Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 6, 1995
John N Blechynden of The Roundell
John N Blechynden of The Roundell
I have been asked to write down what I can remember of the development of the Lake Rotoiti and Tophouse district from the secluded and almost unknown area as I first knew it to what it has become today. But first I think I should explain how I came to be there and how I came to stay for almost half a century: from 1910 to 1958.
My father, John Blechynden, was an engineer and shipbuilder. After training in his native Northumberland he worked in ships and on shore in several parts of the world. He was employed on ships in the Red Sea by the Egyptian Government, and while there he is reputed to have made a secret visit to Mecca. As a delivery and guarantee engineer he went to Japan with the first steamers sent there from England. His Chief Engineer's Certificate in the newly formed Japanese Marine was the fourth one issued. I have a photocopy of that. It is dated 1876. Father built scows and small coasters in Cabbage Bay, Coromandel. Then he moved back to Japan and built a paper mill in Kobe. From Japan the family moved to China. In Shanghai Father was engaged in building and then managing a dry dock capable of handling ships of 5000 tons and a general engineering and shipbuilding works. I have a dated photograph of the launching of a new passenger steamer for the Yangzte River trade. It was 2500 tons. When Father, in 1906, moved his family to New Zealand and settled finally in Nelson he was still obligated to be in Shanghai with the New Engineering and Shipbuilding Company Ltd for a part of each year up to 1916. He enjoyed only one year of retirement. In 1917 he suffered a stroke down his right side and was paralysed till his death in 1924.
About 1907 my father bought two bush sections of a total area exceeding 1600 acres. They were situated on opposite sides of the Tophouse to West Coast road and stretched from Tophouse to the boundary between the Waimea and the Murchison Counties at the head of Black Valley. This is also the watershed between the Motupiko and Buller catchments.
When Lake Station was cut up Father bought the block from the top of Black Valley to Teetotal Creek, making his total holding over 4000 acres. Owing to the land regulations at the time this purchase had to be in my mother's name. I have been told that owing to page 38a mistake in the Lands Department the usual one chain reserve on the lake shore and down the Buller River was forgotten and for some time Mother owned this strip without knowing it.
At the time of purchase the only building on the whole area was the small hut, one room with a fireplace at one end and four bunks at the other. On the shore of the lake, this was in a three and a half acre paddock surrounded by a substantial paling fence. Behind this was a horse paddock, the three wires would never have held sheep, on the slope of the hill. Twelve miles of drainage ditches had been dug by the Kerrs, three miles in the Duckpond and nine in Black Valley. A block fence which marked the limit of the land grazed by Lake Station was on the Tophouse side of the Roundell clearing.
Father spent a lot of money on the Roundell. By 1913 he had felled and grassed 600 acres of bush, erected several miles of fencing, and built a large, four bedroom concrete house, a stable and general purpose shed, a woolshed with a capacity of 300 woolly sheep, a complete set of drafting yards, a swim-through sheepdip, a large implement shed, and a blacksmith shop containing a forge and bellows of a Chinese design made by Father himself. Soon after it was built the stable building was destroyed by fire and had to be replaced.
At the lake Father repaired and extended the Kerr hut adding a leanto right along the back and another on the end and a verandah along the front. The whare would then sleep ten. He built a separate cookhouse, with a wood-burning cookstove, and a trap and harness shed. On the beach his new boatshed was big enough for two as it was to be shared with the Acclimatisation Society. Father's motorboat Eileen was kept there when we were not "in residence" but the launch was usually moored a little way out from the jetty when we were at the whare. On one occasion very heavy rain raised the lake level suddenly and the launch was dragged under by her anchor chain. I have forgotten just how they raised the boat but my brother-in-law, Jack Coote, a noted swimmer, had a lot to do with it.
I can understand Father's interest in the lake and his property near it as he was a very keen trout fisherman, who once put 50, 000 Rainbow ova into the lake at his own expense. But I have never understood why he bought so much land and spent so much money developing it. He knew nothing about farming and never lived on the place. He never took an active part in its actual management. I never saw him ride a horse but he would, if he had to, sometimes drive old Canny in the gig. At the end, when he was lying paralysed, keeping it became an obsession with him and it was then that I promised to look after it.
