Pioneers of the Wairau Valley North Bank
The North Bank of the Wairau Valley in Marlborough was a promising landscape for people wanting to do their best for their families. With plenty of quartz creeks rich with the possibility of gold and low-lying pastures for sheep to roam, the area became quite a close-knit community. This is an account of the lives of some of the old-timers who resided there and the stories that they left behind in the region.
Charles and Selina Timms came to Oddstone, a dairy station in the Wairau Valley beside Enchanted Creek, in the early eighteen fifties. In 1845, Charles was a dairyman living in Collingwood Street, Nelson, and in 1850 a cowkeeper in Bridge Street. The family had come out to New Zealand on board the Clifford in the year 1842 along with many other notable families, such as the Wratt’s. With them were their three children; Samuel, Richard, and Ann, who helped out on the family property at Enchanted Creek. Charles was involved with local politics alongside other notable settlers such as the Carter Brothers, C. Watts, the Baillie’s, Wm Ockley, and Mr. McCallum. He also was one of those who petitioned for Marlborough to be separated from Nelson Province.
Charles and fellow pioneer Tom Bartlett were the first to take up prospecting at North Bank, discovering evidence that there was indeed gold in the quartz creeks. Timms Creek was named for him because of this, as was Bartletts Creek for Tom. Gold was also discovered in Pine Valley and further down at Kaituna. It is not clear how successful any of these gold discoveries were. Selina is said to have been the first person buried at the Wairau Valley Churchyard, dying in the year 1863 - one of the earliest surviving headstones in Marlborough, amongst the likes of the Kemp’s in the bush at Seddon (1854), Capt. Guards at Kakapo Bay (1857) and Alfred Butts in Blenheim (1860). Not much is known about the lives of Charles and Selina. Charles passed away in Nelson in 1872 and was buried at Wakapuaka Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Charles's sons, Samuel and Richard Timms, continued working with cattle. In the 1860s, both brothers worked on their Oddstone property, enlarging the land to include adjourning sections in 1866 and 1868. Both resided in the Wairau all their lives. On the March 1 1894 Sam drove some cows in from his paddocks. While doing so, he “found it necessary” to jump across a ditch, but, being a man of sixty years by this point, he seems to have exerted himself too suddenly and unexpectedly for his heart. He downed a bottle of painkillers and retired to bed. Eliza came in to check him and discovered he was sleeping at what looked like an uncomfortable angle. Seeking to alleviate her husband's pain, she lifted him to adjust his pillows and make him more comfortable. As she picked him up to do so he let out a sigh and passed away in her arms. Dr. Cleghorn, to whom the rotunda in Blenheim was dedicated, found it likely, having been Sam’s doctor, that he had died of heart disease. Sam was interred at the Wairau Valley Churchyard. Eliza remained in the valley as well for the remainder of her life. She died in July of 1928 and was buried in a plot along from her late husband. The Churchyard has a number of the family's remains interred in it including Sam’s two siblings Richard and Ann.
Joseph Fabian was an American man who came to the Wairau sometime in the early part of the 1850s along with his brother Alexander. He was naturalised on 12 April, 1856, and was recorded as being a farmer in the Wairau Valley. Fabians Valley, named as a Wairau Valley property in the Marlborough Express in 1868, is probably named after him. Many early settlers to the North Bank resided at Fabians Valley who found it to be lush with green trees along the riverside and good farming. In 1878, Joseph had a cart accident when his dray passed over his chest which resulted in the fracturing of ribs. He never seemed to have fully regained the ability to farm like he used to and died in 1881 at the age of sixty in Charles Street, Blenheim.
John Bartlett and his two sons Joe and Tom were prominent in the Wairau’s early days. John had settled in the valley sometime between 1855 and 1859 and initially lived in a cave, opposite of the homestead the family eventually built. Like most pioneer homes, the building was made of cob, which was inexpensive to make, needing only a water source, mud, and straw. It is thought that local miners built the cob for the family, possibly for food. John took a great interest in local politics, signing the petition to separate the Wairau from Nelson because of concern over local taxes going towards Nelson infrastructure. One of the complaints by locals was the need for a bridge, but the money instead went towards bridging rivers in Nelson.
While returning from a meeting at Mr. Oxley's one Tuesday, John Bartlett drowned at the mouth of the creek that eventually bore his name. He was discovered by his eldest living son Joe and his son-in-law, the first Ferryman of the Wairau, Mr. John Ward. John's autopsy was conducted by Captain William Douglas Hall Baillie, the second superintendent of Marlborough Province. It is believed that John was interred on his property, likely at the spot where his son Thomas was interred along with other descendants at the Bartlett's Creek (Fabians Valley) Cemetery. Interesting to note is that three years after John's death the very two people who discovered John's body also drowned in the Wairau River. It would be fifty-three years before a bridge was put across the river in that locality.
John Irlam Barton was another early settler to the North Bank, becoming the first person to take land up in the Onamalutu Valley for permanent farming in 1875, although he may have settled in the valley as early as 1859. He had worked his way across the globe, working in England and Australia before coming to New Zealand, originally working a mill in the Bay of Islands. While working for Mr. Henry Godfrey at Woodbourne he met and married Miss Ann McIsaac. Ann was just six weeks old when her parents Richard and Jean McIsaac boarded the ship Clifford which landed at Nelson in May 1842. The McIsaac family are well-known pioneers of Renwick which is where Ann married John in 1862.
Henry Godrey died in 1868 along with three of his children from an outbreak of Diphtheria. They are all buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Havelock Street, Renwick. A tall gum tree still stands on his property Woodbourne that was planted by Godfrey in the 1850s. The pair lived a long life in the Onamalutu with many of their children and descendants remaining there. John also formed his building and contracting business which is credited for bridging many of the rivers in the district. John passed on 21 April, 1900 at his home in the Onamalutu Valley. He was buried at Kaituna as was Ann fourteen years later when she died at the age of seventy-three.
Mr. and Mrs. Roberts also resided in the Onamalutu, in a small cottage beside Mathias Rickertsen in Peakes Road. Peakes Road was not named until the 1980s so at the time of the Roberts' residence there it was unnamed road. Mr. Roberts was Captain William Roberts, an English-born gold prospector who came to New Zealand with the hopes of striking it rich. Mrs. Roberts was born Mary Bartlett, the daughter of John and Maria Bartlett of Bartletts Creek, Fabians Valley. She had been married twice previously before her engagement to William in 1879 at the age of 40 years. She often took up midwife work around the district and once traveled to Wellington to take in her two grandchildren who had been left motherless after her daughter's death in 1885. She lived long enough to witness the completion of the Wairau River Bridge in 1913 over the river that had caused her so much heartache. In 1860, Her father John drowned in it at the age of fifty-eight when Mary was twenty years old. Three years later both her husband John and oldest brother Joe were killed after attempting to ford the river in December of 1863.
Perhaps a more devious character that lived up North Bank was Mr. Edwin Barker, a London-born farmer and flax cutter who set up residence at the mouth of Bartlett's Creek. His father of the same name had come to the Wairau and worked the land just the same as he did, although he died at the age of just 48 years in 1881. Edwin gained a reputation amongst his neighbours for his questionable character. In the late Gwenda Hodson’s book Onamalutu, A Sentimental Journey she writes that Charles Cawte, a resident of Rock Ferry, was gold fossicking at Bartlett's Creek when he happened to see Edwin round up a mob of Langley Dale sheep and lift ten kinds of wether over the boundary fence of his and the station's property into his own paddocks. To keep Cawte quiet he gave him some mutton to keep his mouth shut. Edwin wound got married at the age of around 22 to 15 year old Ann Eliza Bartlett, daughter of Ann and Tom Bartlett. Tom was not her biological father as she was the illegitimate child of a brewer named Thomas Brooks in Nelson. His profession was at that time a flax dresser. The pair had nine children before Ann's passing in Wairau Valley aged 35. She was buried in the Wairau Valley Churchyard.
