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Nelson - the early years

Dorothy - 13/11/03

To many people Nelson is just a beautiful place where their families have spent holidays for several generations, but exploring Nelson's past makes a visit more interesting. Abel Tasman, Dumont D'Urville, the New Zealand Company, Colonel Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Captain Arthur Wakefield, Will Watch, Whitby, Arrow, the Wairau Incident, the Fifeshire Rock, Haulashore Island, Cathedral Hill, C.T. Monro the Father of Rugby in New Zealand, Nelson College and the Murchison Earthquake, Nelson College for Girls and Kate Edger, - all these speak of Europeans involved in the settlement of Nelson. Jim McAloon's book Nelson A Regional History takes us further back to Maori settlement in the twelfth century.

Settlement by Maori
Jim McAloon in his book Nelson A Regional History gives a concise account of what recent research tells us about early life in Nelson. A review of carbon dating suggests that Nelson, like the rest of New Zealand, was settled by the twelfth century. The Maori people took quickly to gardening and hunting. The Nelson mineral belt was rich in argillite, a dark stone which made fine tools. The Nelson Maori clearly traded their tools from around the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, and these tools have been found throughout the country, including Otago and South Westland.

Probably around the late sixteenth century the Ngati Tumatakokiri, originally from Taupo, moved south and had occupied the Nelson area from Wakapuaka to Karamea by 1642, the date of Abel Tasman's visit.

In the early 1800s the Ngai Tahu from Kaiapoi on the east coast and Karamea on the west coast and the Ngati Apa from Rangitikei attacked the Ngati Tumakokiri, but the Ngati Tumakokiri held on to some of their land.

A North Island tribe, the Ngati Toa, were led by the powerful chief, Te Rauparaha. They made an alliance with the Ngati Rarua and the Ngati Tama and these tribes moved south to Kapiti Island and Waikanae. They built up a trading centre on Kapiti Island. The southern North Island tribes supported by some South Island Maori sought to block their advance but were unsuccessful. In 1828 forces from the North Island landed at Pelorus and divided, with one force going to Kaikoura and the others to attack settlements in Nelson. The latter defeated the forces of each settlement they attacked. Their advance took them to Moutere and West Wanganui, with the Ngati Rarua going as far as the Grey River on the West Coast.

After this there was a large gathering of the tribes at Te Awaiti in the Sounds. A dispute arose about the area claimed by Te Rauparaha. He claimed all the land as far west as the North Island tribes' conquests had extended. Ngati Tama and Ngati Rarua acknowledged his territory only as far as Wakapuaka. The rivalry between the tribes resulted in further fighting and changes in land claims.

By the 1830s Maori were growing gardens and fishing, with villages established along the coast, but Whakatu, later the site of Nelson city, was only a fishing point, not a site for cultivation.

The first Europeans to sight Nelson district
In 1642 the Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman, anchored off Golden Bay, thinking he had found part of the legendary great southern continent which the Dutch East India Company had sent him to find. Four of his company were killed by Maori, so Tasman called the bay Murderers' Bay, but the name for this beautiful area was changed later to Golden Bay.

The next European visitors to Nelson were English - Captain James Cook and his crew. What is now Tasman Bay Cook named Blind Bay in 1770, but he did not explore the area.

Captain Dumont D'Urville in the French corvette Astrolabe was the next known European explorer to visit Nelson. He stayed in the Nelson area in January 1827, landing at the area called Astrolabe, across Blind Bay from Nelson city.

Frederick Moore, a Wellington settler made trading and exploratory visits in 1840 and 1841 and was able to provide the New Zealand Company with essential information on the region.

The early years of settlement
Whakatu, the Maori name for Nelson, means 'peaceful haven' and Nelson harbour has been a peaceful haven for visiting ships since the first three vessels on an exploratory voyage arrived in October 1841 - the Whitby, Will Watch, and Arrow. On board were some surveyors and other men intending to settle in New Zealand.

The arrangements for the settlement had not begun smoothly. The New Zealand Company settlement under the leadership of Colonel Edward Gibbon Wakefield had already founded a settlement in Wellington, and were looking for a larger area, but there was some doubt about where it should be sited.

When the leader of the colonists, Captain Arthur Wakefield, arrived in Wellington aboard the Whitby he found the other two ships there, but they did not know where they were to settle - a rare situation for new colonists. Nelson was viewed as a possible site.

Colonel William Wakefield, the New Zealand Company's principal agent in New Zealand, had bought in 1839 a large area in the north of the South Island, which he believed included Nelson and the Marlborough Sounds.

Te Rauparaha agreed to a settlement in Nelson. Captain Arthur Wakefield met with representatives of the tribes and sorted out the terms for the purchase of land.

The ships then sailed to Blind Bay and anchored in the Astrolabe roadstead. After exploration in the Nelson area some of the crew, acting on information from a local Maori, found the Nelson Harbour after an expedition rowed along the Boulder Bank and one of the party climbed on it and saw the sheltered water behind it. The Arrow sailed into the harbour on November 1 1841 and chose Whakatu as the site for the settlement. It was named Nelson after Admiral Lord Nelson and a number of street names are associated with his naval campaigns in the Napoleonic wars.

Captain Wakefield chose the summit of Church Hill to erect the pole which marked the base of his survey and laid off from it Trafalgar and Nile Streets to be the two main thoroughfares. The Maori name for the hill is Pikimai, meaning "Come up here". Two days after his arrival Wakefield held divine service on Church Hill.

First colonists arrive
On 1 February 1842 the settlement of Nelson was founded with the arrival of the first ships of settlers - the Fifeshire on 1 February followed by the Mary Ann, Lord Auckland and Lloyds. Those who have visited Nelson in summer can well imagine how appealing the area for their new homes must have seemed, but their first homes were tents, or rough raupo or wattle huts and the native rats were there in great numbers.

When the Fifeshire sailed out of Nelson four weeks after arrival it was wrecked on Arrow Rock. In the early years ships had to enter or leave the haven by sailing between Arrow Rock, later called Fifeshire Rock, and Haulashore Island. The channel is very narrow and the tides are very rapid so ships required an experienced pilot to navigate this channel safely. In 1906 a cut was made in the Boulder Bank creating Haulashore Island and this has been widened and deepened several times since then and is regularly dredged.

Fifeshire Rock, Haulashore Island, the Cut and the end of the Boulder Bank
Fifeshire Rock, Haulashore Island, the Cut and the end of the Boulder Bank today
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By mid September, nearly eighty ships had come into the Nelson Harbour, there were than 2,000 people in the settlement, 250 good houses had been built, and there were 230 whares and huts used for temporary accommodation.

Church Hill was the site of the New Zealand Company's storerooms and barracks, the office of the Examiner, the Courthouse and the Literary and Scientific Institute.

Shortage of land
There were land problems as there was insufficient land to fulfil contracts and to grow food, so surveyors went to survey land in the Wairau area (now Marlborough). Te Rauparaha and his brother-in-law disputed the ownership of this land and Maoris interfered with the survey. When this was reported in Nelson the magistrate Mr Thompson issued a warrant for the arrest of both Maori chiefs - an action which would be meaningless to the Maori. Captain Wakefield went with a detachment from Nelson to sort out the situation, and the result of delays and misunderstandings was the Wairau Incident in which Captain Wakefield and some twenty leading settlers were killed.

The Wairau Incident caused alarm in Nelson and Church Hill was fortified. For some months the settlers retired there with their families at nights. The news of what had happened and uncertainty about how far the fighting might spread meant that further immigration was suspended.

With no new settlers bringing capital to Nelson the settlement developed only slowly and those who stayed there suffered from food shortages.

The fighting did not spread, however, and conditions began to improve later in the 1840s. In the population records issued by the New Zealand Company in 1850 Nelson was the second largest town in New Zealand - Wellington 5479, Nelson 4047, New Plymouth 1412, Otago 1482, Canterbury 301. Auckland is not listed.

Nelson given the status of a city
In 1853 the Nelson Provincial Government was established. Nelson was granted the status of a city, by virtue of the creation of a Diocese of Nelson by Letters Patent under the seal of Queen Victoria. It was New Zealand's second city. A Board of Works was set up under the town of Nelson Improvement Act. Their work resulted in the city having a water supply, a gas works, Wakefield Quay, several bridges over the Maitai River, many miles of streets and a partly completed sewerage system.

Industries were established soon after the settlement was founded - a brewery in 1843 and a flax mill, a tannery, solar salt works and a woollen mill by 1845.

Pioneer houses preserved
Houses were built on the land around Church Hill and pioneers' houses in South Street have been maintained for their charm and their historic interest. South Street is preserved as it was 130 years ago. At least three of the houses were built in the 1860s. Some of the houses in South Street are offered for holiday rental.

South Street houses
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South Street houses
South Street houses
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At 12 Nile Street West close to South Street is The Little Manor, another beautifully preserved cottage from the 1860s. This combines luxury furnishings and antiques with modern plumbing and appliances.

The Little Manor
The Little Manor
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Church Hill
Church services were regularly held on Church Hill, at first in the surveyors' mess room. Bishop Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand, viewed Church Hill in 1842 and considered it to be the perfect site for a Cathedral. Then in 1843 he bought two huts which were converted into a church, and services were held there until 1851. He was also responsible for the Church acquiring the land. The first church on the hill, described in the Nelson Examiner as "a neat wooden building in the early English style, of the form of a cross", was built in 1851, and was opened by Bishop Selwyn. After alterations in 1886 it was consecrated as the first Cathedral in 1887. The old building was condemned by the City Council in 1921, but a lot of money had to be raised before the new Cathedral could be built.

The foundation stone for the present Cathedral was laid by the Governor General, Sir Charles Fergusson, in 1925. The new Cathedral was built of Takaka marble, and the building was partially completed by 1932. It could not be finished until more money was raised, and during the 1930s Depression money was scarce. A temporary roof and ceiling were added to the nave and the chancel and much of the furniture and fittings of the old Cathedral were used to maintain links with the past. It was consecrated by the Archbishop of New Zealand on 3 December, 1932.

Completion of the Cathedral
There were changes to the planned design of the building while money was being raised for its completion. After the Murchison earthquake, when the clock tower on Nelson College was destroyed, the plan to build a Gothic tower was dropped. The first part of the building was constructed from solid marble, but prices had so escalated that the rest of the building was constructed from concrete blocks veneered with a plaster made from marble. A tower was erected at the north end of the church as a separate undertaking.

At the dedication of the building in 1965 the Queen was represented by the Governor General, Sir Bernard Fergusson, son of the Governor General, Sir Charles Fergusson, who had laid the foundation stone in 1925. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1972.

Beautifying Church Hill
Alfred Domett, one of New Zealand's early premiers, and Joseph Webb worked on beautifying the Hill with trees in the early 1860s. Thomas Cawthron donated the steps from Trafalgar Street in 1913.

The Cawthron Steps leading to the Cathedral
The Cawthron Steps leading to the Cathedral
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Nelson College - a school for boys - was founded in 1856. It began with eight boys attending school in an old building in Trafalgar Square. Then the school moved to buildings in Manuka Street and then in 1859 the foundation stone was laid on the present site in Waimea Road and the college moved into the new buildings in 1859. It became a boarding school to suit the sons of families too far away for them to travel to the town. Boys were admitted from the age of nine. Fees were charged, but scholarships were available to gifted pupils.

In 1879 another wing was added to the school with extra dormitories and classrooms.

In 1887 Ernest Rutherford (later Lord Rutherford) entered as an Education Board Scholar from Havelock.

In 1904 a new gymnasium was built, but on 7 December of that year the College was destroyed by fire. After years using any accommodation which was available the school celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1906 and classes resumed in 1907 although the rebuilding was not finished.

In 1924 a Scriptorium was built as a memorial to Nelson College boys who had been killed during World War 1.

In the 1929 Murchison earthquake the school buildings were seriously damaged. Amazingly only two boys were injured by the falling masonry. Again there was a need for temporary accommodation. New boarding houses were built and the main building was rebuilt and opened in 1941. The Scriptorium had also been damaged by the earthquake and eventually had to be closed.

In 1868 the Nelson Football Club, the oldest in New Zealand, was founded. The Nelson Examiner reported on the first football match played in Nelson Province at Victory Square on Saturday, June 19, 1869, between sixteen players from Nelson College and an equal number from the Nelson Club.

A Nelson College Old Boy, C. J. Monro, returned from a trip to England and suggested the adoption of the Rugby Code. He was known as "the father of Rugby in New Zealand". In 1870 he organised the first inter-provincial Rugby fixture in New Zealand between Nelson and Wellington. The first inter-College Rugby match in New Zealand was played between Nelson College and Wellington College in Wellington in 1876. Wellington won this match, but Nelson won the return match.

Education for girls
Concern that girls were being deprived of secondary education led to the opening of Nelson College for Girls in 1883 - a seondary school for day pupils and boarders. The first headmistress was Kate Edger who in 1877 gained a B.A degree from the University of New Zealand. She was the first woman in the British Empire to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree. (A Canadian woman had graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1875.)

Kate Edger was a brilliant scholar who specialised in mathematics and Latin. She was appointed in 1877 to teach at the newly opened Christchurch Girls' High School (CGHS), and while teaching there she gained a Master of Arts degree from Canterbury College and was capped in 1882 with her sister Lilian.

When Kate Edger became headmistress at Nelson College for Girls she was only twenty six. She remained in her position for eight years - years that presented all the problems associated with establishing a new school. Her experience at CGHS stood her in good stead. In addition to coping with problems presented by unsuitable buildings and a new boarding establishment, she taught English grammar, composition and literature, physical science, Latin, geography and singing. She prepared girls for university scholarships. She gave not only of her skills, but spent part of her salary on equipment and on one occasion to assist a senior girl who could not afford to stay at school she financed a scholarship out of her own salary. Her sister Lilian was also on the staff.

Such women gave the College a good start.

Both Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls have greatly increased their rolls over the years and are highly regarded secondary schools today.

As the province and the city of Nelson prospered beautiful homes were built. One of the finest, Melrose, built in 1876, has been bequeathed to the city of Nelson and is used by groups in the community and for private social functions. The Nelson City Council maintains the spacious grounds.

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Nelson's reputation
For many visitors Sunny Nelson is mainly a place to relax on holiday. It is sometimes known as 'Sleepy Hollow'. However, reading of its early history and of the setbacks faced by successive generations, both Maori and Pakeha, enhanced my appreciation of this beautiful town, built by the hard work of early settlers and those who followed.

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