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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 6, April 1973

Was Tahuna a Port?

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Was Tahuna a Port?

If you talk to any old resident of Tahuna he will tell you, sooner or later, that once upon a time cattle were landed at the foot of Parkers Road. If you make further inquiries into the history of the district you will be struck by the persistence of this tradition. Thecattle boats, it seems, on arriving at Nelson, sailed past the Old Entrance and skirting the outer edge of the Arrow Rock, made their way up the channel of the Waimea River past the Cliffs until they reached a spot known as the 'Black Stump' at the foot of Parkers Road. The route of these early ships lay across the present Tahuna Beach somewhere near the Modellers' Pond and along the outer edge of the Motor Camp and providing the tide was right, quite big sailing ships could reach this spot safely.

Of course by the 1850's the chart prepared by the Survey ships "Acheron" and "Pandora" was available showing the depths of water in the River, the buoys marking the channel and the guiding marks on shore such as Thompson's house, but the early skippers in the 1840's had to find their own way.

There seems to be nothing inherently impossible in the tradition and it is probably correct.

Today, the shipping round the coast of Tahuna is limited to launches, yachts, and other light pleasure craft but in the 1840's and 1850's the watcher from the shore, such as young Tom Brown, could have seen a variety of craft—rowing boats, cutters, luggers, schooners, the big Australian cattle boats and even little paddle-wheel steamers.

Their voyages up the eastern channel of the Waimea River to Tahuna are too well documented in the early Examiners for any doubt to exist in anyone's mind. For instance, in May 1843, we have the report which is quoted so frequently in Tahuna history,

"The barque Essex, ten days from Port Phillip, arrived on Sunday last with 127 head of cattle. Instead of coming into the harbour she ran up to the mouth of the Waimea to land them at a spot where the Brilliant landed her last cargo, which offers peculiar facilities."

Then later the paper noted that there was to be a sale of stock from the "Essex."

"Sale Stock — Essex.

At Mr. Tod's stockyard, Auckland Point. The stock are are in good condition. They may be viewed on board or on the Waimea Plain where part have beeen landed."

For 'Waimea Plain' here read 'Tahuna' for at this time Tahuna, Stoke and the rest were all included in the Waimeas. In fact parts page 6of Tahuna were still included in Waimea County until the amalgamation with Nelson City in 1950.

Other vessels are also mentioned but strangely enough the earliest, the "Brilliant", which probably pioneered the route, was missed by the Editor of the Examiner and is mentioned only indirectly later, in the report on the "Eagle".

The "Eagle" reached Nelson in September 1842 with stock aboard and her arrival was reported in the paper. Those who were interested in her stock could obtain particulars from J. Heward at the Haven or from A. S. Ritter at the mouth of the Waimea.

Evidently the "Brilliant's" trip up the Waimea River had stirred the imagination of the Editor of the Examiner and sensing the possibilities of this landing place he wrote in his paper:

"Will the Eagle land her cargo at the same spot as the Brilliant did?"

She didn't really. The stock were put ashore on Fifeshire Island (Haulashore Island to us) and sold there but the Editor's remark is important as this is the first notification I can find of the "Brilliant" and her choice of landing place.

It is disturbing to think how fragmentary our knowledge of early Tahuna is and how much we are indebted to chance remarks like this appearing in the paper.

A year later another vessel is reported, the "Gannet", in September, 1843.

"The Gannet with cattle and horses, intended for Wellington, put in here. She ran in on Thursday as they were totally without water and fodder. They had a long voyage, nearly a month, and there was not enough food. The cattle are to be landed at the Waimea."

In February 1844, she was back again and a short notice in the paper read:

"Gannet, 320 tons, Nicholls, Mouth of Waimea, discharging."

These then were the early vessels which landed cattle at Tahuna in the 1840's, the "Brilliant", the "Essex", and the "Gannet".

