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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 5, November 1971

Historic Places of Port Nelson

Historic Places of Port Nelson

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Map To Accompany Historic Place Of Port Nelson

Map To Accompany Historic Place Of Port Nelson

page 15 page 16

The number of historic places in and around Port Nelson is impressive and the way in which the significance of each of these places blends into the whole forms an interesting story. (In order to simplify this story, places are described as if seen when approached from south to north).

Tahuna Beach

It is strange to recall that this beautiful beach has been formed within the period of memory of some people who are still with us today.

The Waimea River used to flow past the site of the motor camp and the channel there was deep enough for ships to shelter in bad weather particularly during north-westerly gales. The river ran parallel to Rocks Road but was diverted by the rock formation and by the outgoing tides, at the old entrance. It swerved westwards, and out behind the Waimea Bank—a giant sandbank—well out to sea. Over the years this sandbank was washed in towards the land and gradually, the beach was formed. Until this consolidated, patches of quick-sands were traps to the unwary. There were warning notices up—this was around the 1890's—but these all added to the spice of danger which invariably accompanied a picnic on the sands.

Rocks Road

This road is literally "chained" in history. In 1892 a Rocks Road Committee was formed by members of the City Council, the Waimea County Council and the Richmond Borough Council, and this Committee raised £4000 by means of debentures. Prison labour was used extensively on this work and gangs of prisoners under armed guards were marched to work every day from the town and over Washington Valley. The road was metalled for traffic in 1897. The chains, stanchions and coping were the gift of Mr. John Tinline, one of the pioneers of Nelson. However, Thomas Cawthron later made a donation of £668 in order to finish the chains.

Fifeshire Rock

This is part of Nelson's profile, and has been the subject for artists and photographers since settlement began. It has two names, both dating from the early days, and both are still used.

When Arthur Wakefield's ship "Arrow" sailed into Nelson Haven on the 1st November, 1841, through the narrow channel between the Rock and Haulashore Island, the Rock was then named "Arrow Rock". But when the immigrant ship "Fifeshire" endeavoured to leave port on the 27th February, 1842, she was wrecked on the rock which has been popularly known as the Fifeshire Rock ever since.

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Both names are still important to early history; and Nelsonians will always have a particular affection for their Rock.

The Fifeshire Rock, the narrow channel between it and Haulashore Island, and the movement of the sandbanks sea-wards, made the navigation of the port extremely hazardous, and a number of vessels were either stranded or wrecked. This series of events led to the public agitation which culminated with the dredging of the entrance cut—still called the "New Entrance"—just to distinguish it from the "Old Entrance" about which I have been speaking.

The Nelson City Council took the first important steps when it asked Captain F. W. Cox (Harbourmaster) to report on the harbour. Captain Cox said that the entrance had changed little, but the rapid inshore travel of the bar interfered seriously with the sailing course in the outer fairway. Whereas in 1884 there was a width of 1800 feet between the sandbank and the Boulder Bank, there was—in 1898—only 900 feet. Captain Cox added "If there is no improvements, it will be only practicable for the smaller class of vessels to work the port".

Further reports were called for; and two notable engineers, Leslie Reynolds and C. Napier Bell, were consulted. The Government considered these reports and agreed in principle that the Cut should be made through the Boulder Bank, provided firstly that a Harbour Board had to be constituted, and secondly that the ratepayers had to approve a loan for the work.

The first Harbour Board for Nelson was elected on the 20th February, 1901, to rescue the port from imminent ruin. Mr. John Graham, Member of the House of Representatives, became the first Chairman, Captain Cox (the Harbourmaster) became Secretary, and Mr. Leslie Reynolds was appointed Consutling Engineer. The Cut was opened on 30th July, 1906.

Haulashore Island

In his "Jubilee History of Nelson" (1892) Judge Broad refers to Haulashore Island as the Fifeshire Island (3). However, the practice of early captains in hauling their boats up for cleaning and then floating them off again on the tide gave a good reason for naming the Island as "Haulashore".

The first person to die in the new settlement was Thomas Cress-well who arrived in the "Whitby" of Wakefield's expedition, and he was buried on Haulashore. Judge Broad, even in 1892, reports that all efforts to find the grave had been unsuccessful.

