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Glorious High Country

Book Review [1]
John and Charles Enys: Castle Hill Runholders, 1864-1891, by Jenny Abrahamson, featuring watercolours by Charles Enys and contemporary photographs by John O’Malley (Wily Publications, Christchurch. 239 Pages. $50)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

enys-cover_webThe area was first farmed as a high-country sheep run between 1864-1891 by Charles and John Enys, younger sons of a prominent and prosperous Cornish family. These two young adventurers made the long voyage to the other side of the world, hoping to make their fortune in the distant colony of New Zealand. Jenny Abrahamson tells the story of the brothers, based on surviving diaries and letters, supplemented by her wide-ranging research. Although the brothers were backed by family money, they were always working farmers, struggling to make a living in difficult country, and dependent on overseas wool prices. Castle Hill station is thought to be both the highest and coldest farm homestead in the South Island. As neither brother married and they lived in relatively humble accommodation with few possessions, their personal expenses were relatively modest, which undoubtedly helped them survive the long depression in the 1880s.

Sheep farming is characterised by periods of intense activity, such as lambing, mustering and shearing, interspersed by quiet periods while the sheep graze and wool grows. The brothers both had time to develop other interests. John became involved in local body affairs as well as scientific collecting of plants, butterflies and fossils. Charles was a talented watercolourist, sending back paintings of the Castle Hill landscape and other places he visited to his family. Once the farm started to make money, the brothers alternated in taking trips back to Cornwall and further afield every few years.

The story of how the Enys brothers made a living at Castle Hill has considerable local interest as a case-study of 19th century sheep farming. The feature that makes the book appeal to a wider audience is the wonderful selection of illustrations which is a powerful reminder of the natural beauty of the area.

The talent of Charles Enys as a painter has long been overlooked – we are so lucky that many of his illustrations have been preserved in the Rex Nan Kivell collection at the National Library of Australia, and that permission has been given to reproduce them here. The paintings have been coupled with contemporary photographs taken by John O’Malley. It is amazing to realise how little the landscape has changed over more than a century apart from the clearing of some forest and the spread of exotic trees, mainly pines.

Limestone feature the Hogs Back in centre. Upper image painted by Charles Enys, lower photo by John O’Malley

Limestone feature the Hogs Back in centre. Upper image painted by Charles Enys, lower photo by John O’Malley

In the mid 20th century it was alleged that much high country erosion was caused by bad farming practices. A 1982 study by Ian Whitehouse and others, comparing 19th and late 20th century photographs along State Highway 73 near Castle Hill, showed little change in erosion over a century, undermining the arguments for accelerated erosion caused by human activity. Comparison of the images by Charles Enys and John O’Malley provides clear support for this conclusion.

John Enys has been a shadowy figure in the history of 19th century science, and this account helps to clarify his role. Although largely self-taught, he quickly recognised that many of the plants, animals and fossils around Castle Hill were unusual, and distinguished himself as a perceptive collector. He was fascinated by vegetable sheep (Raoulia) in the high mountains, and specimens he collected were prized in museums, overseas exhibitions and the herbarium at London’s Kew Gardens. He was typical of many gentleman scientists, with wide interests in the natural environment and took great pleasure in being involved in discussions with the small group of professional scientists.

Vegetable sheep on the slopes of Castle Hill peak. Photo: John O’Malley

Vegetable sheep on the slopes of Castle Hill peak. Photo: John O’Malley

Because of the relative accessibility of Castle Hill basin on the West Coast road, there were many scientific visitors. For example both Kirk and Cheeseman botanised there several times, and the geology was studied at different times by Haast, Hector and Hutton. John Enys had good social connections, both in New Zealand and in the UK, and it is amazing how often he pops up as a sort of scientific Forrest Gump – joining the Governor on an expedition to Fiordland, at the opening of the Colonial and Vienna exhibition, accompanying Hector on a reconnaissance trip to the Marlborough mountains, visiting Joseph Hooker at Kew, and dropping in to see the 1876 Philadelphia exhibition. Hector and Haast had good reason to be grateful to John Enys for his political support, hospitality and donation of specimens.

Jenny Abrahamson and John O’Malley both have a long association with the Castle Hill basin, and their affection for the area is clear. This volume has been beautifully designed by Quentin Wilson, with excellent reproduction of the many fine colour illustrations. It will be of interest to a range of readers interested in the South Island high country, New Zealand’s natural environment, and the history of science.

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