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

Shelter: Emergency Housing in 19th Century Nelson

Shelter: Emergency Housing in 19th Century Nelson

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Communities commonly face the need to provide emergency housing for those in need of shelter, and lacking the means to provide it for themselves.

Shelter for the expected immigrants was a major concern of Captain Arthur Wakefield when the Preliminary Expedition arrived on 1 November 1841 to establish the settlement of Nelson. Prefabricated barracks had been brought as cargo and on 9 November 1841 he set six men to work setting them up. The first was erected at the landing place at the foot of Richardson Street, and on 12 November Wakefield recorded that the work was not proceeding as quickly as he could wish, with many parts of the framing not fitted.

On 15 November Wakefield sent part of one barracks around to the town site to form the camp for the Company surveyors on what became Church Hill. Three of the carpenters were sent to the surveyors' camp to continue with the building work and further sets of barracks were transported there.

Wakefield took charge of the remainder of the building work on the hill on 3 January 1842, intending to house the expected immigrants there. The first of the immigrant ships, the Fifeshire, arrived on 1 February and most of the free passengers were housed in the barracks by the next day. On 8 February Wakefield wrote to his brother, William, that nearly all of those from the Fifeshire were out of the barracks and, with the room left and three tents, they would be able to accommodate those from the Mary Ann pretty well. 1

The barracks on Church Hill continued to house arriving immigrants until late in 1842, when a replacement was built off Hardy Street, opposite the present site of St John's Methodist church.

It was generally agreed that the hilltop was the ideal site for a church and Bishop Selwyn began negotiating for use of the immigration barracks as a temporary church, during his visit in August/September 1842. JW Barnicoat recorded on 8 September 1842 that the Bishop was in treaty for the barracks, which were to be brought together with a smaller building to form a temporary church, with an arched opening made between them.

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The Barn, as it was popularly known, accommodated about 180 worshippers and the first service was held in it on 22 January 1843. 2 The state of the building was causing concern by 1849 and a meeting was held in April of that year 'for the purpose of taking measures to erect a Church in Nelson, as the temporary building hitherto used is fast becoming unserviceable'. Tenders for the supply of timber were called in September 1849 and the new church was opened by Bishop Selwyn on 14 December 1851. 3

On 17 April 1852 the Nelson Total Abstinence Society wrote to Mathew Richmond, the Superintendent of Nelson, 'respecting a building in Trafalgar Square lately occupied as a place of worship by the Episcopalians of this town and now we understand at the disposal of the Government'. The Society was anxious to secure a suitable building in which to hold meetings for the advocacy of their principles and had purchased a site in Bridge Street.

Fund raising for a new building was difficult for its members, who were mostly working men. The former church was standing unoccupied and, if it could be obtained, the Society would immediately remove it to its section where, with additions and improvements, it would be 'an ornament to the town'. The letter further offered to make the hall available for public meetings, as there was no suitable building available for that purpose. Richmond forwarded the request to the Colonial Secretary's Office and the reply came on 31 May regretting that the Governor, under the circumstances of the case, did not feel authorised to comply with the request made by the Society. 4

The old building continued to be used for other purposes. The first concert by the Philharmonic Society, held there on 26 January 1853, was well received by the audience of 250 people and the review noted that the rooms were very tastefully decorated. WM Stanton recorded that the former chancel was used as the orchestra's platform and that Mr and Mrs Augarde were the feature of the entertainments. 5

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Haulashore Island from the Boulder Bank showing the former barracks and church. Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 182218/3

Haulashore Island from the Boulder Bank showing the former barracks and church. Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 182218/3

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A sketch by Frederick Mackie, who visited Nelson between March and May of 1853, shows the old building behind the new church. Alfred Fell and Company advertised that they had received instructions to sell the building in Trafalgar Square formerly used as the Episcopal Church by auction on 16 June 1853. The advertisement noted that the building was of English construction and had a slated roof. CY Fell recorded that his father bought The Barn at auction and carried it to Haulashore Island where it served for years as a coal shed. 6