There are a lot of stories about Haulashore Island but one interesting fact is that the City Council at one time obtained gravel from the Island for the city streets. The gravel was loaded on to a barge by the old shovel and barrow method and then the men would hoist a large square sail which, assisted by south-west winds, propelled the barge past the wharves to the old gasworks wharf (where Vickerman Street now joins Haven Road). This journey from the Island sometimes took half a day—depending on the tide and wind.

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The Wakefield Plaque

The simple memorial at the foot of Richardson Street is probably the most historic spot in Nelson. When Captain Arthur Wakefield, R.N., landed there on the 1st November, 1841, he was looking for "a good safe harbour" and "sufficient flat land". Wakefield came, looked and was conquered.

Unfortunately, Wakefield's leadership of the newly found settlement was to be short, for he was one of the victims of the Wairau Massacre on June 17th, 1843. This was 19 months after the landing. Judge Broad described Wakefield thus—"Wise, temperate and firm; unassuming, with self-confidence…. always the active servant of duty—he was by nature cut out for the founder of a colony, for a leader of men". The name of Wakefield will always be remembered in the history of Nelson; and particularly in the history of Port Nelson.

Richardson Street

The foot of Richardson Street marks the beginning of the only route into Nelson in early days. The settlers had to toil up Stafford Walk—as steep then as now—over the hill and down into Washington Valley, across a muddy swamp and on to Church Hill. The famous Heaphy print shows the large tent which served as the New Zealand Company's Depot near what was the landing place for some time. The property on the northern corner, at the foot of Richardson Street, was later to become the site of the leading beacons for vessels entering the port through the "Old Entrance".

Mention of Stafford Walk prompts the recollection that Edward William Stafford landed in Nelson in 1843 to take up farming. In 1846 he married the only daughter of Colonel William Wakefield, Chief Agent of the New Zealand Company. Stafford became interested in the politics of the day and became Superintendent of the Province of Nelson in 1853. He represented Nelson in the General Assembly in 1855 and became Premier in 1856. The link between Stafford Walk and Wakefield Quay is, therefore, more real than nominal.

Early Wharves

By the end of 1843 Port Nelson had under construction the three main jetties which were to handle most of the shipping until the late 50's. At Green Point (the hilly outcrop at the Junction of Haven Road and Wakefield Quay) were the Company wharf and Beit's wharf. Both of these had stone breastworks from which jetties ran out into deep water. Beit's wharf had a frontage of 120 feet with a private bonded store. At Auckland Point was Otterson's Jetty, about 200 feet long, running out to the channel of the Maitai River.

Between 1850–60 there was much activity around Green Point, the original Customhouse being built near the site now occupied by page 19the Customhouse Hotel. (An early illustration shows the first Customhouse Hotel, built out on piles over the foreshore, displaying a sign offering hot baths which presumably drained through the floor to the beach below).

The Queen's Wharf (alias Customhouse Wharf) is recorded as being in existence in 1854. In 1855, William Akersten (who was to open a ship chandlery opposite the Customhouse in the old building demolished recently), was allowed to lease this wharf on the significant condition that if the wharf fell down he was not liable, but if heavy goods fell through it, he was! Akersten built many wharves at Port Nelson and in 1857 he built the Albion Wharf opposite where the Tasman Tavern now stands.

There is an interesting connection between the Albion wharf and Thomas Cawthron who had a shipping business at Port Nelson for nearly thirty years, being the agent for most of the shipping lines trading to the port. When the old vessel "Albion" was condemned she was beached next to the old wharf site and her bowsprit extended across the land to where the Pier Hotel once stood, there being no road past at that time. Later on, around 1860, for some time Cawthron used the old ship as an office and store (4). By the 1870's the Albion Hotel stood on piles alongside the wharf.

A new Government wharf was built during 1859–60 (5) by Akersten and Turner near Green Point for about £4000. It was just west of the wharf leased by Akersten and commenced about where the Port post office now stands, and was angle-shaped. The main pier extended 380 feet seaward and was bounded by an arm 280 feet long and 40 feet wide, and vessels drawing 16 feet could lie alongside at low water spring tide. But alas! the black birch piles on which this wharf was built were soon eaten through and by 1874 the whole structure was rotten and beyond repair.

