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A Scotsman from India - Pioneering family tames the Cape (Clifton Station history: Part One)

Into the awkward mix of questionable land claims, Maori unrest and a burgeoning power class of pastoralists came an enterprising Scotsman with no farming experience, eager to try his hand on some of the toughest terrain in the province.

James Gillespie Gordon was determined to create a new life away from the disappointments of losing his wife and much of his inheritance in the Calcutta bank crash of 1857. Within four years he and his two sons were at Cape Kidnappers having leased and purchased an initial 1100 acres (554ha) from Joseph Rhodes.

Portrait of James Gilllespie Gordon

According to Jenny Carlyon, a direct descent of the pioneering Gordon family, James Gordon was white bearded and 66-years old when he arrived from India in his own schooner in September 1859. He lived in Bow Cottage, Nelson, for a time until he was joined by sons William Cracroft and Thomas Edward, British Army cavalry captains, who resigned their posts to join in his pastoral enterprise.

Gordon senior was from a distinguished old Scottish family, having spent much of his life as a successful merchant in Benares on the northern shores of the Ganges, managing a jute plant owned by his parents-in-law. On retirement, he had returned to Forfar, Scotland, when the double tragedy struck; his wife died and in the wake of the ‘Indian Mutiny’ the crash of the financial system in Calcutta cost him much of the family fortune.

A year after his first land acquisition at what is now known as Clifton he expanded his holdings with an adjoining 6500 acres (2630) from the Crown, then added more from Joseph Rhodes and others until the family had a station of 13,000 acres (5261 ha), including Cape Kidnappers itself.

Pre-fab home prepared James had bought with him the pre-fabricated components of his future homestead, handcrafted Indian teak furniture, a large cast iron bath and a team of Indian army mules (via Arabia).

Tents were erected on the site of their future home as they continued to explore the “magnificently varied…broken, gorgy landscape” bordered by rugged white cliffs on the north face of the peninsula and the golden sands of Ocean beach on the southern side.

Steep bush-clad gorges appeared to defy access; hills of various shapes and heights stretched far into the distance. The vistas and isolation, the sheer scale of the place, must have seemed overwhelming, writes Carlyon.

“The forests were dense with mysterious native trees such as karaka and titoki, rewa rewas or honeysuckle, fine-leafed kowhai that burst into brilliant yellow flowers in spring, grey shrub-like manuka and the taller darker manuka, with its dark pink flowers. Even the bird species were unfamiliar. Shiny black tuis sported white ruffs that made them look like parsons. James and William dubbed one formidable gorge traversing the property for some two miles Pigeon Gully because it teemed with fat native wood pigeons.”

James had opted for the name Clifton after the popular English beach resort near Karachi, and the name of the school he had attended in England. The Indian aspect fitted well with some of the names adopted by Alfred Domett when he laid out Napier streets and environs, largely based on prominent Britons involved in colonial Indian history, including Clive, Meanee and Scinde Island.

Soon after his arrival he applied to the government for a coat of arms and was the first New Zealand resident to be granted that honour; a boar’s head with the motto: Maneo, ‘I abide’. It was appropriate as there were wild boar everywhere across the land, often causing havoc among the new born lambs, and as history reveals, his descendants have persisted at Cape Kidnappers for seven generations.

The new kitset homestead was assembled on flat land, nestled into the hills 120 metres from the beach. Out front was a central structure with two dormer windows with symmetrical steepled rooms at either end linked by a sweeping veranda across the front and sides. Behind were three long buildings for servants’ quarters, an office, laundry, scullery and extra guest-bedrooms with two Norfolk Pines planted 40 yards from each side of the house.

The original Clifton Homestead

Clifton was not going to be easy to farm; the Maraetotara River along the inland boundary provided fresh water but the Mediterranean climate meant the area was prone to drought. Bracken covered hills could be burned off and replaced with native and introduced grasses for pastures. Tanks were installed for collecting rainwater off the homestead roof and there were springs with a steady flow from which the family could lay pipes to the house. From Rangaika, south-east of the Cape, James and his sons could follow the shoreline back to the homestead when the tide was out, returning stock from behind Black Reef where there was a continuous supply of fresh water.

When the bracken was burned off and new seed sown, James sailed for Sydney where he purchased pure-bred Merino ewes and rams and hired two Scottish shepherds. These men later helped to design a shearing shed with a mezzanine floor for wool storage with a block and pulley system to get the wool bales up. More sheep and horses were acquired at Ahuriri and by the end of 1861 the station had 8032 sheep, half of them ewes.

Challenges of isolation Once James and his son William were settled in a comfortable homestead with domestic servants and shepherds all seemed to be going to plan. Other Hawke’s Bay pastoralists were flourishing and enjoyed “unrivalled political influence and social prestige” in the growing European community.

