David McLeod – 14 June 1902 – 29 May 2000
“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.”
David McLeod is irrevocably tied to any history of the land that comprises Grasmere, and we are indebted to his son Robin for allowing us to quote from his eulogy. The life story of someone you don’t know can be boring – this is not. We were fortunate to know David, and grateful for his blessing on what we have done with Grasmere, in sharing it with people from all over the world.
David McLeod was born in London in 1902 and was principally brought up by his aunt in Sussex. He went to school in Sedburgh in the Dales of North Yorkshire and it was here that he picked up his love of the hills.
He went to Cambridge for his agriculture degree and spent holidays working on a farm in Sussex.
He and his father (a London barrister) were not always of one mind and soon after coming down from Cambridge in 1925 he set out aged 23 for New Zealand – one could say “as far from home as possible”.
He went to work at Brackenfield for Major Percy Johnson, and then to Mount Torlesse to Peter Johnson, father of current owner Richard. He was tempted further into the mountains to Mt White – Mesopotamia – Craigieburn – Avoca, where his love of mountains and station life was setting deep into his heart and he knew where he hoped to settle for his life.
In 1929 he returned briefly to England, principally to tell his father of his plans and borrow sufficient funds – he hoped – to buy his dream kingdom. It amounted to £3000 to which he could add £1500 of his own. Not exactly what we would think of as a fortune today!
This five-month trip to England entailed crossing the Pacific via Tahiti to San Francisco, by train to New York and ship again across the Atlantic. The fastest possible journey time of 29 days! I thought much about his journey last weekend as I spent rather less than 29 hours flying out here from England.
On his return to New Zealand he looked at many possible places to buy but with relatively insufficient capital could not find what he was looking for. He was fortunate to be offered a partnership by Leslie Orbell of Pentlow in South Canterbury and this gave a much greater scope to his searches for a suitable property. So it was that the Grasmere - Cora Lynn Run was purchased and he moved there in late May 1930. Fully stretched financially to buy the place, he was of course unaware that the great slump was about to descend upon the world.
He also discovered that he had overlooked the rabbit problems when he was buying the place and they took 1000 rabbits off 300 acres at the Ribbonwood Valley in his first winter at Grasmere.
There were new skills to learn and some interesting experiences for him. To supply ham and bacon, two pigs were kept and fattened. The killing process was all new to David, so his head shepherd, Harold White, presided over the operation. They needed lots of hot water and a large vessel to scald the pig. It was a surprise to David to discover that the bath from the homestead was requisitioned for the scalding process. It was a further surprise to discover that when the bath went back to the homestead one of the legs had disappeared in the mud round the scalding trough and henceforth his bath had to sit somewhat unevenly on a brick.
Survive the slump he did and in doing so, he learned about not spending what you don’t have. The old principle “never use a piece of wire where a piece of string will do” came hard to someone who wishes to care for and maintain the property to the highest standard.
As the prices improved slightly from wool at 8¾d. to 13d. per lb, and cull ewes from 7/9 to 13/-, his social life improved also, and in the spring of 1935 he pulled off the coup of the year by marrying Mary Alexander, one of the belles of Canterbury. She was something of a society girl and had little or no conception of backcountry life. I well remember old Mrs Robertshaw of Cass Post Office fame saying that when Mary first came to Grasmere she could not boil water, she’d have burnt it.
But this was the start of a most wonderful partnership lasting 57 years and is an example of love, tolerance and understanding to us all.
It was still early days in David’s high-country experience and he was to suffer setbacks with heavy snow losses in 1939 when 2000 sheep were lost and again in 1945 when snow loss lessons were still being learned.
Through the war years when prices were fixed at the low end for his fine-wool product, times were not easy but his family was growing. I was the final straw born in 1943, and I think that was something of an accident.
During the war years he was selected to command a guide platoon of the home guard. The men in the district gathered at weekends to practice their war effort, which included gunnery. They had three Tommy guns among them all and one box of 50 cartridges to deal with any invasion. One burst from any one gun would have consumed the whole lot. They also practiced mock attacks and defences. As mock hand grenades they used half a plug of gelignite with a detonator and a short fuse.