Tenders for the replacement barracks in Hardy Street were called in September 1842 and specified the building of 24 mud houses 12 ft by 12 ft, a baggage warehouse 25 ft by 16 ft and a cooking house 12 ft by 12 ft. Built of pise (rammed earth), the whitewashed building formed three sides of a square. A plan of the town by F Moline shows the barracks straddling Harley Street, with the rear wall parallel to St John Street. Alexander Macshane, the Immigration Agent, appointed Mrs Pearman to the position of nurse and caretaker at the barracks on 23 December 1842. 7

Sarah Ann Fowler, who arrived on the Indus on 5 February 1843, wrote of staying in 'the Barracks just finished built round three sides of a square with a large cook house in the middle. We were allowed to stay here until we looked about for suitable land'. 8

The Reverend John Aldred, the Wesleyan minister, advertised in the Nelson Examiner of 4 March 1843 that he would hold divine service in the emigration storeroom, Hardy Street, every Sunday at 11am and 6pm until further notice.

There was drama at the barracks in January 1844 when, as the Nelson Examiner reported: 'A man named Pearman, whose wife is nurse at the Company's depot, compelled her, by repeated ill usage, to request the Immigration Agent, on Sunday last, that he might not be allowed any longer to remain with her. When desired to leave the premises, he seized a knife and threatened the life of any person who attempted to remove him.

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Map of the town showing the Hardy Street barracks, 1843, F Moline

Map of the town showing the Hardy Street barracks, 1843, F Moline

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'Subsequently, a warrant was procured, but having a loaded gun, he barricaded the door and swore he would shoot the first person that entered. On Monday, two of the constables entered the adjoining rooms and, as the partition that divides them does not reach the roof, they were able to threaten him with himself being fired on if he attempted to point his gun at another constable who was about to assail the door. Finding further resistance useless, he then surrendered. He has since been brought up before the Police Magistrate and was remanded until Monday next'.

The Magistrate sentenced Pearman to three months imprisonment on the charge of assaulting the Immigration Agent and committed him to trial on the charge of threatening to shoot the constables. He was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment. 9

The New Zealand Company's office was moved to the barracks in November 1844 and the Land Office reopened there in February 1851. 10 A report to Mathew Richmond in March 1851 on the buildings being taken over from the New Zealand Company described the barracks as being in bad repair.

The mud walls had lost their plastering, the walls themselves were weak and tottering in some parts and the shingles on the roof were in a state of decay. The report estimated that putting the building in a state of repair would require the outlay of about £100, and that the building and the acre on which it stood would be worth about £250. 11

The Nelson Provincial Government came into being in 1853 and its offices were housed in the barracks.

A select committee on immigration in 1855 asked those giving evidence whether they considered the accommodation in the barracks sufficient for the reception of immigrants who might be expected under a system of assisted passage. WTL Travers thought that, if reports current as to the number of immigrants of the working class likely to arrive in the province proved correct, the present accommodation would be decidedly insufficient. Expenditure on additions and repairs to the immigration barracks was recorded in the same year. 12

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In a scathing attack on the state of public buildings in the town on 27 January 1858 the Nelson Examiner stated: 'Next we come to the old Immigration Barracks, to which some additions were made about two years ago. Here all the Government offices are located; the Superintendent, Provincial Secretary, Chief Surveyor, Land Commissioner, Treasurer and all their subordinates are congregated together. And then we have a sort of Auxiliary Hospital and Lunatic Asylum, and Refuge for the Destitute and Immigrants' Barracks, with a mixture of old shoes, soapsuds, rank grass, linen hung out to dry and dilapidated buildings and sheds and enclosures in the foreground.

'Here under one roof are congregated together, with a most touching regard to the maxims of republican equality, the classes furthest apart and most widely separated in our community: those who have risen to its head, those who have failed to rise and are at the other end of the social scale, those who by their position show they have more wit than the generality and those who have evidently lost what little they once had.

'The newly arrived immigrant must be puzzled to distinguish between the Superintendent who takes possession of the room on his left as being the best berth in Nelson and the neighbour on his right who takes one exactly similar because he has nowhere else to lay his head. He might be excused for believing at first that it would matter very little whether he drew a blank or a prize in the lottery of colonial life since here, as at the close of life, all of whatsoever degree had met together, collected under the same narrow roof, and each had the same little number of square feet allotted for his accommodation and rest'.