While neighbours offered hospitality and advice, and pubs and trading posts at East Clive were sources of supplies and refreshment, the Gordon’s remained isolated having to cross three rivers and two streams on the eight-mile (13km) horseback journey to Napier. William Gordon missed the companionships he had developed in the military life, his moods darkened and he showed no sign of warming to his new career as a farmer. Although roads were slowly being developed throughout Hawke’s Bay there were no bridges and frequent flooding meant the rivers were often dangerous and impassable. Early exporters were totally reliant on transport across sea or river, often navigating swamps and lagoons, and at the mercy of the weather, flooding and the whims of various ferry operators. Punts carried wool from inland stations down the Tukituki to the bay at Waipureku and out to sea aboard a surfboat. Among the coastal ships trading between Napier and Waipureku was the four-ton Sailor’s Pride.

For three years from 1863 James Gordon partnered with S. Begg and J. G. Kinross, who owned a 58-ton schooner called Success, on the wool run from coastal stations to Napier. He was also a partner along with McLean and Tiffen in the Hawke’s Bay Steam Navigation Company, set up to purchase a 300-ton steamer for Napier coastal trade to break the hold others had on the Otago and Auckland markets. By 1864 it had merged with the New Zealand Steam Navigation Company, which ran seven steamers throughout the country.

When William’s younger brother Captain Thomas Edward Gordon and his wife Janet arrived in Napier on 1 March 1862, the government recognising his military achievements, immediately commissioned him as a captain and on reaching Napier asked him to form a volunteer cavalry troop.

Portrait of Thomas Edward Gordon

Thomas fitted in well with the local pioneering families including Lieutenant (later Captain) Kenrick Hill, a Northern Irishman who had arrived in New Zealand with the 14th regiment in 1860. Thomas and Janet were introduced to Ashton St. Hill, their neighbours on Tuki Tuki Station, Braithwaite, the local bank manager and Thomas Tanner, a wealthy pastoralist and businessman who essentially founded Hastings.

When Thomas wasn’t out killing pigs with William, he was tending to farming matters, or training his cavalry volunteers in a field near the Meanee Hotel. Janet was concerned about their isolation at Clifton and the tense relations between the colonial government and the Maori King movement. Land Wars tensions The war over disputed land in Taranaki between March 1860 to March 1861 had entered a lull but Maori refused to sell more land and Janet was fearful her husband might be called away on active service before they’d had a chance to settle in. She gave birth to her first child, Edward, in 1863, the year the Taranaki conflict flared up and again and Governor George Grey’s forces invaded the Waikato, ushering in an even more protracted and violent phase of the Land Wars. Their second child arrived in 1864, the year Maori King Tawhiao and his followers withdrew to the King Country in the west of Waikato, after government troops confiscated 1.4 million ha in Taranaki, Waikato and Tauranga from Maori now termed ‘rebels’ (Keith Newman, Beyond Betrayal, Penguin, 2013, pp). Another of James Gordon’s sons, Frank, arrived in 1865, by which time the breakaway factions, under the leadership of former Christian mission teacher Te Ua Haumene, were engaging in sporadic, campaigns around the centre of the North Island and ultimately heading toward the East Coast.

Te Ua had proclaimed himself a prophet and, claiming to have seen angelic visions, rallying dispossessed Maori. The early name of Paimarire or “peace and righteousness” quickly turned to something far more insidious as his followers began to rise up against the Pakeha oppressors. Allegiance to the Hauhau had escalated in Taranaki, Waikato and Bay of Plenty in the wake of the Land Wars, partly through the grief of land loss, being branded rebels, and the lack of missionary presence to explain the Old Testament newly translated into Maori. The biblical stories of the tribes of Israel fighting for their ‘promised land’, being taken into captivity by invading nations of Babylon and Egypt, with divine intervention, the Hebrew ancient warrior heroes and angelic encounters taking on new meaning for Maori. Many joined for fear of what might happen if they resisted. Te Ua taught that Maori were a lost tribe of Israel and by raising their right hand true believers would be immune to bullets; those who died clearly had insufficient faith. In Hawke’s Bay the military remained on high alert but the main concern among the pioneering pastoralists was increasing their wealth and influence, developing the region’s infrastructure and acquiring more land to take a greater hold on the booming wool market.

In February 1865, a small band of Hauhau had forged associations with Ngati Hineuru at Te Haroto and Tarawera on the track to Taupo. They were welcomed by Te Hapuku, who believed an alliance may have helped in his power struggles with other chiefs.

