The history of number 8 wire
New Zealanders have a quirky philosophical affinity with fencing wire. The ‘‘number 8 wire’’ can-do attitude is embedded in the Kiwi psyche.
Number 8 wire is reputably strong, durable, flexible and useful for many things. New Zealanders supposedly personify these qualities, which possibly explains our fascination with it.
However, these days not many people would know how to tie off or join a length of number 8 wire, let alone foot a strainer post, construct a stay assembly, or any of the other highly critical components of a sound and solid fence.
Human settlements with their cultivations and farms have always depended on enclosing (or excluding) animals or crops. Barriers, commonly stone walls, ditches, wooden rails or hedges, also served to define boundaries. These methods worked well for many centuries. But they were very labour and resource intensive to establish on a wider scale.
This all changed with a radical new process patented in 1855 and invented by Englishman Henry Bessemer. The Bessemer process made steel available in industrial quantities, at an affordable price, for the first time ever. The advent of fencing wire was one product that resulted from Bessemer’s process.
The colonisation of New Zealand, Australia and other parts of the world brought farming practices into the ‘‘new’’ world. The availability of wide areas of land for grazing sheep and cattle coincided fortuitously with Henry Bessemer, his process and the cheap production of fencing wire in many forms.
Bessemer’s invention had a massive impact on the world we know today. His process influenced the landscape of modern New Zealand.
Farm fences are a common feature of almost every region in New Zealand but it’s easy to overlook their significance in just how they shaped the land.
Fence wire enabled the subdivision of land and paddocks. Farming practices were transformed as a result.
Fencing often followed the surveyor, serving as boundaries and reinforcing the concept of private property ownership. From as early as 1850, colonists in Canterbury were quarrelling in court about property boundaries.
No doubt solicitors benefited hugely from these disputes. We are endowed with legislation as a result – The Fencing Act 1978 being the latest version, setting out rights and responsibilities around fencing for adjoining landowners.
In the South Island, early run holders depended on natural boundaries such as rivers and ridges to contain sheep flocks. Men were employed as boundary riders to keep stock contained within runs. Stone fences were constructed where the resource was available. Gorse was originally introduced to create prickly hedges to contain stock.
The sheer size of runs often meant that fencing was impractical as well as being too expensive. The advent of cheap fencing wire changed that. From the 1860s advertisements for wire and fencing components such as standards (flat steel posts or waratahs) were becoming common.
The Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle of 28 January 1865 advertised a typical shipping consignment of ‘‘Two Miles Length of Morton’s Colonial Sheep Fence’’.
Composed of galvanised twisted or stranded wire, galvanised standards and wrought galvanised straining pillars. This was in effect, a DIY all purpose kit for the aspiring sheep farmer of the day. The components were qualified as being ‘‘The most approved fence in Morton’s Catalogue, on account of its lightness and durability, combined with cheapness’’.
Various makes and styles of this early steel fencing can be observed today in many parts of the South Island high country, still standing after over 100 years of service.
At Molesworth, a good example is the 128km Hurunui Rabbit Board fence, constructed from 1887 to halt the spread of rabbits. Part of this fence still serves as the boundary between the St James and Molesworth.
Many hardships were endured by early fencers in the ‘‘razorbacks’’ of the high country. In places, holes had to be drilled by hand in rock for fence standards and then sulphur melted in iron kettles, which was then poured into the holes, setting like concrete.
Every part of NZ had its challenges in terms of fencing and styles evolved to suit local conditions.
Today Number 8 wire has largely (but not entirely) been superseded by high tensile wire or electric fencing. New Zealand is now recognised as a world leader in the fencing industry.
The skills and experience we have built up in farm fencing, have evolved to develop other specialised fences such as predator proof fences. These are designed to exclude pests in mainland sanctuaries throughout NZ.
Fencing wire, in its many forms, continues to be a tool used to influence the land today.