In a line of five o'clock commuter traffic, listening to drive time radio, it's hard to imagine the days when Rocks Road was a narrow, precarious, wave-swept walkway between the town and the beach. The seawall itself is often ignored, but was much in the news from 2000, as the Council looked at ways to control erosion at the Tahunanui end of the road, while at the port end the granite wall was rebuilt as part of the Wakefield Quay Millennium Project.
The fresh water springs, the sea, access to flax and proximity to the important trading site of Matangi Āwhio made the area that now contains Rocks Road an important site for local iwi (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Toa, Rangatira and Ngāti Rarua).
There is evidence of pre-colonial occupation in the form of an urupa at the foot of what is now Bisley Avenue and extending to the Crop and Food building. The Bisley Avenue site would have been at the mouth of what was the Waimea River and was the area where all the rubble and stone was amassed for the building of the first sea road around the rocks. At the base of Richardson Street there was also a Ngāti Koata fishing camp, known as Te Puna Wai. The small spring which trickled down into the sea still exists today and is believed to have had therapeutic properties. Because of the puna (springs) in the side of the hill above Rocks road and the frequent slips, Māori used these sites as prime māra (gardening) areas. They were aware that the land was unstable and would not build their kāinga there. Ngāti Koata also talk of an urupa in what is now known as the Basin Reserve.
Click to enlarge
In a 2002 article in the Nelson Historical Society Journal, architect and writer Grahame Anderson took a look back at the origins of Rocks Road and the seawall, and made a case for it to be given heritage protection. It was 1891 (almost 50 years after the European settlers arrived) before Nelson City and Waimea County agreed to jointly build a road along the foreshore. That seems a long time, but the inland road over Bishopdale provided access to Stoke and the Waimea Plains, there were also scows plying the Waimea River to Richmond, and the rocky nature of the coastline was a deterrent, especially at the steep cliffs at Magazine Point. Tahunanui Beach was only in its formative stages as a leisure venue and the Victorians were not the enthusiasts we are today for lazing in the sand and lolling in the water.
Sam Jickell's curves
"Any fool can make a straight road, it takes a good man to put the curves in," said Sam Jickell, the engineer responsible for the design of Rocks Road. Born in Stockton on Tees, Jickell was 29 years old when he completed his design for Rocks Road in 1885, but it was another six years before work began. The very early parts of the wall, around where the first wharves were built, are of granite from Tonga Island on the Abel Tasman coast, but most of what is taken for granite in the block construction part of the wall is actually concrete, thought to have been cast near the Albion Wharf and taken to the site by sea.
Convict labour was used on the western end of the wall - marching to work from the Shelbourne Street jail in their prisoners' stripes they were known as Sam Jickell's football team. The prisoners were criticised for being slow workers, but one reason they were kept on (rather than hiring staff) was the danger from waves and rockfalls, with looped ropes and lifebuoys in place for rescues. Explosives were used to reduce the overhang of cliffs and to blast through the rocky outcrop at Magazine Point.
Nelson benefactor Thomas Cawthron often gets all the credit for the stanchion and chain fence along the seawall, but the first section up to the Basin Reserve was donated by settler John Tinline and his English friend James Tytler.
In 1899 Prime Minister Richard Seddon opened the new road at a ceremony held at the Basin Reserve, where the county boundary met the city, and dignitaries from both sides gathered under an arch of flowers and flags.
The original wall was unchanged for half a century, but from the late 1950s improvements were made to remedy the effects of wave erosion and to add protection for traffic. Construction was staged through to the mid ‘60s and the wall is unusual for employing a variety of techniques to minimise wave action: sloping face, horizontally facetted vertical section, outward projecting top and vertically ribbed surface. Grahame Anderson says there are examples of all these profiles in other places, but he doubts that the four occur together anywhere else in New Zealand.
"The more I have found out about the wall's origins, design, development and purpose, the more convinced I have become that it is a truly great wall, as grand as any seawall in New Zealand, and as important to Nelson as any six historic buildings" he wrote in an article published in the Mail in 1979.
Mr Anderson is convinced that the whole wall, both its 19th and 20th Century sections, deserves heritage protection.
This article was first published in Port Nelson Limited Report, March 2004. Updated Jan 2021
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Further sources - Rocks Road
- Allan, R. (1954) The history of Port Nelson, Wellington, N.Z.: Whitcombe & Tombs
- Brereton, C. (1952) Vanguard of the South, Wellington, N.Z.: Reed.
- Broad, L. (1892) The jubilee history of Nelson, Nelson, N.Z.: Bond, Finney & Co.
- Dickinson, B. (1990) Historic Tahuna, Nelson, N.Z.:The author
- Grace, A. (1924) The Jubilee history of the Nelson City Council 1874 - 1924, Nelson, N.Z.: Evening Mail Office
- Horrocks, S. (1971) Historic Nelson. Wellington, NZ.: Reed
- Anderson, G (2002)The Rocks Road Seawall. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 6(5), 3-15
- Anderson, G. (2013) James Jenkins Lecture 2012: Rocks Road seawall. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 7(5), p.30
- Parr, W.H. (1971) Historic places of Port Nelson. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 2(5), 16
- Rocks Road Committee (1893, December 7) Nelson Evening Mail, 27 (288), 2
- Rocks Road connection (1987, May 16) Nelson Evening Mail
- Nelson Provincial Museum: Collection of online images of Rocks Road:
- Lowe, P. (2007) Jickell, Samuel 1856 - 1939. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
- Rocks Road chain fence. Retrieved from the Register, New Zealand Historic Places Trust: