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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 5, December 1961

Notes on Early History of Stoke

Notes on Early History of Stoke

Origin of Name

The hamlet of Stoke, originally known as "Brook Green", was given the name it bears today by William Songer, who arrived in Nelson in November, 1841, as personal attendant to Captain Wakefield. Mr Songer was Stoke's first settler and he named the place after his native Stoke-by-Nayland in England. (The Rev. C. M. Torlesse preached the farewell sermon to the Expedition. He was Rector of Stoke-by-Nayland and later sent out a bell for the church.)

Poorman's Valley

There are two theories as to how this valley received its name. The first one is that in the very early days of the province a number of assisted immigrants arrived and some eighty of them were temporarily settled in Poorman's Valley. Here they built themselves cottages, possibly of stone, and it is believed that the piles of stones to be seen in the valley today are the remains of this occupation. These immigrants were drawn from the poorer classes, and conditions in the valley were exceedingly hard, with the result that the settlers themselves called the place "Poorman's Valley". (The 1845 Census mentions "Poorman's Valley".)

An alternative theory is that during the early part of the Maori Wars a number of refugees came to Nelson from Taranaki, and some were placed in the valley. There seems no doubt that, whether the settlers were immigrants or refugees, they found conditions most unpleasant and, indeed, were close to starvation. It is on record that the people of Nelson were disturbed at their plight, and a considerable sum of money was collected to assist them. For some reason, this money, or very little of it, was used for the purpose for which it was intended and it was finally used at a much later date for the purchase of Trafalgar Park. (Actually the name was well established before the Taranaki refugees came down in 1860.)

Quarantine Road

This road derived its name from the fact that a cattle quarantine station was situated at the bottom of the road, where the aerodrome now is. In the early days there was a deep channel right up to the Quarantine Station, and this continued right up behind the sandhills at Tahuna, across what is now the children's paddling pool. One of the main users of this quarantine station was Sir Edward Stafford, of Stoke, who used to page Fourbring in large numbers of cattle from the North Island. It is believed that many of these animals had cattle tick, and it was for this reason that they were kept in quarantine for a period.

Early Boats

The first boats to bring men to the new settlement of Nelson were the Whitby, Will Watch and Arrow, and they landed in November, 1841. Three months later, in February, 1842, the men were followed by the first immigrants.

Among the men in the first contingent there were several who became the earliest settlers in Stoke. Included among them were William Songer, Charles Torlesse (his father was Rector of Stoke in England), who came out as a member of the survey staff; James Bradley, James T. Smith, an early school master at the Stoke School and also a charter member of the Foresters' Lodge; and Richard Ching.

Prominent Nelsonians

Few of the many Nelsonians who were prominent in the early history of New Zealand lived at Stoke, but claim can be laid to Sir Edward Stafford, first Superintendent of Nelson Province, who lived at what is now known as Annesbrook—on top of the rise. Early rumour suggests that he was able to persuade the Government to bring the railway through his property instead of taking an easier grade in a slightly different place.

In the very early days, too, there lived at Stoke, Mr Richard Reeves, M.L.C. His residence was the house now owned by Mr Stead, which was originally built by a Mr Holland.

The Company's Ditch

It is recorded that Poorman's Valley Stream did not always pursue its present course. Its original course lay across (what was, in 1949) the Cawthron Institute land, past the old sawmill, then across Songer Street and the Ranui Subdivision, crossing the Main Road in the vicinity of Ryrie's Store. It then wound across Strawbridge's land, across the old racecourse, down Songer Street, through Wearing's and Chisnall's, and finally emptied itself into the main estuary on the south side of what is now known as Monaco.

It appears that the New Zealand Company brought men out to New Zealand to work on certain schemes, but owing to a depression these failed to eventuate, and in desperation the men were put to work on straightening the stream, and they dug what was known as the Company's ditch. This ditch was originally so narrow that it could easily be stepped across, and it is merely the passing of the years that has resulted in the stream bed as we know it today. As a result of these straightening operations the stream was caused to empty itself into the second estuary, as it still does, that is, on the northern side of Monaco.

Opening of Railway, 1873

Both Mr E. Chisnall and Mr D. Giblin had vivid memories of the opening of the railway in 1873. It was obviously a day which called for great celebrations and from what can be gathered the opportunity was not allowed to pass. There may have been other freight on the train, but all that seems to linger in the memory of the beholders is that there were barrels aboard, and there seems little doubt that they were returned empty.

