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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2000

A Pelorus Valley Pioneering Family

page 46

A Pelorus Valley Pioneering Family

How many people travelling between Blenheim and Nelson have noticed or wondered about the remains of the old stone wall that can be seen close to the road, just behind a deer fence, on the Havelock side of the Pelorus Reserve? In case you are wondering, it was built in the 1860s by the Couper family, who bought 200 acres of land and built an Accommodation House on the opposite side of the road. The stone wall enclosed their orchard and garden.

Daniel Couper was born in 1819 at Leith, the seaport of Edinburgh, and went with his parents to the Shetland Islands, where his father had been appointed as a Fishery Officer. They lived in the large Haa House at Grobsness, a remote headland on the west side of the Shetland Mainland, where they raised 11 children. Made of stone, the three storied house was once the big house of the bay, but now sheep shelter inside its ruins and only one house of the original five is still lived in. The children were taught at home at first but, as the boys grew bigger, they sailed approximately 40 miles around the coast to attend Happyhansel school at Walls. They boarded at the Manse and learned navigation, as well as the 3 Rs, and had regular readings from the Bible.

Fishing was the main livelihood of the Shetlanders at that time and the boys grew up knowing the skills of the industry. Daniel became proficient as a cooper and fish curer, as well as learning navigational skills. By 1840 he was sailing his own ships between London and Capetown. Imagine travelling that great distance in a small ship only 82 feet long; the storms they must have experienced and the peace of the calm afterwards.

In 1846 Daniel married Mary Ann, a Capetown lass who was to follow him across the seas. She and their baby son went on a cargo trip to London, but did not get as far as Scotland, where Daniel's family were living. Daniel then contented himself with sailing around the Capetown coast, taking supplies to the fishermen and whalers working in the area, but he grew weary of leaving his wife and son on shore. In 1852 he wrote a letter commanding her to sell up everything they owned in Port Elizabeth and join him at Capetown, as he had decided to go to Australia.

page 47
Couper's Accommodation house, Pelorus Valley c1895. (Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum)

Couper's Accommodation house, Pelorus Valley c1895. (Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum)

page 48

They went to the Victorian goldfields, and what a hard life they must have experienced there. Daniel's youngest brother, Benjamin, joined them but was unfortunately killed in a fall of earth. I have recently been able to walk over the Forest Creek diggings at Castlemaine, the gold field where the brothers worked in the late 1850s, and visited Benjamin's grave site. He is buried among a lot of other unnamed miners' graves. Daniel's son John did his schooling while growing up at Forest Creek.

From there they came to the goldfields of New Zealand, with a short spell in Otago, and then to the Wakamarina diggings, where their son John worked. Daniel and Mary Ann set up an accommodation house in the bridge builders' huts at Pelorus Bridge. This was where they had contact with the Maungatapu murderers, who stole Mary Ann's poultry.

In 1866 Daniel bought 200 acres on the Havelock side of the Pelorus Bridge and built a two storied accommodation house, where he and Mary Ann became well known for their hospitality to the miners, surveyors, bush fellers, drovers, clergy and early explorers who travelled between Nelson and the Wairau on foot or horseback.

John left the Wakamarina diggings to help his parents clear the land, and planted a large vegetable garden and fruit trees. A few cows were brought in and then some sheep, and they were able to support themselves. Surplus produce was sold to the miners and workers in the valley. John wrote in his diary of going out on the hills around Rai to shoot wild cattle and carrying them back to sell to Moller, the storekeeper at the gold fields. The family made their own wine to serve at the accommodation house, which became the central meeting place of the valley.

John's diaries record the people who passed by, and the news of other places and people would become known up and down the valley. The family became involved in community activities, the church, the school, the library, or in just helping other settlers. John Couper married a Welsh lass, Amy Haycock from Richmond, and a cottage was built across the road from his parents in which to house their increasing family.

Amy died in childbirth in 1887 and Daniel and Mary Ann then helped with the upbringing of their five grandsons and one grand-daughter. Amy was buried on the hillside, in what became a small family cemetery, and Daniel and Mary were buried near her when they died in 1907 and 1908 respectively. Sinclair Couper, the youngest son of John and Amy, was buried there after his death in 1912 in a shooting accident, and it is also the page 49resting place of John Couper. Family members can obtain permission to visit the cemetery.

The Couper grandsons worked at bushfelling and shearing in the valley, while their sister Winnie kept house for their father. Letters from the family in Scotland were valued and kept, and tell of a very different type of life on the other side of the world. The pioneering of the Pelorus Valley was hard work and opportunities for schooling were limited, but they read well and developed a wide knowledge of the world events. They started a better life for their descendants in a new country.

In 1916 the roof was removed from the old accommodation house and then a rope was put around the building and attached to a horse, which pulled, and the house fell down. The building was rotten and the need for it had gone. A new house was built across the road that year for one of the sons, and another was built on the site of the old accommodation house for John and his daughter Winnie.

Now another generation of the family lives in the house on the top side of the road. The little cemetery and the remains of the old stone wall serve as reminders of that early pioneering family. The wall is identical to those I have seen in the Shetland Islands.