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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 6, October 1980

Thomas Blick – New Zealand's First Weaver 1802–28.11.1860

page 20

Thomas Blick – New Zealand's First Weaver 1802–28.11.1860

(Miss Hughes-Sparrow has a strong interest in weaving and has spent much time and energy researching the life of our first weaver. We are delighted to publish the results of her work.)

Thomas Blick was born in the tiny hamlet of Nymphsfield in the district of Stroud, Gloucestershire in 1802. He came from a family that had been weavers for generations. Originally named Blique, his ancestors had been forced by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 to leave Flanders in order to escape religious persecution. They took with them the deep piety and steadfast honesty that has remained a characteristic of people of Huguenot descent to this day.

As they were silk weavers the family probably settled in Spitalfields in London which became, in a sense, the first home of refugees from the Continent. Later they moved to Trowbridge in Somerset and, later still, a branch of the family went to Gloucestershire to the area of Stroud which was the centre of a thriving industry of cottage weavers.

Thomas Blick became a master weaver. In 1821, aged nineteen, he married Hannah Gay, their first child, George, being born in 1823. Thereafter, Enoch 1824, Charles 1826, Hannah 1829, William 1832, James 1837, Benjamin 1840.

In 1842 the New Zealand Company's Prospectus convinced Thomas Blick that life in New Zealand would be to his family's advantage. He therefore applied for permission to buy a block of land in the Nelson Colony and the area of the Brook Valley was sold to him before he left England. In the same year, 1842, Thomas Blick, with his wife and seven children sailed from England in the "Indus" for New Zealand.

For many of the passengers it was indeed a disastrous voyage. In the tropics the drinking water, stored in barrels, became contaminated and had to be thrown overboard. Food became putrid, and followed the water. Passengers and crew alike were in danger of death from starvation and thirst. A large number, including many children died. The captain decided to put into Sydney for fresh food and water, but for three days before the "Indus" berthed, everyone on board was without any form of sustenance.

When the "Indus" arrived in Nelson in February 1843, it was immediately apparent to Thomas Blick that the settlers had two needs that he could supply: good, hardwearing cloth and leather. He was to regret bitterly that he had not brought the tools of his trade with him, but the New Zealand Company was more interested in bringing agricultural workers to the colony. Nevertheless, Thomas Blick set about investigating the possibility of supplying these basic needs and, during hist first year in the colony, succeeded in producing good quality leather but cloth took longer to produce.

As he had brought no weaving equipment from England everything he page 21
Thomas Blick's cob house in Brook Street (area now occupied by Brough's glasshouses).– (Miss I. Hughes-Sparrow).

Thomas Blick's cob house in Brook Street (area now occupied by Brough's glasshouses).
– (Miss I. Hughes-Sparrow).

page 22needed had to be made from local materials. The first attempts at loom construction were unsuccessful, the split bamboo that he used to make reeds was not smooth enough for the fine woollen warp threads and the local timber had a tendency to warp in a way that well-seasoned European wood did not. Discouraged, Thomas Blick would have concentrated on the production of leather, but prominent citizens of Nelson encouraged him to continue his experiments and, in June 1845, he exhibited two lengths of tweed at the Nelson Institute. They were priced at four shillings and four shillings and sixpence per yard (40 to 50c a metre). There was also flannel at three shillings a yard (35c per m.), and men's trousers retailed at one pound a pair ($2 a pair). Greatly encouraged Thomas set about improving his loom.

The area of land in the Brook Valley that he had purchased from the New Zealand Company before he left England and which included the Sugar Loaf had a good stream which he diverted so that he could use water power to drive the loom. To achieve this he built an overshot wheel which was later purchased by Mr Alex Drummond of Tapawera who used it to cut chaff and drive a circular saw until it was superseded by an oil engine.

The woollen yarn for the manufacture of" "Blick" cloth – tweeds and flannels – was being spun by local German women, of the Benseman, Eggers and other families. These women had brought their spinning wheels with them from Germany but, for the most part, the wheels were "flax wheels," a much lighter type that is excellent for spinning linen flax but never intended for the much heavier, greasy, often dirty sheep's wool. In spite of that disadvantage a good spinner could spin a pound of wool in a day, and received by way of payment one shilling per pound per day! (12c per 459gms).

