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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, October 1974

Wairau Valley Field Trip

Wairau Valley Field Trip

These notes describe a field trip of the Nelson Historical Society on 28th October 1972, led by the writer.

The party followed the route of the early explorers and settlers from the Waimeas, by way of Reay's (originally Rea's) Saddle to Golden Downs.

The first settlers going to the upper Motueka Valley to as far north as Tapawera travelled this way with their bullock drays. The track over Spooner's Range came later.

Stafford and Dillon were running sheep in the Motueka Valley by 1845 and George Duppa pastured sheep in the upper part of the valley. His shepherd was William Gordon, a Scotchman, and the locality was soon known as Gordon Downs, with Gordon's Knob and Gordon Creek naturally following.

Most of the land was held as large blocks until after World War I when the area was cut up for soldier settlement under the optimistic name of Golden Downs. The land was priced too high and some settlers knew little about sheep. One property abandoned in 1926 was planted in trees in 1927 and this was the start of the Golden Downs Forest originally set up as an employment measure.

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The track by way of Golden Downs became the "Main South Road" and the only overland route to Buller, Wairau, and Canterbury for many years.

There were difficulties in crossing the Motueka River in time of flood so an accommodation house was started here in 1846.

Kerr's Hill at the head of the valley was so named after the David Kerr family who had the Blue Glen run in the locality from 1849 onwards. The original track followed a spur, still known as 'The Bullock Track', to the top of the hill, and simply zig-zagged down the face of the hill to Blue Glen homestead in the Motupiko Valley.

Big Bush was originally a heavily timbered area of beech forest but large areas have been felled and one fears that a great deal more will be removed. It is still possible to see the old logs from the uprooted trees from the great 'blow down' of 1867. A great deal of the present area is re-growth forest.

Tophouse Telegraph Station was opened in 1876 and from there the line was extended to the Lyell so giving Nelson a direct link with the West Coast.

The Tophouse Hotel was moved to this site in 1887. It is no longer a licensed house.

A tragedy took place at Tophouse in 1894 when two men were murdered and one committed suicide.

J. S. Cotterell discovered the Tophouse Pass in November 1842, and Lake Rotoiti in January 1843. Here the streams lead in three directions, north to Motueka, east to Wairau, and west to Buller.

The original track to the Wairau kept to the higher ground nearly as far south as the present road junction to avoid the swamps.

The track to the Buller kept to the west side of Black Valley, again to avoid the swamps.

A small hill in Black Valley is actually the terminal moraine of an ancient glacier.

There is also another terminal where the road descends into the Wairau Valley. The original track here kept to the ridge, and Wiesenhavern's Top House, built in 1859, was beside the track, the site not being visible from the present road.

(Stop at the old 'top house')

This is where Cooper and Morse were squatting with sheep in 1846, so becoming the first sheep farmers in the Wairau. Their place was simply the 'top house'. Goulds were occupying a mud building there as a licensed accommodation house in 1856.

When the survey was made in 1859 to decide the boundaries of the new Marlborough Province a peg, shown on the maps as Top 2, was driven into the wall of the building and a line was taken north from there to Ward's Pass and another east to Barefell Pass. The result was that when permanent buildings were erected at Red Hills homestead the house was in the Nelson Province while the woolshed was in Marlborough.

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A good route south to Canterbury by way of Wairau Gorge, originally known to the Maoris, was discovered in 1855 and many of the North Canterbury runs, as well as those in the Wairau, were stocked by sheep shipped into Nelson and driven overland.

Land was taken up at Tarndale by J. W. and C. S. Saxton in 1857 (and possibly by others) about that time.

In 1863 an accommodation house was established on an accommodation lease held by William White.

In the late 1860s N. Edwards and John Kerr took over the Tarndale area.

They also took up the Rainbow in the Wairau Valley and had the licence removed from Tarndale to there in 1874. Rainbow was normally handled as part of Tarndale.

The name of Rainbow station has now been transferred to the land earlier known as the Red Hills run, originally the Top House run.

The Tophouse route was the only vehicle road to Marlborough until the Whangamoa was opened in the late 1880s.

The Red Hills are part of the mineral belt which follows the ranges north to Dun Mountain and D'urville Island.

Wairau Sheep Runs

The Wairau runs were largely taken up about 1850 as an investment by businessmen who knew little or nothing about sheep and relied on the shepherds they employed to run the properties. It was mainly taken under lease and was often grid-ironed by buying areas of frontage and then running the No-man's-Land adjoining it. Land was taken up by many investors and then aggregation took place by those ambitious enough or financial enough taking over neighbouring properties. The hey-day of the runs was in the 1880s and 1890s. Many of the larger holdings were being broken up by about 1900.

The present road from the Wairau to the Buller was built in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bridge timber, cement, culvert pipes, and all other requirements, were railed to Kohatu station on the Nelson Railway and trucked through Tophouse.