The provincial government passed a Loan Act of 1874, to raise £27,000 for a new public wharf. This time, the province built well and work was commenced in 1876, also under the supervision of William Akersten. This was to be the commencement of the main wharf as we know it today but originally L shaped. The extension to the north—to form the T shape of the present structure—came a long time later (1911). However, back in 1876 work included some reclamation, and a long sea wall was built from the Albion Wharf to the Customhouse, and (still in the 1870's) the third of these three was "Franzens" just east of Green Point on the site now occupied by the Nelson Reliance Engineering Company. Franzen was a sail-maker and ship-chandler, who serviced and even owned some of the Blind Bay hookers—the little ships which served the outlying settlements of Tasman and Golden Bay for so many years before the roads were built. It is also on record that Franzen was a part owner of a small screw steamer of 110 tons built in 1880 and named "Wakatu". The Harbour Board had to demolish Franzen's wharf in 1929 although the building remained for another few years.

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Licenses for private wharves had been granted by the Railways Department, which still controlled the foreshore long after the Harbour Board was formed. Lukins had built a lime wharf off Haven Road, just where Collins Street commences, and this was later let to Mr. F. W. Greenslade. The old Gasworks Wharf, mentioned briefly earlier, was where Vickerman Street now joins Haven Road and had been leased to the City Council at a peppercorn rental since 1912.

Marine Baths

It is appropriate, at this stage, to mention the oval marine baths which were built on a site leased to the City Council in 1876. This site is now occupied by Associated Fishermen Ltd. for a fish processing factory, but the building this Company is in was originally Nelson's coal fired Power Station. It is significant to record the fact that the supply of electric power from this steam plant at the port commenced in October, 1923. This plant became redundant with the advance of hydro-electricity.

The oldest building (probably early in the 1860's) in the Port area is what was once the bond store next to the Customhouse Hotel. This is now part of Nalder and Biddle's showroom and the original cast iron columns and bolted frame can still be seen.

The 1880's

An old photograph of the port taken in that year shows the old Customhouse Hotel as well as the little wooden building where the Anchor Company's office now stands. This was the office of the Union Steam Ship Company where Thomas Cawthron then served as Nelson agent until his retirement in 1884. Away to the right (alongside the railway line) is a small rectangled building which served at that time as a railway goods shed. This later became the Fruit Inspection Shed and served in that capacity for many years until the Apple and Pear Board's present cool store area on the reclamation was established. This building is nearly 100 years old, the oldest owned by the Harbour Board, and may shortly be demolished. If you have a look today, on the north-eastern side of the building, you can still see a bollard on one corner. Also in that picture is a small hexagonal building which served as the pilot station, about where the No. 3 cargo shed now stands.

Other Buildings

There have been many interesting building changes in the old port area. Alongside the present Anchor Company's offices was the tin shed which served as the watersiders waiting room until the present Assembly Hall was erected in 1947. Alongside that tin shed (also demolished), was the building which served for many years as the office and warehouse of the N.Z. Fruitgrowers Federation. Beyond that there now stands the Harbour Board workshops, the site on which an old warehouse and bond store once stood. In 1947 this warehouse was operated by Levin & Co., but originally it belonged to Sclanders & Co. a name which went right back to the first arrivals. Mr Sclanders built his first warehouse at Auckland Point and com-page 21menced business there as a merchant in 1842.

Just past the Harbour Board workshops and near the wharf is a small wooden office building still used by the Board. This was originally a Railway building and was handed over to the Board when it purchased the wharves, and took over the working thereof from the Railways Department in 1921. From 1901 the Board had its offices on Wakefield Quay, and these consisted of the board room, a passage and two small offices. In 1921 this building was dragged on skids from Wakefield Quay and joined up to the old Railway building. It was from this group of buildings that the Board carried out its business until the present building was opened in 1963.

