Construction of Rocks Road


Rocky Road to Completion

When Frederick Tuckett, the chief surveyor of the New Zealand Companywas setting out the plan for Nelson, the only viable access to the farmlands of the Waimea was over the saddle we now know as Bishopdale. He planned a road to be built around the waterfront, however this road was not included in Tuckett’s 1842 plan for The Town of Nelson as the cliff and rocks formed a formidable barrier.

The Rocks, Nelson, [ca 1890] Alexander Turnbull Library. Tyree Studio. 10x8-0223-G
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Following its first meeting on 3 November, 1853, the Nelson Provincial Council was established and took over all administration and public works from the New Zealand Company after their financial situation deteriorated. Under their control, public works progressed quite rapidly and the new town started to grow up. Under the Board of Works (elected on 30 July 1857) which functioned under the Provincial Government, Haven Road and Wakefield Quay were improved and much development work took place - but still no Rocks Road.

The Board of Works became obsolete when Nelson was declared a Borough on 30 March, 1874 and Board members became the first Nelson City Councillors, with their first meeting held in April 1874.  Early in the life of the new Council, it was agreed that citizens should have the best means of access to the Waimeas.

In 1876, Councillor Thomas Harley began promoting the idea that a limited half-tide road should be built around the rocks. This would provide a useable road from when the tide was half out until it was half in. High tides and Spring tides of around 14 feet (approx. 4.3 metres) were a major problem and required a substantial amount of work to build a road above that level. Funding was a major problem and it disappeared off the agenda.

Haven Road (initially known as Beach Road) was finished in 1843 to provide access to the Port. Road widening was required to accommodate the railway line which the Government was extending to the port and onto the wharf. To help keep down the cost of the road widening and sea wall, the Council was allowed to use prison convicts, which no doubt paved the way to the extensive use of prison labour in the later construction of Rocks Road.

Rocks Road construction. Nelson Provincial Museum, Sclanders Collection: 8774
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Around 1880, the then mayor promoted the idea that starting a road around the rocks would relieve unemployment, which was rife, but no funds were available during the difficult economic times.

It wasn’t until Francis Trask was elected mayor in December 1890, that the road was back on the agenda. Mother Nature played her part. Tahuna Beach   was originally a sandy island with the Waimea River flowing through today’s Back Beach. In 1875, it started to change its course and by 1881, the old river channel was dry, which made the construction of a road around the rocks easier.

Construction of Rocks Road was estimated to cost  £8000. Plans were prepared by the city surveyor, Samuel Jickell, and the road was to be approximately one mile (1.6 km) long with a stone sea wall. Filling for the road would be obtained from the adjoining cliff.

The year 1892, was Nelson’s Jubilee year and many citizens saw Rocks Road as a prestige jubilee project. By this time the city had a rateable value of £70,000 but a gross revenue of only £13,000. The lack of revenue made larger projects very difficult to finance.  However Mayor Trask, the champion of the road, did not falter. Construction work on Rocks Road began but it became obvious that Council would need more funds as the road neared completion in 1893. They transferred £300 from the Gasworks account. A petition objecting to this transfer was signed by 337 citizens but the Council pressed on.

Rocks Road. Tasman Bays Heritage Trust / Nelson Provincial Museum, C3539
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Despite a New Zealand wide economic depression at this time, Rocks Road was gravelled and ready for use by mid-1897. Contributions were: Nelson City Council £4300; Waimea County Council £1500; Richmond Borough Council £500 and the Government £1500. The final cost including prison labour was £11,000.

Wave breaking, Rocks Road, Nelson, 14 Mar 1910. Alexander  Turnbull Library. [Frederick Nelson] 1/2-035393-G.
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The road was completed and along came John Tinline, one of Nelson’s early pioneers, who presented Mayor Trask with a generous donation of £400 to provide a coping to the sea wall plus stanchions and chains. A great friend of his, Mr Tytler, offered to find an additional £120, which he did from funds in the local government’s account, left by his father, an early English Immigration Agent for the Nelson Provincial Government.

Prison Labour

Over the long period of construction of Rocks Road, prisoners were marched through the city from the Shelbourne Street Gaol  up Washington Valley and over Pitts Hill (now Richardson Street) to work on the rocks. There was usually a gang of 15-20 prisoners marched two abreast, with an armed warder at the front and one at the rear. Citizens used to express their concern that there would be an escape attempt and the two warders would not be able to cope.

One evening when the prisoners were returning from the rocks, several prisoners tried to escape at the top of Washington Valley. The warders proved to be up to the occasion. Shots were fired and the breakaway averted, with only one prisoner slightly wounded in the leg. It turned out the warders’ rifles were not loaded with bullets, as expected, but merely loaded with buckshot.

The procession of prisoners was lead each day by a husky red bearded individual who had been imprisoned for manslaughter following a fight.  He was a foreign sailor who had gone ashore with shipmates at Lyttleton and become involved in a fight which ended with a man being killed.  He was charged with manslaughter and spent many years in prison. While he was in prison in Nelson, one of his former shipmates confessed on his deathbed that he had struck the fatal blow in the incident. 

The Nelson prisoner was duly set free. On hearing that the prisoner had neither money nor friends in New Zealand, Mayor Trask took him into his home and arranged for him to be comfortably returned to his homeland.

This story was written by Seddon Marshall, Nelson City Councillor from 1968-2001. He has used Council records and his family collection of local historical material to research this story.

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