Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 6, October 1980
Few Nelsonians have heard of Albion Square and fewer still know where it is, yet when the Foundation Stone of the Provincial Buildings was laid on 26 August, 1859, the Superintendent announced that henceforth that piece of ground would be known as Albion Square. In this article we give as full as account as we can of the history of the Square and of the various buildings which stood on it. We are grateful to those who have provided material or allowed us to use material from previously published articles.
Unfortunately in 1859 no one seems to have recorded any debate about the name or any reason for its choice. We do know that Albion was the name given to Britain, or to that part of it then known, by the Romans and that the word comes from the Latin word for white. It is therefore surmised that the name referred to the white cliffs of Dover, the first sight of land for Roman galleys as they crossed what is now called the English Channel and the last glimpse of England for the emigrants as they set out on their long journey to New Zealand. In 1859 all those considering the affairs of state would be emigrants who, in their diaries, letters, their conversation and thoughts would show an undertone of homesickness and of longing for the "Old Country" which remained "Home."
Albion was a name much used at that time. In Nelson William Akerston, a well-known pioneer, built the Albion wharf in 1857, opposite it was the Tasman Tavern. The ship, Albion, after it was condemned, was beached next to the wharf site, her bow extending to where the Pier Hotel once stood. In the early 1860s Thomas Cawthron was using the old ship as a store and an office. Despite the fact that the forepeak had been filled with clay, he records that "on stormy days there was a great deal of movement sometimes." There was also a hotel of that name.
The piece of land on which the Provincial Buildings were to stand was bounded by Bridge, Hardy, Collingwood and Tasman Streets. The portion now bounded by Harley Street contains buildings for the Justice and Police Departments and the Monro Building, with the Bishop Suter Art Gallery and the Queens Gardens on the Tasman Street side. In the 1850s the Queens Gardens were known as the "Eel pond" and Matthew Campbell's Flour Mill stood on the Hardy Street side. On the site of the Art Gallery stood the small brick building demolished in 1979, it was then one of the "Matthew Campbell" Schools, and later the School of Mines. Of the various sections toward Collingwood Street some were Company Reserves, some were unsold and one or two were private sections. All were unoccupied, but the piece of land already had political associations.
The Government of the Colony was a matter that greatly concerned many people. Well educated and intelligent men objected to being governed from England, they wanted some form of self government. In Nelson there was a Constitutional Society and it decided to hold a Public Meeting "to consider page 5whether it might not be advisable to recommend certain provisions suited to the requirements of New Zealand to be submitted to Her Majesty's Ministers with a view to their being embodied in the proposed Bill." The meeting was called for 27 December, 1850, at noon, and was to be held in the Court House, but such was the interest that it was evident that the Court House would be far too small. There was no suitable building, but, still standing next to the Matthew Campbell School, was a large marquee erected for the fifth annual Assembly of children attending the various schools in the district. (It was estimated that some 600 children attended as well as many adults). This was to be the venue for the meeting.
Such a meeting has never been held in Nelson before or since. It commenced at noon and went on without a break until between between 8 and 9 p.m., then after an hour it was resumed and continued till 1 a.m. 300 people were present, but, with comings and goings it was said that at least 400 attended. Nelson had many capable and well-educated men who had no trouble in making their views known and understood. The newspaper, the Examiner, then published weekly, took the unusual course of delaying publication for a week so that it could give a full report. As the Editor said, "where the editor is his own reporter, compositor and often pressman" it presented certain difficulties. However, there it is in the edition of 11 January. 1851, 19 columns in tiny print giving the text of the main addresses. The discussion centred on the type of government that would be acceptable. It seems strange that though they will willing for most men to vote – provided they had some property or means – the idea of a secret ballot was opposed by such men as Dr Monro, a man, he maintained, should be prepared to declare his vote. Of course the idea of female suffrage was still decades away. After this, meetings were held in the smaller centres addressed by those who had been present at the main one. By 1852 Provincial Government was introduced and New Zealand was divided into six provinces each with its own mini-parliament. Their doings may be read in the newspapers of the day, in their Votes and Proceedings, or, in the case of Nelson, in H.F. Allan's booklet published by the Historical Society.
In 1853 the first Provincial Council was elected and the first meeting held in the Court House. The Superintendent, Edward Stafford, ensured that the business was conducted with the dignity and decorum befitting such an august body.
It was indeed fortunate that the architect Matthew Bury was in Nelson at that time. He had recently come from Melbourne and was engaged to plan extensions to Christ Church, the original church on the site of the Cathedral. During 1858 a bonus of twenty five pounds ($50) was offered for the best design for Government Buildings and Bury's plan was selected. His design was based on that "of one of the finest examples of Jacobean architecture in Britain" – Aston Hall near Birmingham. It was a novelty for such a structure to be built in wood, but the result was a gracious and pleasing building. John Stacpool, in his book, Colonial Architecture says, "Its success was complete, its tragedy that no use could be found for it 110 years later when it was demolished."
In his speech the Superintendent referred to the fact that bush had been cleared from the site soon after the settlers arrived so that the Maoris could not hide there. It was the place where the people had met to assert their political rights in December 1850, and he announced that it would be known from this time as Albion Square. He also gave a translatuon of the Latin motto inscribed on the stone:page 8
Let Justice be done to all
Though the heavens fall.
The procession then re-formed and moved on to the site of the present library where the stone for the Institute was laid.
In April 1861 the Council met in the new building. There was no public ceremony for the opening, the Superintendent expressed pleasure in being able to meet in a building belonging to the people and worthy of the Province and went on to speak of other matters – the helping of refugees from the Taranaki War area and the laying off of "trunk roads" to Canterbury and Golden Bay. (The newspaper remarked that the miserable tracks could scarcely be called "trunk" roads). It was also reported that the cast iron lighthouse ordered from Scotland should arrive soon and provision was made for its erection.