Alice Bartlett, Ann's half-sister, used to tend to Ann and Edwin's house. On 9th May, 1924 Alice and Edwin married at Hamilton according to Alice’s bible. Alice was a strong woman, hard on her faith and much the disciplinarian. She adopted a child late in life and was a very proud grandmother to Edwin’s children. After Edwin’s death, she moved into her niece Edie’s home at the Wairau Pā where Edie cared for her. My grandmother recalled how she would try to sneak past her great Aunt Alice’s room so as to not disturb her, but on one occasion she was caught by her bed-resting Aunt and told to come sit beside her. My grandmother was surpised by her Aunt's caring side and the two talked for a long time. Alice died at the age of eighty-three and was buried with her husband in Kaikoura. As stated by Kathy Perano, Great Granddaughter of Edwin, he was not the greatest father. A transcript taken by her mother reads:
“Albert [Edwin’s son] as a boy of 16 years had come upon an incident where his father, a very tough and angry man, had savagely taken to one of his sisters with a stock-whip. Albert, a youth of integrity, but also himself harbouring an inherited propensity to “flare-up” quickly, was incensed by what he saw. Without thinking he grabbed the stock-whip from his enraged father’s hand and set upon him in a fierce retaliation for his sister, then walked out never to return. In the aftermath of this intense and bitter encounter, Albert who was then living with one of the Bartlett families realised that he could no longer remain in the Wairau for fear of what his father would inevitably do in revenge.”
Edwin ended up residing at Kaikoura with Alice for the remainder of his life. He was buried at Kaikoura Cemetery after his death in 1938. His headstone states he was 91 which would suggest he was 27 when he married 15-year-old Ann Eliza.
Sarah Lane resided at Cat Creek, Te Rou, with her family of six children; Edie, May, Grace, Whit, George, and little Nell. Later the family grew with the birth of Bessie. Sarah was the daughter of Tom Bartlett and his wife Ann of Bartletts Creek. In 1894 she married Ted Landon Lane, three months after conceiving their first child. This child sadly died after two weeks. Ted had been in the area since the late part of the 1880s when he was no more than seventeen years old. In 1903, Ted acquired North Bank grazing run 152, likely bordering his property in Cat Creek. Ted also tried his hand at Gold prospecting. In 1900, he and another were working at Bartlett's Creek just a few valleys over from Te Rou. Ted found time for recreation. Of his brothers, he seems to be the only one musically inclined being a talented squeeze boxer and clog dancer. Even in his old age, he would entertain the family with his squeezebox. He was said to be respected for his honesty and humility by his granddaughter Melva Neal. He loved the land he worked and wanted it no other way.
His daughter Edie would take the family trap at a very young age and ride it all the way to town, stopping at the Langley Dale Homestead where the workers there would care for her until she continued on with her journey. After the death of their beloved daughter May, the family relocated to 447 Wairau Bar Road where both Ted and Sarah remained for the rest of their lives. Sarah sadly died in hospital at the age of forty-nine during the flood of 1923. The rain had settled by the time that Sarah was recovering in Wairau Hospital but many parts of the region were damaged and hard to get to. The story goes that an unidentified man came into Sarah’s room and told her that her husband and possibly all her children were unaccounted for and had likely been drowned by the rising Wairau River, adjacent to their home. Shocked and distraught by this news, Sarah died. One can hardly imagine the shock when the news reached Ted as he arrived to take her home from the hospital. Her youngest was just nine years old at the time so grew up without a mother.