On the eastern side of the old Power Station (i.e. Associated Fishermen Ltd.) one can see at low tide the grid-iron built in front of the Anchor Foundry, in 1913, for vessels not over 150 tons. This was the site of the old ship's cradle once used by all Anchor vessels and other small craft. This grid-iron was discarded for the better slipway facilities built by Nalder & Biddle Ltd. in 1936. Now in 1970 that slipway has given way to the Calwell slipway built by the Harbour Board on the reclamation.

Mention of slipways brings to mind an industry which the port has never lost, although its character has changed somewhat—ship building. When Nelson was first settled there was immediate demand for small craft, particularly cutters and schooners, to trade round the Bay. These were the well-known Blind Bay hookers and records show that in 1843 at least four small craft were built in Nelson. The names of Ricketts, Jacobsen, Freeman and Strong were prominent among shipbuilders of the day.

Some of the more famous ship-building events at Port Nelson have included:

1.The launching of the dredge "John Graham" in February, 1903. This dredge cut the entrance through the Boulder Bank.
2.The iron twin screw steamer "Koi" was sent out in sections from the Clyde and was assembled by the Anchor Company. She was launched broadside on in 1906 but she foundered and sank at the entrance to the port on 30th March, 1910, when heavy seas threw her on her beam ends. She was later raised and converted into a hulk a Picton.
3.The schooner "Southern Isle" was sighted by the light-keeper at Farewell Spit on 31st May, 1916, floating bottom-up. The hull was towed to Nelson and sold to the Harbour Board for £75. The hull was altered and fitted out as a grab dredge commencing work in 1923—known then as the "Te Wakatu".
4.The suction dredge "Karitea" was pre-fabricated in Bristol, shipped to Nelson and assembled by the Nelson Harbour Board staff under the supervision of its Engineer, Mr. D. Calwell. The "Karitea" was launched on 17th March, 1953, about 100 yards east of Collins Street and near Haven Road where petrol tanks now stand. Everyone knows the story of the reclamation and there is no need to elaborate.
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Negotiations for the present lighthouse on the Boulder Bank began in 1859. In 1861, this cast iron structure was shipped out from England in the barque "Glenshee." This was to be New Zealand's second lighthouse. A casting above the door reads "Stothert and Pitt, Bath, England". This firm is renowned still as builders of dockside cranes and now they are building container cranes. The light was first lit on 4th August, 1862. The cottages of the light keepers were rebuilt in 1875 and 1895; but they have long since disappeared.

Wakefield's Expedition Landing Place

A final reference to historic places at Port Nelson, must be the spot on Haven Road where the first pakehas who discovered Nelson Haven landed in October, 1841. Wakefield had anchored his expedition off Kaiteriteri and sent off a party in a Deal boat to explore the coastline. This party consisted of Captain F. G. Moore, the surveyor Brown, with J. S. Cross as coxswain, McDonald a boatman and a Maori Pito. The story goes that this party had slept at White Bluffs (presumably Ruby Bay) on the first night and then they rowed down as far as Mackays Bluff on the following day. They were quite unaware of the haven behind the Boulder Bank. They were returning cold and tired when they decided to land on the boulders. Moore jumped out, climbed the Boulder Bank and saw "a sheet of water considerable in extent and to all appearances a good harbour". Later, they found the "old entrance" and the Arrow Rock and they entered the Haven, pulling in at the spot which is now appropriately marked by the Historic Places Trust.


(1)ALLAN, R. The History of Port Nelson (1954). 154 pages, 21 plates. (Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd.).
(2)ALLAN, R. Nelson—A History of early Settlement (1965). 458 pages, 20 plates. (A.H. & A.W. Reed Ltd.).
(3)BROAD, L. The Jubilee History of Nelson (1892). 205 pages, 20 plates. (Colonist Office, Nelson).
(4)MILLER, D. Thomas Cawthron and the Cawthron Institute (1963). 248 pages, 8 plates. (Cawthron Institute Trust Board).
(5)Nelson City Council Jubilee History of Nelson City Council (1874 to 1924). 48 pages, many illustrations. (Nelson Evening Mail).

* General Manager, Nelson Harbour Board.

This article is adapted from a lecture given to the Nelson Historical Society on 24th November, 1970.