Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, November 1955
The Port in the Early Days — Nelson Haven in 1843
The Port in the Early Days
Two interesting exhibits were discussed in papers read at a meeting of the Society on 20th April, 1955 One was a painting presented to the Society by the Trustees of the Suter Art Gallery, and thought to depict Nelson's first Anniversary Day Regatta on February 1st, 1843. The other was an early chart of Nelson Haven belonging to the Nelson Harbour Board, and showing how when Nelson was founded both the waters of the Maitai and the Eastern Waimea discharged into the bay on either side of Magazine Point and the present Tahuna Beach was non-existent. The papers are summarised below, and the exhibits and the original papers, may be inspected at the Society's room in Hardy Street
Nelson Haven in 1843
This old painting, now held by the Nelson Historical Society, depicts the Regatta, 1st February, 1843, celebrating the first anniversary of the arrival of the Fifeshire. We recall that Capt. A. Wakefield, with the "Arrow", "Will Watch" and "Whitby" had arrived in November, 1841; and that Capt. Wakefield was satisfied that "there was a site for a township close to a safe harbour, and a considerable extent of good open land near." By mid-September, 1842, seven months after the coming of the first immigrant ship, some 77 vessels, aggregating 12,272 tons, had entered the harbour. A road had been built along the beach to the town, jetties erected for the landing of goods and also a bridge over Saltwater Creek. With a population of over 2,000, there were 250 good houses, 50 being built, and 230 whares or huts as temporary residences. Nelson was then a very important place; even by 1850 New Zealand figures read thus, Wellington 5479, Nelson 4,047, New Plymouth 1412, Otago 1,482, Canterbury 301—Auckland did not appear in the New Zealand Company's statistics.
The first issue of the "Examiner", March 12th, 1842, has some comments worth quoting. "One of the principal topics of conversation among the settlers at present is the merit or demerit of our harbour … We own, in this settlement, that we cannot boast of a first-rate harbour; but it is practicable, in its natural state, for all the purposes of commerce, and is capable of improvement at no very great outlay … in light winds, without the assistance of a good boat or boats, there is a risk of being set on shore by the tide which varies in its course at different times of the tide. There is a difficulty which the experience of every month will tend to obviate more and more; the depth of the water in the channel is sufficient, being from 17 to 22 ft. at high water. That there will be occasional detention we do not doubt; but—how many harbours are there where it takes place when not prevented by the employment of steam power? Reflect on the detention between the Downs and London Docks before steam tugs were brought into use; and again, the navigation of the Hoogly … We have a good anchorage outside the entrance in 7 fathoms of water, within ¾ mile of the Customhouse; and, once inside the harbour, there is perfect security and every convenience. For the immediate prevention of accidents, it behoves us to work in unison for a good pilot establishment, which, in the course of a year's experience, if well regulated, will prevent all casualties but those arising from wilfulness or neglect; and, in the meantime, few will be deterred by the narrowness of the harbour entrance from laying a ship on for Nelson Haven if they have any hopes of profit by it."page Seven
"Ours is a better harbour than the Piraeus … It is superior to Venice … Trieste, as a sea port, is not equal to Nelson Haven. We have decidedly the advantage of Genoa and Marseilles, and are not equalled by the ports of Charleston and Baltimore."
We must admire the optimism of the writer of that article. And I sometimes think that we of this day need more of that optimistic spirit.
I deal with only certain of the natural features of the port in 1843, for these will come into a paper about to be given by Miss Jenkins.
Capt. Wakefield had landed at the foot of Richardson Street. A little to the north was erected Capt. England's jetty—he perished at the Wairau. About half way between this jetty and Green Point another wharf, Beit's was built towards the end of 1843. The "Examiner", Dec. 23rd, 1843, says: "The most important … is the erection of a wharf between high and low water mark fronting an acre on Haven Road … frontage of 120 ft. and a depth of 36ft.…to which will be appended a jetty which will be run into deep water … On the wharf a private store and a bonded store is to be erected. For this valuable improvement the public will be indebted to Messrs Beit and Sons."
This is an interesting reference; for it shows that, in those days, Haven Road extended from Auckland Point right round to Richardson Street.
The end of 1843 brought also the beginning of the N.Z. Company's wharf at Green Point—the start of our present wharf area. It is clear that Auckland Point was then the main commercial centre, with Otterson's wharf, built on open piles and running about 200 feet into the Maitai channel, dealing at spring tides with vessels up to 70 tons. It had a heavy crane.
With the background etched in we can examine more fully our picture of the Anniversary Regatta. Close examination reveals some marked deficiencies. The presumption is that the artist painted the scene from Haulashore Island—but the Port Hills are not shown with the expected accuracy. For example, it seems that he has shown the Port Hills from Green Point (which appears in the left middle distance) to south of Magazine Point; but—the original flagstaff erected on Britannia Heights is shown on the extreme right. There is a track shown along the entire length at the foot of the hills—but this track did not go past Richardson Street until some years later. There are no signs of the Custom Office, immigration barracks, or other buildings erected by the end of 1842.
The Regatta itself is thus described by Judge Broad in his "Jubilee History of Nelson". "All classes seemed determined to put their animosity on one side for this day, and to forget their hardships as well as they could … At the 'Fair', as it was called, the programme of the day consisted of guns firing from Britannia Heights and the Church Hill at 8 a.m. Regatta at 9 o'clock, under the auspices of Mr James Howard, Mr Pilot Cross, Asst. Pilot Claringbold and 'Bosen' Wilson." Mrs Allan, in her "History of Port Nelson" writes: "The first anniversary was a gala occasion with horse races and a regatta. Three boat races were held; one for whaleboats, won by Mr Gully's 'Henrietta', one for sailing boats, won by Cross in the pilot boat, and lastly an exciting canoe race won by the Motueka Chief, Piko. The course was from Capt. England's jetty to Green Point. The "Examiner", Feb. 4th. 1843, states: "Every preparation had been made by the sub-committee for this part of the amusements of the day. Captain Anglin of the 'Royal Mail' willingly allowed his vessel to be moored in the stream abreast of Capt. England's jetty, for the purpose of stretching a hawser, to which slip ropes were attached for the sailing boats to start from." After describing the whaleboat and sailing boat races the "Examiner" thus refers to the canoe race, held the following day. "Only 2 canoes were found to start; some simpleton or other, with an affectation of sanctity too ridiculous to be called wicked, and only deserving of pity, having persuaded the natives that such amusements were unchristian, and that, if they joined the race they must not come any more to prayers. It was a capital race, from Capt. England's jetty round the Vanguard Schooner, which lay off page EightGreen Point, then back round a boat moored off Fifeshire Island and up again to the jetty. Apekoe finished 1st by a few feet—from Luke of Rangitoto."
As the report of the "Examiner" definitely names the "Royal Mail" I thought it worthwhile to check the vessels in port that day. There were three: "Royal Mail", 95 ton schooner; "Vanguard", brigantine of 61 tons; and "Catherine Johnstone", cutter of 10 tons. Now, none of these could possibly be the large ship portrayed in our picture.
So our conclusion is that the painting, although pleasing to look at, can be regarded only as an impression of the first regatta—and certainly not very valuable from an historical point of view.