The ostrich farmer
In the fields of Merivale in 1883 was a farm unlike other farms. Its fields were full of stock of a very different kind to other farms - ostriches.
A world wide fashion craze among society women was for feathers for their hats. It led to increasingly outrageous hats with feathers from the plumage of any bird deemed suitable, peacocks, pheasants and ostriches.
And it was unbelievably popular. In 1807 about 509 kilos of ostrich feathers were imported into France alone.
It was a cruel trade, with birds like ostriches being hunted to near extinction for a handful of feathers on a hat.
It only really slowed when the farming of birds took off.
And John Thomas Matson of New Zealand saw a chance.
In 1883, he imported four of the big birds into New Zealand - one died on the journey and another died of injuries on arrival. But he was left with a male and female.
And they bred and by 1887, Matson sent 2000 feathers to England with instructions from Matson for some to be made into fans to be given to Queen Victoria and the Princess of Wales.
His farm became something of a tourist attraction - it was near a tram line in Papanui Road and passengers would look out for the birds.
In 1891, John’s operation was bought by the New Zealand Ostrich Farming Company - the flock now stood at 49 birds.
But it wasn’t to last. The trend began to die and in 1916 - with the effects of austerity from World War One - ostrich feathers were removed from the list of New Zealand industries.
John however had not lived to see his wild idea die.
Matson was born to Henry and Alice Matson in Goulburn, Victoria, Australia on March 30, 1845.
He came to New Zealand with his father in 1862 and they settled Springfield farm. He married Marion Thomas.
It was not John’s only odd farm animal. He also farmed alpacas which had been given to him by Robert Heaton Rhodes, the local member of Parliament.
John also worked as an auctioneer - conducting the first ever wool sale in Canterbury.
A devoted parishioner of St Paul’s in Papanui, John paid for the church bells. When he died in April, 1895, the bells were rung - but muted - for his service.
John is buried at the St Paul’s Anglican Church Cemetery.
Picture by Saad Khan.
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