after leaving the Leatham Valley. They apparently spent some time on d'Urville Island.
    My information is pretty sketchy, bu I do have photos of him, which I gace a copy of to the present incumbents at Leatham some years ago after I visited it.
    Is there anyone who can provide me with any factual data about George? There could be an article in it - I feel it is about time the man who gave his name to the Leatham was recognised.(I'd also like to see the Btranch River returned to its proper name of West Branch, Leatham River!)

    Will see what information we can find or sources you can try, Ed.

    Posted by Nick Perrin, 29/07/2017 2:37pm (7 years ago)

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Further sources - Early Pastoralism in Marlborough



  • Denton, R.T. (1981) Early sheep runs of Marlborough . Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies 1(1), pp.7-12
  • Denton, R.T. (1984) The early sheep runs of Marlborough (continued) : runs in the Lower Wairau. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies (Incorporated), 1(4), pp.4-9
  • Elliot, B. (2008) Seddon : sheep made New Zealand famous. New Zealand Memories, 73, p.51
  • McKay, D. (1999, January 11) Travelling through Molesworth. Nelson Mail, p.11
  • McLauchlan, G. (1968) Molesworth : a huge station that has become a legend. New Zealand journal of agriculture, 117 (3) p.34-45
  • Molesworth Station (1964) New Zealand journal of agriculture,108 (2), p.105
  • Taylor, J. (2008) Flaxbourne. New Zealand Memories, 73, p.54-55


  • 1899-1949 Souvenir programme, fiftieth anniversary of Starborough and Richmond Brook settlement: menu and toast list for reunion luncheon, Seddon May 18, 1949. Blenheim, May 18, 1949. [Held by Alexander Turnbull Library]

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