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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 4, September 1978

Songer's River — (A story of early stoke)

Songer's River
(A story of early stoke)

Years after William Wadsworth had settled in the Waimea he could still remember vividly his first trip there as a boy in 1843. One incident he recalled was his encounter with the "big ditch" at Stoke.

In his own words, "about the beginning of February 1843 we moved with a number of families to Wakefield. My father and I and Mr Young started in the morning. The three of us walked until we got to a swamp about Stoke where a big ditch was cut across the road. The men jumped over but I was not so lucky and landed in the ditch, where 1 had to stop until my father came back and pulled me out."

Today the ditch has grown into the small stream that flows from Isel Park out under the main road at Stoke to lose itself among the trees and shrubs at the side of the Fire Station.

The story starts in 1842 when Captain Wakefield found that it was impossible to build his Trunk Road to the Waimeas because of the swamps round Stoke, fn order to drain the swamp at Isel he put page 29on a gang of men under Mr Kenning to dig a ditch from the stream in Isel Park straight down to the road so that the water could flow across the road into the lower part of Stoke out of the way of traffic. It was known for years as the "Company Ditch." I imagine is ran from about the iron gates at ihe Isel Park entrance down to the main road as this part of the stream still runs in a fairly straight line.

Before this the water from this stream used to spread out like a delta and run in little streams across the whole of the Cawthron land (now Greenmeadows Park). Old residents remembered that it even flowed across Songer Street past the old sawmill and through the Ranui sub-division to cross the Main Road near Ryrie's store. Once across the road it crossed Strawbidge's land, ran through the old racecourse and down Songer Street through Wearing's and Chisnall's until it reached the sea at Monaco. Even today, if you look behind the Stoke Police Station you will see what appears to be part of an old channel of this stream.

This was the stream that Wakefield wished to control when he put Kenning and a party of labourers on the job in 1842. Apparently the straight channel they dug from the Main Road up to the Isel Gates delighted the Poorman's Valley Stream which roared down its new bed with gusto in flood time, cutting chunks from each bank in turn and depositing huge mounds of gravel. It became so large that the engineer for the Provincial Council recommended the construction of a high level bridge over it This was in the 1854–55 Report and Estimates, but it is hard to know whether this recommendation was adopted, as bridges seem to have been built on this site and to have disappeared again.

The gravel in the bed of ihe stream was a source of satisfaction to the Waimea District Road Board who were always short of road metal and who were not slow to capitalise on this windfall. In fact their surveyor, T. J. Thompson, regarded the stream as one of his main sources of gravel and proposed that the stream should be widened to at least twelve feet at the bottom to obtain more gravel. Mr Marsden, the owner of the land, was not altogether happy at the thought of his land being used as a gravel reserve but his protests and a threat to raise the price he charged for the gravel were met by the Waimea Road Board with a flat declaration that they had the power to enter his land and take the metal. Quite substantial amounts were taken too, as in one transaction alone, in 1861, one hundred dray loads were uplifted.

To the residents of Stoke in the eighteen Fifties the stream flowing down the new channel became a bugbear, a nuisance that upset everyone, especially in flood time, when huge volumes of water and piles of gravel flowed on to the main road. The ford, too, for the bridge had gone again, was now extremely dangerous and troublesome as its bed continually changed and often big boulders were encountered. No wonder then, that the Examiner contained angry letters from irate Stoke residents who felt that the Provincial Council page 30should do something about it. The earliest letter was written to the Editor in May 1856:


The principal road in the district—Nelson to Richmond—bears evidence of a lack of forethought. Take for instance the abominable place known as "Songer's River," a place where there have been more accidents than in all the district from Nelson to Wairoa. While Songer's River is but a chain wide where the bridge used to be (once there was a bridge but it was swept away in a flood more than six years ago), horses have been injured, carts capsized, a man washed down stream. Mr Songer could tell more. Why cannot we have a bridge over Songer's River? The public will have to trespass on Mr Marsden's private property in driving to and from Nelson.

Yours etc.,

A. Stoker.

The stream seems to have grown wider than the twelve feet mentioned by T. J. Thompson but I should imagine that the ford and the sloping approaches on either side could make the obstacle a chain wide. There must have been some big floods in those days or else the letter writer was exaggerating somewhat.

