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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1990

Henry Handyside

Henry Handyside

page 36

In an unpublished thesis on the exploration of Nelson, J. D. Overton states that, in addition to the well-known journeys of men like Heaphy, Brunner, and Rochfort, much exploration was done by lesser known and forgotten men. Among others, he mentions Henry Handyside. Though his name does appear on a small bridge near the Hanmer turnoff, on the Lewis Pass road, few people would have any knowledge of who he was, or why his name should be there.

Henry Handyside left England after his father's death and arrived at Nelson, on the ship Persia, on 24 July, 1852. He was described as a surveyor and engineer. It is not known why he emigrated, nor why he came to Nelson. It seems that he spent some time in the Moutere district and, in 1856, he married a widow, Mrs Burnside, at St. Thomas Church, Motueka. About this time, he started working for the Nelson Provincial Government. He was in charge of the construction of the Picton-Blenheim road, a road skirting the swamp and crossing the dangerous Wairau River. A son was born in Picton in 1860.

The next we hear of his activities is the reports he sent to the Provincial Council, of his surveying work in the rough back country between Tophouse and Canterbury. A track between Tophouse and Hanmer had been established, but there was still much country to be surveyed. The source and direction of several large rivers, in particular of the Wairau, the Waiau and the Grey, had not been defined.

Travers, a lawyer and explorer, had named the Spenser Mountains and the Anne, Henry and Alfred Rivers. He, with surveyors Lewis and Maling, explored and named the Boyle River, which they thought flowed into the Grey. When they followed its tributary, the Lewis, they felt sure they had found the source of the Grey. The next year, Handyside was in the same area with Maling, and it was he who took Maling to the top of a high hill, from which they could see Lake Christabel and the Grey River flowing from it. The Boyle River turned and joined the Hope, and later the Waiau. During his time in the inland area, Handyside sent reports to the Provincial Council. These were printed in the Nelson Examiner and it was noted that the reports were accompanied by sketches of the various features. Overton, who visited the same area and took photographs, remarks on their accuracy.

The most important work that Handyside undertook, was the building of a bridge over the Waiau Gorge, near Hanmer. The South Island had been divided into provinces by drawing lines on a map, with no regard for the topical features, or the interests of the inhabitants. All the top of the South Island was in Nelson Province. The people of Amuri were demanding that some of the money they paid in rates to the Nelson Provincial Council should be spent in their area, on a bridge over the Waiau River. After much deliberation by the Council, the District Engineer, John Blackett, drew up a plan and specifications, and tenders were called. The successful tenderer was Handyside. It was a difficult task in those days. Getting the material to the site was the first hurdle. The bridge was built entirely of black birch timber, which was all shipped from Nelson to Salt Water Creek. It then had to be carted to the site by horse or bullock wagons. There were no proper roads and many unbridged rivers.

In spite of this, the bridge was built with no mishaps. In his history of the Amuri region, W. J. Gardner gives a full description of the early bridge and its building. It was what was called a 'horse bridge', to be used by pedestrians and horse riders. Wagons would still have to use the ford. It was completed in 1864 and was described as being a triumph both for its designer, Blackett, who later became New Zealand's Engineer in Chief, and for its builder, Handyside. It was sad that the bridge did not have a long life. One stormy night in November 1874, a nor' west gale blew the whole structure down the river. It was ten years before another bridge was started and another four before it was opened.

page 37
Waiau Gorge Bridge constructed by Henry Handyside. 1864.

Waiau Gorge Bridge constructed by Henry Handyside. 1864.

Handyside made a model of the bridge. We read in the Nelson Colonist of 40 October 1864, under the heading Wai-au-ua Bridge: 'Mr Handyside, the builder of this light, large and graceful bridge over the Wai-au-ua River in this province, has just finished a beautiful model of the bridge which is to be sent to the New Zealand Exhibition in Otago. Steep banks of the river are shown and the great span and side works with jointings and boltings are exhibited in a miniature one fortieth the size of the actual structure. Every bolt, nut and screw, each iron knee and keeper fixed with molten lead into the solid rock and holding the timber firm, every spar of timber used in the bridge itself, has their parallel in this model.

The bridge itself, designed by Mr Blackett, Provincial Engineer, has a length of roadway from bank to bank of 320 feet and its breadth is 7 feet. The span of the arch above the river is 120 feet. The size of the model is one-fortieth of these dimensions, a minature horse of the same proportion to actual life is placed on the bridge and shows the great size of the building which consumed 30,000 feet of timber, 10 hundred weight of ironwork and one hundred weight of lead and cost the very moderate sum of 2,200 pounds. The model we venture to say will form one of the greatest ornaments of the Exhibition, besides being a most useful specimen of how to bridge New Zealand rivers.'

In the official catalogue the model is listed, also a painting by the artist John Gully of the bridge, and various other products of the Province. It is not known what became of the model, but the picture is in the Suter Gallery, waiting cleaning and restoration. For many years it hung in the old public library.

In 1866, Handyside was working with Blackett on a reservoir just below the Brook dam. This was never used, as it was cracked by an earthquake soon after it was finished, and it was found that the water supply was satisfactory without it. About this time, Handyside injured his elbow while working. He must also have displeased the Provincial Government in some way, as he was page 38dismissed and refused compensation. In the rather pathetic petition which he presented to the Provincial Government, he reminded them of his years of faithful service and, in particular, that he had saved them a thousand pounds in the building of the Waiau Bridge. The Council allowed the petition to 'lie on the table', but there was no other result.

In the meantime, Brunner had surveyed the Hampden (Murchison) township sections. These, and the surrounding farmland, were offered for sale. Most buyers were speculators, who did not settle in the area, but Grigg, in his book Murchison, notes that 'an early settler was Handyside who bought land in July 1866, 230 acres, to the west of the Matakitaki River, near its junctions with the Buller'. Here, Handyside intended to farm beef cattle, as there was a demand for it from a number of gold-diggers in the district.

Arthur Dudley Dobson, who was then doing country work for the Provincial Government, wrote in his Reminiscences that after the works in the Brook were finished "Handyside took his wife and family to the Upper Buller Valley where Murchison now is and commenced farming. I do not think he made good, for he turned his attention to mechanical invention, and patented an engine that was to revolutionise the present style of railways for new countries. The tracks were to be laid down on any road, irrespective of steep grades. On arriving at a steep grade, the engine was to go up the grade a suitable distance unwinding a wire rope from a drum attached to the engine, then on arriving at a good position, the engine was to drop two levers on to the road which fixed it firmly in position, whilst it wound up the rope, and dragged the train up to the engine. The brakes then being put fast in the train, the engine went on ahead again. How the train was to go down hill and how the rope was to be worked on a winding road, was all left to future development. However Handyside persuaded a few speculators to form a little company to patent the invention and to send him to England to get the plans taken up. He had a small engine constructed with the proposed fixing levers, and it was tested pulling trucks out of a gravel pit. Then unfortunately he contracted typhoid fever and died."

Dobson did not hear what happened to Handyside's wife and family, but there is an unconfirmed report that some of his family returned to New Zealand and settled in Auckland.


Dobson, A. D. Reminiscences, 1930

Gardner, W. J. The Amuri, 1965

Nelson Provincial Council. Votes and Proceedings

N.Z. Industrial Exhibition, 1865, Dunedin. Official Catalogue

Overton, J. D. The process of exploration: Nelson 1841–1865. Thesis, 1978

The Colonist, The Nelson Examiner.