I cannot be precise about when I first saw Lake Rotoiti. I know it was not later than 1910 but it could have been as early as 1909. Some old photographs show people and places but only one of them is reliably dated. I am sure our first visit as a family was to the Roundell where we camped under canvas on the Roundell flat, then an unspoiled open grassed area surrounded by unspoiled bush. Our tents were right on the bank of the Roundell Creek, then a very pleasant stream which a man could jump across. Two old photos show us as a posed group, Father and Mother, Kathleen, Edith and Edward, myself and twins Harold and Eileen. With us are Ivy Macmahon who helped Mother in the house and a girl whom I cannot remember. Also in the group are Percy Andrews and Jonathan Porthouse with their horses and dogs. These two men were working for my father. Percy Andrews had taken up the section adjoining ours on the Wairau side and had built a rather crude hut which we called Snouter Villa next to our boundary. He later moved to a better whare on the Wairau Road about a mile from the Tophouse Hotel. Jonathan Porthouse bought a farm at Kikiwa from Jock Brough, who I think was a page 39relation. This farm was later occupied by Jack Tomlinson. Of interest only to me is that it was here I started work. At the beginning of January, 1919, a few days before my sixteenth birthday I started as roustabout for Jonathan Porthouse.
We have only one photograph which can be dated beyond any doubt and it proves that my Father had finished his additions to the Kerr Hutt before 1912. In this photo, taken by my sister, Kathleen, we are on the newly built verandah, Mother, Edith, Edward, Harold, Eileen and myself. With us was a young Australian Arthur Coningham, then working on the Roundell as a "cadet" but much later in life to become Air Vice Marshall Sir Arthur Coningham. (And my brother-in-law told him he was not worth ten shillings a week?). This photo was sent as a postcard to Father in China and is clearly date stamped 1912 in Belgrove and Shanghai.
After our tent camp at the Roundell our summer holidays were spent at the lake whare and from Christmas to the end of the school holidays we would have the lake almost exclusively to ourselves. We barely saw anyone. The only exception was on New Year's Day when the local people, local meaning Kikiwa, Kawatiri and Manuka Island, would gather for a picnic at the Lake followed by a dance at Charlie Carlsson's mill loft at Kikiwa. They arrived and departed on horseback and all manner of horse-drawn vehicles. Except for the burning of Mt Robert the lake then was quite unspoiled. The ducks were natives. There were shags breeding in a rookery on the Mt Robert shore somewhere about Whisky Falls, and up to a dozen black swans bred in a small bay almost opposite on the St Arnaud side. We used to check on the nests and cygnets every summer. There were very large brown trout in the lake and the Travers River and enormous eels. Deer and rabbits had not then become a nuisance.
Getting our family and its luggage to and from Nelson and Lake Rotoiti was quite an adventure which I looked forward to all the year. Early in the morning a cab and express would be at our home in Brougham Street to take us to the railway station at Gloucester St. Usually we three boys would travel with the luggage so that a second cab would not be necessary. The train left Nelson about seven o'clock and arrived at our detraining station, Belgrove, about nine. At Belgrove John Banks would be waiting with his coach and horses for the thirty mile trip to Tophouse. Johnnie, as he was usually known, ran a weekly service to Tophouse, returning the next day. His "coach" was actually a large express fitted with seats generally drawn by two horses. For the annual Blechynden invasion John Banks added a third horse in the lead. From Belgrove the route was up the Wai-iti River and over Reay's Saddle and down the Graham to Golden Downs. A stop was made for lunch at Golden Downs where there was an accommodation house made necessary by the ever present possibility of floods making the ford impassable. I believe this old ford was about one mile downstream from the modern bridge site. It was very rough with big boulders making difficult footing for horses and increasing the drag of vehicles they were pulling. Across the Motueka River the road was up a very dreary Long Gully to Kerr's Hill. Quite visible on the long leading spurs of Kerr's Hill were the scars made by the old bullock wagons being dragged up with double teams and down with locked wheels. Kerr's Hill was a very long and winding pull for the horses and an equally long and winding trot down the Kikiwa side into the Motupiko Valley. From Kikiwa to Tophouse the road climbs seven hundred feet in seven miles and it was a tired team which stopped at Tophouse in the evening. At the Tophouse Hotel Mrs Tomlinson always had hot meals and beds ready and Jack Tomlinson and Rosy Stone would help John Banks with the horses. The following morning John Banks would take us to the lake. As far as the Roundell the road was quite reasonable as the steep, straight up and down banks on each side of the Motupiko ford have been by-page 40passed by side cuttings. But from the head of Black Valley we were on the original wagon road, a rough, rock and stone covered track with two high banks as bad as those at Tophouse. The long, steep, stone covered slopes at the Switchback and the drop from the moraine to lake level required competent drivers sure of their horses. I used to think that the bank at the Lake was the worst of the two to drive up. There was something in the way the loose stones peeled away under the scrambling hooves that made footing very difficult and threatened to bring horses down. Also, about half way up the Switchback there was a sort of ledge where a driver could, if necessary, stop his vehicle and hold it with the brakes while his horses had a breather. The two crossings of the Black Valley Stream, which were to cause so much grief to motor vehicles in later years, were no problem to horses except in abnormal floods.
