The vast Cheviot Hills farm, with its grand mansion and exotic gardens, was once one of Canterbury’s largest properties. After owner William ‘Ready Money’ Robinson died in 1889, his daughters sold the estate to the government, and it was divided into 54 small farms and the town of Cheviot.
Archival audio: Dramatised parliamentary debate about the break-up of Cheviot station from ‘We Reap … They Harvest’, by John McKenzie.
Corrections to the transcript are marked by square brackets.
Narrator: The town of Cheviot was once part of an enormous farm known as Cheviot Hills – one of Canterbury’s largest properties. It was owned by William Robinson. He was locally known as ‘Ready Money’ Robinson because he had a habit of paying for his swift and lavish purchases of land, stock, and buildings with cash. Horses he owned won the Canterbury Derby three times during the 1880s. But being very wealthy in an economically depressed country did not always make him popular.
Born in England, William Robinson immigrated to Australia in 1839, where he made his fortune as a stock dealer. In 1856, he moved to North Canterbury. Robinson soon became one of the district’s largest landowners, with a 90,000-acre property at Cheviot.
His farm, known as Cheviot Hills, occupied land between the [Waiau] and Hurunui Rivers. It was named after the range of hills on the border between Scotland and England. Robinson’s grand English-style estate had a huge 40-room mansion that looked out over a pastoral landscape. Large, ornate gardens flanked the house, behind which he planted an extensive forest of exotic trees.
In 1871, Cheviot Hills attracted attention throughout Canterbury when Robinson’s butler, Simon Cedeno, was charged with murdering one of his housemaids. Cedeno was a black man, which added to the scandal. Cedeno alleged that Robinson had taunted him about his racial origins and he would have killed the landowner at the time of the murder, had he been present. Cedeno was found guilty by the jury after just ten minutes consideration. Sentenced to death, he became just the second person to be executed in Canterbury.
While many people admired Robinson for turning Cheviot Hills into an excellent farm, his large estate did not impress the Liberal government of the 1890s. In their view, the rise of a landed rural gentry denied less affluent settlers the opportunity to establish small farms.
When ‘Ready Money’ Robinson died in 1889, his estate passed to his five daughters. Four years later they sold it to the Liberal government, which promptly subdivided it into 54 small farms and the township today known as Cheviot.
This was a landmark event in the breaking up of large estates. In the 1890s, the purchase of large pastoral runs by the Liberal government allowed people of modest means to get into farming. The government gained enormous popularity as a result. During this period, over a million acres of land was acquired and turned into 7000 small farms throughout the country.
Cheviot was originally named McKenzie, to commemorate the Minister of Lands in the Liberal government who led the campaign to break up large estates. The street names in Cheviot commemorate other Liberal politicians
Today, ‘Ready Money’ Robinson’s mansion is no more. Burnt down in 1936, all that remains of the great residence today is a complex of concrete foundations. A cricket pavilion has been built on the site and games are occasionally played on what was once the lawn in front of Cheviot House. Inside the pavilion, a detailed history of the house and its owner is recorded on a series of panels.
But perhaps ‘Ready Money’ Robinson’s most enduring legacy is the extensive forest of deciduous trees that he planted behind his house. The foliage is particularly colourful in autumn and in spring, jonquils and daffodils carpet the countryside around the old homestead site. To get there, you turn off the main highway beside the bridge over the [Jed] River, immediately south of Cheviot township. From here it is only a short distance to the forest.