Others visiting this port may have also used the Waimea River but I can find no record of their having done so apart from three chance reportings in various documents. Of course a possible source might be the early Nelson customs records but they have been taken from us and now lie in National Archives in Wellington. They may have had some reference to the actual landing places of stock.

The three later recordings are, a paragraph in Broad's Jubilee History of Nelson, a reference in the Colonist of 1863 and the account of an actual eye-witness, Thomas Brown.

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In Broad's History of Nelson, on page 183, he mentions the large American vessel "Rock City" which ran up the Waimea and discharged into the Admiral Napier. This ship drew 20 feet so could not have gone far up the Waimea River. This happened in 1856. Broad goes on to say …. "for some years after the Waimea was open, Captain Johnson's vessels, the large barques 'Kate Walters', 'Island City' and others used to run cattle up to a wharf designed and built by Captain Akersten."

I have examined the Shipping Notes for January and February of 1856 and there is a brief statement there confirming this:

"In Port. Barque Admiral Napier, 400, Akersten, store ship."

In the Colonist of October 1863 there is a passing reference to landing sheep at Tahuna.

Apparently a steam ship, the "Storm Bird", unloaded a cargo of cattle on the beach in Haven Road and as the cattle were rather wild considerable confusion occurred. People were attacked and according to the paper the only way to escape was to plunge into the tida or to endeavour to scale a high paling fence on the other side of the road. The paper considered that this should not happen and continued: "When the "Tasmanian Maid" plied on this coast, her general rendezvous for landing sheep was up the Waimea River. This place can still be made available for landing sheep and cattle."

It probably could have been, too, as the channel up the Waimea River was still open.

The last reference to these early ships is the story told to the late Captain D'Arcy Maxwell in 1936, by Thomas Brown, an old man of 86.

Captain Maxwell writes:

"…. He told me that he was born in 1849 in a house that stood upon the site of our own. (H. A. Thompson's residence). Mr. Brown told me that he remembered when a boy of five seeing sailing craft crossing the bar from Australia and landing cattle at a point where the Golf Links now stand …."

This would be in 1854 about the time Broad described in his note above. These three references all bear out the Examiner reports of the 1840's of the landing of sheep and cattle at Tahuna and also show that the practice continued into the 1850's.

So much for the actual landings of stock. The next point to consider is what was the exact spot at which the cattle were landed. Was the old traditional spot at the foot of Parkers Road correct after all, or was there some other spot more suitable?

The actual ground where the stock was kept in quarantine after landing was a mile away from Parkers Road on a peninsula curving page 8out into the Waimea Estuary from the far end of the aerodrome near Monaco. Surely it would have been more sensible to land the stock here instead of at Parkers Road.

It might be suitable here to have a look at these Quarantine Grounds. They date back to the beginning of the settlement and are shown on an early map of the Suburban South Sections printed in 1842. Like most quarantine stations they are near the sea and separated from other land naturally, in this case by the waters of the Estuary which almost cut off the peninsula at high tide. There is some doubt as to the continued use of the Quarantine Grounds as the Quarantine Regulations were revised in a Provincial Council Bill of 1853 and the quarantine was then to be on Rabbit Island. There is doubt on this point however. Myles O'Connor in an article on the islands in the estuary says: "In 1854 Rabbit Island was declared a quarantine station by the New Zealand government but it does not appear to have been used for such purposes." In 1867 the Suburban South Road Board was still making provision apparently for it, as an item appears in their minutes: "Grant of £180 for the road to the dip", so possibly it stayed there at the foot of Quarantine Road. The name of the road was never changed and the land on the peninsula remained in government hands being used as a Rifle Butts later.

There is some evidence leading us to believe that Quarantine Road was not formed before the end of 1843 and may have been only a track before this. I suppose the inlets crossing the road line prevented the continuous formation of the road and it was not until much later that the Waimea Road Board actually formed a complete road. They drove in black birch piles, wattled them with manuka and filled in behind this with loads of stone, making causeways across each inlet.

It is possible that the stockmen and farmers collecting their stock from the Quarantine Ground did not always use Quarantine Road but crossed the nearest inlet at low tide and drove their sheep or cattle along the present Seaview Road and up Songer Street. Many of the earliest sales of stock took place at the Turf Hotel or at Captain Nicholson's farm just past the Turf.

But without digressing any further, why were the stock not landed at the Quarantine Grounds or near at hand?

First we must ask whether the channels there would have been deep enough to take the big Australian cattle boats. As early as December 1841, Captain Wakefield wondered about the depth of water here. In his Diary for 7 December, 1841, he writes:

"Went up the Waimea in the afternoon in order to ascertain how far it was available for navigation up to the timber land. Found it to shoal to three feet about 2 miles from its entrance. It is evidently very shallow as the water spreads itself over a great space among the sandy islands."

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Now two miles from the entrance of the Waimea River at the Arrow Rock would take you to the Quarantine Grounds and so as early as 1841, before any silting up of the channel had taken place, Wakefield found that the water was too shallow for anything except small boats.

The Australian cattle boats were too big—the "Brilliant", 540 tons; the "Eagle", 438 tons; and the "Gannet", 320 tons—and it is highly unlikely that they could have reached the quarantine or that the skippers would have tried to do so. When Hugh Martin sold his land at the aerodrome and Monaco in 1855, he advertised it as: "…. fern and flax land naturally bounded on all sides and can be approached by a 40 ton vessel". We are told in the Examiner that Messrs. Morse, Moore, and Rogers, enterprising farmers of the Moutere, contracted with the limeburners of Suburban South to purchase 140 tons of limestone from them and that the stone was to be ferried across the Estuary in the "Hydrous". We know quite a lot about the "Hydrous"—she was built in 1843 at Auckland Point by Freemans for Claringbold the pilot. She was a small lugger of white pine with beautiful lines but she was only 11 tons and could have managed the inlets of Monaco quite easily.

The gravel barges bringing gravel from the islands for the Stoke Road Board and the scows which came later bringing timber and other goods to Richmond were also shallow craft and could have managed these waters. The "Tasmanian Maid" and her sister ships of the 1850's—the "Emu" and the "Moutoa"—were shallow draft paddle wheel steamers suitable for entering rivers and bays but we have to admit that a 500 ton sailing vessel could not have sailed up to the Quarantine Grounds.

So we have to look further down the coast nearer to the river entrance and examine the other possibilities. Was it to be Parkers Road or could it have been a wharf somewhere on the river bank nearer the Port?

The wharf question is interesting as there appears to have been a whole collection of wharves round the Bay. A wharf at Mapua, still there, a wharf at Bronte Landing, to serve the Moutere settlers, at Cotterell's Landing, on Rabbit Island for shipping gravel, and nearer at hand—a jetty at Richmond, another at the Freezing Works, and one mentioned by Broad in the Waimea River at Tahuna. This isn't the end of the wharves as just recently, Norman Rout was speaking of the jetty which existed in Golf Creek at the foot of Parkers Road earlier in this century, and Charles Chamberlain told me of a photograph of an early wharf presented by his father to the Nelson Historical Society. Apparently this wharf was situated near Green's house and ran out into the waters of the swamp.

Personally I still favour the beach at the foot of Parkers Road so let us look at the arguments in favour of this spot. It is almost page 10hopeless to try to reconstruct the spot as it was a hundred years ago or even as it was at the beginning of the century. The whole area has been filled in and the large sandhills demolished in the process until its old appearance has been completely changed. Dr. Jenkins told me that formerly it was a very large inlet but he had watched it growing smaller and smaller over the years. He remembered Dr. Gibbs keeping his motor boat there and old inhabitants of Tahuna considered it a good place for catching flounders.

It is possible that Wakefield entered the inlet when he was inspecting the coastline in 1841. In his Diary entry for December 7th, 1841, he writes:

"Landed about a mile from the entrance (of the Waimea River). Found the neighbourhood of the beach composed of drift sand with an arm of the river running parallel to it, for nearly a mile, the land a mixture of sandhills, flax ground and fern."

