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Surviving fire, floods and farming - A Gordon generational inheritance (Clifton Station history: Part Two)

12 Apr 2020

James Gillespie Gordon, the pioneering Scotsman who had countered his ill fortunes and losses by making a fresh start in New Zealand transforming the vast wilderness of Cape Kidnappers and into a profitable farm and family home, passed away in September 1878.

The future of Clifton station hung in the balance for several years under the management of Kendrick Hill. In May 1879 Captain Thomas Gordon, now aged 51 returned to Clifton for a short time after having buried his father, went hunting with Kenrick Hill, shooting with the men in the Tanner family then departed again in May 1880.

The Hills travelled abroad from 1881-84, visited Thomas in Devon and on their return to Clifton on 21 January 1884, bought with them Thomas’s son, 19-year old Frank Gordon, to learn the family business. It was a tough time, as the country was in economic depression but Clifton’s books were sufficiently in the black to pull through.

In 1885, Frank welcomed his friend and first cousin Pat Robertson to Clifton and both put in a remarkable effort at the station and at the Fernhill property they had acquired. In September 1886, Thomas arrived for a further visit with his youngest son Charlie, who began as a cadet on Clifton Station which now ran 25,000 sheep When Thomas’s left in 1888 it marked the beginning of a new era with the Hills moving to Fernhill and Frank now at the helm of Clifton Station.

Frank married Ellen Mary Tanner, the daughter of Thomas Tanner in 1891. In 1892, Thomas sold his share of Fernhill to Kenrick Hill who had helped develop the property. Tragedy struck when the original Clifton homestead burnt down in 1899 while Frank, Ellen and their two children were returning from England. The current homestead was built on the same site in 1900.

In 1911 Frank was elected chairman of the Hawke’s Bay County. Frank’s wife Ellen died in January 1913, aged 41 and in 1922 he married Dorothy Laidlaw Halliday and they had one son.

Carving up the legacy

The size and maintenance of the large Clifton Station property presented a considerable challenge to Frank and Dorothy. Illness and family circumstances meant there was no clear succession plan and so in 1924 a hard decision was made to survey off a section of the Cape Block, reducing the original holding to 2000 acres.

 

This would be the first time any significant portion of Clifton Station had been sold outside the Gordon family, although a smaller area had been sold by this time to further the growth of the small settlement of Te Awanga. The decision had a huge emotional impact on Frank who had farmed the property for 40 of the Gordon family’s 65-year ownership.

The station was now a far cry from the fern covered, pig infested block it had been when he began his farm cadetship. Haupouri, including 1300 acres at Taurapa on the southern side of the Cape, was considered among the best parts of Clifton Station.

 

The river and gorges made entrance to the block difficult and now it had to serve two properties. A block known as No Man’s Land was set aside in the riverbed to provide the additional access, although it remained the property of Clifton Station.  Water rights and grazing easements were provided so both properties could bring stock to their respective woolsheds. Land at Karaka Hill was subdivided to provide a homestead.

Frank and Dorothy liked the idea of cultured English neighbours so they advertised the considerable country estate of 5000 acres in Country Life and Field magazines in England. The wording possibly conjured up images of a vista of rolling countryside, good fresh water streams and ample opportunity for game hunting and fishing although that was far from the reality.

 

Colonel William Neilson from Northampton, late of the 4th Hussars, had the property assessed through a relative and in October arrived with friends to see for himself, riding over the Cape Block, eventually concluding a deal for 5175 acres (2094 ha) which he was to call Summerlee.

The price was £13 an acre, or £67,275 pounds, slightly less than Frank had asked. Neilson claimed to have been deceived by the advertisement and map, believing all the gullies drawn in the map were rivers and creeks not dry riverbeds.

Frank agreed to let Neilson use Clifton’s woolshed, yards and dipping facilities until he could build his own, an arrangement that continued for a decade.  By this time Frank had paid his three sisters the legacy from their father and settled loans to the station.