The finished cloth was strong, almost waterproof and, though not glamourous, was in great demand for uniforms for the constabulary. When the Governor ordered a sports suit to be tailored from "Blick cloth" the venture received a great boost and it became fashionable for sportsmen all over the country to wear "Blick cloth." As a result more weavers had to be employed and the price increased. The German spinners asked for more money for their work. As the factory was only just beginning to pay its way Thomas Blick refused to grant the increase, the women stopped spinning and the factory was closed. The women went to work in the Maitai hop gardens and wheat fields where, though the work was seasonal, they hoped to make more money.

During this time Thomas Blick had built a fine cob house on a piece of flattish land north of the Sugar Loaf. The approximate spot is where Brough's glasshouses are now situated. Further back, in the vicinity of the present Blick House which was started in 1860 and added to during the years that followed, he built a number of cob buildings for his other interest—leather. He had excavated and lined with bricks the soak pits necessary for leather page 23
Looking down Brook Street from slopes behind James Blick's house. Thomas Blick's cob house. Thomas Blick's waterwheel, and in foreground. James Blick's woolshed and house.– (Miss I. Hughes-Sparrow).

Looking down Brook Street from slopes behind James Blick's house. Thomas Blick's cob house. Thomas Blick's waterwheel, and in foreground. James Blick's woolshed and house.
– (Miss I. Hughes-Sparrow).

page 24tanning. These are still in existence, though overgrown by broom and gorse. The leather produced was of exceptional quality and in great demand. Some pieces used in the manufacture of harness are said to be still in existence.

During the 1850s Thomas Blick began to weave again. He imported looms and other machinery from Australia. He evidently hoped that the business would become a family affair, but it would appear that none of his sons was interested in weaving, though one son, James, was very interested in the making of leather and carried on that business until his death when, on his instructions, the tannery was closed down.

Towards the end of the 1850s Thomas Blick wrote to Joseph Webley, a weaver in Stroud. The two men had been friends from childhood, had been apprenticed to the weaving trade and become master weavers. Perhaps, more important in their eyes, they had been reared in the same religious faith. Thomas Blick asked Joseph Webley to come out to Nelson and join him in a partnership in cloth weaving. The invitation was accepted after due consideration and, with his wife and family, Joseph reached Nelson in 1858.

Immediately he became immersed in the weaving of cloth and it seems that under his management the output from the factory increased greatly.

One of the special exhibits at the opening of the Crystal Palace in 1861 was a display of the works of all the British Colonies – both indigenous and imported. Thomas Blick had sent a length of tweed to this exhibition, but, at the time of his death in November 1860, the exhibition had not been opened, so Queen Victoria's bronze medal, inscribed "1862 Londini—Honoris Causa" was awarded postumously. It is a pity that he did not live to know that his years of endeavour had received royal approbation. The medal is now in the possession of Mrs Edna Tizard, 38 Mt Hobson Road, Remuera, Auckland 5.

When the new Government Buildings were erected on the site of the old Provincial Buildings a bottle, deposited in 1859, was recovered from beneath the original foundation stone. In the bottle were documents, coins and a piece of Blick cloth. The contents of the bottle were placed in a new container and set beneath the foundation stone of the new buildings. Perhaps, in another one hundred years time, these buildings will be pulled down and the new bottle and its contents will be rescued and opened to display a piece of "Blick cloth."

The year 1850 must have been a most important one for the Blick family, for, in that year the Baptist Church was opened in Nelson. It was the first foundation in New Zealand and Thomas Blick, his wife Hannah, son Enoch and daughter Hannah were all foundation members. The early years of the church were fraught with difficulties of every kind, but it struggled on, prospered and has made a valuable contribution to the life of Nelson.

Thomas Blick died on 28 November, 1860, aged fifty eight. His wife sold the factory to Joseph Webley and he continued the manufacture of cloth there for some time before transferring to new premises in Bridge Street and changing the trade name from Blick Cloth to Nelson Cloth.

page 25
James Blick's home built 1860 and tannery buildings.– (Miss I. Hughes-Sparrow).

James Blick's home built 1860 and tannery buildings.
– (Miss I. Hughes-Sparrow).

page 26

Of the sons, William and Benjamin left Nelson Province to seek their fortunes in Marlborough. James continued the management of the tannery after his father's death and it flourished till his death when, under the terms of his will, it was closed down.

The cob cottages and the other early buildings, all of cob construction, were in a state of perfect preservation until the First World War, when the roofing iron that had been laid over the original thatch and wooden slats was removed. From then on the buildings deteriorated and, by the end of the 1920s, had suffered almost complete destruction.

Thomas Blick, his wife Hannah and some, if not all, of their children are buried in a family plot at Fairfield Cemetery. Other graves are at Wakapuaka.