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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2002

19th Century Construction

19th Century Construction

More than one account of the building of the wall has it that granite blocks were used in its construction and Geoffrey Toynbee Be, Mnzie, who was City Engineer when later alterations were carried out, indicated to me that granite may have been used. Inspection of parts of the wall at the foot of Richardson Street and near the much later Connolly Quay, however, where some of the original blockwork can still be seen, reveals surfaces of concrete and not granite.

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This evidence is confirmed in a construction photograph from the Tyree Collection taken in 1894, which clearly shows large, rectangular, rebated, precast concrete blockwork both in the wall and in stacks nearby. Interestingly, however, a number of smaller, square, smooth-faced blocks can be seen lying on the ground near the wall, and these could well be of granite.

Cecil Nash, later known as a pioneer of the Nelson tobacco industry, but in the late 1890s a Nelson City Council employee, is said to have been the maker of the concrete blocks, which were cast near Albion Wharf and taken to the site by sea.

Waimea County Council was responsible to the Committee for work up to its boundary at Magazine Point, so named for the cache of explosives kept in a cave there. Numerous anecdotes refer to the convict labour used by the City Council to build the eastern section of the wall. According to CB Brereton 'each morning…a party of 20 left the gaol in Shelbourne Street and marched…to Rocks Road…they wore ringed jerseys of black and yellow and were known to the boys as Sam Jickell's football team'. He goes on to tell several stories about the prisoners involved in the work.

In this regard, Geoffrey Toynbee recalls his impression that the eastern, more sheltered and thus more vertical part of the wall was prisoner-built in granite. It was of better quality construction than was the case with the more exposed and thus more sloping western section. This recollection is supported by the 60 metre length of early seawall still visible between the old city powerhouse and the sea rescue launching ramp on Wakefield Quay. Built with granite blocks in regular courses, it appears to be a remnant of the easternmost end of the 19th century construction which resorted to concrete blocks further west.

Raising funds to meet rising costs brought about by construction difficulties meant progress was slow, with the prisoners being criticised for being the slowest. It was a time of great economic hardship in the region. By 1895, however, though much filling was still to be done where the new wall had been built well out from the cliff face, a rough, narrow roadway was available to those who were prepared to use it at their own risk.

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The construction gang for Waimea County Council posing on the partly formed western section of the roadway about 1894. Miscellaneous Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum 6 × 8 24.

The construction gang for Waimea County Council posing on the partly formed western section of the roadway about 1894. Miscellaneous Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum 6 × 8 24.

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That the hazards were real, both from wave action and rockfalls, is well illustrated by the provision of looped ropes and lifebuoys along the seawall and by the use of convict labour. Later on, explosives were used to reduce the overhang of the cliffs along part of the road. The whole length had been surfaced with gravel by late 1897. In the same year repairs were carried out to damaged areas along the Waimea County section of the wall face, where sea action was already proving to be more severe than was the case in the lee of Haulashore Island further east.

The handsome and substantial stanchions and chains along the top of the western section of the wall, money for which was donated by pioneer Nelson settler John Tinline and his English friend James Tytler, were in place by early 1898, a full year before the road was officially opened for use.

At the Basin Reserve, in a ceremony complete with a triumphal arch at the boundary between the City and County territories, bright flowers, flags and music by the Garrison Band, Prime Minister Richard Seddon formally opened the roadway on 3 February 1899. The official party, which included the Mayors of Nelson and Richmond, members of the Nelson City, Waimea County and Richmond Borough Councils, and Mr Jickell, were all seated on a platform behind what was known as the Record Reign Fountain. This, presumably, was a now lost 1887 memorial to Victoria's 50 years as queen.

Just a week later the occupants of a passing trap were severely shaken when a large rock fell on it while on their way from Richmond to the port. Sam Jickell was immediately instructed to have loose rock removed from the cliff faces above the new roadway. The signposted hazard warning to those using the road was clearly no idle one.

Responsibility for the newly-built road and seawall was taken over by the Government in 1903 under the provisions of the Public Works Act. In 1913, following several vehicle accidents along the outer edge of the still unfenced section, the 1898 post and chain protection was extended along Wakefield Quay through a bequest to the City for the purpose from Thomas Cawthron.