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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 3, 1989

Marlborough River Transport of Bygone Days and Some of the Colourful Operators

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Marlborough River Transport of Bygone Days and Some of the Colourful Operators

I find that extracts from the newspapers trigger the imagination and become humorous and interesting mirrors of the formative years of our Province.

I shall begin with water transport. Approachable shore lines and navigable rivers were the greatest asset in exploring and colonising a new country and Marlborough was no exception.

Sheep landed from boats or driven over the Tophouse Pass were our first shore-based industry. Then came the settlers, businessmen, farmers etc.

Most of the transport originally servicing these people came over the Wairau bar.

James Wynen shifted from Port Underwood to the Boulder Bank in 1847, set up a trading post and soon controlled the river trade.

He was quickly followed by Micheal Peel, Frank Macdonald, Jimmie Dubois and others. They all sold grog, whether or not they had a licence.

Over in Cutter's Bay, Port Underwood, was an American whaler, Capt. Daniel Dougherty. Dougherty shifted to near the Bar, intending to farm. He brought goods from his store in the Port and continued trading. With the assistance of his young daughters he charted the bar.

On December 12, 1848 Dougherty ran an advertisement in the Nelson "Examiner" for his store and warehouse. He advised possession of soundings at the river mouth but warned that he could not tell tides precisely as he did not have a watch.

A man I consider should be recognised for the sterling effort he put into the building of the province was Captain Samuel Bowler. Bowler was always described as a man of excellent character. His picture shows a handsome honest face. He probably knew the east coast waters of the province better than any other man.

Sam Bowler came to Port Underwood as a young man, working for Dougherty. Ships he captained later included Weld's "Petrel" and Levin & Co's "Ocean Queen".

Wynen sold out to Bowler and Jackson on June 30, 1855. The sale included dwelling houses, stores, woolsheds and tenements, two whaleboats, oars, sails, anchors and gear. The deal was 440 pounds lawful coin of Great Britain, payable at the Union Bank. Interest was 501 pounds per annum. They were issued a Publican's Licence on October 3 1, 1855.

In 1929, Edward James remembered Captain Bowler's four wool stores, made of manuka, raupo, and daub, and his three cutters, "Alert", "Sapphire" and "Shepherdess ", in which he shipped the wool to Port Underwood. Captain Bowler was Edward James' uncle. Samuel Bodler had married Miss A James, a companion of Mrs Dougherty at Cutter's Bay, and George Jackson had married her sister Clara.

George was a good looking fellow, sporting a long black beard and with a very pleasant speaking voice. He was the son of a London doctor. He usually captained the "Shepherdess" and lived for a time in Robinhood Bay. He should not be confused with James Hayter Jackson, who lived with a Maori wife in Jackson's Bay.

Dan Dougherty's observations showed 3 foot of water at dead low tide, with a rise of five feet – safe for boats drawing five feet.

Samuel Bowler took the "Triumph" a schooner of some 10 tons burthen, over the Bar, November 25, 1848, the first trading vessel recorded as having gone up river. He took her 12 miles up the Opawa, his cargo being provisions for the Wairau Valley. The population of the Wairau was then recorded as 194.

James Wynen, on selling to Bowler and Jackson, relocated at Beavertown. Stafford proclaimed it Blenheim in 1860. Wynen had a building made of red gin cases. It was notorious for the drunks always to be found there. Wynen would not do business on Good Friday, although he would offer a free drink from the gin bottle he always had with him. He died in Nelson in 1866.

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Bowler was Harbour Master at the Bar, and the Company boats were busy trading up the river.

A fire was lit on a piece of high ground, about where the gasworks were, whenever a boat arrived with goods at the Bar. This allowed the Wairau settlers to come down to purchase and collect goods and news.

The going may have been too hard, as we find this advertisement in the "Nelson Examiner" on September 8, 1858:

"For sale at the Wairau River Mouth the property of Samuel Bowler who wishes to retire from business. All the stores, woolsheds, dwellings, houses, stockyards, public house, garden, boats, stock in trade etc.

"For further particulars apply to Mr Thomas Askew, Nelson, or on the premises. "Wairau, May 17 1858".

Bowler may have left his boats, but he was still active. In 1870 we find him with one of the first flaxmills, where he employed Black Jack White of White's Bay. He also took an active part in local body administration. Samuel Bowler died December 1, 1895 aged 77. His wife, Amelia, died on February 28, 1897 aged 68. George Jackson's grave is close by in Omaka Cemetery, off Taylor Pass Road.

