Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 6, 1995
Ralphine Zealandia Regina Richardson, who came to be generally known by her childhood family name of Queenie, was born at Nelson on 30 June 1887. She was the youngest of two daughters of Ralph Richardson, of Greenfield Hall, Flintshire, Wales, and Effie Newbiggen Johnstone of Hokitika.
Ralphine was two and a half years old when her father died in Nelson on 22 December 1889. On the death of his son, Dr Ralph Richardson sent for the family. The Maitai Run and other land throughout Nelson, Golden Bay and Marlborough was leased and Mrs Richardson, with her two small daughters, joined Dr Richardson in England.
Although the family's background was High Anglican Church, Ralphine and her sister, Effie-Louisa, attended the Catholic Convent des Dames Saint Maur at Pau, France from 1894 to 1904. This and further education in France resulted in Ralphine speaking French more easily than English and, in the years between the two World Wars, the family's accent was to be viewed by some Nelsonians with suspicion. Following the convent years they spent four terms at Stevens Academy, Brighton, England in 1904–05. Grandfather Richardson died in 1898, but the wider family still held Greenfield Hall in Flintshire, Townweal in Devonshire, and Capenhurst Hall in Cheshire. Holidays were spent at all three estates. Ralphine's grandmother Marie Louise Richardsonnee Seymour had died in 1880, but there were also uncles, aunts and cousins to visit. Ralphine later enthusiastically related holidays spent at the old Seymour Castle, where the sea roared loudly beneath its dungeons on the rugged Cornish coast. Some holidays were spent in the Swiss Alps. In 1906 the family of three returned to France, where the two sisters attended the Eglise Reformee at Passy and went on to the Paris University.
A favourite family story preserved from this period is of a certain Nelson gentleman travelling first-class to England, with a Deed-of-Sale for the family's Maitai Run. He returned to Nelson, sans-signature, travelling steerage.page 14
After 18 years absence, Mrs Richardson and her daughters returned to Nelson in December 1908, when Ralphine was 21. Their former home, The Beacons at the foot of Mary Ann Street (now Richardson), had been destroyed by fire in June 1908. Mrs Richardson purchased Muritai, the Pitt family former home, on the corner of today's Richardson Street and Princes Drive. The street name change was facilitated by a 1910 agreement between Mrs Richardson and the Nelson City Council. A Council resolution that Molesworth and Mary Ann Streets be altered to Domett and Richardson Streets respectively, was confirmed by a Special Order on 3 February 1911. Mrs Richardson's priority on return was to regain management of the Maitai sheep run, commuting by horse and trap from Muritai.
Ralphine's father's death, as a result of the accidental injury to his brain on the cutter Gannet, was to have an influence on his daughters' private lives. Mistakenly fearing hereditary connotations, Mrs Richardson took every step to ensure that her daughters never married. Their family's history was denied them and they were to remain spinsters until their respective deaths. Surveillance did not prevent romance for Ralphine as, a few years after her return to New Zealand, she eloped from Muritai with their groomsman. An uncle, dispatched immediately to Christchurch, brought the wayward daughter home.
Shortly after the beginning of World War I the first of the leases on Maitai Run land expired, and the women were soon able to take over the running of the property, dividing their time between Muritai and the Maitai. Few leases were renewed on expiry and adjoining land was purchased as it came up for sale. Their first Maitai home, a cobcottage named Edendale because of one lessee, Samuel Eden, was believed to have been built in 1842 and was originally thatched. It was added to and became a substantial dwelling, standing on a terrace overlooking the Maitai River flats. Below Edendale was an old hop-kiln which serviced the adjacent hop-garden and, with additions, it was to form the shearing shed.
An early additional venture was the running of a dairy farm. Milk-cans were washed in the river opposite the dairy building, downstream from what was to become the popular Denne's Hole, named after another lessee, J.G. Denne. Ralphine, on 12 April 1915, was issued her own Dairy Registration Certificate.
Ralphine's sister, Effie-Louisa, took little part in the outdoor activities. Her interests tended more towards painting, music, needlework and, increasingly, religion. She favoured life at Muritai.
Living a very full life, Ralphine found the strenuous work of dairy and hill-country farming eminently satisfying. Taking long walks on a regular basis, she knew every acre of the property. She soon learnt to muster, crutch and dip her sheep, working alongside her employees. Using hand-shears, she learnt how to shear sheep but the later machine-shearing she left to the experts. Ralphine was to excel in this male dominated world, and by the time she was 30 she had the respect of her workers and peers alike.
