Hugh McIlraith (1836 -1904)

Grace McIlraith (nee Lyons) was only 10 years old when she came to stay at Riccarton in 1854. In the company of her parents, they had walked up to the Deans Cottage (which then faced the Avon, just a few metres from a cattle track that we know as Kahu Road today) and was met with a red-eyed Jane Deans, her infant son tightly held in her arms. Grace will never forget the grief that sat in Jane’s eyes as she accepted their condolences with her soft Scottish voice, asking them if they would like to come inside.

Grace was to be Jane’s companion, offering support and company in the view of John Deans’ death just days before. He left his widow with a 10 month old son – Little Johnnie – and two estates (Riccarton and Homebush) to run and safe-keep until Little Johnnie would come of age and inherit everything that his late father and Uncle had fought the Canterbury Association for. As Jane set about making a hot drink for her guests, there was something so proud in how she stood. There was a deep set strength in the very foundation of her and in how she spoke of her late husband and the plans he had for the two farms.

William Lyons, Grace’s father, knew these plans well as John had asked him to be one of the trustees over Riccarton and Homebush after he was gone – assisting Jane with all the business choices that she would face. William had accepted and the Lyons would remain life-long friends of the Deans and the McIlraith’s.

Little Grace would have had no idea that this very sad time at Riccarton was the beginning of the pathway that would lead her to her own husband. She was not to know that when Jane spoke about her half-brothers coming over from Scotland to help her, Grace’s destiny was all set.

20 year old Hugh McIlraith was indeed making plans with one of his brothers – George – to join his grieving sister in New Zealand.
By 1855 George and he were aboard a ship heading to Australia. The pair’s older brother James was set up there and they wanted to see him first. Hugh must have felt like he was coming into his own, he was about to start making his own way in the world and had the best start a man could ask for.

Before the two McIlraith brothers left, they had met with James Deans (Jane’s brother-in-law) at his home and place of business, Kirkstyle. James had made arrangements with his late brothers – John and William – before their deaths that half of Homebush was his – 14,000 acres. He wanted to open a sheep station and he asked Hugh and George to run it for him. James gave Hugh £1500 so the area within Homebush – to become known simply as The Sheep Station – could be stocked with sheep. What a great start for these two young men.

Hugh and George arrived at Lyttelton on the 10th May 1856. Jane writes many years later of the joy they brought into her life with their arrival and how much they had grown up since she had last seen them. During September 1856, the family travelled out to Homebush for a few days, Hugh at last seeing the land where he would open and run James Deans’ Sheep Station. The remainder of Homebush which was under the care of manager ‘Honest John’ Cordy would remain a cattle run.

By 1858 and after the arrival of James McIlraith from Australia, the arrangement between the in-laws over the sheep station began to break down. Poor Jane was caught up in the middle of her warring male kin-men and did her best to keep the peace.

Tragedy was to strike Homebush during this time when George was dragged to his death by his horse. Jane Deans – who was now living in Riccarton House – was greeted by a very out of breath Hugh who had ridden in from Homebush for a doctor. Hugh and the doctor were half way back to Homebush when they were met by a farm-hand who bared the sad news that George had died. I can’t imagine what that moment felt like for Hugh.

In 1859, James McIlraith took over management of Homebush and Hugh made his break from James Deans’ Sheep Station. He took his profits and purchased his own land. It’s around this time that Hugh McIlraith and Grace Lyons marry.
There is not a lot about their courtship but as Grace’s father was one of the Deans’ trustees, the pair had ample opportunity to get to know each other.

Hugh took his new bride to their new farm ‘Culverden Station’, followed by a move to ‘Montrose’ in 1868. In 1877, the McIlraiths’, now a family of 11 move to ‘Broom Park’ in Methven. Unfortunately for Hugh, to be a successful farmer was not in his cards and the family was soon in very bad debt.
Finally facing the facts and wanting the best for the children, Hugh sold Broom Park to his nephew, John Deans II in 1885 (who had inherited Riccarton and Homebush in 1874) who renamed the farm ‘Waimarama’. The farm stayed in the family until 1916.

Along with his farming failures, Hugh was not taken too seriously with his political career either. He was the chairman of the Amuri Road Board and was a Member of Parliament for Cheviot in 1881 till 1884. He was President of the New Zealand and New Brighton Trotting Clubs. His great passion was racing.

Hugh and Grace retired to Riccarton (not Riccarton Farm) and then finally at Opawa. Hugh died in 1904 and Grace followed him in 1926. They are buried, along with three of their daughters and one of their sons at Linwood Cemetery in Christchurch.

Curious about Waimarama:

*photo of McIlraith Grave taken by Annette Bulovic*
*photo of Melrose Station taken by Chris Bulovic*

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