Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 4, September 1978
(The writing of this article was suggested by Miss G. Bisley. Much of the material was supplied by Mr B. E. Dickinson, author of Street Names of Nelson. Other sources are: New Zealand's First Railway by A. N. Palmer, numbers of the Examiner and Colonist newspapers, and Misses Bisley and Burton).
Alton Street is one of the shortest streets in Nelson, running between Hardy and Manuka Streets, but it has a history of considerable interest, in fact of uncommon curiosities. It is as old as any street in the city, eight original "town acres" were surveyed along it, but as they all had a boundary on another street, none appear as Alton Street sections. As soon as "town acres" were surveyed there was considerable interest in the naming of "city streets." Meetings and discussions were held and a Street Naming Committee appointed. This duly met in the office of the surveyor (a tent) on Church Hill in March 1842, and the first names chosen commemorated the career of Lord Nelson. At the second meeting on 31 March Alton Street was among the names approved.
The reason for the choice is presumed to be connected with the first death in the new settlement. One of the Company's labourers, page 21Thomas Cresswell, died of typhoid fever and was buried on Fifeshire or Haulashore Island. There is now no trace of his grave, but his native town was Alton in Hampshire, near Chawton, the home of Jane Austin. Captain Wakefield records in his diary on 22 November, 1841: "Thomas Cresswell departed this life at half-past eight. He has been for some time in a hopeless state from a low fever. He was a well-behaved, steady man, and came from the neighbourhood of Alton near Hampshire."
In an early painting of Nelson attributed to Heaphy, Alton Street can be readily recognised by a line of posts which carried an elevated water-race from the Brook in Manuka Street down the centre of the road and across Hardy Street to provide water power for the flour mill situated at the "eel pond" (now the pond in Queen's Gardens). In May 1844 some leading citizens had formed the Nelson Flour Milling Company and duly decided on a suitable site. Some flour had been imported from Australia, but as soon as land could be cleared and cultivated the settlers planted small areas of wheat which was cut with a sickle, threshed with a flail, and ground into coarse meal for breadmaking. Some lucky settlers owned a hand mill, others had to use a pestle and mortar, while Sarah Higgins records that in some neighbourhoods coffee mills were bolted on poles and used in turn by the settlers. It was therefore felt that the Flour Mill was of great importance to the future of the colony. The public were invited to take up shares, Fox was elected Chairman of Directors and A. G. Jenkins was secretary. The estimated cost of the mill was four hundred pounds ($800), but as usual, the final figure was higher than expected. On 24 June, 1845, the Examiner reported that the mill "was got to be working fairly satisfactorily" and the "Directors regaled the shareholders with a luncheon of bread and cheese and beer, all the produce of the settlement, and we might challenge any of the southern colonies to produce cheer as good." Indeed an entry in a diary described the party as being "very merry." A barrel of Hooper's ale was given by the Directors, a cheese by Mr Otterson, and loaves were baked from the Mill flour."
All, however, did not run smoothly and before long we read that "essential additions and repairs would require the superintendence of Mr Campbell who alone understood them." Matthew Campbell was a miller by trade who is remembered for his services to education, but he played a part in feeding bodies as well as minds, for he and A. G. Jenkins took over the lease of the mill from September 1845.
For some seventeen years the overhead water-race remained, sometimes leaking, sometimes decorated with icicles and sometimes causing serious complaints as when a young lady on horseback was gently cantering (as was the custom of young ladies of the time) along Hardy Street. The horse shied while under the "spout" and threw its "rider with violence to the ground." Fortunately no serious injury was sustained. On another occasion a rider on a tall horse failed to "duck" at the correct moment and was stunned by the page 22fall. The Examiner decided it was "high time that such an obstruction in one of the principal streets of the city was removed." In 1862 it was reported that Mr Campbell was putting the mill lead underground and was waiting only for the pipes to arrive. These must be securely covered with three inches (7cm) of gravel for the whole width of Hardy Street, along Alton Street and for the whole width of Nile Street.
Not everyone was objecting to the overhead water-race, J. C. Richmond who had recently come to Nelson from Taranaki, must have lived in or near Alton Street as he wrote in a letter: "The pattering of the water that leaks out of the acqueduct has a soft soothing sound as good as a fountain in a garden of terraces and statues, and the acqueduct has a primitive old world look which makes me regret to hear that the progress of improvement and of the Dun Mountain Railway is soon to remove it."