Visits to the city were often on horse-back, in riding-breeches, riding astride, a habit which was not entirely approved of by Nelson matrons. Love of horses extended to trotting and she was a member of the New Zealand Trotting Association. Elected a member of the Nelson Jockey Club on 26 February 1918 she gained an Amateur Trainer's Licence in 1920; cup-winning horses were Taxation and Major Election. The run at one time carried 25 horses, including ponies, racers, trotters, hacks and the necessary draught-horses.
From the outset there were land problems. Ralphine's mother, Mrs Effie Newbiggen Richardson, was extremely zealous of the family's property rights and her indomitable page 15nature often resulted in lengthy legal battles and confrontation with lessees, local-bodies, adjoining property owners and the public at large. As head of a family of women, her control over a large tract of land bordering and within the city's boundaries, together with the riparian rights to the Maitai River, was bound to cause resentment and, in fairness to Mrs Richardson, it could be said that the bulk of problems were due to a clash of attitudes.
Whereas the English class-conscious public of this period tended to respect the rights of landowners, this was not always the case in the colonies. Confrontations abounded, trespass notices were placed at strategic sites, wandering city dogs were shot and trespassers were sent fleeing, regardless of age or community standing.
With the passage of time, many of the mother's actions have been wrongfully attributed to her daughter, Ralphine. Under the terms of her husband's will, Mrs Richardson had been appointed sole-executrix of the estate, with tenancy-for-life. As an owner, Ralphine's signature often appeared alongside her mother's, a requirement which has tended to strengthen the misconception.
Frederick Giles Gibbs was one of those who crossed swords with Mrs Richardson. He, as a local primary school headmaster, and a number of citizens had for some years during the family's absence, and with the goodwill of the tenants, enjoyed access to the Maitai Valley. In particular, Denne's Hole was used by school-boys for learning to swim. Ralph Richardson, during his life time, had a close interest in Nelson College and allowed boys access to the swimming areas, variously known as Big Hole, Willow Hole and Black Hole.
When Mrs Richardson began sub-dividing, fencing and re-letting the land in 1909, she gave notice that, with the exception of Big Hole, picnicking, camping or swimming would not be allowed on the estate.
In 1910 Gibbs invited confrontation by taking his children to Sunday Hole, considered by the family as their private swimming area. Gibbs argued that the owners were only guests of the tenants and whipped up a furore, advocating that the land be taken for the people. In November 1910 The Colonist carried a leader protesting against such infringement of public rights. In 1911, with roadside fencing preventing access to certain areas, the Waimea County Council issued proceedings against Mrs Richardson. Subsequently, the Chamber of Commerce presented a petition to the Premier, Sir Joseph Ward, and later the Nelson City Council moved in the matter of acquiring certain portions of the estate.
An endeavour by Mrs Richardson to sell the entire Maitai Run to the Government failed in 1914. After two years of negotiation, on 5 March 1914, notice of intention to take certain lands under the Public Works Act was advertised in the New Zealand Gazette. The lands required were Denne's and Sunday Holes and some 16 acres of prime flat land at a remote site, 2½ miles south of the farm entrance and the then city boundary, which were to be used as a public recreation-ground (today's Maitai Motor Camp).
Not all Nelsonians approved of this tactical acquisition, with 540 citizens from all walks-of-life signing a protest to the Rt. Hon. Saville, Earl of Liverpool, Governor and Commander-in-chief of His Majesty's Dominion of New Zealand and its dependencies. His Excellency appointed Mr J.M. Evans S.M. to enquire into and report on the matter.
In March 1916 the Government issued its proclamation, but substituted Big Hole for Sunday Hole. Nelson's two newspapers serialised the entire affair in depth for some six years, but the Gibbs V Richardson battle continued for many more years. In 1953, long after Mrs Richardson's death, a concrete bridge partly financed by the Automobile Association was built to eliminate the Sunday Ford. The name Gibbs Bridge was advo-page 16cated , but there was little public support and it was known as Sunday Ford Bridge until 29 August 1978 when, at the request of the Nelson Automobile Association, it was signposted Gibbs Bridge.
