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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Nelson (1886 population 7,315)

Nelson (1886 population 7,315)

E.W. Payton, founding Director of Auckland's Elam School of Art in 1890, visited Nelson several times in the mid 1880s, and described it for English readers. He tells of arriving in the port one sunrise, disagrees with the patronising labelling of Nelson as ‘Sleepy Hollow’, and proceeds:

… The landing-place is about a mile from Nelson…. A pleasant winding walk leads into Nelson, which is beautifully situated in a hollow in the hills which nearly surround it. If it were really a more ‘sleepy’ place than its rivals, I am sure there would be every justification for it, as a more perfect place for an idle man it would be difficult to find. The houses are nearly all built of wood, and the streets are broad—a typical colonial town in fact. At first sight it is difficult to realise that there is a population of 7315 in the town, so artfully are the many charming residences hidden away behind their tall bushy shelter trees.

One of the principal industries of Nelson is fruit growing, and there is page 178
Nelson, 1886

Nelson, 1886

scarcely a settlement in the colony into which Nelson fruits, either fresh or preserved, do not find their way…. It has long been the resort of men of means who have come from India, and other warmer climates, to settle down with the idea of doing nothing but enjoying themselves, and it is to this fact, I think, that the place owes its sobriquet ‘Sleepy Hollow’.1

English journalist and emigration agent Arthur Clayden lived in Nelson for four years from 1880. On returning to Britain in 1885 as a New Zealand immigration agent, he published A Popular Handbook to New Zealand, in which he described Nelson as the ‘Torquay of the “England of the Pacific”’.

The city is built on a broad belt of level land lying at the feet of a huge semicircular range of hills…. The chief business street is Trafalgar Street. Here are found some really handsome shops and bank buildings….

The charm of Nelson consists in its incomparable climate. Nothing approaching it is to be found anywhere else. For eleven months of the twelve a glorious sunshine floods the vast panorama, and a delicious breeze invariably tempers the summer's heat. Another charm of the place is its wealth of flowers and fruit. Every house—beyond the business streets—is detached, and has its garden. Here peaches, cherries, and apples are found in abundance. The geranium and other half-hardy flowers bloom all the year round. A third charm of Nelson is its admirable roads. No English turnpike roads page 179 can excel them. There is a railway of some twenty-six miles opening up a fertile valley known as the Waimea. Along this charming route lie the agricultural villages of Stoke, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wakefield and Fox Hill. Pleasant villas dot the surrounding hills, and a variety of fascinating picnic haunts are found in the neighbourhood. A tramway connects the city with the port, where steamers from all parts of the colony are daily coming and going.2

Nelson was an important node in the colony's coastal shipping network. In 1885 she averaged more than three sailings a day (1,198 for the year). In tonnage these represented nearly three and a half times Wanganui's sailings, and well over twice New Plymouth's. Nelson had her own Anchor Steam Shipping Company with four steamers, serviced by a foundry which also did much work for other owners. Nelson's fine climate and central position made it a popular tourist and retirement centre, and attracted colonial conferences.3 Nelson's cathedral city and watering-place image were assets for such institutions as Nelson College, which was developing something of an English public school reputation and attracting runholders' sons from the neighbouring provinces. To compensate for an unpromising hinterland, Nelson looked outwards. This was also encouraged by its outflow of migration, feldon yeoman produce and capital. Its fruit, jam, hops and barley were serving a wide colonial market, as also, as Figure 12.8 showed, were its mortgages. James Sclanders, pioneer Nelson merchant and part owner of the Anchor Shipping Co, provides a good example of this outlook. As New Zealand partner of the London firm of Sclanders and Co he became an intermediary between British lenders and New Zealand mortgagors, providing British funds to at least 333 New Zealand farmers between 1870 and 1902.4 Margaret Galt explains how and why he put out these funds and money from Nelson sources mainly outside the Nelson Province:

As he was known around New Zealand, Sclanders was usually approached by solicitors with potential borrowers. He did not have established sub-agencies, but did have some solicitors whom he felt he could trust. As time progressed he relied increasingly on J.H. Hankins, a Palmerston North solicitor, who proved a particularly reliable contact. This meant that his lending, which had initially been concentrated in Taranaki and Canterbury because the company had branches in Wanganui and Christchurch, gradually came to concentrate on the Manawatu. Sclanders seldom lent in Nelson despite the fact that he lived there…. it was difficult to find good investments in the area because the good agricultural land was generally held by people trying to pay off their mortgages, and the surrounding hills limited the scope for expanding settlement into new areas.5

page 180

Despite a predominantly yeoman hinterland, then, Nelson of the mid 1880s had a progressive, mature, cultured flavour about it. Elsewhere these qualities usually owed much to runholder influence. For Nelson they came largely from its spa town residents and its wide colonial contacts.