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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 2, 1988

[The Omaka Church]

page 32

It is really quite remarkable that the first church ever built on the Wairau Plain, still stands in Havelock Street at Renwick.

Although it has shifted a short distance at least three times, this little treasure of the past seems to have had only one major change in almost 130 years. Its original shingle roof has been replaced with iron.

Amongst the first settlers of Nelson, early in the 1840s, were several Scots and English Presbyterians. Although the population almost doubled in the first five years of the settlement, the Presbyterians had no church, and had made almost no headway. By 1848 the population of the whole province, which then included Marlborough, was a little over 4000. 3089 of these were new settlers consisting of 1480 Anglican, 468 Wesleyan, 313 Church of Scotland or Presbyterian, 195 'Protestant Dissenters', 187 Roman Catholic and 140 Lutheran. The remainder either did not state their religion or were 'nothingists'. The Anglicans already had three churches, the Methodists two, and the Catholics and Lutherans one each.

When the little Mary Ann, a 30 ton schooner, arrived in Nelson Haven from Wellington on Sunday morning, 18 June 1848, she had on board Nelson's first Presbyterian minister. The Rev. Thomas Dickson Nicholson, his wife and children, were all keen to get ashore. Nicholson and his family had left Lowick, in the North of England, seven months before. They travelled to New Zealand on the John Wicklyffe, from Portsmouth, in a passage of 100 days. They landed in Otago, where Nicholson become the first minister to preach in Dunedin.

At six o'clock on the evening he landed in Nelson, Nicholson preached to "a goodly attendance of attentive listeners", in the schoolroom of Mr Matthew Campbell, Bridge Street. The Presbyterians might have been slow getting off the mark, but now, with their first minister amongst them, they were about to make up for all the previous inactivity.

Twelve days after the arrival of the Rev. Nicholson, a public meeting resolved to open a subscription list for a church. Eighteen months later, the Trinity Church in Nile Street was opened for public worship on 23 December 1849. Rev. Nicholson
Rev. T. D. Nicholson. Fletcher Collection NPM

Rev. T. D. Nicholson. Fletcher Collection NPM

page 33preached at the evening service. He was a Methodist who had spent three years in Port Underwood and the Marlborough Sounds, preaching to the Maori people, until the tragedy at Tuamarina on 17 June 1843. When Trinity Church opened in Nelson, the only other Presbyterian Church in the South Island was the First Church of Otago, in Dunedin.

Nicholson was a true follower of the Reformed Church of Scotland which, since Knox, had regarded education as second only to religion. Almost from the start he was travelling widely throughout the district, but it was some time before he found time to visit the wild unknowns of the Wairau and Awatere.

Many of his friends in faith had obtained large areas of what was to become Marlborough. Dr. Thomas Renwick, George McRae, James Sinclair and William Brydon, were among those who moved to the Wairau. Insufficient land had been available for them in the Nelson area.

By 1854, the Rev. Nicholson was travelling extensively and, in February that year, he paid his first visit to the Wairau and the Awatere. On his arrival at Starborough, now the site of Seddon, he found Mrs Kemp dying as a result of childbirth complications. She was the widow of George Kemp, who had been manager of Starborough. George had been thrown from a dray while crossing the Awatere river, on a return trip from the Wairau Boulder Bank. His injuries were severe and he had died a few days later, on 5 July 1853, aged 41 years. The day after he arrived at Starborough, Mr Nicholson had the remains of George Kemp removed from their original burial place and reinterred in a plot chosen as a more suitable burial ground. The next day Mrs Kemp died, leaving seven children as orphans. She was buried beside her husband, on a little knoll just behind the present Seddon cemetery.

Mr Nicholson made several other visits to the Awatere and Wairau districts over the next three years. By 1857 there was a great exodus of Nelson people to the rich agricultural andpastoral lands of the Wairau. James Sinclair had built the first house in the Beaver, on a site in the present Blenheim Railway yards. He was agent for Fell and Seymour of Nelson and, although he was offering sections at very cheap prices, they were not selling at all well. Many believed the area was too wet and subject to flooding.

Sinclair was doing all he could to attract settlers to the Beaver. He was building a Courthouse and other public buildings nearby. A good Presbyterian, he had learned that the Rev. Nicholson would consider a move to the Wairau, and Sinclair was quick to see that this would help his town grow. Accordingly he called a public meeting on 25 November 1856, at which it was resolved to take steps to procure the Rev. T.D. Nicholson as minister to the combined Districts of Wairau and Awatere.

A few miles to the west, in the centre of the newly surveyed Omaka district, John Godfrey was squatting on a piece of land on which he had established his rough and ready Wairau Hotel, known as the Sheepskin Tavern. Godfrey was a popular man and soon had others wanting to settle near him, to benefit from the popular place he was running.

Early in 1857 Dr Renwick purchased three 150 acre sections of this high dry ground, which included the land on which Godfrey was squatting. Renwick had his sections subdivided and soon they were selling well. He saw them as the commercial centre of the Wairau and much more suitable than Sinclair's Beavertown. Renwick lived mostly in Nelson and, as a good Presbyterian, he was well aware of the invitation to Mr Nicholson from the Beavertown meeting. He then made Nicholson an offer he could not refuse. A house, six sections of a quarter acre each and all the land needed for a church and school.

During August 1857, Mr Nicholson and his family shifted to Renwick. A new two storied house, built by Mr Robert Thomson, was ready for him on high ground page 34overlooking the present Blenheim-Nelson highway. This he named The Tower and from here he travelled far and wide to his scattered parishioners.

On 3 February 1858, the first meeting of the office bearers of the new parish was held at The Tower. At this meeting it was stated that Dr. Renwick had made a grant of six acres, on which the Omaka Church was to be erected.

Robert Thomson was engaged and soon had completed the tiny building, at a cost of 120 pounds. It was opened for public worship on 20 February 1859. In January 1861 it also became the first school in that district, with Mr Willam Moore as master.

Mr Nicholson worked hard in his new capacity, probably too hard, as, by the end of 1862, he was not at all well. He was forced to retire to his home in Shakespeare Bay, near Picton. He died on 16 July 1864, in Picton, aged 47 years.

The Rev. Nicholson's little Omaka Church at Renwick is now waiting for some tender restoration, which the Wairau Board of Managers estimate will cost around $6,000. They have opened a public appeal with a generous grant of $600, and they are confident of enthusiastic support for this historic treasure.