Certainly the next excitement for Alton Street was the constructing of the Dun Mountain Railway, famous as the first railway in New Zealand. It was planned to take ore from the Dun Mountain Mine to the Port of Nelson. A Company had been formed in England to exploit the mine and experienced engineers were sent out to plan and build the railway. An act was passed by Parliament on 17 August, 1861, the line to be from Albion Wharf at the Port, via Haven Road, Waimea, Hardy, Alton, Manuka and Brook Streets, across Manuka Road and thence through "other lands" to section 35 on the Company's property. So no sooner was the overhead watercourse removed than Alton Street had, along one side, a three foot (1m) gauge railway which was to carry loads of copper and chrome to the Port. It was a railway without engines, the loaded trucks were brought down the hill by gravity, then towed by horses. The empty trucks were pulled up hill by the same horse power.
The opening of the Railway was a gala day for Nelson. It was held on 3 February, 1862, and so was combined with the celebrations of the twentieeth anniversary of the Province. At noon the first train left the Company's yard in Brook Street for the Port. We can imagine the gay passage along Alton Street which was decorated with archways of flags, banners and mottoes. There were eight wagons containing sixteen tons of ore, led by one conveying the Brass Band and others filled with passengers, the train was drawn by horses at a speed which was not to exceed four miles (7km) an hour. After the ore was discharged at the Port the workmen who had built the line were entertained at a "cold collation" at the Masonic Hall. It was sad that the copper was not sufficient for a profitable export, and that the promising trade in chrome was stopped by the American Civil War which threw the Lancashire Cotton Mills out of work and ended the demand for chrome which was used in dying cloth.
For some time the line was used to bring down firewood which was stacked and cut up on the site of the Central School, the sawmill being worked by a horse. The affairs of the Company were wound up in 1872, and the rails later shipped to Blenheim to be used on the page 23Blenheim-Picton Railway. In November of that year the Bishop of Nelson was driving along Alton Street in his buggy when it collided with a wagon loaded with rails. The accident was described as serious. The City to Port section of the line continued to be used as a horse-tramway for many years.
While the flour mill and the railway were developing people were living in Alton Street which had been improved in various ways. The Nelson Board of Works had made a footpath in 1862 and in 1869 had employed prisoners to straighten the course of the Brook Stream from Nile Street to Manuka Street and to build a footbridge at Manuka Street. In 1862 there had been a court case, an inspection had shown that the rails in the northern part of the street were a foot (30cm) above the road, and also too high at Campbell's corner. Later in the year the offices of the Dun Mountain Railway in Alton Street were broken into and a passenger carriage damaged—a reward of ten pounds ($20) was offered for information.
It seems likely that most of the eight town acre sections were originally allotted to absentee owners as the New Zealand Company's list of section holders (about 1845) gives a number of names, but most are described as "squatters." The early settlers were permitted to build where they pleased or to "squat" on any convenient land and later to make arrangements with the owner to either remove the house or to pay rent. These first houses were raupo huts or small mud houses. Matthew Campbell lived in a fairly small house on section 427—on the right hand corner of Hardy and Alton Streets. A pathway led to Hardy Street, and the section was planted with beautiful trees, including two loquats which were there for many years. He has been mentioned in connection with the flour mill, but is remembered mainly for his work in education. He was a deeply religious man who was concerned for the welfare and education of the less privileged. His work started on board the "Thomas Harrison" where he conducted classes for children and adults during the long voyage. In Nelson he was associated with the founding of undenominational Sunday Schools, and from this the Nelson School Society developed and controlled most of the education until it was taken over by the Provincial Council. In 1844 the first building to be owned by the Society was opened near the "eel pond." The stone part of this building was later used as the School of Mines and still later formed part of the Suter Art Gallery—it will shortly be demolished to make room for extensions. On a Sunday Mr Campbell would walk many miles visiting the various schools. Later his house was owned by Mrs Diment, and on the Hardy Street side of it was another house built by Mr Moore and later occupied by Mr Austin Bisley of the well known firm of Bisley Bros. Auctioneers and Merchants. This house has recently been demolished to make way for extensions to the Polytech.
Acre 426, on the corner of Nile Street was owned by the Catholic Church and sold by Father Garin in 1861 so that he could buy land elsewhere, presumably in Manuka Street. The Post Office, fish shop page 24and store now stand on this site.
Across Nile Street section 506 was owned by Frederick Schumaker who was on the 1851 jurors list as a cabinet maker. It is said the first known use of this land was as a burial ground for horses and that when Mr Schumaker took it over it was covered with poisonus tutu which he had to remove. He grew wheat on it and later established a cherry orchard—most attractive to small boys. Legend has it that the loquat trees which surrounded the orchard or their seed was given to him by Sir George Grey and that they came originally from the Cape of Good Hope. He lived in a small mud cottage. His grand-daughter who inherited the property did not wish it to be sub-divided so it was sold to the Education Board and became the site of the Central School.