On one occasion they had spent a night in a mock battle with the Rakaia guide platoon near the Rakaia Gorge. Eventually they all retired to one of Bob Whiteman’s haystacks for what was left of the night. The officer in charge of all guide platoons was Doolly Coxhead and he too had bedded down in the haystack. David rose first and put the billy on for breakfast and then thought he would awake everybody up with a quick bang salute. He put detonator to gelignite and fuse to detonator and the end of fuse in the fire to light it but made the cardinal sin of failing to cut a fresh end on the fuse and it was damp. As he waited for it to light he suddenly realised that the fuse was burning in the middle and the burn was close to the detonator. He flung it away from him fractions of a second before it blew his hands off, and was fortunate that in the early morning light, those who tumbled out of the haystack didn't notice how pale and terrified was the man standing by the fire.
His post-war years were financially and productively improving except that the education of his family was, as we are all aware, a constant drain on resources and time but as always an increasing pleasure as we grew up. Or at least that’s what he told me.
His health was not always good and he suffered a lot with blood poisoning with cuts on his hands (this was of course before the days of high quality modern antibiotics) and in 1951 he spend nearly three months in the old Lewisham-Calvary-Southern Cross Hospital, recovering from bowel cancer treatment. All but 50 years he lived with the problems of a colostomy. The next three decades were a wonderful time for producers of food across the world. The world needed food and clothing particularly during the Korean War, and if anybody could produce more of it then they benefited.
However during this time there were floods, fires, family accidents and problems of livestock diseases to cope with. Life is never a doddle in any part of agriculture.
In the mid 60’s his friend and partner Leslie Orbell died and David was thrown back to his early days of concern as to whether he could afford to buy out the Orbell family estate.
From the beginning David was not just a farmer but something of a diplomat. In the 1930’s he was one of those who met with the Minister of Agriculture and then the Minister of Lands to set up the High Country Advisory Committee on which he sat as president, chairman and member for some 40 years.
I can only use the words of Des Greggan who said “David’s clear brain and gift of precise language made a major contribution. So often it would be he who, when a meeting of these rugged individualists would seem to be floundering in their efforts to coherently formulate a clear policy, in his quiet cultured tones and with impeccable logic would suggest a motion which invariably wrapped up the matter.”
He was a prime mover in setting up the Tussock Grasslands Institute to coordinate all the research work done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Council, Catchment Boards, Forest Service etc, and make that information available to everybody. To encourage cooperation between these independent statutory bodies required considerable diplomatic skill. He spent many hours with Peter Johnston and Lance McAskill planning the future of the institute and the diplomatic way to achieve it.
Many, many hundreds of times he travelled to Christchurch by car, or by train in the war years and on one occasion he hitch-hiked in the public works truck. I well remember as a child that he had a brown suit that we called his “remit” suit. Whenever he wore this suit he was going to Wellington with a remit from the High Country Committee to the Lands Department. He did not waste his journeys by simply driving the car but spent the hours memorising the writings of Kipling or the poetry of Banjo Patterson. His love of literature was very strong.
In 1953 he and Mary took a six-month trip to England, this time by air and it still took a week to get there in post war unpressurised propeller aircraft. They visited all his relatives and university friends and also stayed at Dunvegan Castle, the seat of the McLeod clan on the Isle of Skye. They became friends with Dame Flora McLeod, the chief of the clan, who subsequently came to New Zealand to encourage the clan McLeod here. David helped to set up the Clan society here in Canterbury and was always keen to help promote Clan matters.
Into all this station life and political work were huge efforts of innovation and development.
During the early years there was no electricity and the old kerosene and gas lamps on several occasions nearly burnt the homestead to the ground. He notes in his 1945 diary that he met with Ted Salveson to discuss the idea of a hydro electric plant for the station. Eventually through all of 1948, all spare time was soaked up in erecting poles, running wires, building a dam and laying concrete for power house and turbine till just before Christmas at the flick of a switch, a light came on in the homestead. Perhaps it was not on for long because they had all sorts of problems with washouts on the pond and eels in the turbine and cables burned by railway fires. I think I first remember him as an electrician.
Following a series of fires in 1956, he was a pioneer of high-country aerial re-seeding and top-dressing, to encourage better growth of grass and clover up to 4000 feet so that steeper land higher up could be withdrawn from grazing as part of soil conservation policy.
His love of nature was upset by outsiders indiscriminately shooting all species of birds on Lake Grasmere so he had it dedicated a wildlife sanctuary to protect his beloved Teal and Crested Grebe. Alas, he was not to know that the Canada Goose would before long appreciate that sanctuary and become a serious menace. But that was just another of those things that are sent to try us all.
Modernisation and development continued from electricity and aerial top-dressing to fencing from larger into smaller blocks for better management, more land was ploughed and stock fed better through the winter, and shearing moved from December back to pre-lamb in September. Any precious minutes of spare time he had were spent in writing for his radio broadcasts and his books.
Finally in 1971 he moved from Grasmere to Riversfield on the outskirts of Christchurch from where he could still see the mountains. Forty years of work in pioneering, development and care of the mountains stood as a tribute to his efforts. His beloved horse Ponto who went with him in retirement could also see the mountains, and paced the fence longingly till a small trench was worn along the fenceline. Somehow a gate was released one day and Ponto departed the field in the direction of his beloved mountains - he too was suffering withdrawal symptoms.
Over the next 25 years David got enormous pleasure from spending time with his 15 grandchildren both in New Zealand and in England. He followed their progress, gave encouragement and help where possible and always enjoyed hearing about the lives of his ever widening family. The door at Riversfield and later at Waiwetu Street was always open to friends and family. And he loved to hear news of the high-country from those who kindly came to see him. Their visits were very much appreciated.
To us as his children his discipline was firm but probably fair. The broad strop he used for sharpening his cut-throat raisor was his chosen instrument to beat us with. It made a fair noise but did little real damage and there were times when we deserved it or at least I did.
I remember going to the vege garden to pull a raw carrot to eat (they were genuine quality organic carrots grown in soil rich with sheep manure from under the woolshed – you really should try one, they are delicious). Anyway the first one I pulled was too big, the next was too small so I pulled several before I found one just the right size. The ones I did not want, I pushed back into their hole in the earth. A day or so later it became obvious that those flagging carrots had been tampered with. I seem to remember that I learned my lesson.
When we were children he often said “There are 63,000 acres to play on, don’t play under my feet,” and whenever we said “I can’t”: “I can’t do my laces up,” “I can’t carry my skis,” “I can’t do this,” “I can’t do that,” he replied “There’s no such word as can’t.” He always believed he COULD.
Even half a ton of turbine to be unloaded from the railway, carted to the edge of a steep bank and lowered down onto its narrow girders for fixing with no crane or front-end loader, was just one of those tasks that COULD be done with two men by hand with skill and ingenuity and good care so that the bulky thing did not escape and crash in a thousand pieces at the bottom of the slope. It just took time and patience. Many, many times a difficult task was completed safely and satisfactorily without the help of the modern equipment we rely upon today.
As my life progressed I learnt many more things from him, and his wise counsel helped me make decisions about my future. He once told me that through life you never make a wrong decision. Whenever you come to a crossroads and choose a certain way ahead, if that way turns out to have problems you can be sure that the other way would have been worse. Have confidence that your decision is right, deal with the problems as they arise and learn from your mistakes, but don’t look back and whinge “If only...”
There will always be ups and downs. He said “Always remember, if it were not for the valley floors, you would not appreciate the mountain tops.”
He loved his horses and his skiing. He shared his joy of good horsemanship especially with his daughter Anne and one of his most special moments was when she won the reserve champion prize at the Christchurch Show with his own homebred and broken Ponto, as mentioned before.
His love of skiing was shared with us all and for about ten years we went annually as a family to the Top Hut for a week in winter for skiing. Our days were spent skinning up to the top of the hill for a picnic lunch, having a few short runs on snow we had packed ourselves and skiing down again in the afternoon. It was a continuing education of doing things for yourself and enjoying it.
It was a very special and loving family atmosphere in which we were brought up with great freedom but definite discipline.
Sadly that era has now passed but I will remember my father as:
Farmer – diplomat – author – historian – employer of station cooks – and a very special advisor.
He is now happily reunited with his beloved Mary.
I know I speak for the whole family when I say, he was our Dede, and we loved him.
I am sorry that this story has taken some time to tell, but then he lived a long time!
Anon. quote, now on David’s gravestone at Springfield: –
“I love the clean brown tussock,
and the hills where the cool winds blow,
It is my prayer
I may still be there
When the Lord calls ‘Wayleggo’.”