After the Hauhau had murdered Reverend Carl Volkner at Opotiki in March 1865, troops were sent to arrest those responsible. Hawke’s Bay Maori mostly denounced the movement, particularly those who had adopted Christianity including Karaitiana (Christian) Takamoana, Tareha and Renata Kawepo who had been an early associate of Bishop Selwyn on his first tour of the lower North Island and had been William Colenso’s main Maori teacher.

The main body of Hauhau wanted to destroy William Williams mission station and training school for Maori ministers at Wairenga-a-hika near Gisborne. In early October, a fully armed group, led by the prophet Panapa, marched from Te Haroto. Another 25 men under Te Rangihiroa remained at Petane. The rest, a large group including women and children, set themselves up in the unfortified pa at Omarunui, on the Tutaekuri River and reports began to filter through that they planned to invade Napier. Thomas Gordon who took his volunteers into the fray, wrote of the events that happened at Clifton and on the battlefield the following day:

My father and I noticed a cloud of dust on the road about a mile off and soon a swarm of Hau haus. Some 20 to 25 galloped up to the house, got off their horses, and came onto the verandah and then invaded the house, one fellow taking up a carving knife and examining it. This was not very nice and alarmed my wife. After a time I said to my father-we must show a bold front and we set to work and pushed them off the verandah and after saying something in Maori-which I afterwards learned was ‘wait a bit’, they galloped off.

The next day I galloped into Napier to see what was going on and called on Colonel Sir George Whitmore commanding the Colonial Forces, who happened to be there. He said ‘We are going to take the Militia out tonight and attack the Hau haus who have taken possession of Omaranui.’

In the morning of October 11, Thomas and his cavalry troop set off for the cliffs at Poraiti, where it was believed canoes might land nearby with reinforcements. Finding nothing they rode back to join the main force finding the battle of Omarunui in full pitch. Colonel Whitmore, now owner of a vast property at Clive Grange, commanded 175 troops with around 200 kupapa (Maori loyal to the Crown) under Tareha Te Moananui and Renata Kawepo.

The Hauhau eventually raised a white flag while a dozen escaped and were let go after the decisive victory. Looking around on his return to Omaranui, Thomas Gordon found Clifton Station’s gardener, George Stevens, lying on the ground after being shot in the lower jaw. Soon after Thomas had left for Napier those at Clifton Station were informed that all male employees were conscripted for military service. Stevens announced “I came to New Zealand to garden, sir, and not to fight”. It took him many months to recover.

The loss of a son Clifton Station was thriving and returning a good profit by 1866 running 11,813 sheep. James had three healthy New Zealand born grandchildren, a housekeeper and took regular trips to the Hawke’s Bay Club in Napier, where he could catch up with friends and play billiards.

However, the sense of elation and progress was severely dampened on 21 March, when a messenger bought news that his 36-year old son William had drowned when he’d fallen off his horse into the Meanee stream after an evening of drinking in Napier.

After William’s death, James’ hopes for the future rested with his eldest son Thomas, who was energetic, capable and enjoyed station life. Janet, remained unsettled by the fact the Maori warriors had come so close to their family, believing Scotland was a safer environment for her family. In 1867 she and Thomas returned permanently to their homeland. Their close friend Kendrick Hill moved into the Clifton homestead and took over management of the station. James remained with the Hills in self-contained quarters. Thomas, however, revisited Clifton for two years after Janet died giving birth to her sixth child in 1869.

Map of Clifton Station

By 1876 there were 15,946 sheep on Clifton; the Merinos were kept as purebreds until 1881 when Lincoln rams were used to produce larger sheep more suitable to the country. Cattle farming started in 1878 with Shorthorns introduced at Clifton and Fernhill until about 1900 when the cows were matched with Polled Angus sires. By 1900 there were 17,436 sheep on the property.

Increased stock and productivity called for more horses, essential for farming such wide ranging and difficult terrain. They were housed in a new two-storey stable on the roadside, with another stable and loft across the road. The oats paddock growing their feed was where the village of Te Awanga would later be established.

Newly planted trees, around the homestead of Clifton Station; mostly pine and gum, provided shelter and shade. Behind the house a new residence for shepherds became known as ‘the Bachelors’ cottage’. Further up the drive the gardener and his family lived in a purpose-built house constructed from New Zealand hardwood, with matai flooring and rimu walls and ceilings. At the Ocean Beach end of the property, another new cottage housed a permanent shepherd.


Jenny Carlyon & Diana Morrow, Cape Country, Random House- Penguin, New Zealand, 2016, pp. 51-53; 66, 68-70 In the Shadow of the Cape, Angus Gordon, Early Stations of Hawke’s Bay, Miriam Macgregor, Reed, Wellington, 1970, p36-38 Keith Newman, Beyond Betrayal (Penguin 2013), pp 113-115 Photographs: Courtesy Angus and Dinah Gordon

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