The 1848 and 1855 earthquakes altered the river, giving more depth, and the river trade really flourished after 1855. The opposite occurred at Flaxbourne, where Weld lost his snug little harbour for the "Petrel" when the land was uplifted. The first small ship to Blenheim was the "Gipsy", soon followed by the "Mary", and we must not forget the "Necromancer" – usually referred to as the "Old Nick".

The poor old 'Triumph" which under Captain Bowler, was our first hero of the river bar, was totally wrecked in the river in July 1849. She had been up as far as the Beaver, with supplies for several sheep stations in the valley when, supposedly through defective ground tackle, she was swept away and smashed to pieces. Boats saved a good part of the cargo.

The Wairau River was larger than the Opawa, then as now, but in many places its banks were lined with vegetation and swamp. The banks of the Opawa were far more clear and accessible. With no motors and no room to use sails, ascending the rivers was hard work. I assume at first poles, ropes and a lot of manpower were used.

Archdeacon Butt described it in his memoirs:

"1857. Arrived in topsail 40 ton schooner "Mary" – Capt McLean. They coaxed her up the Opawa on the incoming tide by pulling on ropes and poling. At Morgan's creek farmer Greig was waiting with a team of bullocks".

Later on, horses were used for this work. One report says some horses became so used to it that boatmen worked them from the boat.

James Fulton recollected that in later years a string of three horses was used to tow, using a long rope. On one sad occasion, the vessel took over and the horses were pulled over the bank and drowned.

The whaleboats were still operating in 1859, when Mr J J White arrived at the Bar in the "Alert". He stayed the night at Parker's accommodation house and then proceeded to the Beaver by whaleboat. Another boat frequently over the Bar was Captain J Guards' 8 ton "Old Jack". This vessel was built in Port Underwood. Quite a few small ships were built in Nelson and Marlborough and repairs were carried out. A notice from the "Marlborough News", June 15, 1867 illustrates this:

Boat Building

"The undersigned is prepared to build and repair boats.

R Budge

Port Underwood.

"Orders left at news office will be punctually attended to"

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About 1869 the Norgrove Bros built the 25 ton "Amateur" in Blenheim, to trade between Blenheim and Wellington.

In the earlier years, Captains Jackson and Shortt had the "Alert". Then Capt Shortt purchased the "Supply" for the Wellington trade. The "Gipsy", the "Mary" and the "Necromancer" traded to Nelson and the "Supply" and "Alert" principally to Wellington.

C A MacDonald, in "Pages of the Past", says the principal traders in 1854 were the schooners "Triumph", "Rapid" and "Old Jack", plying to Nelson and occasional trips to Wellington.

The "Falcon" was another of the early boats. She first came up under Captain Milo. Later she was bought by Charles Redwood and captained by John Morrison. Captain Morrison plyed the river on the "Falcon" until 1873. She was then sold to Dodson & Fell, a Nelson company, and captained by Captain Fisk. This company also had the cutter "Dido" and the ketch "XXX" under Captain Manning.

A few quotes from newspapers give a view of the trade and the hub of it all – the Wairau Bar.

The "Marlborough Press", April 28, 1860… "During the year 1856, 116 vessels arrived, discharged and loaded at the Wairau, and in 1859 this number had increased to 170. The tonnage of these vessels had been gradually increased from year to year and may be considered at least one half more than formerly.

The "Marlborough Press ", January 6, 1860… "For London direct – the fine barque and well-known trader "Cresswell" 800 tons burthen, W C Barnett, commander, now loading at Port Underwood, will meet with quick despatch. Freight on wool five eighths of a penny per pound. She has splendid accommodation for chief and second-class passengers, and carries an experienced surgeon. For freight or passage apply to Captain Barnett on board, or to Nash & Scaife, Nelson and New Plymouth".

The "Marlborough Press" January 19, 1861… Wool to Port Underwood. Freight of wool from Steam Wharf to Port Underwood is reduced to 7 shillings per bale, storage 1 shilling".

Also in January 1861, the schooner "Necromancer" left Boulderbank for Port Underwood and Nelson. On the 17th the barge "Hope" with wool for the Port also the schooner "Mary" and the schooner "Gipsy". On the 16th the "Gipsy" had discharged 30 tons of coal at Big Bush (Grovetown or, more explicitly, Steam Wharf). I think Big Bush had two hotels at this time – the "Separation", J Shepard and the "Wairau Town" (known then as the "Steam Ferry").

