Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 3, September 1977
Extracts from Some Early Newspapers of the Upper Buller Area
Extracts from Some Early Newspapers of the Upper Buller Area
The most interesting newspapers in this area from 1872 until the 1890's were published at Lyell. The "Lyell Argus and Matakitaki Advertiser", the "Lyell Argus" and later the "Lyell Times" were single folded sheets of varying sizes produced on a hand press once a week and sold for sixpence (5c.) It is indeed regrettable that so few of them survive. Some copies of the first named are in the Alexander Turnbull Library, a few copies of the "Argus" in poor condition are privately owned, while the only surviving files of the "Lyell Times" (1888 and 1892) are in the Nelson Provincial Museum Library, and the Murchison Museum has most of the papers for 1885 and 1886.
Most people find the advertisements amusing—they certainly give some idea of the importance of Lyell at that time with its numerous hotels and shops. There are also ads for the Accommodation Houses and Hotels in the Murchison area, for Moonlight's Store, and for the Annual Races at Ribets Hotel opposite the Doughboy Creek—there will be upwards of one hundred pounds ($200) in prize money! But, alas, in September 1877 there were no mails, no news, in fact nothing but rain, hail and snow. In 1878, following the disastrous floods, the situation was even worse, "There is no flour in the town. There has been no beef in the place for a week, and the last pig was killed yesterday after eating the last spud! Are the people to starve through the neglect of the Buller County Council? It is shameful. Our supplies are gone and our roads are blocked, in fact quite impassable for ten miles (16 km) on either side. What is to become of us? We must, thanks to the Powers-that-Be, either leave or starve, a pleasant prospect, truly."
The Reefton paper, the "Inangahua Herald", also reported news from the Murchison area. In June 1883 it gave an account of the sale of George Moonlight's property on the sixth. The sale lasted for two days, and a chatty paragraph explains the reason for this. "A rather ridiculous scene occurred at Hampden (Murchison) during Mr Moonlight's Sale which is worth recording. The Knight of the Hammer, who hailed from Sleepy Hollow, had evidently, on the morning of the Sale, partaken somewhat too freely of Hampden Hospitality. However, the auction went on merrily till shortly after noon, but, just as the hammer went down the third time to the purchaser of the lot in hand, down also went the unlucky wielder of that ancient instrument. All efforts to bring the enthusiastic auctioneer once more to an upright position having signally failed, and as no substitute could be sent along from Nelson by wire, nothing was left but to postpone the sale till next morning. This page 33was accordingly done, and to the credit of the victim of hospitality be it said, he finished his duties next day in a highly satisfactory manner."
A further paragraph contrasted the scene at the sale with the same area some twenty years earlier. "Who among the early diggers on the Upper Buller and Matakitaki in the year 1863 would have been bold enough to assert that twenty years hence ladies on horseback, rigged out in the latest style in bell-toppers, would be seen in that then primitive locality attending an Auction Sale? Such, however, was the case about ten days ago, and the fact speaks volumes for the rapid strides in civilization in those once far off regions where there was a total absence of the fair sex. Possibly the numerous representatives of the "Lost Tribe" who were present at the same sale had something to do with this phenomenon. But certain it is that the gentle creatures exercised a wholesome check, though they could not quite prevent the carrying out of the time honoured custom of the Matakitaki, namely, "To knock a man down, and then ask him to have a drink by way of apology."
The "Lyell Times", in June 1885, published an advertisement calling for tenders for the erection of the Matakitaki Horse Bridge —five spans of 60 feet (18 m) each, the bridge to be 7 feet (2.1 m) wide, and the site some 50 chains (about 1 km) above Rowe's footbridge. An account of the meeting of the Hampden Licensing Committee showed that Rowe, who owned the Hampden Hotel, paid only one pound ($2) for his hotel license on condition that he erected and maintained a footbridge over the Matakitaki. A year later the Hampden notes say. "The horse bridge stands among us a monument to those august bodies who tax us, nominally for the purpose of constructing and maintaining highways etc…It is completed, but there is no way of getting to it or from it, about one mile (1.6 km) of horse track needing formation. As winter is now approaching when the river may be expected to be often uncrossable, the noble edifice will stand completely useless to those for whose convenience it was built. For what we have received we should be most truly grateful!"