In the following year a start was made on providing more suitable accommodation for the government offices. The Colonist of 30 August 1859 reported the laying of the foundation stone for the new Provincial Government Building in Bridge Street. At the conclusion of ceremonies the procession reformed and proceeded to Barrack Square, where Dr Hochstetter laid the foundation stone for the new Nelson Institute at the corner of Hardy and Harley Streets. The Provincial Government Building opened in 1860.

A government notice in the Nelson Examiner in August 1859 had advised that the tender of Hugh Young and Son for £89/10/- and 10/- had been accepted for building a new kitchen at the Depot. Part of the old building continued to be used to house those referred to as the destitute poor and some who were afflicted with mental illness. Care for the latter group was somewhat haphazard at the time, as illustrated by a case referred to in the page 44report of a Select Committee into the Treatment of Lunatics and Sick Persons adopted by the Provincial Council in June 1861.

A Mrs Avery had died in the Depot a few months previously after being left there in a neglected state, instead of being sent to the building used exclusively for the accommodation of 'lunatics'. The committee reported that the temporary asylum did not afford adequate accommodation and should be enlarged, with the hope that central government would soon provide a general asylum. The committee also concluded that the treatment of the destitute sick, who were provided with rations and lodged in the Depot, was most unsatisfactory, as there was no responsible person to see that the inmates received proper attention. 13

In May 1860 large numbers of women and children began arriving in Nelson, seeking refuge from the land wars in Taranaki. At first they were housed in the Oddfellows Hall and other spare accommodation. The Provincial Government then made money available to build housing for them on government reserve land opposite the hospital in Waimea Road. Local carpenters offered free labour, tenders were called for the supply of timber and The Colonist paid tribute to the 'horny hand and warm heart of the British mechanic'. 14

The Nelson Examiner gave a description of the work on 22 September 1860. There were six detached buildings, four of which contained ten to twelve bedrooms and a common sitting room. The fifth had a kitchen, dining hall and wash-house, while the sixth was smaller and divided into two rooms to be used as a temporary hospital. The buildings were in two rows, one behind the other, facing Waimea Road. 15

A set of rules and regulations, to be observed by those living in the Taranaki Buildings, was drawn up and related to matters such as food preparation, meal times, housekeeping and lights out. An Overseer was appointed who was responsible for procuring food and water, cooking and maintaining order and cleanliness. The Overseer was responsible to William Gray, the agent for the Taranaki Government, who dispensed government aid to the refugees. 16

David Monro noted in his diary for 8 December 1860 that he had gone to inspect 'little Taranaki' and, although the people there grumbled very much, the place looked clean and nice, the provisions were good and the children appeared healthy.

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A testimonial to William Gray published in The Colonist of 30 April 1861 stated that the prospect of peace rendered it likely that the undersigned refugees would soon be returning to Taranaki. On 10 May 1861 it was reported that, under certain restrictions, some of the refugees had been allowed to return to New Plymouth. In July 1864 the New Zealand government gave notification that payments for return passage to New Plymouth would cease on 1 October of that year. 17

The Taranaki Provincial Council expressed its thanks to the government and inhabitants of Nelson for the hospitality and great kindness shown to the Taranaki refugees in a letter from its Superintendent of 9 August 1864. The Taranaki Buildings were now available for other housing needs. On 31 March 1863 The Colonist reported having heard that they were to be converted into an asylum for the insane. The report on the asylum in 1864 stated that the female patients had been removed to the Taranaki Buildings, one block of which had been fitted up for their reception. Another block was being altered for the males and would be available shortly.

The 1864 report on the Depot stated that its inmates, through age and infirmity, were unable to assist in keeping it in a clean and orderly state and it was not in a satisfactory condition. It was hoped that they would shortly be removed to the Taranaki Buildings and be placed under proper supervision. 18

The Nelson Examiner of 29 April 1865 reported that the inmates of the old Depot were to be transferred and that the two lines of huts, so long an eyesore to that part of town, were to be demolished. The move was confirmed by an official report in May 1865, which stated that the poor who required to be permanently supported by public funds were being removed to the Taranaki Buildings. It was hoped that the arrangements there would secure pure air, amusement and comfort to the aged and infirm and place some wholesome restraint upon those who might show a necessity for it.