I also found this elaborate advertisement in the "Marlborough Press, 27 December 1861… "Grove Hotel, Lower Wairau. M A Simpson begs to inform the public in general that he has taken the well known Grove Hotel. Having several years of experience in this line of business he will be able to conduct in the most accommodating manner suitable to travellers, and wishing to establish for himself a good trade he is prepared to sell liquor of all kinds of the very best quality, at the lowest remunerative prices. Visitors by the 'Tasmanian Maid" will find in the above hotel every comfort and convenience they desire. Good well-aired beds".

This of course began the steamboat era, which we will deal with later. In the meantime let us digress to the 1860 prices at the Wairau Hotel. Cash prices – per bottle, Brandy 6 shillings. Rum, Gin, Whisky 4 shillings and sixpence. Port and Sherry 5 shillings. Cordials 3 shillings and sixpence. English bottled ale and porter 2 shillings. Local Hooper & Co Ale 1 shilling and sixpence. Hooper's Draught 1 shilling per Quart. Breakfast 1 shilling. Dinner 1 shilling and sixpence. Oats and bran (for horses) 1 shilling per 3 quarts.

The interest here is in the comparison of prices one against the other. No vineyards, and look at the price of cordials compared with spirits.

Two further advertisements from the 1860s:

"Craig's Royal Hotel. For Sale the well-known Hotel situate at the Boulder Bank, Wairau River Mouth with all appurtenances there-unto belonging and one half-acre of land now in occupation of Mr Chas Parker. For further particulars apply on the premises or to Mr F Bowden, Blenheim. Wairau River Mouth, September 11, 1860".

page 16

"1860 - Michael Peel, Old Tamworth Cottage, Boulder Bank. Now returns his thanks to the public generally for the patronage he has hitherto received and begs to announce that he has made considerable additions to his house and is prepared to find accommodation for all who will favour him with their support. Good stabling for horses and bullocks etc".

The mouth of the river was a wild and woolley place. A place where the rougher types went to extremes after guzzling raw liquor. The men who ran the establishments on the Boulder Bank were always at loggerheads with those on the other side of the river.

The lower reaches of the plain were mostly deep swamps, streams and marshy ground. The only patch of bush was on a higher piece of ground at Grovetown, where the Pa was situated.

Stafford, at the beginning, had ideas of a township here and Curtis Bros of Nelson had already built a store. Mr John MacHutcheson was in charge. The advantage of the larger river, for the vessels now crossing the Bar, was unfortunately offset by the Wairau's wild floods, full of logs, and the few places of dry ground along the banks. Further up, Gouland had established himself. He was followed by Henry Redwood. Grovetown was to be Wairau Town, and Spring Creek, Marlboroughtown.

The rivers were the downfall of Grovetown. The Opawa breach in 1861 changed it from a shallow, fordable creek, to a river without a bridge. The 1868 flood altered the Wairau at Grovetown.

Before this, however, Grovetown had the honour of being the Wairau home port for the first steam ship.

In 1847 the "Tasmanian Maid", a paddle steamer, was trading across the Strait. The "Maid", as she was called, was quite a large ship for the trade of those days, 84 tons. In 1862 she was commandeered by the Government, renamed the "Sandfly", and transformed into a gunboat. Her weight was increased to 90 tons. Another paddle steamer, "Sturt", made one trip up the Wairau, then it too was purchased by the Government and converted into a gunboat. It was used in the Land Wars.

The "Maid" was 108 feet 9 inches in length, 15 feet 7 inches beam and, when in light trim, drew 4 feet 6 inches. When hostilities ended, the Government released her. About the middle of 1866, she resumed her visits to Grovetown, though she dropped Wellington from the run and concentrated on Picton, Tasman Bay and the Coast. She was the first steamship to cross the bar of the Buller River. Captain T W Whitwell, who had been with her all through, later completed a distinguished career as No. 1 master for me Anchor Company.

Disaster struck the "Maid" on the 25 May 1862, when she stranded on the Wairau Bar. After being salvaged, she went back on the run for one round trip, before being sold and leaving for the North Island.

Now we come to that great little vessel, the "Lyttelton", which left for New Zealand as a sailing ship and, after an epic voyage of 462 days, arrived in Wellington a paddle steamer, thanks to the work of a remarkable engineer, Alexander Brown. The year was 1860. This boat did sterling work around our coast and up the rivers. A paddle steamer, 78 tons, 74 feet in length, 18 feet in width.

