Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Whitford Ostriches

Image above: from the Observer, 10 October 1908.

The Nathan family owned 2,656 acres at Whitford, near Auckland, and they decided in 1887 to see if ostriches were a profitable farming product. To this end, they imported 31 birds from the Cape Colony, with replacements from South Australia. Eventually, the flock grew to 600 birds. Feathers were clipped from male ostriches twice a year, and used to make feather boas, scarves, to decorate hats, or (for lower grade feathers) make dusters.

Fashion needs changed, as they do, and the Nathans discontinued their Whitford venture and instead finance the Helvetia Ostrich Company Ltd at Paerata, moving the Whitford flock there. This business was finally liquidated in 1922.

One lasting aspect of the whole venture was the “Ostrich” brand for the Nathans’ Standard tea packets, and Ostrich Road at Paerata.
(Source: Lawrence D. Nathan, As Old as Auckland, 1984, p. 60)

An interesting and valuable collection of ostrich feathers is on view at the warehouse of Messrs. L. D. Nathan and Co., Shortland-street. These feathers have been grown at the Whitford Park farm. Though in the raw state, just as they have been taken from the birds, they are beautiful plumes, of glossy, silken textures, and a varying degree of colour.

They have been collected into bundles of twelve or fifteen each. Some stately feathers, cut from beneath the wings, are of snow white, some are delicately streaked with grey, more are of a light drab, some are tipped with brown, and others, short, bulky plumes, are of a rich black. If the feathers look so attractive in their present condition, their sheen sparking in the sunlight, they ought to be doubly beautiful when they are cleaned and curled, and made ready for the market.
It is Mr. Nathan’s intention to send them to England for sale. They have been taken from birds, none of which are over two years old, and those from ostriches eight months old are tipped with the brown colour characteristic of very young feathers.

There are 158 of these birds, old and young, all thriving and health, at Whitford Park. No trouble is experienced in rearing them, as they practically run wild, and are given only turnips in the winter season. For the rest of the year they eat grass, and probably the staple articles which tradition assigns as the desert for the fearful and wonderful stomach of an ostrich.

The feathers now on view form an indisputable proof of the suitableness of the Auckland climate for ostrich farming. They are of considerable value, for articles such as these are always in demand amongst those who can pay the high price asked for them, and are willing to spend money in that way.
(NZ Herald, 9 March 1892)

Fifty of Mr. L. D. Nathan's yearling ostriches are to be offered for sale shortly. Ostriches are said to be as remunerative as sheep, and less bother. Seems to us there is a great future before the ostrich. Just now the bird's value is simply its crop of feathers for the adornment of hats and bonnets. But in that veracious history known as “The Swiss Family Robinson”, it will be remembered, a member of the celebrated family succeeded in taming an ostrich and converting it into a beast of burden. Possibly in the sweet by-and-bye we may yet see ostriches harnessed to our cabs and 'buses, and 'hack ostriches' will be advertised as 'used to carrying a lady,' and 'quiet to ride or drive.' And possibly ostrich races may form an amusement of the future.
(Observer, Volume XIV, Issue 782, 30 December 1893, Page 7)


  1. Dick Scott contended in Seven Lives on Salt River that Nathan was not the first to import Ostriches into New Zealand. However I'm still looking into the Bickerstaffe Ostrich Farm on the Kaipara started by Victor Nissen. According to Dick Scott Nissen basically went broke and sold the birds to Nathan. He maintained that Nathan had been credited instead of Nissen. Hard to know really I found quite a few articles from the beginning of 1887 about Nissen and the Ostriches at the Kaipara. Otago Daily Witness also had published a great photograph of the farm Nissen owned.

    Cool Post love the cartoon.LOL


  2. Hi, Storm. Edward Waters who died in 1898 also owned ostriches which went to the Nathans (Observer, 3 September 1898). The Evening POst has articles on Nissen bringing in African ostriches to the Otamatea district in 1887, yes, but the Nathans were hatching eggs at Whitford in 1888 (under Nissen's management.) I think that Nissen and the Nathans had a dead-heat in the case of ostrich cultivation. I'll sort out another post on this, cheers!

  3. Yo Ice,

    Thanks for that. All sorts of wierd and wonderful things they were doing back then.

    I love this post


  4. Hey guys, Papers Past provides the answers to this. Nissen had the expertise (as Matson did in Canterbury). Nissen imported the birds through Kaipara Heads direct from South Africa (he accompanied them and kept them well), but he found he was too far from the Auckland market, so after only a few months he took the birds to Nathan's Whitford property and successfully raised them there. I'd love to discsuss this with you further. Stuart Park, NZ Historic Places Trust

  5. Got your email Stuart thanks for that!This is gold!


  6. Thanks, Stuart. I understand Liz has been in touch. Cheers!

  7. Do you allow visitors to come and see the Ostrich's I would love to bring my grand children as I went to the one that used to be in Flat Bush but it has gone now. I loved walking around and watching them and I think the kids would be fascinated like I was. Or if you charge to come please. Janice