GUTHRIE-SMITH, William Herbert
Author, naturalist, and farmer.
A new biography of Guthrie-Smith, William Herbert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
William Herbert Guthrie-Smith was born at Helensburgh on the Clyde in Scotland on 13 March 1861. His father, John Guthrie-Smith, of Mugdock Castle, Stirlingshire, who had married into the Dennistoun family, was partner in a firm of insurance brokers. Herbert — his first Christian name was not used — received his early education at home from a tutor. He afterwards went to an English preparatory school and then to Rugby, where he gained no special distinction either at work or play. His parents had some thought of sending him to Cambridge, but the idea was eventually dismissed in favour of allowing him to go to New Zealand where, it was then believed, a moderate fortune at least might be won within a reasonably short time. In 1880, accompanied by Arthur Cunningham, a Rugby friend, Guthrie-Smith sailed for New Zealand, and on arrival went to work as cadet on the estate of his uncle, George Dennistoun, of Peel Forest Station, South Canterbury. Two years later he and Cunningham jointly bought Tutira estate in Hawke's Bay for £9,750, the amount for which it was mortgaged.
The economic depression that was to last until the turn of the century had just begun. Tutira's 24,000 acres were clothed mainly with bracken and grass grew only in small patches. The merino sheep with which the station was stocked were not suitable for the type of country. An enormous annual death rate reduced their numbers and, after three or four years of unprofitable partnership, Cunningham paid £600 in reduction of the joint liability and relinquished his share in Tutira which was then taken over by Thomas Stuart. During the next two decades the partners defeated the bracken, grassed down the land, and greatly increased and improved their flock. In 1903 Guthrie-Smith bought out Stuart. The station then carried 38,000 sheep and was free of debt. After the First World War he subdivided the greater portion of it for soldier settlement. The small portion remaining at the time of his death – 2,000 acres — was left in trust for the nation.
It was not, however, as a farmer but as an author that Guthrie-Smith won distinction. In 1891 he had written and published a drama entitled Crispus. It was not a success and is significant only as an indication that he cherished literary ambitions early in life. He also tried to write fiction at about this time, but, soon realising that his talent lay in another direction, he began sending articles on natural history to the Selborne Magazine, several of which were accepted. Another of his articles, Bird Life on a Run, was printed in Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 1895. But it was only after having reached middle age that he was able to devote much time to writing. The management of Tutira, especially during the long period when its financial success was in doubt, demanded his constant attention. The ties of family life were an added distraction. During one of his periodical visits to Scotland, in 1901, he married Georgina Meta Dennistoun-Brown, of Dumbartonshire, and in 1903 his daughter and only child, Barbara, was born.
It was not until 1908 that Guthrie-Smith began seriously to apply his patience and ingenuity to bird photography. Two years later his first book, Birds of the Water, Wood and Waste, well illustrated by the photographs he had spent so much time and trouble in obtaining, was published by Whitcombe and Tombs. The title, as he afterwards admitted, should have been Birds of a New Zealand Sheep Station, since it dealt only with species to be found locally. He was soon to break fresh ground. Several months spent in watching and photographing birds on Stewart Island during each of the years 1911, 1912, and 1913 provided material for another book – Mutton Birds and Other Birds, published by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1914. The outbreak of war found him in Scotland on one of his periodical visits. Being too old for active service, he took charge of the garden of the Third London General Hospital, and ran it with a staff of volunteers who, like himself, were anxious to serve though unfit for the armed forces. On returning to New Zealand he made use of the notes he had been taking “for half a lifetime” to write Tutira, which was published in 1921 by William Blackwood and Sons, of Edinburgh.
Having acquired a moderate fortune, Guthrie-Smith was now able to leave his much-reduced estate in charge of a manager and spend more time studying ornithology. Expeditions ranging from Stewart Island in the south to Little Barrier Island off the Hauraki Gulf provided him with material for another book – Bird Life on Island and Shore – also published by Blackwoods, in 1925. Not long before his wife's death, in 1927, Guthrie-Smith sailed on the Government steamer Tutanekai to visit various islands of the sub-Antarctic — the Snares, the Auckland, Campbell, Antipodes, and Bounty groups. In 1929, accompanied by his daughter, he made two more voyages on the same vessel, one to the Snares and Auckland groups, and another to the Kermadec islands lying nearly 700 miles north-east of Auckland.
As the years went by, Guthrie-Smith's literary output diminished, and not until 1936 did his last book make its appearance. The Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist, published by A. H. and A. W. Reed, was a commentary on the effect of European occupation on various districts of the South Island and some account of the fauna and flora of the sub-Antarctic island groups. The joys are those of a zealot at work on his chosen task. The sorrows derive from the author's contemplation of what to him is a grim tragedy being slowly enacted before his eyes. In this, as in all his previous books, Guthrie-Smith pleaded for the preservation of New Zealand's native forests and native birds. He recommended the setting aside of reserves watched over by permanent rangers whose task it should be to destroy alien pests. The work of conservation, he had once suggested, might be done “most cheaply and most efficiently by giving every assistance to our native keeper, forest ranger, and inspector-general of nuisances — the Weka”. This bird, it should be noted, is an enemy of the rat. In an earlier chapter Guthrie-Smith had affected to regret that New Zealand had ever been discovered by a race like the Anglo-Saxons whose “rat-like pertinacity has accomplished the ruin of a Fauna and Flora unique in the world”. The alien pests he classified as “goats, weasels, deer, possum, rats, alien birds, and citizens who light fires”.
As to the ruin of New Zealand's fauna and flora, he himself had been concerned in its accomplishment. The story of his involvement in the process is the subject of his finest book. After its first publication in 1921, a second edition of Tutira was brought out by Blackwoods in 1926 and a third in 1953. Beginning with an account of Tutira's geological origins, the author goes on to describe its occupation by Maori tribes, their feuds, battles, and cannibal feasts. In their day great fires destroyed much of the primeval forest, and when the European appeared he burnt both forest and scrub wherever possible to clear the way for stock and prepare the land for grassing down. But bracken fern took possession of the burnt country and when Guthrie-Smith came to Tutira he was confronted by the problem of how to destroy the fern and replace it with grass. More than 30 years elapsed before the task was completed.
Guthrie-Smith's powers of observation were extraordinarily acute; his interest in changing natural conditions was never failing. “Not one of a thousand rides on the station has been the duplicate of another,” he writes in Tutira: “each has been for forty years a fresh page in the story — to be continued in our next — of the overthrow of the old world, and the slow establishment of a new equilibrium.” The discoveries made in the course of these rides enabled him to explain exactly how the process of change took place — to show, for instance, that the apparently purposeless curves and windings of station pack tracks all have their origin in some former condition that no longer obtains. He was specially interested in the establishment of alien fauna and flora, and their effect upon indigenous conditions. His chapters on the introduction, intentional or otherwise, of plants both useful and harmful, are no less masterly than those dealing with the spreading over the land of imported animals and birds along the three natural highways of coastline, river bed, and hill-top route. Besides being Guthrie-Smith's best book, Tutira has an honoured place among the very few really first-class works that have come out of New Zealand.
In addition to his books, he wrote the accompanying text of one of the centennial pictorial surveys of New Zealand – The Changing Land – and contributed a number of articles on natural history to various publications. When writing of natural conditions Guthrie-Smith often rose to great heights, but his style was apt to become ponderously facetious whenever he had occasion to write of human beings. The fault may indicate an unconscious preference. When loss of activity forbade the pursuit and observation of wild life, he reverted to one of the enthusiasms of his boyhood and became a keen gardener. He died at Tutira on 4 July 1940 at the age of 79.
by Randall Mathews Burdon, M.C. (1896–1965), Author, Wellington.
- Guthrie-Smith of Tutira, Woodhouse, A. E. (1959)
- Tutira — The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station, Guthrie-Smith, H. (1953)
- Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Vol. 70 (1941) (Obit)
- The Daily Telegraph (Napier), 5 Jul 1940 (Obit).