The move had been rendered desirable by the dangerous and dilapidated state of the old Depot occupied by those unable to procure a home of their own. The injury which the undrained and uncleanly hovels had inflicted on the health of the town and the danger of fire, which the carelessness of the inmates had more than once rendered very apparent, had ended.

The yard in which the Depot had stood was to be enclosed and used for storing the large amount of material that was being imported for the Nelson waterworks. 19 The new police station on the southeast corner of Harley page 46and St John Streets was built on the site of the old government offices in the Depot. 20

Accommodation may have improved with the move to the Taranaki Buildings, but management problems continued. The Hospital Attendant, James Barton, reported in 1866 on the want of better discipline among the inmates. He suggested the appointment of a suitable person was needed to prevent a repetition of scenes of great disorder and immorality. 21

Another problem was that hospital patients with chronic illnesses who were also destitute were now sent there. A letter from Investigator in The Colonist of 17 December 1867 complained that these patients were left to their own devices and the Inspector of Police was not the most fitting person to attend to their wants. The Hospital Committee was no longer responsible for them, rations were unsuitable and cooking utensils were scarce.

Inmates in the asylum blocks were supplied with green vegetables from land dug up by male patients. The front garden was also kept tidy by patients, which gave the place a more pleasing appearance and it seemed less like a prison. Leaks in the roof of the female block, however, caused much inconvenience and discomfort to the inmates whose bedrooms were affected. 22

By 1869 the section for the destitute was being used mainly as a convalescent hospital, as the main hospital over the road could not accommodate them. The Medical Officer, William Kemp, recommended that repairs be made to the dilapidated buildings as they leaked in wet weather. He also found the diet scale unsatisfactory. A new matron had been in charge since February and had performed her duties in a most satisfactory manner.

A committee appointed to consider Dr Kemp's reports recommended a more liberal dietary scale for the inmates of the Taranaki Buildings; the addition of butter and vegetables was thought very desirable. Work was also in hand to build six new cells for male asylum inmates. 23

By 1872 patients with chronic illnesses were being kept in the hospital and the return of inmates of the poor department of the Taranaki Buildings for 1874 shows just ten residents, seven men and three women. There were 43 patients in the asylum however, and despite some extensions conditions were appalling. 24

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Looking towards Nelson College for Girls with the Immigration Barracks in the right foreground. Copy Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, C3676

Looking towards Nelson College for Girls with the Immigration Barracks in the right foreground. Copy Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, C3676

page 48

A report by Dr Paley on asylums in New Zealand, and the prospect of further immigration led to the building of a mental hospital and an immigration barracks by central government in 1874. 25 The mental hospital was built on land behind the Taranaki Buildings and was first used to house immigrants from the Adamant which arrived in August 1874, before the new barracks had been completed. 26

The immigration barracks were built on the site of the old hospital at the northwest corner of Wairnea and Examiner Streets. The Colonist reported its completion on 19 November 1874 with a capacity of 300 persons. It was substantially built, well ventilated and, in the reporter's opinion, altogether superior to similar places in other Provinces.

The use of the new mental hospital to house immigrants caused an initial delay in transferring patients there from the Taranaki Buildings, but the move continued to be deferred. In his report to the House of Representatives in July 1875, David Rough, the newly appointed Inspector of Lunatic Asylums, expressed his regret that the new asylum had not been made available before the winter. The only work remaining to be done was the building of some cells and the fencing of the front grounds. 27

The Nelson Evening Mail was very critical of mismanagement in the public works department on 17 January 1876, as the new asylum was still not completed. Inmates were still confined in what the newspaper characterised as 'that wretched piggery'. The patients finally moved in later in 1876.