At the end of our stay the return to Nelson would be a reversal of our trip up. John Banks and his team would be at the lake very early in the morning and we would arrive in Nelson by train sometime in the evening. I can't remember what the railway timetable was. I was probably too tired.
With the marriages of my two elder sisters and my father's stroke in 1917 our family holidays at the lake came to an end. By that time I had my own horse which we kept in a paddock in Wainui Street. I would ride up to Tophouse when opportunity offered and stay with the Tomlinsons. One Easter I rode to Tophouse on Good Friday, had a look at the lake on Saturday, gave old Mag a rest on Sunday and back to Nelson on Monday.
When I went to live at the Roundell towards the end of 1921 I did so reluctantly. It was only my father's illness and his obsession with the place that persuaded me to do as he wished. What had been a wonderful place for holidays was, to my mind, no place to run a farm. I had not had much experience. For one year I worked on farms at Kikiwa, for Jonathan Porthouse, Charlie Carlsson and Vic Nicholls and for almost a year I was "The boy" on Benopai, a Marlborough station of twenty thousand acres running 12, 000 merinos. On Benopai the owner, George Rudd, and the manager Jack McKay and his brother Alex, who was a shepherd, were all very good to me. They kept me working but they also went out of their way to see that I learned. Also I had talked at length with Fred page 41Nicholls, a practical farmer who had leased the Roundell for four years but refused to renew the lease. He painted a very dismal picture of the difficulties of running the place, especially of the unusually big stock losses which he said were unavoidable.
At the close of 1921 no-one lived at the lake but it was increasingly common to see camping parties and one or two illegal huts began to appear on the beach and in the scrub on the reserve on the east side of the Black Valley Stream. At the Roundell I lived alone (in a four bedroom house). At Tophouse the Baxters were at the hotel and I think Tom Collins at the Post Office. Arthur Mead and George Herwin lived on opposite sides of the Motupiko about a mile below Tophouse. Arnold Mead was just above Rocky Creek and Vic Nicholls just below it. At Kikiwa there were the Carlssons and Lorrie and Randall McMurtry. The Kerrs, Arthur, Andrew and David, were at Blueglen. On the Wairau Road Percy Andrews lived about a mile from Tophouse and Mart Godbaz had a place about the top of the Red Hills cutting though he did not live there all the time. I think MacHorton was at Red Hills. Bill Kruse kept the Accommodation House at Manuka Island. Molesworth Station was obliged to keep the Accommodation House at the Rainbow open and the staff there came out to Tophouse for supplies and mail. I remember Bill Ryan, the Solomans, the Randersons and a chap named McKenzie who claimed to have served in both the Household Cavalry and the Royal North West Mounted Police. While the Randersons were at the Rainbow there was an occasion when Harold being unwell, Mrs Randerson came out with the packhorses alone. At Tophouse she was taken ill and it fell to me with the only car in the district to get her to a doctor at a time when rising rivers were threatening a flood. When I got to Kohatu the Norris Gully Creek was in flood but by great good fortune a Nelson bound train was at the station and I was able to get Mrs Randerson away on that. Two mornings later our postmaster rang. He had an urgent telegram from Nelson Hospital where Mrs Randerson was recovering after undergoing an appendectomy. The Post Office had no way of delivering that telegram so I saddled Bonnie, put a sandwich in my pocket, and rode fifty miles before I reached home again in the evening.
On the lake side my nearest neighbours were Phil Cummings at Speargrass and the Joyces at Lake Station. The Burts were at Station Creek, you turned up a rough track just beyond Harley's Rock. Ned Russ lived on the Gripps road about a mile this side of Kawatiri where work was still going on the railway. Newton McConochie lived at Glenhope. Up the Howard there were Alex McConochie, the Flemings, and Murray Mead. Joe Baigent and Ern Springer had farms in the Upper Buller. There were gold miners in the Maggie and the Maud. Originally our neighbour on the east side of Black Valley was just a name on our map, John Langley Adams. I never met him and cannot remember that he ever had any stock there though he did have cattle at the head of the lake where some went wild. When Jack Borlase's father bought the property it was stocked with both sheep and cattle but it was several years before anyone lived on the place. They just came and went as stock work required it. During my year on Benopai I had been out of touch and found on my return that great changes had been made. The road up the Motupiko Valley had been completed by the cutting round the Korere Bluff and our mail now came by car from Kohatu. The new route was so very much easier. There was no Kerr's Hill and Reay's Saddle to climb over and the Motueka River was crossed by a bridge. At Kohatu there was a railway station and a hotel and at Motupiko a general store and blacksmith. Unless they had relatives at Belgrove most people moved their base to Kohatu. More of us started to use cars and trucks and tractors.
With the coming of the motor car, the building of the new road on the St Arnaud side of Black Valley and the replanning of the St Arnaud Village by the Department of Lands, page 42reducing the area of the sections from a full acre, more people started to buy them and our local population increased. It also changed in character. We had been scattered farmers, bushmen and miners who seldom thought of the lake except as a meeting place on New Year's Day when any other central place would have done just as well. The new people came for the lake itself and the mountains surrounding it.
They came for the rivers and bush and later for the snow on Mt Robert. On the old plan of the St Arnaud Village there had been only one section marked with the name of a buyer, a Nelson chemist named Boon who had a shop in Hardy Street about where the entrance to Deka is now. The new map filled up with names, Ingram, Bishop, Leaper, Thompson, Stratford, Harley, Hagget, Tibbie and Pettit. All these new comers built dwellings of some sort, some to be used as holiday places and some as retirement homes. Harry and Mrs Fitzsimmons were among the latter. Fitz had been our local policeman for many years, operating from Wakefield, and we all knew him. He and Mrs Fitz made a wonderful garden completely surrounded by bush.
In 1930 the Crown acquired 80 acres from my mother and opened up a new subdivision on the western side of the road. This was in exchange for the Stock Reserve at the Roundell which was vital to the Roundell homestead. On my mother's death all the remaining land in her name near the lake was taken over by the Crown. When I left the Roundell in 1958 I subdivided a single line of sections along the road from the Duckpond corner to the gravel reserve near the bridge.
It was unfortunate that my parents owned so much land in the immediate vicinity of the lake that should never have been privately owned. It blocked public access and caused a great deal of resentment which I had to deal with as I was the man on the spot. All the land on the west of the road and west of the Black Valley Stream was our private property and from the foot of the hill was fenced with a hard-to-get-through paling fence. This did not matter before motor cars made the lake popular because the few people who came then had plenty of room on the reserve outside the fence. Later, when people arrived in crowds they understandably resented being herded outside the fence while our little-used bach stood in three and a half acres of empty paddock. It was a long time before I could persuade my mother to give about one acre of land allowing the public free, and legal, access to the beach west of the stream.
The new road which diverted from the old route and crossed the Buller River not far below the lake cut off about, from memory, four hundred and fifty acres including West Bay frontage and the peninsula. This area was useless from a farming point of view and when it was suggested that it should become a public reserve I tried to persuade my mother to give it for that purpose. However she had other advisers and all I could manage was a reduction in the price. The public spirited men who found the money to buy this land should be gratefully remembered by all who go to the lake. I wonder how many know who they were (J.G. Ingram, E. Thompson, F.G. Gibbs, H. Kidson, C.I. Kidson).
I have often been asked about the name of the isolated hill between the Duckpond and the lake. It was always called the Duckpond Hill by local people. The name, Black Hill, was probably bestowed by someone in an office who never say it. When I went to live in Nelson in 1958 I left a very different Tophouse-Lake Rotoiti district to that which I had brought to nearly fifty years before. Then the only man-made intrusion near the lake was the Lake Station mustering hut in its holding paddock and the rocky road scratched across the landscape to Tophouse and towards the West Coast. Now the whole area bordering the northern end of the lake at the now named Kerr Bay was traced with roads and dotted with cottages being built to town standards. Many of the people living page 43there were permanent residents. They lived there all the year. There was a store and Post Office and petrol pump, a school and public hall, and near the lake shore shelter sheds and ablution blocks. And the National Park had arrived with a uniform and signs which read "Thou shalt not do this".
Outside the St Arnaud village large areas of bush had been felled and grassed and had carried stock and were now needing topdressing to make them worthwhile. Bulldozers had come and were clearing the stumps and logs into windrows to be burnt. Roads had been fenced on both sides and no longer had gates across them which had annoyed travellers, and rivers and streams were bridged or culverted. The Tophouse Hotel was now a lonely, seldom visited pub. The Tophouse Post and Telegraph Office which once handled all telegraph communication between Nelson, Marlborough and Westland was now just a bach, without a phone.
On Mt Robert there was now a skifield and I am reminded that when the first hut was being built it was decided to use wire bracing to lessen the amount of timber which would have to be ferried across the lake and carried up the mountain. They remembered the wire and forgot the staples. Les Tiller came to me. I showed him my staples kegs and invited him to help himself. I also remember that when one of my daughters was ill someone took a message up Mt Robert and Dr Peat came down to us.
The week I left the Roundell the Electricity people dumped the first load of concrete power poles near the woolshed.
This article first appeared in Rotoiti Recollections and has been reprinted, with permission, to enable its wider circulation.