Colonel Neilson, however, still owed a large mortgage on the property with a disputed amount eventually reduced and then wiped due to circumstances including changes in government policy.  Tension remained between the families with future correspondence conducted through lawyers.

 

Sheep at Clifton Beach

Colonel Neilson eventually built his own woolshed below his homestead in 1935 but still needed to bring his sheep along the same route. When Frank donated the beachfront to the Crown for the Clifton camping ground in 1936, the Colonel was reluctant to divert the movement of his animals. People bathing and swimming and sunbathing just had to put up with his sheep dogs and herds passing by for the next 15-years.

 

After World War 2, Colonel Neilson’s son David arranged to have Bambry brothers transport the new woolshed to a more suitable position in the middle of the farm overlooking the present day golf course. He also constructed a bridge across Rabbit Gully in the early 1950s.

Meanwhile Frank’s wife Dorothy had struck up a good rapport with Maude Neilson, the Colonel’s wife, acting as a buffer in the strained relationship between the two men. David and Frank’s son John Gordon were of similar age and also became friends, partying and working together which brought the families closer. 

 

David Neilson believed he could develop Summerlee into a viable proposition and, despite his father’s misgivings, began to do just that. While the Colonel was showing prospective buyers across the land his son did all he could to discourage them. When John Mason, the grandfather of the founder of Sacred Hill winery showed an interest David drove him through the roughest parts of the farm on the bumpiest tracks, pointing out all the worst features. His father was perplexed when interest quickly waned. 

Frank’s son John Gordon was already mustering alongside this father in his pre-teen years. At Herewith School he was an accomplished sportsman in the Rugby First XV and a wild left-handed batsman in the Cricket First XI.  He went to England to complete his secondary school education and when his father died after a period of illness in 1938, aged 72-years, John was joined by his mother Dorothy in England.

After graduation he joined the British Army officer training programme. The war in Europe was almost over and so he found himself commanding the 9th Lancers Cavalry, essentially a tank platoon, part of a peacekeeping force, in northern Italy patrolling the Austrian border. His mother, knowing he was determined to return to Clifton, went ahead of him to prepare the homestead.


After quitting the regiment, John returned to New Zealand in 1947 to run Clifton Station. He employed Frank Pulford from Clive to replace Alec Law who was retiring after many years and the massive task of restoring the house and property began.

The Herrick family of Lindisfarne, Hastings; long-time friends of his parents, had a holiday house at Te Awanga and were regulars for tea and tennis during the summer months. On meeting Barbara, the youngest of their eight children, John Gordon was smitten and within two years they were married.

Dorothy moved into a cottage on the Glenny property. Jim Glenny sold her land at the end of what is now Gordon Rd where she built her English cottage which she called Chicklade, after her parent’s mansion in Wiltshire.

A new generation

Barbara and John’s firstborn in 1950 was Angus, then came Jenny in 1951; Rosie, 1953; Edward in 1955, Serena in 1957 and Charles in 1959.  In the succeeding years, the next generation of Gordons began to shape Clifton. 

 

Angus left school in 1968 and went to Victoria University to do a BA in English. In 1972 he became a part-time teacher in Wellington. While away in Vanuatu teaching with Volunteer Service Aboard (VSA) for two years a devastating 100-year flood in 1973 took a toll on Clifton Station, with 350 sheep lost. 

 

His international journeyings took him to Scotland in 1975 where he worked as a shepherd and then he taught English in southern Spain for a year. On his return to New Zealand in 1977 he began working full time at Clifton Station. He married Dinah Evers on Feb 21, 1981, and took over running the station the following year, aged 32.

 

Angus Gordon was now the owner and manager of the property first acquired by his great grandfather James Gillespie Gordon from 1858 and farmed by his grandfather Frank Lindsay Gordon who had died 13-years before he was born.