The Wash Bridge, built about 1926, was 76 feet above water level when built but there is now only about 20 feet between the riverbed and the bridge deck, being the result of erosion in the back country.

The bridge took the place of the old Manuka Island crossing, a few miles further down the river. Always a dangerous stream to cross, the Wairau claimed the lives of many people, including a well known figure, the Hon. Constantine Dillon.

An accommodation house was suggested for this spot in 1850. This was established later but there were great difficulties in keeping it manned.

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The Raglan, Manuka Island, Branch Point, and Leatham, were at one time part of Birch Hill but were cut off the old station, possibly about 1900, and became separate runs.

The Manuka Island homestead is on the northern side of the river and can be clearly seen from the highway.

The Branch River was shown as Cotterell River on early maps. This is now spanned by a modern bridge but there have been difficulties ever since the river was first bridged in the 1920s.

The Leatham in the valley of the Branch River formed a natural boundary between the Birch Hill property and the Hillersden back country behind it.

There were two sheep stations on the north side of the Wairau River. Northbank, at one time belonging to the Bell family, and further north, Langleydale, taken up by William Adams, and still held by the Adams family.

Birch Hill was originally taken up by George Duppa who only held it for a few years and there have been a number of owners since. A stop on the roadside gives travellers a glimpse of the set-up with the woolshed on one side of the road and the bunk-house, cookhouse, and homestead on the other side.

The Wye River is the boundary between Birch Hill and Hillersden.

The Hillersden land was originally taken up in various blocks by a number of speculators including A. G. Jenkins and E. D. Sweet. When owned by Thomas Carter, with Jimmy Bell as manager, it became a vast run and employed up to 200 and more men and so became known as 'Nelson College' as so many young men from Nelson went there for employment. The undertaking was worked from several points. The Hillersden homestead was one mile from the Wairau Valley township; Wantwood was some miles further south, while Stronvar was over the ranges at the head of the Waihopai Valley. The station had its own flax mill, wagon teams, gangs of rabbiters, and so on.

Lansdowne, opposite the Wairau Valley township, was taken up by C. F. Watts. He was appointed the first constable of Wairau in 1849. His son, George Watts, became a very well-known figure in the sheep world of Marlborough during his ownership of Lansdowne.

Erina was taken up by G. W. Schroder, a merchant in Nelson, who had made his way to New Zealand independently. He took a lease of a wharf and built a brick warehouse but when this was taken over by the Government in 1851 his attention turned to land in the Wairau. He took up Erina run but eventually was beaten by the scab disease in his sheep so moved to the Amuri where he served as Constable, and carried out most other official duties. Erina was taken over by William Bell and later it was owned by George Watts who ran it as part of Lansdowne.

Bankhouse was taken up by Dr (later Sir) David Monro and the first homestead was at Craiglochart in the Waihopai Valley.

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One of the problems here and at neighbouring localities was the depredations of wild dogs. Some museums have on display the hefty dog-traps used to catch the dogs. These were made by the local blacksmiths.

The Waihopai accommodation house was started in 1853 by G. W. Schroder on an accommodation lease granted by the Provincial Council. A few years later this was listed as an hotel under the 'Bush Licences'. Quite an important hostelry at one time, it is now closed.

(Waihopai Valley)

A short distance up the Waihopai Valley it is posible to see the location of several of the early runs.

On the west side is the homestead of The Delta run. Originally taken up by Edward Green (of Tahunanui fame) it became the property of Dr Thomas Renwick who founded the township which carries his name.

To the east is Leefield the country originally taken up by the Hon. Constantine Dillon.

The Benhopai station further up the valley was the land taken up by W. O. Cautley.

At the head of the valley the watershed is known as the Canterbury Spur. This was used as a stock route to Canterbury as, after crossing the range, mobs were taken down the Saxton and Acheron, to the Clarence River, and then over Jollie's Pass to the Hanmer Plain.

Hawkesbury was taken up by Cyrus Goulter and Brookby by his brother-in-law, Joseph Ward. Both Goulter and Ward had been in the survey party with William Budge and they picked the land they wished to buy.

Brookby was broken up into farms in 1892.

Hawkesbury is best remembered as the home of Charles Goulter, son of Cyrus, who was a well-known breeder of Merino sheep and Jersey cattle. He was proud of the trees which had been planted round the plains and hills.

Woodbourne was taken up by Henry Godfrey.

Fairhall was taken up by Ward and A. P. Seymour.

In the Renwick Museum are some very interesting exhibits although it is to be regretted that much of the material which belong to the area has been taken away to other parts of the country.

Dr Thomas Renwick's first plan of his private survey of the township of Renwick is a valuable historical record which is preserved there.

The dog-trap, as used by the early runholders to catch wild dogs, is certainly a massive and cruel-looking instrument.

Another item of real interest is the first bicycle ever built in New Zealand. This was made by the local blacksmith, John Vorbach, who originally came to New Zealand during the Collingwood gold rush.

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The Wairau Valley and Wairau RiverThe distance from Tophouse to Renwicktown is about 55 miles.

The Wairau Valley and Wairau River
The distance from Tophouse to Renwicktown is about 55 miles.

Others Who Made the Trip Down the Wairau Valley Before us

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Cotterell, in December 1842, found the Tophouse or Wairau Pass and saw the grassy plains of the Wairau Valley.

After the Wairau Massacre, Morse and Cooper drove sheep through this pass into the head of the Wairau at Tophouse. Then Mr George Duppa took up land at Birch Hill and others followed.

By 1850 the valley had been opened up to settlers and the following were the first licensed to occupy runs there.

Owner Run
N. G. Morse Top House
Geo. Duppa Birch Hill
J. F. Wilson Part of Birch Hill
A. G. Jenkins Hillersden
E. D. Sweet Hillersden Cattle Run
C. F. Watts Lansdowne
G. W. Schroder Erina
D. Monro Bankhouse
Joseph Ward Brookby
J. Alison Avondale
W. H. Shepherd Summerlands
F. Witherby Te Arowhenua
F. Vickerman Stronvar
E. Green The Delta
W. O. Cautley Part of Benhopai
C. & F. Kelling Castle Run (part of Benhopai)
C. A. Dillon Leafield

In 1953, Captain MacKenzie, retired Bombay Infantry, visited Australia and New Zealand.

From Wellington he sailed to Flaxbourne and then set out for Nelson:—

19th December 1853

Left Flaxbourne, travelled through Wairau and set out for Nelson. I started out about 6 o'clock up the Wairau Valley. Hills on the north side wooded and very broken and rugged. I overtook a man on the road going to Nelson, named Gibson. He is a shepherd and has charge of Mr Green's run, and appears a very decent old man.

[Ed. The run referred to is the Delta, then owned by Mr E. Green, Nelson]. I determined to go with him. We halted at Mr Dupper's station. [Ed. Mr George Duppa, Birch Hill].

We were overtaken by a storm but found a hut on Manuka Island. Saw a woodhen. Silly bird. Easily caught. After crossing streams and hills passed through a black birch forest to N. G. Morses Tophouse.

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20th December

At sunset entered another forest where I perceived the road had been laid out with ditches on either side of it and about four miles further on we came to a house where we put up for the night. The owner, Mr 'Gork' Rodger, a Yorkshireman, was drunk.

[Ed. Likely John Gaukroger—hotel keeper at Foxhill. He never touched alcohol].

21st December

Up at daylight. On leaving this place the roadside shows signs of cultivation. A good many small cottages, fences, patches of grain had increased in number.

Halted at Richmond for breakfast and then into Nelson where I arrived at 12 o'clock.

29th December

I have determined to leave Nelson today. A man named Collier is going with me to Port Cooper. At last we set out and rode as far as 'Gork' Rodger's where I arrived at 1 o'clock and put up for the night.

30th December

Up early but my companion detained me until 1 o'clock when we rode off to Davie Kerr's, the furthest up house on this side of the bush. I found no difficulty in tracing my way back through these hills.

31st December

The house was full of people last night so I had to sleep on the floor, not liking the plan of going halves in a bed, which I find is thought nothing of here. I got up at 4 a.m. and called the others. We soon got breakfast and at 6 a.m. got away and rode to Mr Duppa's station. We took four hours to get through the bush. On the Wairau side we halted at the 'top house'. It is situated in a very pretty spot near a birch forest with the river below, some way off. It was an inn but has been deserted on account of the distance from the only place where supplies are to be had. Here we remained for two hours to let our horses feed and then went on to Mr Duppa's.

Sunday 1st January, 1854

I slept in the store on some wool packs with a bloody disgusting-looking ram's head above me. This is the country to learn to rough it in and no mistake. A little rain fell this morning but it soon passed off and it is now a fine day.

15th March 1855, David Monro wrote:—

Started about ten. Rode to Gauks. Waited there for rest of party.

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16th March

Made a fair start. Reached Davy Kerr's about two and had a snack. Got through the wood a little after sunset and camped under the trees for the night.

17th March

A splendid morning. Rode down to Manuka Island and breakfasted at the accommodation house, the people very civil. Pushed on, the sun blazing down and got to the dairy, about an hour after dark, having ridden 53 miles.

18th March

Walked down in the direction of Godfreys and breakfasted there. Horses lost. I went up the Waihopai. Called at Frasers, found Mrs Fraser and had some excellent Scotch kale. No traces of horses. Met Weld.

19th March

Up at daylight and rode to Frasers. Then across to Leefield which is much shaken by the earthquake. Met Sam Eves. Horses are in Omaka. Found them.

20th March

Made an early start. Gave our horses a bite and washed in the pass (the Blairich Pass—which led into the Awatere). Then to Flaxbourne.