Lionel Woodhouse was one of eight children to Christina (née Gibson) and James Woodhouse of Fabians Valley. Lionel worked as a shepherd around the North Bank on the various sheep runs dotted along the Wairau River. He joined the Territorials before enlisting for active service and in October 1916 he shipped aboard the Manuka for Sydney as a member of the 18th Reinforcements of the NZ Mounted Rifles. He swapped ships at Sydney and continued to Suez, Egypt. After deployment, he was transferred from the Mounted Rifles to service as a Camelier of the Imperial Camel Corps. The Cameliers took part in the Palestine and Sinai Campaigns and consisted of around 450 NZ servicemen. Of those 450, 41 died before the companies were disbanded. Unfortunately, this included Tpr. Woodhouse. Lionel was killed in action at the Battle of Amman, 30 March 1918, a battle which was commanded by Marlborough’s own Sir Edward Walter Clervaux Chaytor. Lionel is memorialised on the Jerusalem Memorial and the Camel Corps memorial in London, England. The North Bank Patriotic Society erected a memorial in Omaka Cemetery atop the grave of his sister in memory of Lionel. He was 22 years old at the time of his death. His family had already moved from the North Bank and were situated in Batty’s Road when he deployed.
Billy Sharp was a roamer in the Onamalutu, finding refuge from the rain in whoever's doors were open to him. A kind soul and good pianist, he’d light up the room with his character and kept beating his piano as long as there was a steady flow of alcohol. He was born in England around 1855 and came to Nelson when he was a boy. He received an education at Nelson College and later began a career as a clerk for a bank. Unfortunately for Billy, he suffered from health problems which led to him leaving this position and roaming over the Richmond Ranges to the Wairau where he took up wool scouring at stations like Hillersden before finding work in the Onamalutu. He died in October 1942 at the age of eighty-six. In Onamalutu, A Sentimental Journey the late Gwenda Hodson writes; “One Christmas evening on his way home from Renwickktown, Billy twisted his leg between the top and second wire of a fence at Rock Ferry where he remained suspended for a considerable time before being extricated and admitted to Wairau Hospital with a lacerated leg where he died in 1942 aged 84. Archie Adams saw to it that he had a burial in the Omaka Cemetery and a headstone.”
In 1899, a man named William Thomas (Tom) Fowler took up Te Rou homestead. Tom was born in Gloucestershire, England around about 1854 to William Longney Fowler and Eliza Thomas. His family immigrated to Nelson in 1857 when Tom was just a kid (his full name was William Thomas Fowler) and first resided there until his father obtained a license in 1864 to farm 8080 hectares of prime Amuri backcountry. The road the family took to get in and out of their property (named Stanleyvale) became known as Fowler's Pass. William left the farm and relocated to Aylesbury where he resided until his death however his son Bill stayed on and became well known in the district of Hanmer, even having an episode of Country Calendar tell his story in the 1970s. Fowler's Lane in Hanmer Springs is named after him. A relative Nathaniel Longney was the old proprietor of the TopHouse, the same time his brother-in-law committed the TopHouse Murders. Tom gained a reputation in his youth as Canterbury’s best horseman and rough rider, a name he lived up to even in his later years of life. The Marlborough Express reported that in 1907 he competed at the Christchurch Exhibition and even though he was some fifty-five years old he managed to beat one of Australia's best horsemen. Tom took up work on Molesworth Station, managing it from 1878 to 1884. While here, it is said that he was the first to use phosphorus pollard as a means to combat rabbit populations in New Zealand. The use of this poison in New Zealand was not Tom’s only first. He was also the first man to wagon wool down the Awatere River from the station, after he returned to it from managing his uncle's farm.
Tom eventually took up residence at Te Rou where he resided with his wife Jean (nee Sharp) and children. In 1908, the Top Valley Post Office was established at Te Rou which Tom took charge of. Tom had previously taken charge of the mail service between Molesworth and Blenheim. Tom also was a member of the local school committee and took up prospecting on his land. When he retired in his old age his son Reg continued on the property. Tom passed away in 1935 at the age of eighty-one years. His wife Jean Fowler survived him by thirteen years and was buried with him in the Omaka Cemetery.
