When James Gibbs left his native Alton/Chawton area in Hampshire on 2 November 1841 to embark on a 13,000 miles journey on the Bolton to the other side of the world (arriving in Nelson on 15 March 1842), he could only have dreamed that today, 174 years later, one of his great grandsons would be enjoying life on the farm which he originally purchased.
There are few people who in their seventh decade can say “This is the only house I have (permanently) lived in.” Colin Gibbs can say that. The house in question is a substantially renovated version of the third house at Lone Oak Farm named after the farm in England called Lonely Oak where James and his brother Isaac, who accompanied him, worked as agricultural labourers. Colin is a fourth generation descendent of James and inherited the farm from his father Philip. In a departure from tradition, the farm has never been passed down to the eldest son.
James settled first on section 34 suburban north Nelson (Wakapuaka) with his wife Anne and had two children George and Martha. When Ann died in 1848 James decided to move south and purchased a block of 68 acres which formed the basis of today’s farm in Gibbs Valley. However, following a land compensation grant in 1862 for the failure of the New Zealand Company to provide sufficient land promised to the settlers in England, he eventually became the owner of 911 acres (today’s holding is 530) of fern-covered rugged hills and swampy flats which in 1882 was valued at 3,100 pounds. Not bad for a farm worker from Chawton!
In 1849 he had married Charlotte Verry with whom he had 18 children,14 of whom survived to adulthood. Charlotte was aged 17 and 26 years younger than James. Their wedding was one of the first to be celebrated in St Johns Church in Wakefield. By the time the first generation of Gibbs had passed on they had produced 124 grandchildren.
However, James’ good fortune was not solely due to the failures and inadequacies of the New Zealand Company. He was an astute farmer and a very hard worker. An article in the Auckland Weekly of May 1950 details how James earned his first real money since coming to the valley. “From the unpromising hills covered with fern, scrub and tutu, steers which he had raised himself were broken into a team of working bullocks. With these he ploughed the hill slopes which faced the sun. Then he sowed wheat which grew well in the ashes of the fern. Harvesting was a tremendous task. The wheat was cut with a sickle and thrashed with a flail. It yielded 1,000 bushels which sold for 500 pounds.”
When hop growing began in the Motueka area, manuka poles were used to train up the vines. Having an abundant supply of manuka, James would cut and prepare a load of poles, load up the bullock dray and with his team drive through the night to deliver them to farms in the Moutere.
Gradually bullocks gave way to horses and horses to tractors. But it was aerial top-dressing of the farm with superphosphate in the sixties which brought the farm into full production. Today sheep and beef cattle are the main income earners.
For James Gibbs and other pioneer settlers like him the dream of a better life, owning your own farm and being your own master, did become a reality. New Zealand provided him with the opportunity to do well but without his strength and consistency of purpose it just as easily might have come to nothing. I am sure he would be very proud to know that his descendants have treasured his legacy and built on it. Today they are reaping the benefits of his past labours.
Colin and Marilyn Gibbs for notes and photographs.
Marion J. Stringer, “Just Another Row of Spuds” 1999.