During 1885 and 1886 there is a great deal about the quartz mines at the Owen, and much argument about the dray road that was to be constructed. Should it follow the Owen River or branch off the main road four miles (6.4 km) nearer Nelson and cross the low Maggie Saddle? It was, perhaps understandable that the Inangahua County Council thought the road would be of more benefit to Nelson than to themselves and took little interest. We read of the various claims taken up so hopefully, the Wakatu, the Uno, the Golden Fleece, the Golden Crown and so on. Two hotels were built, stores, butchers and a brewery all advertised their wares. Heavy machinery to crush the quartz was wagonned in, but all were to vanish in a few years.
An unusual happening was the robbing of a tail-race at Matakitaki. It was estimated that the thief got away with about twenty-five pounds ($50) worth of gold. A message was sent to the Lyell Police Station by telegraph and Mounted Police Constable Bowden page 34left to investigate. Some reference was made to "thieving Chinese who had recently come into the district". A week later an apology was printed from the claim owners to "Dat Kim and mates for accusing them of being implicated in the robbing of the tail-race." The Chinese prided themselves on their honesty.
There were reports of inquests, drownings were so common that we often find "the usual verdict was given". Unfortunate victims of accidents were carried many miles by their mates to Lyell, from there a canoe would leave at first light for Westport where the nearest doctor lived. On one occasion the doctor made the long journey from Westport to the Newton to try to save the life of a mother, but by the time he arrived it was too late. Consumption, diphtheria, scarlet fever claimed victims. Despite their poverty people were quick to open a subscription list for a bereaved family.
In March 1888, according to old residents there was the highest flood for ten years. The Buller cut into the road below the cemetery and made straight for the Matakitaki. At ten o'clock Friday night it was up to the doorstep of Rowe's Hotel, "and carrying fences away wholesale". Most damage was done to Mr John James' property. Two acres (0.8 ha) of land was lost and two stacks of oats and one of hay spoilt. "At least," the correspondent finished cheerfully "he is saved the trouble of digging his potatoes, they are rooted up and left hanging on the fence by the flood."
In November 1888 the story is told of the narrow escape from drowning of Charles Downie (who was to live another fifty years) and James Ribet. A man named Fagin who lived at the junction of the Owen Valley road had died and was to be buried in Murchison. As the Buller River was too high for the Long Ford to be used, the two men were taking the coffin across in a small boat. In mid-stream the boat capsized. Ribet managed to swim ashore, but Downie could not swim so had to cling to the upturned boat and be carried down stream. There was nothing the onlookers could do until the boat came nearer the shore a mile or so further on. A long pole was used to stop the boat, and Downie was rescued from his precarious position. It was thought that the coffin was lost, but, as the boat turned on its side, the coffin was seen to float out and down stream. John Moonlight, son of the famous George, galloped on a swift horse to the punt at Four River Plain, and from there the coffin was recovered. Some hours later, after it had been conveyed to the cemetery by dray, the funeral took place though the priest and most of the mourners had gone home.
In 1892 the Alexander Dredge was working near Fern Flat, and dredges, though small were to play an important part in the economy of the district for the next ten to fifteen years. In January of that year the editor of the "Lyell Times" notes in commenting on the Jubilee of the founding of Nelson Settlement, that the press on which his paper is printed was brought to Nelson in 1841 to print the "Examiner". He had bought it in 1886, and though it had page 35been inactive for some years, it was a good hand press and could work 850 impressions an hour.
The "Buller Post", a new paper was started at Fern Flat on the north bank of the Buller in 1896. The editor and publisher was Reginald Alexander, but his mother, Marie Alexander, was responsible for the idea and for some of the writing. She was a well read person with literary ability. The file for 1896 is in the Turnbull Library, and the editorials for that year cover a wide range of subjects, national and international, and would be acceptable in a much larger publication. The proposed Old Age Pension legislation came in for much criticism—one wonders what would be thought of our Social Security Acts! The idea of paying all over the age of sixty five the sum of even five shillings (50 cents) a week was expected to fill the country with hordes of useless aged and to discourage thrift. A full account of the disastrous fire at Lyell was given, and of the subsequent re-building. The Football Club played against Lyell, the Racing Club continued and the Leap Year Ball was a great success. Two years later the paper was being published in Murchison, and in 1900 it was sold to Victor Thomas McNamara.