Farming Clifton is all he ever wanted to do…he felt the pull of the land, “enriched by childhood memories of sliding on woolsacks down the rapids of the Maraetotara River, pulling monster eels out of pools, possuming with his fox terrier, Snip, and snacking on chocolate biscuits and barley water at his grandmother’s house, while she read aloud from Wind in the Willows”. Angus planted the fragile gorges; “landslips waiting to happen in wet winters and traps for grazing cattle which too easily can end up at the bottom” with trees to earn carbon credits. 

 

In 1992 Angus was checking the farm after the squash harvest in early January when he rose to the top of a steep incline on his 4-wheel drive quad bike, changed down to lowest gear but found himself plummeting down the slope out of control. The breaks were ineffective as he nose-dived over the bank, throwing the dogs clear but putting himself right in the path of the bike which flipped and came down on top of him.

“The pain was intense as I extracted myself from underneath the dead weight of the machine. As I shook my head in disbelief at the suddenness of it all, I realised that I was struggling to breathe. I was a mile and a half out on the farm, off the beaten track, and I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.”

 

He tried to move the bike off himself but it was like lead. “I attempted to walk up the hill but didn’t have enough breath to make it. I sat as a flush of panic gripped me. The only way out was on the motorbike. The adrenaline was flowing through me must have given me strength to rip it back onto its wheels in an act of desperation. It took off down the rest of the hill and crashed into the fence at the bottom. I struggled down to it painfully clambered on. To my utter astonishment it started….All the damage seemed to have been done to my left side….The drive home was done through a haze of increasing pain not helped by the fact I had to get on and off to open and close the gates.” 

 

By the time he reached the main road his energy had almost left him but fortunately neighbour Andrew Neilson, happened to arrive on his way to Summerlee and quickly realised something was wrong. “He rushed me up to the house and a startled Dinah took me into town…every bump (was) felt intimately.” They had to move very quickly as Angus was haemorrhaging internally from a badly punctured lung and ribs broken in 12 places. He was on morphine in intensive care and only released to recuperate at home two weeks later.

 

That winter, in June, dogs killed over 100 lambs during two months period. A month later Angus’s father collapsed at home with pneumonia and was taken by ambulance to hospital remaining in a coma for two weeks. Then on 21 July, one of the worst floods in Clifton since 1973 hit; “10 inches of rain in the headwaters of the Maraetotora overnight”. After a wet week the river had broken its banks on both sides of the bridge and the 120 acres of flats was a moving sea of brown water.

Angus’ father, John Gordon finally passed away from pneumonia on 29 Dec 1992. Clifton Station today includes 2000 acres (800 ha) owned by Angus and Dinah Gordon. Haupouri on the south side of Cape Kidnappers adjoining Ocean Beach is 3800 acres (1538 ha) farmed by Juliet and Warwick Hansen, 640 acres of it in partnership.  The adjoining land at Taurapa (3000 acres) or 1214 ha, was sold out of the Gordon family in 1992 to Graeme Lowe.

 

Angus completed the construction of Clifton Café in 1999 which sits facing the ocean in front of the family homestead.  It became an important stopover point for tourists, campers, locals, day trippers and those visiting the gannets.

Today it’s under new management and known as Hygge (a Danish word for a feeling of comfort and charm). Across the road tourists can experiences the old woolshed, built in 1886, where millions of sheep have been shorn, which from 2002 was repurposed as a show ‘n tell wool museum. 

Angus and Dinah’s son Tom is gradually taking over what remains of the once expansive Clifton Station, that formed the basis for what became Te Awanga and the home and landholdings of many of the Cape Coast’s pioneering citizens.

 

Sources: 
Jenny Carlyon & Diana Morrow, Cape Country, Random House- Penguin, New Zealand, 2016, pp. 71-75; 132-134
In the Shadow of the Cape, Angus Gordon, Angus Gordon, 2004, pp. 114-115, 133
National Geographic article on Clifton Station 
Photographs: Courtesy Angus and Dinah Gordon

 

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