Sealing gangs established seasonal camps at Toropuihi and Kahurangi on the west coast of the Nelson region from the early 1800s until the 1820s. Whalers came next, until the 1840s. They killed seals in the whaling off-season.
New Zealand Company settlement
In October 1841 three small ships, the Arrow, Will Watch and Whitby, sailed from Wellington under 42-year-old Captain Arthur Wakefield to decide on the location of Nelson, which was to be the second New Zealand Company settlement, after Wellington. They anchored at Astrolabe Roadstead on the west coast of Tasman Bay and explored Riwaka, Moutere and areas around the Motueka and Waimea rivers.
Māori had told Wakefield of their fishing grounds at Te Whakatū (present-day Nelson city). On 19 October 1841 a party in a boat – Captain Moore, a Māori named Pito and two others – went over to the eastern shore of Tasman Bay to investigate. Behind a natural breakwater – the 13-kilometre Boulder Bank – they saw the harbour that became known as Nelson Haven. Wakefield chose this as the settlement site, as the level land (the Maitai River flats) was both adjacent to a good harbour and close to the Waimea Plains.
‘The long-sought Wairoo’
In 1843 a party of 10 early Nelson residents explored the hills behind the city, hoping to find an easy route to the Wairau valley, which was being eyed up for grazing. Edward Stafford, who was to be Nelson’s first provincial superintendent, wrote in his journal: ‘Before us lay range over range in twisted and distorted shapes, each o’erlapping each, till, stern, gloomy and impassable rose the rugged range bounding on the West the long-sought Wairoo.’1
There was some haste to establish a settlement, as the immigrant ships had already left England and were expected in early February 1842. There were three months to survey town sections and farms and build shelter for the new arrivals. The first immigrant ship, the Fifeshire, was sighted on 1 February 1842. Ships continued to arrive, and within a few months the town had a population of several thousand. Settlers spread from Nelson Haven to land around the Waimea and Motueka rivers and to Motupipi in Golden Bay, setting up farms and sawmills.
Organised immigration was suspended in 1843 as the company was running out of money. The scheme had been hastily conceived and poorly thought out. There was also a lot of space between buildings – the result of selling 1-acre (0.4-hectare) sections, many of which remained unsold.
An umbrella and a box
In the early 1840s Nelson’s first houses were often built from little more than fern branches, as one writer commented: ‘I was passing one of this description one day situated on low land near the river, and ventured to express an opinion that fern thatch could not afford much protection from rain, and that I thought some danger was to be apprehended from the rising of the river, when the matron of the house replied: “Oh! the river often rises, and the rain pours through the roof, and then we stand on top of a big box, and hold up an umbrella all night.”’2
By 1858 Nelson had 434 wooden buildings and 27 made of brick or stone. A small wealthy class of about 60 families held balls, informal dinners and parties in each others’ houses. However, sections took years to allocate, with many far from town. There was little investment or employment, so many Nelson labourers squatted on vacant sections.
Runholders in Marlborough had their main residences in Nelson, and sheep were driven inland to Amuri in northern Canterbury. The settlement struggled, with too many labourers and not enough capital. There were also difficulties establishing rights to land acquired from Māori following the Wairau affray. The New Zealand Company was wound up in the early 1850s. When the Taranaki War broke out in 1860, influential Taranaki families such as the Richmonds and Atkinsons relocated to Nelson.
While most settlers were from the United Kingdom, 140 Germans arrived on the St Pauli in 1843 and another 141 on the Skiold in 1844. The Skiold Germans, under their leader Fedor Kelling, established the settlement of Ranzau (later called Hope). Germans also settled in the Moutere Hills at Sarau (now Upper Moutere), Rosental (Rosedale) and Neudorf. Germans were among the first to introduce commercial winemaking, and also specialised in growing fruit trees and hops.
Churches were established in town, and by the end of the 1850s all major denominations had clergymen and churches. As much of the back country was isolated and transport was difficult, small communities also built their own wooden churches, which became a focus for community gatherings on Sundays. Ministers would walk to remote churches to preach.
Anglicans were more prominent than in many other New Zealand cities. Edmund Hobhouse, the first bishop (from 1859 to 1865), was a great walker, visiting remote areas. His successor, Andrew Suter, who was bishop for the next 25 years, also loved walking, as well as nature and art. By the late 1870s he was one of the city’s most influential leaders.