He was probably looking at the Centennial Swamp and the swampy areas on the Golf Course which often held a considerable amount of water. These swampy areas lay behind the main line of sandhills and provided a reservoir of water for the little Golf Creek which appears to have cut its way through them. Possibly it was this opening through the sand dunes which attracted the first skippers as they had here easy access to the fern and grass lands which lay behind the sandhills. Otherwise the coastline was bordered by the huge sandhills, some of them sixty feet high, from the site of the Motor Camp down to the end of the aerodrome. This was then the most likely landing place nearest to the quarantine with sufficient depth of water for the bigger vessels. These were probably two of the 'peculiar facilities' mentioned in the report on the "Essex". You can think of others—such as no public to get mixed up with the stock when it was landing, a good sandy beach for putting the sheep ashore, and no Haven Entrance to cope with.

One of the things which puzzled me at first was the absence of any Parkers Road on the early maps of the 1840's. How could the stock be shifted away from the beach? On the 1842 map of the Suburban South Sections most of the flat land of Tahuna was shown as three big Rural Sections with ample frontages on to the Main Road, Tahuna, and it was not until the later 1840's when re-selection of land took place that one of these Sections, Rural Section II, was broken up into smaller 50 acre blocks with frontages to the Quarantine Road and to a new road—Parkers Road. The stock must have been driven away from the Black Stump area long before Parkers Road was formed.

The answer to this was probably found by Mr. Newport in his talks with Mrs. Norris, an old identity who knew early Tahuna. She described the bare desolate beach at Tahuna with nothing there page 11except sand hills, a few toitoi bushes and four or five little huts. The stock were landed at the inlet and then driven along a narrow dirt track which ran behind the sandhills all the way to the Quarantine, skirting the inland swampy areas on the way. From the Quarantine Grounds the stock could be collected by the stockmen in due time and either driven up Quarantine Road or else across one of the mudflats at low tide along Seaview Road or Songer Street. In this case Parkers Road would not be needed for these early landings.

I wonder who used the huts on the beach? Perhaps agents for the stock importers like A. S. Ritter mentioned earlier, stockmen, or even the Scab Inspector whose duty it was to inspect all animals before they were landed. By the Scab Amendment Bill passed by the Government and the Provincial Councils an Inspector of sheep had to board every incoming ship and see if the animals were fit to be landed. When the animals were landed they were penned up in enclosures made of clean wooden hurdles provided by the Inspector, I wonder if these were kept in one of the huts?

Barring any future discovery of more information about the landing of stock at Tahuna we must be inclined to treat the account as substantially correct. Several events happened subsequently which led to the abandonment of this practice—the building of wharves at Port Nelson where ships might lie at all tides, the increase in the size of ships, the gradual silting up of the old Waimea River channel across Tahuna Beach and of course the fact that Nelson was breeding sheep enough for her needs. There came a time when it did not pay to bring in stock from Australia and the trade declined and finally ceased.

Golf Creek was left to the small craft—mostly pleasure boats, although many people say that scows still continued to land cargoes of stock at the foot of Parkers Road even until our own times. They would have come up the present Blind Channel because by now Tahuna Beach had built up to such an extent that the old channel of the Waimea River was gone and indeed no one quite knows where the river actually ran.

After a brief blaze of glory Tahuna was destined never to be a flourishing sea port and most of the old dreams are now forgotten—the port to be established in 1861 when the railway from the Waimeas would reach the sea at Rocks Road, the coal port at Monaco in the 1850's when Jenkins' coal from Enner Glynn was to be railed straight down Quarantine Road to be shipped there. No one thinks of these now and even the old name for the Main Road, Tahuna, is remembered only by a very few old-timers—once it was known as the Port Road.

Today if you want to catch a last glimpse of ships and sailormen at Tahuna you will have to pay a visit to Monaco.