Annie and Henry Chaffey were voluntary exiles from ordinary New Zealand society. They became legendary figures to the trampers, geologists, packmen, hunters and miners who encountered them in the mountains of north-west Nelson.
Henry Fox Chaffey was born at Keinton Mandeville in Somerset, England, on 18 August 1868. He was the son of Ellen Ann Fox and her husband, Ebenezer Chaffey, a farmer and supplier of cheese. The family had prospered, and their home, Combe Hill House, was substantial. Nothing is known of Henry's schooling. He is thought to have come to New Zealand as a farm cadet at age 17, and to have done shearing and general farm work until he had sufficient capital to become a contractor-carter hauling woolbales and grain throughout South Canterbury. He had a fleet of several trucks, a traction engine, and by around 1906, a threshing mill at Timaru.
Annie Selina (Selena) Best was born on 5 July 1877 in Timaru, the daughter of Elizabeth Read and her husband, Edwin Best, a tailor. Annie attended Timaru Main School, then helped at home until her marriage at Timaru to a cook and butcher, Peter Valentine Fox, on 2 August 1896. Two sons were born of this union, but the marriage was violent and unhappy and Annie was often left without money. Henry Chaffey had an equally disastrous first marriage. He married Laura Mary Adcock in Wellington on 11 March 1903; the couple had no children, separated after just over a year and were divorced on 7 March 1908.
This was also the year Henry first travelled to the mountains of remote north-west Nelson and began searching for minerals. He decided to live there permanently, and in 1913 Annie joined him, leaving her two teenaged sons behind. They initially lived in a bush hut near the Arthur Stream and later at a small and unpainted malthoid-roofed cottage in the Cobb region behind Upper Takaka. Almost certainly Annie and Henry were in retreat from her first husband, but he did not pursue them. Twenty years later, on 5 April 1932, after Peter Fox's death, Annie and Henry were finally able to marry. Though neither professed any particular religious faith, an Anglican and a Presbyterian minister rode in to conduct the firelit wedding ceremony. It was followed by a meal of roast goat, potato and bread, and toasts of whisky and water.
At Asbestos Cottage the couple lived a ruggedly self-sufficient and interdependent life. Annie, steadfast in her regard for Henry, cooked with billies and a camp oven over an open fire, cured goat and deer skins for rugs, lined the walls with pictures cut from magazines, and worked to keep the cottage spotlessly clean. Dressed always in the long Edwardian-style clothing she had taken into seclusion with her, and wearing a feather boa and brooch and hat for best, she was tall, proud, stoic and reserved, but nevertheless could be kindly and hospitable – like 'an old lady who had stepped out of a storybook'.
Henry was an optimistic and tireless advocate for the development of the region's asbestos deposits. He prospected over large areas, mined and cleaned asbestos, and in later years acted as caretaker for the nearby asbestos quarry. Neat, bony and laconic, he was a careful observer, especially of the natural world. For 28 years, from 1923, he kept meticulous rainfall records and also measured Cobb River levels. These records were later to prove invaluable to the planners and developers of the big Cobb hydroelectric power scheme, and a plaque at the Cobb hydro station records their appreciation of his work. He corresponded widely, gardened extensively, made home brew and was a prodigious whisky drinker. A renowned packman, he was wiry but strong, and even in old age regularly walked the miles to Motueka or Upper Takaka, carrying in on his back extremely heavy loads of food and other necessities. While Henry was away prospecting or packing in supplies, Annie remained at the cottage alone and left it only once, reluctantly, for treatment at Nelson Hospital. Hers was the greater isolation.
Henry Chaffey died in the mountains on 19 August 1951 at 83 years of age. Annie, bereft and unable to remain at Asbestos Cottage, was taken to relatives at Timaru, but was deeply unhappy and could not settle. She ended her own life in Timaru on 14 July 1953, and was buried there two days later.
Annie and Henry Chaffey were a unique and colourful couple who lived a pioneer existence as rugged and isolated as the mountains that surrounded them. Their home, Asbestos Cottage, is now preserved and maintained as a tribute to their life there.