On the 14 November 1862, "Lyttelton", with a full cargo and several passengers, left Nelson for Blenheim. She crossed the bar without incident, steamed up the Opawa and became the first steamship to berth at the Blenheim wharf. She received a rousing reception and later the master, CaptTWWhitwell, and his officers were entertained at a dinner presided over by the Superintendent of the Province. In the tradition of the times, this small ship had accommodation for two classes, saloon and steerage.

It was not long before Captain Whitwell handed over to the man we usually associate with the "Lyttelton", Captain R Scott. He was a tough old sea captain who, after taking over the "Lyttelton", used to declare that many of his trips were made overland. Oldtimers of today who have seen the "Echo" apparently moving across Swansdowne paddocks, would agree.

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PS Lyttelton at the fool of High Street, 1869. Near the present site of Liquorland. NPM.

PS Lyttelton at the fool of High Street, 1869. Near the present site of Liquorland. NPM.

The "Lyttelton" had many refits, increasing length and tonnage and, in 1885, was converted to screw. She was finally wrecked on the Beef Barrel rocks, French Pass, 30 September 1886.

When Henry Redwood bought Gouland's 750 acres, in what is now Spring Creek, he subdivided land between the Junction Hotel and the Ferry, creating a township called Marlboroughtown. He fondly expected it to become the commercial centre of the Province. It did become a busy port for quite some time. The first Ferry Hotel was Hathaway's, on the downstream side of the bridge. A little upstream, before the first bridge, was a punt. Just downstream from the Hotel was a wharf and, about half a mile down on the other side, was the Hauhunga Mill wharf.

Seymour & Western's eight stripper mill was, perhaps, the largest in the district. The farms then getting under way on the Tua Marina side shipped from this wharf. It was used by these farmers until the rail opened, in 1875.

Redwood's Flour Mill was on the other side. We must remember the poor state of the roads between Spring Creek and Blenheim, and the Opawa crossing. There were many unbridged creeks along the route. Drays often moved up through Rapaura, then across.

The "Lyttelton" was soon running a regular service from Spring Creek.

The Provincial Council had erected the wharf on the Hotel side but, looking at the newspapers, most boats had their point of departure on the mill side. Here is a typical advertisement from the "Marlborough Express" and "Wairau Bi-Weekly":.

November 13, 1872:

Anchor Line Steam Packets

The Paddle Steamer"Lyttelton" "from Mr Western's Flax Mills, Wairau River, tomorrow, Thursday at 3 pm. Returning from Wellington to Blenheim direct.

For passage apply to: Nath. Edwards & Co"

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Hathaway, who had a limber mill on the Picton Road, was established and advertising posts and rails, cut timber, birch, white pine, rimu etc. in 1863. The wharf on his side was built in 1865 and, in 1867, he was advertising a first class pleasure boat, the only one on the river to carry 15 passengers. The mill breastwork wharf was erected in 1870. A report in the "Express", July 4, 1874 says, "The vicinity looked unusually busy yesterday, no less than five vessels lying there, comprising two steamers and three sailing craft".

Until recently, some piles of a wharf on the Spring Creek side were still there. The river is now so shallow that they could not hold the rowing regattas which used to finish at the bridge. In fact a row boat would ground opposite Rose's overflow, so what of the "Maid" and her 4 foot 6 inch draft!! It appears to be the same story as with the Wash bridge which, when built in 1926, was 76 feet above the river. In 1974 it was only 20 feet above.

The Ferry, for some considerable period, was home port for Henry Redwood's steam yacht, "Torea". Captain Henry Mudford. He freighted his produce in it, I think, as far as Wanganui. Here is an extract from the Bi-Weekly Recorder, November 24, 1877…"November 23 "Torea" left Blenheim with Mr Redwood for Spring Creek"… Sounds like a big journey. These from the same paper are more interesting:

"Nov 18 S S Napier, Capt Fisk.

Cargo – potatoes. Passengers included Mrs Simpson, 4 children, Miss Duncan, Messrs Shaw, Gobern and Kersley.

Left Ferry Sunday 3pm, crossed Bar 4pm. Met stiff Northerly in Strait. In Wellington 10pm.

Monday – left Wellington 8.30pm strong northerly and rain to lighthouse, wind change to southward, strong, and rough sea.

Crossed Bar at 4.30am Tuesday. Took "Falcon" in tow, arriving in Blenheim wharf 7am".

"Lyttelton", Captain Scott. Left Nelson noon Wednesday, arrived at Bar 4am Thursday, crossed Bar at 5pm.

Other reports show "Lyttelton" leaving Wellington 8.30pm, arriving at the Bar 6am, then at Blenheim wharf 7.45am. The "Napier", on another trip, left Blenheim 3pm, had head winds but made Wellington at 11.30pm.

Although the "Napier" took the "Falcon" in tow, there was a tug built to tow the larger schooners up the river. She was a barge, fitted with an incredibly noisy engine which, they say, could be heard all over the plain. She was named the "Osprey" but, because of her infernal racket, was called the "Puffing Billy".

The two paddle steamers at times ran excursions, as advertisements from 1877 show:

"SS Napier" fast and favourite

December 24: Excursion to Port Underwood. 7 am. 5 shillings per head. Capt Fisk"

"Boxing Day – "P S Lyttelton". Excursion to Port Underwood 7am. 5 shillings return, children 1/2 price. Capt. Scott".

At the beginning of the 1880s the "Wallace", owned by the Anchor Company, was the largest vessel plying the rivers. In 1881, Captain Eckford began the service many of the older generation knew so well. The last of the line, the "Echo", rests on the Picton foreshore. The first Eckford vessel on the river was the "Mohaka". The Union Steam Ship Company soon introduced a rival, the "Waihi" under Captain Manning. On November 18, 1885, they met head on, near Harding's farm. The "Mohaka", with a cargo of wool, went to the bottom. She was raised, taken to Wellington for repairs, and was back on the run by January 1886. Captain Eckford now purchased a faster boat, the "Neptune", and the "Mohaka" was sold. The Union Company then introduced a larger ship, the "Kanieri", but it proved too big to negotiate the bends in the narrow Opawa and had to be withdrawn.

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Waihi stranded at Wairau Bar. J. Andrews.

Waihi stranded at Wairau Bar. J. Andrews.

Wreck of the Neptune at Wairau Bar, 12 February 1897. J Andrews.

Wreck of the Neptune at Wairau Bar, 12 February 1897. J Andrews.

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In March 1897 Eckford's "Opawa" was on the river and, later that year, Clouston & Co acquired the "Pania" of 40 tons. 1899 saw Eckfords with the "Kirapaka", which lasted until 1903. In May 1902 Cloustons put on the "Nambucca", which was lost off Sinclair Head, January 16, 1905.

The Wairau Steam Shipping Company had the "Waihi" and "Blenheim". At one time, a Mr John Holmes had a small steamer called the "Shag", trading on the river.

Other small boats were the "Ngunguru" and the "Tainui".

The 'Opawa" continued to 1912, when Eckfords purchased the "Wairau". Up to this time the "Opawa" had the longest record of service, followed by the "Lyttelton".

In February 1896 it was reported that the season's primary produce, exported through the port of Blenheim, was worth one hundred and twenty three thousand, three hundred and fifty five pounds.

Marlborough exports at this period were wool and flax, later peas, grain, flour and chaff. Potatoes, and even canned rabbit, picked up from the factory on the river bank at St Andrews. Potatoes, grown in Old Renwick Road and Grovetown were a Derwent variety called Brown River. It was claimed that they yielded 20 to 22 tons to the acre. They were shipped as far as Sydney but, when rail went through, they were shipped through Picton. This also applied to meat. Flour from Redwood's, Parker's, and McCallum's mills was shipped to Wanganui, Foxton and Wellington.

Up to at least 1910, Wellington was a great market for Marlborough chaff. The Wellington Tramway Company alone, with its 200-odd horses, took 50, 000 to 55, 000 sacks per annum. Most of the chaff didn't go over the wharves. Farmers delivered it to convenient points on the banks of the Wairau and Opawa rivers. It was lifted by the steamers, either on their inward or outward trips. In those days, the rivers were workable at half tides, so it was no trouble for them to slip down to where the load was waiting, pick it up and go out over the Bar at full tide. This method of handling was of great convenience to the farmers, because the means of transport we have today were not available. The slow horse and dray was the only means of conveyance.

Chaff to the West Coast was shipped via Picton.

A rail ferry was mooted in 1924. W Redman, chairman of the Marlborough Progress League, tried to create interest in 1930.

This was referred to by Dosser, chairman of the Marlborough Harbour Board, in 1962. Dosser mentioned a roll-on roll-off road and rail ferry, though I feel the League were meaning only rail, and were looking at Clifford Bay as a landing site.

Opawa coming up the Opawa River. J Andrews.

Opawa coming up the Opawa River. J Andrews.