The next section, 500, extending to Manuka Street, is now part of the school playground, but older residents remember when part of it belonged to what is known as Renwick House, and the corner section was a croquet lawn. Mrs Renwick, who lived there till about 1920, was reckoned to be a resident of Alton Street. The drive, which was the main entrance to the house curved in through trees and shrubs to the front of the house and round to the stables near the present entrance from Manuka Street. The property has a long and interesting history. The house was built for W. F. Maiben, but was bought by the Trust Fund in 1851 as a temporary home for Nelson College and occupied by the first headmaster, Rev. J. C. Bagshaw, and a few boarders. A schoolroom was built behind it. When a College building on the present site was completed the house was occupied by Nathaniel Edwards until it was bought by Sir David Monro. He altered it and incorporated the schoolroom in the main building and named it "Newstead." Here he entertained Sir George Grey to dinner and a private Ball and a later Governor, Sir James Ferguson, stayed there. Dr Renwick, well known as a doctor, pastoralist and local politician bought the house after Monro's death but died three years later. His widow lived in it for many years. Older residents remembered the beautiful garden, especially the spring bulbs and her generosity with her flowers.
Griffin's First Factory. This factory did not extend to Nile Street, probably a house was on the corner.
The two-storeyed house in that block was built as a boarding house. In 1899 it was kept by Mrs Akers who had a number of lodgers, many of them apprentices or journeymen as they were called. There were several small houses, and on the corner of Nile Street, on section 424 is Griffin's factory. This section was advertised for sale in 1866, the land "plus engine house and buildings, including biscuit making machinery." Perhaps the purchaser was John Griffin. He had come to Nelson in 1855 with his wife and seven children and commenced business in Trafalgar Street in a bakery shop near the present Municipal Building. He moved to Christchurch but later returned to Nelson to start as a flour miller and wood and coal dealer on the present site. Two of his sons carried on the business till the building was totally destroyed by fire in 1894. Unfortunately there was no insurance, and to obtain capital a public company was formed In 1897 chocolate making machinery was installed—this activity adding a delicious aroma to the street. Another unfortunate fire occurred in 1903, after which the present brick factory was erected. The firm expanded and built up a reputation for biscuit making over the years. In 1938 this part of the business was transferred to Lower Hutt.
On the opposite corner of Alton and Nile Street there still stands a house that was built about 1865 for Henry Hounsell, a Wine and General Merchant of Bridge Street. In 1877 it was bought by Mrs Mary Gibbs and occupied by her and her family until 1905. Arangements had been made for the family to emigrate to New Zealand and when her husband died before the sailing date, Mrs Gibbs carried on, courageously facing the task of bringing her nine children to an unkown land in the ill-fated "Queen Bee." After a comparatively pleasant voyage the boat was wrecked at Farewell Spit and the passengers had to take to the lifeboats. The family was separated and it was some days before she knew that her children were all safe. When she settled at the corner of Alton and Nile Streets there were plenty of paddocks for the children to play in and they could attend the near-by Bishops' School. Her son, Frederick, was the first headmaster of the new Central School, he was also prominent in all cultural and many business activities in the City. The handsome trees round the playground were planted by him.
The Atkinson Observatory stood in Alton Street for nearly twenty years. After the death of her husband Mrs Atkinson thought it a pity that his telescope was not being used and it was through the good offices of F. G. Gibbs that it was loaned and finally made over to the Nelson Institute. At first Gibbs intended to place it in the page 27school grounds, but the site granted by the Education Board was too close to the trees, so it was placed in Alton Street opposite No. 31 and a small building erected to house it. From April 1903 many people came on clear nights to view the stars and to learn something of astronomy. Later the growth of trees and the erection of more buildings made the site unsuitable and the Observatory was moved in 1923. Between Nile and Manuka Street stood Dr Boor's house. He had been Superintendent of the Public Hospital for many years. Until recently the house was occupied by his daughters and grand-daughter. The street was always on two levels, at one time with a strip of rank grass down the middle—used by small girls to graze their pet lambs. A Beautifying Society, consisting largely of residents, later planted the attractive trees which are a feature of the street today. As in many parts of Nelson there is charm in the mixture of old, not so old and more modern dwellings. Many people who have not been mentioned have lived along the street in past years, playing their part in building the life of the city. While we are interested in those who have made notable contributions to our history we would also remember the others who have lived more humble lives. History is made by ordinary folk as well as by leaders.