Apparently nothing much followed from this letter in May 1856, and the winter dragged on until a year later a second exaggerating writer took up the attack. The Examiner printed this letter also.

The Editor,


Will you permit me through the medium of your paper to call the attention of the Road Inspector to the state of the road or ford at the brook near the schoolhouse, Stoke. It is bad enough at the best of times, but since the late weather it has been worse than usual. On Saturday last, the Richmond Van came to a deadlock while crossing the brook, and the passengers, much to their gratification, of course, were obliged to turn out. On the Tuesday following, a loaded cart, with two women on top, was tilted up, some of the goods falling into the water, while the women, frightened enough had to walk to Nelson. About an hour or two afterwards, another loaded cart came to a sudden stop and must have remained in the brook all night, had not a neighbour brought assistance in the shape of four bullocks. In fact, scarcely a day passes, without some stoppage, mishap or breakdown, while the extra blows which the poor bullocks get at this particular spot is in itself, sufficient reason for something being done. A bridge, of course, is page 31what is wanted, but as that appears at present out of the question, I would suggest, as an expedient, that an engagement be made to someone in the neighbourhood to fill up the holes with a load or two of stones whenever required.

I am,

An Observer,

Stoke, September 5th, 1857.

The Stoke School mentioned here was opened in 1845 almost on the north bank of this stream but was moved in 1851 to where the Church of St. Barnabas now stands. Apparently the school had been built on the wrong piece of land and the Crown Grants issued in the eighteen fifties showed that Mr Campbell, its founder, had not owned the land at all. Hence the transfer of the school. At least that is the official reason given for the shift, but I can imagine that Stoke parents would be well pleased to see the school shifted away from the ford. One can only imagine the highly seasoned remarks made by the bullock drivers as they urged their beasts across the rocky bed of the ford, and parents must have listened in horror to the vocabulary used by innocent little children after a period of attendance at the original Stoke School.

In 1858 the school was shifted again, well down the road, to its present position and the Church of St. Barnabas was put in its place. The school was now well out of earshot, but one is not told of the effects of the bullockies' language on the parson, but, of course, he was only there on Sundays. Nelson bullockies' language must have had a considerable robustness about it, differing completely from that used in the neighbouring province of Canterbury where the more highly educated bullock drivers were said to curse their charges in Classical Greek. When Von Haast was returning from Golden Bay in triumph with two bullock loads of moa bones decked with garlands he was shocked to hear the language used by his young fair-haired, blue-eyed bullock driver. The boy explained, naively, that the bullocks could not understand any other language!

However, the letter writer of Stoke had aroused the member of the Provincial Council, for, included in the Government Estimates for 1858, was an item of two hundred and fifty pounds ($500) for the building of a bridge at Stoke. This should have satisfied the Stoke residents but one could not resist a last attack and sent in the following to the Examiner in April of that year.

The Editor,

Will you permit me to say a few words respecting the long-looked for and much-wanted bridge over the ford-way at Stoke. As we are on the verge of having one more added to the number already built and washed away, a few words of caution may not be thought out of place, from one who has been an eye-witness of the same. Two bridges, apparently strong and substantial, have been carried away by the rapidity of the current of water, and that too, when page 32part of the stream was diverted from its regular channel by overflowing its bank 150 yards from the ford and finding its way across the plain towards Mr Ward's house.

The current of water has not been as rapid for the past three years but what has been may be again and if the Government should decide to erect a bridge of not more than twelve feet in span, there is no doubt, even were it made of cast iron, that the first heavy flood would send it following the others.

I, myself, have witnessed a horse and cart turned over and carried down the stream for some distance into Mr Songer's land, and I would argue from that instance and others that I could give if necessary, that a span of at least twenty feet is necessary,.

One who has been washed down Stream, Suburban South,

April 12th, 1858.

By May 1st of that year the Editor of the Examiner was happy to print some good news about the ford: "We understand that the Provincial Government has accepted the tender of Mr Gore to construct a timber bridge over the Ford at Stoke, for the sum of one hundred and fifty-five pounds ($310)." At last the residents of Stoke had won their case and no doubt enjoyed their new bridge.

Today it is difficult even to notice the Isel Stream as you enter the heart of Stoke. It runs beneath the roadway in a concrete culvert and the surface of the road above it is no different from any other piece of road. It seems so peaceful and insignificant, but who knows? As the letter writer said—"What has been might be again!"