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

The French Pass Post Office

page 29

The French Pass Post Office.

This article has been prepared from the Webber writings which are in the Provincial Museum Library. It has been edited by Margaret C. Brown, but most of it is in the original words.

Mail is one thing that we look forward to receiving daily and, with all our dissatisfaction about loss of post offices, we seldom stop to think that, a hundred years ago, people in many parts of New Zealand were glad to get mail once a week. We are fortunate that some of the pioneers have left us accounts of how the mail got through. Before the days of steam-ships, let alone aeroplanes, delivery was slower and often fraught with dangers. One of the more isolated areas of the Nelson province was the Sounds and French Pass. Pioneers in that area were the Webber family. George Webber writes:

"in 1877 my father, Wallace Webber, had a contract with the Post Office to board the Union Company's steamers, Penguin and Rotorua for mails to and from the French Pass once a week.

In earlier years we had depended for our mail on sailing ships which stood into the Bay and signalled that they had mail aboard for us. In 1877 a regular service was started, and brought at first once a week by the Penguin and later twice a week by the Penguin and the Rotorua. My father was given the contract for the mails and appointed the first Postmaster. Cargo and passengers were also collected. This state of affairs continued for some thirty years until the Anchor Company's steamers, Nikau and Kaitoa, began to call regularly at the French Pass wharf and took over the business. In all the years of boarding steamers in all weathers in an open boat there was only one serious accident. In 1902 our big whale boat, the Black Bess, was cut in two by the Mapourika. The force of the tide slewed the steamer, which had no steerage way right on to the Black Bess, she was so near and so heavily laden that it was impossible to push away from the steamer's side. I and the two men who were with me were tipped into the water, but rescued by lines thrown from the steamer and a steam launch came out to take us ashore. I managed to rescue the mail bags which were floating in the stem part of the boat We put them on board the Mapourika where the bags were opened and the contents spread out to dry in the boiler room.

I heard afterwards that some of the contents were unreadable.

After I married, in 1900, my father retired to Nelson and I was appointed postmaster in his place. By then the settlement had increased and there was still no public buildings of any sort. I therefore found it necessary to provide one when the telephone was installed in 1910. this was done by cutting off part of the store-room — The telephone was a great boon to the settlers who now, in times of illness, could quickly get medical advice. The next year the telephone line was extended via D'Urville Island to Stephens Island lighthouse, which was an important station for shipping, particularly during the two World Wars. Two years later the telephone line was continued to Bulwer in the Pelorus Sound. Many homesteads on these lines were given small offices to facilitate communication with Nelson. The French Pass Office was the transmitting office for the extended lines. It was now necessary to build an office to accommodate the extra work involved in serving the four lines – Nelson, Stephens Island, Bulwer and French Pass Lighthouse. The despatching and receiving of mails had also increased, two mails going out and two coming in five nights a week for the greater part of the year.

Post Office work continued to increase. By 1920 it had been made a Money Order and Savings Bank Office and this meant that a capable and suitably qualified person had to be in charge at all times – under my supervision. In 1920 my daughter returned from school having gained her matriculation and took over this work. Over the years three other daughters served.

Meanwhile the first wharf in Emslie Bay had been built by my father who was assisted by a Government subsidy of pound for pound. It was controlled by 3 trustees, W.I. Webber, A.J. Woodman and Andrew Hegarty. I was the secretary.

page 30
French Pass. NPM

French Pass. NPM

In 1922 when my father died I was appointed in his place. This wharf was condemned in 1934 and the Government said it would build a new wharf if the settlers would form a local body to rate the district for maintenance. A Road Board was duly elected and the new Wharf opened in 1935 by the Hon. R. Semple.

Over the years the Anchor Company of Nelson had grown to be the largest New Zealand owned shipping company in New Zealand and had a considerable fleet of cargo boats plying across Cook Strait. The French Pass had come to feel itself in close contact with both Nelson and Wellington with two boats, the Ngaio and the Rotorua running regularly through the Pass. After the Ngaio was retired in 1929 the Company bought the the Matangi from the Northern Shipping Company. In 1949 the Arahura was retired and the next year the Matangi was taken off the run and a much larger steamer was bought and re-named Ngaio 11. The position of French Pass immediately declined, page 31as this ship proved too costly to run and the passenger service to the Pass was finally abandoned by the Anchor Company in April 1953. This left the settlers round French Pass and D'Urville Island without any direct passenger service.

Pelorus Jack No account of French Pass would be complete without some account of the famous Pelorus Jack. It was when steamers began to stop at Elmslie's Bay for the mail boat that Pelorus Jack was first noticed playing round their boats. When I came back from school in 1888 the 'big white fish', as he was called began to be talked about by the passengers and crew of the steamers. Few years later he was frequently seen – it was about this time he got the name of Pelorus Jack. Jack frequently met steamers coming from Nelson at Collinet Point, commonly known as the Pass Point, and accompanied them several miles towards Cape Francis, known locally as Clay Point, the northern extremity of Admirality Bay. He was rarely seen beyond there. His playground seemed to be the six miles across Admirality Bay, from Collinet Point to Cape Francis, and this was where he played about the steamers coming and going between Wellington and Nelson. He never, to my knowledge, went through the Pass.

When we were boarding the steamers off Collinet Point Jack was there. He seemed to be impatient of the steamer waiting and dived to and fro under her, sometimes coming up under our small boat and giving us a bad jolt; or he would swim so close to us that my father used to tell me to give him a push with a boat hook or oar to keep him off, as he could easily capsize us. As our row boat was only about 13 or 14 feet long we could easily estimate his length – about 11 or 12 feet When he was late for the steamer, we could here passengers say, 'Here he comes,' and I would look up and see him approaching at racing speeds, with great leaps and bounds out of the sea, often ending close by, with a mighty splash. This delighted the passengers. In the late 90s and early 1900s he was such a constant visitor to the then fast steamers, that overseas visitors frequently made the journey from Wellington to Nelson and back on purpose to seehim and were seldom disappointed".

Jack who was protected by a special Act of Parliament, was officially known as a Risso's Dolphin but according to Webber he was really a grampus, the dolphin was slimmer with a pointed head, Jack had a large round head and heavy body. He was last seen in 1913.