The charitable aid from central government, on which the destitute occupants of the Taranaki Buildings were dependent, was cut off on 1 July 1878. The Nelson Evening Mail reported that the matron, Mrs Eliza Carter, was providing for the poor creatures, who had been left to starve by a paternal government, from her own pocket. Mrs Carter telegraphed Wellington and received the reply that expenditure could continue until permanent arrangements were made. 28

On 3 August 1880 The Colonist commented that the Taranaki Buildings should be burnt for firewood. The attendants who occupied the old asylum should have new cottages built for them and the aged and infirm should be moved to the Immigration Depot, which was unlikely to house immigrants again. It stood unoccupied while the infirm were compelled to live in old dilapidated buildings which were unsuitable even for those of a robust constitution.

page 49

Nearly six years were to pass before anything was done. The Colonist reported on 8 May 1886 that the Charitable Aid Board had completed arrangements for the transfer of the destitute poor from the Taranaki Buildings to the Immigration Depot. The report commented that the old people must appreciate the change in the cold weather and that the best thing to be done with the old buildings would be to apply a match to them.

The Immigration Depot became the Old People's Home and continued to fill that purpose until 1909, when the Alexandra Home opened at the corner of Waimea Road and Tukuka Street. The old building was destroyed by fire under the supervision of the Fire Brigade on 7 August 1909. The fire was watched by a large crowd and by five o'clock nothing was left of the vermin infested building but burning embers. The Alexandra Home burned down in 1916 and reopened in Richmond. 29

A private housing venture for the poor came about through a provision in the will of Adeline Renwick, wife of Dr Thomas Renwick, who died on 11 May 1870. She left a bequest of £2000 to purchase a piece of land and build cottages for occupation by sick and indigent persons of either sex and of any denomination for no rent. The trustees were Sir David Monro and John Sharp.

Half an acre at the corner of Examiner and Wellington Streets was purchased in 1882 and a terrace of six brick cottages, referred to as alms houses, was built the following year. Administration of the Trust was handed over to the Public Trustee in 1888. By the 1950s the balance of the fund was inadequate to maintain the cottages and the Supreme Court authorised the varying of the terms of the will, allowing for a rental to be charged. Renovations begun on 1 August 1955 included the addition of a verandah, improvements in plumbing and the building of detached wash houses. The Renwick Cottages were demolished in December 1973 and replaced by new pensioner flats. 30



Barnicoat, JW Journal 1841–1844.

Boor, MA Reminiscences 195?

Fell, CY Memoirs 1913.

Fowler, SA Journal 1842–1850.

Monro, D Diary 1857–1876.

New Zealand Company Archives.

Saxton, JW Diary 1841–1851.

Stanton, WM Reminiscences 1841–1904.

page 50

Superintendent of the Southern Division In letters.

Wakefield, A Diary 1841–1842.


Airey, E Renwick Wellington: The author, 1979.

Allan, R Nelson Wellington: Reed, 1965.

Lane, P They came in the floodtide Auckland : The author, 1991.

Low, DC Salute to the scalpel Nelson: The author, 1971.

Nelson Provincial Council: Votes and proceedings, Gazettes.

Newspapers: Nelson Examiner; The Colonist; Nelson Evening Mail.


2Barnicoat; NE 15 Feb 1845; Allan, p. 171.
3 NE 12 May, 21 Jun 1849, 14 Dec 1851.
4SSD 1/5 no 93, 117.
5 NE 15, 29 Jan 1853; Stanton.
6 NE 11 Jun 1853; Fell.
7NZC 208/1, 2; NE 15 Feb 1845; Stanton.
8 Fowler.
9 NE 6, 13 Jan, 23 Mar 1844.
10 Saxton.
11SSD 1/4 no 76.
12 V & P, Gaz 1855.
13 V & P 1861.
14 Col 14 Aug; 7, 11 Sep 1860.
15 Boor.
16 Taranaki Provincial Archives.
17 Col 9 Aug 1864.
18 Gaz 1864.
19 Gaz 1865.
20 Gaz 1868.
21 Gaz 1866.
22 V & P 1868.
23 V & P, Gaz 1869.
24 V & P 1872, 1874.
25 Col 16 Jul 1874.
26 Mercer p 5.
27 Low p 85.
28 NEM 2, 4, 18 Jul 1878.
29 Col 8 May 1886, 16, 18 Nov 1907, 19, 24 May, 12 Jun, 9 Aug 1909.
30 Col 7 Sep 1883; NEM 2 Aug 1955; Airey p 49.