Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 6, September 1986
We are often told how our early settlers developed many abilities which few people can claim today and which, as time goes on, will all be forgotten. They were superb but there was no mystery about them, they had plain common reasoning aided by practical experience and a need to be able to do it themselves. There was no one to do it for them, no labour saving devices and not one computer to work out how it should be done. They had to be "Jacks of all trades". Endurance they must have had in abundance.
Eliab Baigent was one such person. He was born in Surrey, England on 22nd June 1848 and came to New Zealand with his parents, Isaac and Jane Baigent in the Maori in 1853. Also on board was Isaac's sister Eliza Robson (nee Baigent), her husband William John Robson and family. They were joining brother Edward in Wakefield.
Eliab learnt the shoemaking trade from John Hodgson and when John died in 1869 he set up in business for himself. At this time he also must have learnt a great deal about the art of photography and he became very good at it. His view of St Johns Church had 1865, in his own handwriting, on the back. A later one in 1869, lines up with the history of when roads were page 34made and trees planted around the church. He later set up as a professional and we are so lucky to have this valuable record of our history. Examples of his work can be found at the Nelson Provincial Museum under the heading of "Baigent Collection".
In November 1874 he married Charlotte Verry and went to live on Section 71, on the corner of Bird Lane. The Verry family lived further down the lane and Mr Ives, also a shoemaker, was his neighbour to the north. Across the corner to the south was Joshua Bird's paddock, where the volunteers were often called to assemble. Eliab became a member in 1866 and later rose to be captain.
Eliab and Charlotte raised a family of eight, two sons, Clifford and Conrad, and six daughters, Louise Wells, Lelia Nesbitt, Florrie Ballard, Blanche Norgate, Laura Tunnicliff and Vivian Eves.
In 1872, along with Thomas Tidd, he opened the first brewery in the area. It operated for many years and made a pretty good brew. I have found many references to the folk from up country having beer sent up from Baigent & Tidd, often on the store cart.
Around 1900, when age dictated a slower pace, he moved to the corner building where the Plunket rooms are today. His business premises became the "Tidd Boarding House". It appears that now he was only the Registrar and a bootmaker. The photography seems to have gone but here a new trade seems to have been added, a puller of teeth. There are still people who remember being sent to Eliab to have a tooth pulled. Mr Laurie Francois recalled going after school, accompanied by class mates. Eliab would pause from his shoemaking, take up a pair of foreceps in one huge hand and with the other take hold of the patient's jaw and presto, it was all over. He assured me that sheer terror was a very good anaesthetic, he page 35remembers no pain. The tooth was brandished aloft while Eliab said "another for my collection" and dropped it in a huge glass jar with a tall lid. This was a favourite stop for the children on their way home from school. They would peer around the door to get a glimpse of that jar. Mrs Rankin remembers having to make a return trip to have the correct one pulled. I imagine Eliab watching them all from the corner of his eye, he seems to have been fond of children. All entertainment for children was either organised by him, or he was there. Orphanage picnics were held at Wakefield. They came out on the train and Eliab and Charlotte, along with the Robert Boddington's, would be hosts.
It was 1883 when he built his business premises in front of the brewery, situated on the south side of what is today Martins Butchery. A most imposing building, according to the "Colonist". A two storied building with boot shop, work rooms, store rooms and his office on the ground floor. He would have needed a big office as he was a J.P. and many weddings were conducted there. I like to think he used his studio for weddings. He was the Registrar of Births, Deaths, etc., Returning Officer, land agent and insurance agent. He was also secretary of the Waimea Roads Board for many years. Upstairs he had his studio for photography and his assembly rooms. In these rooms many concerts, dances, recitals and even dancing classes were held.
Eliab's family were fine musicians. Father and Isaac played the trombone, and brothers Robert, Amos, Aubrey and Andrew played violin, flute, etc. Eliab could play them all, but favoured the piano and the organ. I am told that the organ he used is in the care of the Whitwell family of Motueka, who are descendents. He was a member of the Wakefield Brass Band and often composed and arranged music for their purposes.page 36
Like most of his family at that time he worked hard for his church, St John's. He was a member of the vestry 1874–1891, and often played the organ. In 1880 he was a Worshipful Master of the Forest Lodge and initiated his father and brothers. I have often been told that his family were spiritualists. A descendant assured me that the women folk just saw spooks when ailing, but Eliab could really make the tables tap and added thoughfully "he really could".
One thing he is quite famous for is something he did very badly – his spelling. There are quite a few people who, on getting a copy of their birth certificate, have been astounded to find their names had unusual spelling.
Eliab and Charlotte spent the latter part of their lives in the cottage in Belfit Lane. He was Registrar from 1878 until 1921. He died in 1922 and Charlotte 1942. Both are interred in St John's Churchyard.
It was of great interest to me when I researched the history of Wakefield to note how often this shoemaker, J.P., brewer, musician, photographer, spiritualist, Registrar, agent, secretary, captain and puller of teeth, was mentioned. He became one of my favourite characters.