Mrs Richardson's continuing battle to keep the Maitai Run intact had led her to spend long hours in the Nelson Law Courts, studying arguments and procedures. For over a decade the Nelson newspapers were rarely without some heated dispute involving Mrs Effie Newbiggen Richardson. An argument with the Waimea Electric Power Board was not resolved for 50 years. Instead of using their power, the Run made do with a not always reliable, push-button, but mostly hand-start generator, which enabled the homestead to be lit by night and even managed to boil an electric jug. The last person in bed turned off the generator. The Run was finally connected to Power Board electricity in 1962.
With her mother thus occupied, the practical farm management was left largely to Ralphine. Piece by piece the bulk of the Run was cleared of gorse and bracken, and goats were introduced from Wairoa Gorge to control regrowth scrub.
But life was not all farm-work and Mrs Richardson took her daughters on vacation to the Far East. A mild flirtation in Penang resulted in a young man becoming infatuated with Ralphine. Despite his realisation that his was a case of unrequited love, his ardent letters continued for a great many years.
Great excitement in 1923 was caused by the purchase of a shiny black 29hp 26cwt Willys Knight motorcar. Ralphine soon obtained her driver's licence, but the Willys never replaced her first-love transport, the horse.
As the 1920s progressed, Ralphine's farm work-load extended to include all the associated paper work. Mrs Richardson had become frail and a hospital sister, Nurse Doris Vercoe, was hired to care for her. Mrs Effie Newbiggen Richardson died on 27 December 1928 and was buried alongside her husband in the family plot at Wakapuaka Cemetery. Ralphine inherited a number of her mother's problems but, by and large, managed to conquer most. Conflict continued, with successive City Councillors threatening to take the necessary flat lands under the Public Works Act. City-dwellers complained of traditional annual burn-offs to control gorse and regrowth manuka, and there were a few domestic problems with neighbours but, overall, Miss Ralphine Richardson had won the city's grudging approval.
Ralphine had always recognised the handicap of having no resident male family members. At the age of 48 she decided on a then uncustomary course of action, which to most of her contemporaries would have been unthinkable. Gritty, determined and above all practical, Ralphine began to look for a suitable male infant to adopt. With the workload becoming increasingly heavy and time consuming, this was viewed as a sound viable option and an exciting prospect.
It was a major step but finally, from a choice of three well-vetted children, Ralphine returned from Sydney in 1937 with an eight-month old baby boy. The circumstances were unusual, even for Australia, and there followed a spate of mature single Sydney ladies seeking similar adoptions. Some time during the lengthy legal negotiations she considered it important to seek her family's history from England, and it arrived from her Aunt Kathryn in April 1937.
In the early 1940s a portion of Edendale was moved to the Maitai roadside and added to, to become the main residence. This became the family's summer house, where they resided during shearing, with shearers' quarters being built alongside. To aid the war effort, Ralphine returned to dairy farming and a dairy building for a diesel-powered milking machine was built behind the homestead. She also ventured into cropping.page 17
Ralphine adopted a second son, who was flown by Sunderland flying-boat from Australia on 26 June 1945, in the care of a nurse. Doris Vercoe remained with the family as companion-cook and took up the role of nanny. She was to be a permanent member of the household.
With the purchase of adjoining lands, the Maitai Run reached 6, 500 acres, comprising approximately two thirds of the Maitai Valley and its environs, and supported 6, 000 sheep. Wool, the main revenue, produced 100–120 bales per annum, with the mustering of some blocks often taking all day. To reach the abattoir, mobs of sheep were driven through the outskirts of Nelson City, often with amusing incidents, and the practice continued until the early 1950s.
To the casual observer, Miss Ralphine Richardson was a paradox. She addressed her men by their surnames, yet would sit in the sun for half a working-day yarning with favoured employees, mostly landowners in their own right, who considered it a privilege to work for her. Amongst long-term employees were the names Tom Elliott, working-farm-manager, who travelled more than 8 miles down valley by horse and cart for 26 years; his successors Bill Franklyn, who managed the Run for two separate periods, page 18Perry Biggs and Peter Stewart; musterer-fencers Sydney Smith and his son; Boer War veteran George (Kilty) Smith; Ted and Charlie Woodward and later Iain Robertson; musterers Bill Chapman, Les Dixon and Lou Austin; good, neat and, more importantly, kind to sheep and fast shearer Noble Hippolite; musterer-shearers Trev and Gilbert Andrews, Milton Norris and his son; the brothers John and Tom Mead; long-standing seasonal-cook, Tommy Gibbs.
