The Mount Ida Chronicle and St Bathans Weekly News was one of the earliest goldfields newspapers to survive for a lengthy period. In May 1863, gold was discovered in the Hogburn Valley, on the Upper Taieri Plain 90 miles north-west of Dunedin, by a party of miners including the Parker brothers. The resulting township had various names – including Parker’s, Hogburn and Mount Ida – before settling on Naseby. The Mount Ida Chronicle was founded there in 1869 by Hugh Wilson who ran the paper with a succession of partners until his retirement in 1919.
The first partner was Henry Hertslet, a considerable landowner, whose involvement lasted only a year. Two years later Cecil de Lautour joined the paper as partner and editor, combining his editorial role with an increasing involvement in politics. In 1874, de Lautour was elected as one of the two members to represent the Mount Ida district on the Otago Provincial Council, remaining on it until its abolition in 1876. The same year he was returned as the member for Mt Ida in the House of Representatives, and won two subsequent elections in 1879 and 1881. Cecil de Lautour’s actual involvement with the newspaper ended when he left the district in 1879 and moved to Poverty Bay.
Wilson’s next partner, from 1883, was Mackay J S (Scobie) Mackenzie. A successful runholder, he was also an aspiring politician. After some years on the Maniototo County Council, Mackenzie stood against de Lautour at the 1881 election, challenging the incumbent’s right to represent Mt Ida when he lived hundreds of kilometres away in the North Island. As the Otago Witness reported in Mackenzie’s September 1901 obituary: ‘The contest which ensued had a sensational termination. Telegraphs were rarer in those days, and on the evening of the election it was concluded, in the absence of one or two outlying returns, that Mr Mackenzie was the member for Mount Ida. He was carried in triumph through the streets of Naseby, while his opponent left the town and travelled through the night to catch train and steamer for the north. Before daylight, however, a block vote for Mr de Lautour came in from the largest of the outlying places, and by a few votes the position was reversed.’
Scobie Mackenzie was elected to the House of Representatives in 1884, while de Lautour contested an Auckland seat unsuccessfully. Mackenzie was an accomplished journalist, writing regularly for the Mount Ida Chronicle and Australian newspapers. He served three terms as MP for Mount Ida and then held, from 1896-1899, a Dunedin seat. In 1896 his shares in the newspaper were sold to a relation-by-marriage, Alfred Dillon Bell, brother of Sir Francis Bell. John Reed took up the Bell interest in 1907 and ran the business following Wilson’s 1919 retirement until the newspaper’s 1926 sale and subsequent demise.
For much of its 57 years, the Mount Ida Chronicle was a weekly. Gold in the area was mined by hydraulic sluicing and the government built several miles of water races in 1875. Following this boost to the local mining industry, the newspaper appeared twice-weekly until 1899. Naseby was the commercial and local government centre of the Maniototo for the last 25 years of the 19th century and by 1880 one of the largest towns in the district, and claiming a population of about 4,000. As well as many hotels, it had the county council chambers, town hall, courthouse, warden’s office, district hospital, several churches and schools, Masonic hall, Athenaeum (library and reading room), and racecourse. However, by the early 1920s, gold mining was finished and, with the Central Otago railway bypassing the town, Ranfurly became the new district centre.
The Mount Ida Chronicle provided informed and contrasting political comment during the period Cecil de Lautour and Scobie Mackenzie were writing for it. Before the parliamentary party era, both were independents, but de Lautour was of a liberal and Mackenzie a more conservative persuasion. The paper also provided a detailed coverage of an important period in the country’s gold mining history and was a conscientious recorder of the social life of the Maniototo.