The first sod for the railway was turned in Saxton's paddock, and the work was then carried back towards the town. The first train merely ran from Nelson to Saxton's road, where a siding had been put in. Nelson to Saxton's Road was one of the separate contracts let for the construction of the railway.

Local memory cannot tell us who made the speeches on the great occasion, but it seems probable that it was an official connected with the Nelson Provincial Council, which was then the governing body.


For a number of years the Nelson Jockey Club's racecourse was at Stoke. It lay between Nayland Road and the Main Road, and was bounded on the northern side by Songer Street. In many places the rounded fence can still be seen. On the Songer Street side, where Thorne's house is now situated, was the grandstand—quite a large affair for those days, and capable of seating two or three hundred people. The putting through of the railway really sounded the course's death-knell, although for two or three years after its advent races page Fivewere held there once a year, the fences being removed and the track covered with sawdust. In 1866 the course was the scene of tragedy when Jockey Mahoney was killed near the grandstand.

With the proceeds the Jockey Club received from the sale of the Stoke property to Alfred Allport, they purchased the ground at Richmond which is still in use, but due to financial troubles they were later compelled to sell it to the A. & P. Association.

As was to be expected, the horses entered were mostly the property of local enthusiasts, although a few outside entries were not uncommon. Prominent among the early owners were Messrs Redwood, Nicholson and Sir Edward Stafford.

One of Stoke's oldest residents, Mr E. Chisnall, claimed the honour of being the only Nelsonian to breed a winner of the Grand National. This horse was Umslopagass, which won the race in 1896. He was not then owned by Mr Chisnall, who had sold him to a Mr Banks, of Wellington. He was, however, raced by Mr Chisnall in Nelson on four occasions. Twice he won and twice he was second.

Stoke School

The first Stoke School was situated on Mr Marsden's property, opposite what is now the residence of Major Lorimer, that is, on the eastern side of the main road and the northern side of Poorman's Valley Stream. It was later shifted from this site, as Mr Marsden objected to seeing it in front of his house.

Original Sale of Land

From the memories of the oldest living residents, and from the stories handed down from the pioneers, it seems that the Stoke land was devoid of any areas of native bush except in the gullies. A large part of the area in the vicinity of Saxton's Road was flax and raupo swamp, and it is recorded that the land between Wakatu and Maitlands was referred to as fern flats. The flax was finally cleared out and most of it was sent to Rutherford's Mill at Brightwater. In Poorman's Valley, tutu, manuka and fern are said to have abounded.

An interesting point is that, although there seems to have been no big timber in the Stoke area in comparatively modern times, there is unmistakable evidence that at some time in its history, parts at least were very heavily wooded. Mr Chisnall reports that, when digging a well recently in his Nayland Road property, he found it necessary to cut through a buried log which was fully four feet thick. Mr E. Saxton also reports that one of his paddocks, on the right hand side of Saxton's Road going up, has never been able to be ploughed owing to the huge logs which are lying just under the surface.

However, all this was long before 1842, because the early settlers had to cart their wood from as far away as Foxhill. Nelson, too, had to depend on the country area for its firewood, and sometimes as many as thirty wood carts would be halted at the foot of the hill, so that the horses could be spelled before attempting the ascent.

There were no flax mills or other industries started in Stoke and the people, in the main, made their living by tilling the soil after it had been cleared of flax and scrub.


Nelson was first, and practically the only, hop-growing area in New Zealand, and as a natural sequence had the first brewery. Some of the first hop-growers in the Stoke area were:—

Mr Harley (below the bank in Nayland Road), Sir Edward Stafford, the Orphanage Farm, Mr Saxton, Mr John Bradley (the old hop-kiln on Mr Manson's property is a relic of these days), Mr Alf Bradley, Mr E. Chisnall, Mr W. Roil and Mr Jellyman.

Other crops grown at that time were oats, wheat, barley and potatoes.

The fruit-growing industry, which was to become the main occupation of settlers in Stoke, did not commence until about the middle 1890's, when Mr Miller and Mr Hale planted about five acres each along Nayland Road, Mr Miller's property being where Harman's is now, and Mr Hale's where Palmer's house now stands (1949).