The Wood

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From native forest to English garden

Following the establishment of the town of Nelson by the London-based New Zealand Company, in 1842, European settlers were quick to make their mark on land that Māori had inhabited for hundreds of years. Tall native forest of kahikatea and beech grew on the
north-eastern side of the Mahitahi / Maitai River, while bracken fern dominated the south-western river plain. Appropriately named by settlers The Wood, residents at first built houses along the river fringe before working their way into the forest, felling trees and selling the much-needed timber to others, and forming farmlets and cultivating gardens. The Wood was the fourth most popular location of choice for settlement  by early settlers.

Nelson Panorama

Nelson panorama (part of ) looking northwards from the lower slopes of the Grampians to the Maitai River and The Wood, 1842. Alexander Turnbull Library Wellington NZ publ-0011-06-3 (part image)

The Wood was certainly a productive horticultural area: ...”growth of everything is most luxuriant…Wheat, oats, barley, all of course in small quantities, but not with any other preparation than clearing the land of trees….Every sort of vegetable, from the potato to the cucumber, melon and tomatum, are in the richest luxurience”. (Nelson Examiner 7 January 1843, on ‘cultivation of the wood land’.)  Thomas Hewetson, who lived with his father in The Wood in the 1840s recalled: ”My father paid great attention to his little bit of garden. The vegetables grew very well, besides supplying ourselves we sold a good many”.

Letters in the early 1860s from the Turner family, which lived on the corner of Grove and
Tasman Street, refer to having such a bountiful crop of fruit and vegetables, including onions, almonds, apples, pears and jars of jam, that they were able to send the excess to family in Auckland. At one stage the family had so many peaches they fed a lot of them to their pigs. Not all Wood settlers found, however,  that they could produce a bountiful crop from their corner of paradise. Those living on fernland had to spend backbreaking hours preparing suitable soil while those living on the seaward edges had their land flooded by high tides.

Nelson Panorama 1868

Nelson City panorama looking west across The Wood, 1868. Nelson Provincial Museum Tyree Studio Collection 181791

By the late 1860's the ‘Wood’ had gone, replaced with homes, gardens, paddocks and crops. The town was reported to be increasingly like ‘home’, with settlers growing trees, shrubs, flowers, fruit and vegetable species imported from England. The rich alluvial soil that had once supported kahikatea was now popular for market gardening. An 1899 directory boasted 13 gardeners, one nurseryman and one farmer in The Wood. However, market gardening was not the only industry. Being close to the town’s centre made The Wood ideal for equine operations such as stables, saddlers, cab drivers and blacksmiths, all essential to the development, supply and transport needs of the growing town.

Nelson Panorama 1907

Nelson City from above Milton Street looking west across The Wood, 1907. Note the estuary lapping at the edges of Weka and Wainui Streets, and Trafalgar Park. Alexander Turnbull Library Wellington NZ Tyree Collection 2 Part Panorama 10 X 8 0071 (Left) 10 X 8 0074 (Right)

By the opening decades of the 20th century, land in The Wood was relatively inexpensive to buy. Several factors contributed. With a concentration of horses in the area, there was a risk of tetanus in the soil from horse excrement; its northern reaches were low-lying and tidal, with twice daily tides flooding estuary-edge properties with saltwater; and the Maitai River could become a raging torrent during periods of high rainfall, flooding the low-lying river plain. With more desirable places to live now further away from the central city, the affordable ‘Wood’ was a drawcard for Italian settlers, which led to the formation of Nelson’s ‘Little Italy’.

Today the area of The Wood north of Weka and Wainui streets is reclaimed land.

Information taken from a Nelson City Council/City of Nelson Civic Trust 2020

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