General farm-workers included Lou Nicholson, Noel Andrews, Owen Stone, Allan Brookes, Joe Ruff, Peter Justice and reliable handyman Fred Newport. The best shearers Ralphine ever employed were Len Kotua and his two sons. Len was favoured with the task of teaching her first adopted son to shear and, many years on, to speak at that son's wedding. The speech in Maori was so moving that everyone wept, although few understood a word. From the 1930s the families of many hunters and fishermen came to hold long and close associations with the Run, often helping out with odd jobs and seasonal work. There were the Bennett Brothers, George Elliott, Jim Venner and his son Bryan and Bill Pegg.
Shearing traditionally commenced the Monday after Nelson's A&P Show, in 5000–6000 clouds of dust. Ralphine worked solo, wool-classing and fleece-rolling alongside three of New Zealand's top 'gun shearers', often having to work up to three-quarters of the hour-long lunch-break to catch up.
But even longer hours were spent on tasks which her workers found to be beneath their dignity. Once shearing was over, year in and year out, up to and including the year prior to her death at 82, Ralphine trod the pathway along the terrace from homestead to her shearing-shed on a daily basis to attend to the final wool-clipping and to manually scrub the shed with caustic, ready for the next muster.
Her compassion may be measured by her instructions to farm-employees during the 1930s Great Depression to turn a 'blind eye' to the taking of mutton by those families in need, and by the many remittance-men and displaced returned-servicemen, who over the years found safe-haven on her 6, 500 acre property. Amongst the remittance-men were 'old Tom' O'Connor, Eric 'Biscuit' Tong and art restorer and Oxford educated Walter Grant, each supported by a regular family allowance from England. Returned servicemen included 'Tiger' Lodge and Lou Whiting. All these men had their own separate small hut-like accommodation.
At ease with all levels of society, and despite her busy life, Ralphine found time for such interests as the Nelson Suter Art Society, the Nelson Women's Club, the Nelson Chamber Music Society, the Nelson A&P Society and Federated Farmers. The exclusive Nelson French Society, set up to keep the French language skills alive, saw her closest friends, Mrs Perrine Moncrieff, Miss Gladys Bisley and artist Marjorie Naylor, gather regularly at her home. She enjoyed reading historical novels and detective stories. She became a life-member of the Nelson Scout Association.
Ralphine's sister, Effie Louisa, died in April 1955, aged 70. Muritai was seldom used, except to store cherished family antique furniture, porcelain and paintings, which Ralphine took every opportunity to add to. Family holidays always included visits to 'the dealers'.
The short wool-boom associated with the Korean War saw the purchase of a D4 Caterpillar bulldozer, a Morris Commercial truck and a Dodge motorcar, the latter on the dealer's condition that Ralphine purchase the truck. The boom produced a new breed of trespasser, gathering wool from fences and scrub which they tucked into capacious carry bags, for sale later. Maitai Run stock-tallies in 1955 were 173 cattle and 6000 sheep.
Diminishing farm returns in the 1960s, combined with increasing land valuations, page 19gave cause for reflection and, in her final years, Ralphine faced the certainty that the Run's size and proximity to Nelson City would dictate its fate. There was another hurdle to face. For many years she had worried over death duties and, as early as 1961, had acquired the scale-of-rates which revealed such duties would be in the vicinity of 40% of the estate's worth. Her abhorrence of such levies led her to attempt to avoid the issue. The Golden Bay County lands had been sold, but the bulk of the revenue was already committed. A family conference was called which decided the Run should be sold. This decision, with the associated sadness, brought on her first decline in health. The entire Run was sold to a Nelson syndicate, which in turn sold a portion of the land to the Nelson City Council for later development into recreation reserves for the people of Nelson.
Ralphine purchased the lovely old home of No 12 Richardson Street for her retirement, virtually on the site of her birthplace, The Beacons, but she was never to live there.
The last muster was a sad occasion, being the first that Ralphine had been unable to take part in, in 55 years. She died at her home on Maitai Run on 22 March 1969 aged 82 years.
In 1987 the Waimea County Council paid a tribute to Miss Ralphine Richardson. Her old walkway along the terrace, now a street in a new housing sub-division, was given the name 'Ralphine Way'.
Sources: Richardson Family papers.
Information on more recent years was provided by her sons, Denis and Richard Richardson.