The next ten years were filled with activity in the Murchison area. Dredges were operating, the Dairy Company was formed, the Council separated from Inangahua, a Medical Association secured the services of a doctor, the Anglican Church was built, rivers were bridged, and on all these matters the "Post" commented freely. "How we looked forward to that paper each week," said an old-timer, and doubtless they all did, for controversies raged in the correspondence column, and the Editor answered or commented, apparently with no fears of being sued for libel! "Will the new County have an Engineer and an overseer?" asked a correspondent. "No!" answered the Editor, "it does not require a dozen officials to run a ten acre paddock. The new County will have quite enough to do keeping clear of borrowing and bankruptcy without adding to its anxieties and responsibilities by the establishment of a small standing army of useless loafers." Frank opinions were given on candidates offering themselves for election. "If the people of Murchison allow themselves to be led by the nose by self-seeking wire-pullers called the 'Clique' they can only be regarded as mules represented by asses and cajoled by jackals." Later an unfortunate councillor admitted that he did not understand some item, "It is difficult to know what Councillor X would understand. It is even more difficult to know why he left his god-given place among the turnips to become a County Councillor."
In 1909 the Murchison Racing Club was "in the throes of a muddling be-fogglement". Two horses, both recently purchased had come first and second in a race. The second horse had definitely been registered in its new owner's name, and its own name changed, but had the other owner completed the formalities? The argument raged for years (literally), and it is doubtful if the prize money was ever paid. In later years the paper was printed on a sheet supplied to many small publications, the inside contained serials, page 36stories, poems etc, and on the outside was printed the local news and advertisements. Publication ceased in 1913 or 1914, and unfortunately few copies survive.
The last paper to be published in Murchison was the "Murchison Standard". With brief lapses this continued from 1914 to 1937. Regrettably the last editor made a bonfire of the files when he left. In many ways it seems a funny little paper to us, it reported when a settler from one of the valleys came into the township, and who had visitors for the weekend, the language was often flowery and mixed metaphors abounded. "We must all put our shoulders to the plough", and apparently our hands to the wheel. Weddings were described in great detail, including that of the then Member of Parliament for the District—Keith Holyoake, but there was also much information of value. Someone in the 1920s and early 30s must have had a good collection of early newspaper cuttings and often these would be printed. A Special Edition for the opening of the new Dairy Factory gave a good account of events leading up to the formation of the Company. In January 1922 the Six Mile Hydro-Electric Power Station was opened, the picnic and ceremony are described at some length, the Brass Band, which had recently been revived was particularly congratulated on its performance.
A good account of Gold Dredging in the district was included in the issue that reported the opening of the Mataki Dredge in 1933. In 1936, when the Matakitaki Junction Dredge was opened by the Hon. Paddy Webb accompanied by the Hon. Bob Semple, one would imagine that permanent prosperity was coming to Murchison with dredges springing up in all directions. The following week the paper described the working of the dredge, ending with the rather odd statement that the rattling of the stones was a "Swan Song of Victory".
The last issue of the "Standard" was that of December 31st 1937. In the leading article the Editor gives reasons for the cessation of the paper. Costs of production have risen, but it was "the sheer impractibility of making a success of a paper publishing for a local market", and the difficulty of competing with a daily paper that had forced the decision. "A district without a local paper loses a certain amount of prestige", he continued, "and Murchison will find this out when it is too late…some may say there is nothing to'worry about…but time will tell a different story. Outsiders will ask, 'What is wrong with Murchison?' Many times through this paper an endeavour has been made to answer that question…There is no getting away from it, Murchison is fast going into a decline…and will become a has-been as Quartzopolis is today…One track minds along rutted ways… has spelt finis to any progressive measures. To those faithful readers, we wish you one and all a prosperous New Year".