Kimbolton and surrounds – “putting the small man on the land”

The area between Cheltenham and Kimbolton, north-east of the Manawatu town of Feilding, offers both interesting landscapes and history to the observant traveller [click here to view map]. But here, the history is not so much in what is there, but what isn’t there.

The area, once part of the Kiwitea County, is speckled with illustrious-sounding placenames, such as Almadale, Cheltenham, Beaconsfield and Kimbolton; names of soon-to-be thriving towns on surveyors’ meticulously laid plans, but towns which never grew beyond small villages.

It is mostly rolling country, but with defined river terraces  flanking the Oroua River, where it runs south-west to join the Manawatu River. The fertile flat land on the Cheltenham–Kimbolton highway is apparently called “Ram Alley” because of the number of pedigree sheep raised there.

In pre-European times the district was thickly forested, like most of the Manawatu, and appears to have been regarded as a hinterland even by Māori.

The Crown purchased the land in 1866 and 1877, and the area was subsequently subdivided and settled through “Special Settlement” schemes.

The Kiwitea Block, containing the two proposed towns of Kiwitea and Beaconsfield, was surveyed for sale in 1876. The Oroua River, touted as “navigable” and as a major asset of the district, was promoted in at least one advertisement for the sections shows sizeable boats bringing cargo up to the proposed Kiwitea township. The town of Beaconsfield never developed- a high cliff by the Kiwitea stream was apparently an unwelcome feature of the planned main street. Most town sections eventually became part of farms.

The settlement of Kimbolton (originally named Birmingham) was carried out from 1886 by the Birmingham Small Farm Association, led by the inimitable Amos Burr, who didn’t appear to consider being armless as a barrier to achievement (as a teenager having blown off both his arms of when his ship’s gun misfired during a 21 gun salute in the Wellington Harbour).

“Special settlements” occurred under the Land Act 1877, which enabled the Governor to “set apart out of any rural lands such blocks of land as he shall think fit, and declare them open for special settlement … provided that the total amount of land set apart as special settlements in the colony shall not exceed one hundred thousand acres in any one year.” The provisions for special settlements also allowed for deferred payment of up to 90% of the purchase price, and a further Crown Grant conditional on the land being subject to “permanent improvement” (i.e., a certain amount of bush had to be cleared over a certain period of time). This enabled working-class settlers to purchase and make a living off the land – something that they would have been unlikely to have been able to do in their places of birth. The land was allotted by ballot, in this case the numbers being drawn by an 11 year old boy called Jimmy Brazier who happened to be passing by the town hall on his bike when the ballot was drawn.

This village also sits atop a river terrace, though without the cliffs that blighted the development of the neighbouring Beaconsfield. Its “main street” today features an old Bank of New Zealand building and General Store as well as a number of other historic buildings, hinting at its important past as the largest “town” of the Kiwitea County.

Photo top: a derelict shed in a field near Kiwitea. Middle: Fields on the river terraces overlooking the Oroua River, seen from the Cheltenham Kimbolton Road, near Kiwitea. Above left: the Bank of New Zealand building in the main street of Kimbolton, now apparently part of a house. (Photos: C. Knight)

Sources: Up the Kimbolton Road (1988), Stewart Lusk; Te Ara Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand; Our Region – Kimbolton and Kiwitea

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