After Tom let go of Te Rou, George and Emily Mortimer took up the homestead. George was the son of James Mortimer, a bushman, and farmer. He was brought up in the Havelock area and was out working as a labourer at a young age, milling trees and doing general labour work here and there as well as being an affectionate and caring family man. One example of his kind nature was when, in 1905, a good friend named James H. Blick died at the age of 18 and was buried in Kaituna. Not wanting his grave to go unmarked, George put some money together with help from the community to purchase and install a suitable marker in memory of his dear friend. The stone reads; “Erected by his loving friends” and is located near to the State Highway in the Kaituna cemetery. George was a highly skilled axeman which he exploited in his youth with his tree felling. An early photo in the Marlborough Museum archives shows a young George and friend Fred Schneider in Brownlee’s Bush, Carluke, sawing down a tree. In 1911, his talent saw him winning the prize of one hundred pounds for for axemanship in the Havelock Chop, a very tidy sum in those days. That same year he married Emily Jones.
Eventually, George and his wife settled at the old Fowler homestead of Te Rou Station at North Bank. Emily worked hard. A few years prior to their moving a telephone and bureau was set up at Te Rou by Mr. Tom Fowler and when the Mortimer's took up residence there Emily took up the job of postmistress which she excelled at for around twenty-six years up until 1946. George was also an avid rifle shooter and a keen sportsman which he kept up well into his later life. In 1951, Emily died at the age of sixty-three years in the Wairau Hospital. George followed two years later when he was sixty-six and was buried alongside her in the Omaka Cemetery. He had spent his remaining years in Uxbridge Street, Renwick but moved in with his daughter at Okaramio. They had spent nearly three decades at Te Rou where they became good friends with many locals and much loved by the community.
The Onamalutu Domain is now a much-loved place for picnicking, get-togethers, and outings for many Marlburians. Many who spent time there in the mid-twentieth century would remember George and Edie Landon-Lane who cared for the land from the 1950s, up until they retired from the property some twenty years later. George and Edie had been born at Cat Creek at the turn of the century with Edie looking after her parents and George doing agricultural work alongside his brother Whit and father Ted. When George returned from the Second World War he was recovering from an injury he sustained in a P.O.W. camp in Austria on the 18th of December, 1944. A large American bomber had dropped a bomb right on the compound, believing that it was a military base. Concrete splinters shot through George’s leg and wrote in his book ‘Barbed Embrace’ that he thought it would need to be amputated. Luckily, one of the best Austrian surgeons was in the hospital that day and managed to save his leg. Some forty-eight people were killed that day. He returned and took up residence in Mary Street, Blenheim with his sister Edie a few years later, who took it upon herself to care for her little brother. This lifestyle did not agree with George who quickly took up the position as caretaker for the Onamalutu Domain. Heather Landon-Lane recalled him taxing people as they crossed the bridge into the domain. Like many returned servicemen, he found solace in the bottle, often drinking in Renwick and returning in the evening in his old Chevrolet. At the same corner on the Onamalutu Road, George would roll his car. Unfazed, he would roll the car back over and keep on his merry way. If Edie had accompanied him to town, she would have a drink too but strictly for medicinal purposes only. George and Edie returned to Blenheim to town life in their later years, passing away in the 1980s.
This is a record of only some of the many pioneers and characters who have lived along North Bank. The stories of people like Ray Hancock of Onamalutu, Whacka Anderson of Mt. Patriarch, and Brian Powell of Fabians Valley have yet to be told.
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Further sources - Pioneers of the Wairau Valley North Bank
- McKinnon, M. (accessed 16 October 2021) Marlborough places - Upper Wairau', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- Wairau Valley (1906)Cyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved from NZETC: