Nelson Literary Ramble


This walk takes you on a literary tour of Nelson. Take a real or virtual stroll around the streets and find out more about the places you pass on the audio guide, or map the walk using the Everytrail mapping tool:

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Nelson's Literary Ramble

Early European settlers who came to New Zealand wanted to improve their lot so they turned to books to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. Nelson is home to the longest continuing library service in New Zealand and our Literary Ramble celebrates this and some of the people who have helped to make to books accessible for all in Nelson through the years.

Literary Ramble mapLiterary Ramble map - a Nelson City Council Heritage Walk. Click image to enlarge (or download the PDF)

The modern Elma Turner Library (1) opened in 1990 and bears the name of the woman who campaigned for decades for free and excellent library services for Nelson. The library houses, in its reference section, some of the early books from the first library established in Nelson by the Nelson Institute.

In Bridge Street is the attractive building of the Nelson Mail (2). Robert Lucas started Nelson's first daily newspaper in 1866. Early newspapers were a vital part of colonial life. Papers Past gives access to early newspapers such as the Nelson Evening Mail and The Examiner, the first newspaper published in the South Island in 1842.

The first Nelson Mail building was destroyed by fire but a replica can be found at Founders Heritage Park on 87 Atawhai Drive, along with printing presses and other memorabilia. Charles Elliott, publisher of the Examiner, opened the first bookshop in Nelson in 1842, one of the earliest in New Zealand. Jesse Hounsell and Robert Lucas were both selling books in 1865, and books were often sold alongside other merchandise. Oswald Curtis held book auctions in Trafalgar Street in the 1850s as did Alexander Aitken, who ran a circulating library.

In Trafalgar Street many booksellers can still be found. See Turning the Pages by A&M Rogers for their history. Local independent booksellers Page and Blackmore (3) are a result of a merger of Pages bookshop, started in 1910, and the ABC Bookshop, started in 1964.

Miss Cooper Dressmaker 1892Miss Cooper's Dressmaker's shop 1892, the first Nelson Institute Building (Town Acre 445), the Nelson Provincial Museum, 46829_4
Click image to enlarge

In The Nelson Provincial Museum (4) is an interactive street map to take you back in time to trace early streetscapes. A Historic Places Trust Plaque, at the Cathedral end of Trafalgar Street, marks the site of the first library (5) founded by The Nelson Literary and Scientific Institution (or Nelson Institute) in May 1841. The brainchild of Captain Arthur Wakefield, Frederick Tuckett, Alfred Domett, B.E. Duppa and W. Curling who subscribed "a sum of money which was directed back to London with directions for the selection of Books of a useful character which will thus form the germ of the Library of the Institute."

Domett also had a role in the establishment of the General Assembly Library and a street alongside the Maitai River is named after him.

Thomas Cawthron, a famous benefactor of Nelson, founded the Cawthron Institute. The Institute gave the The Nelson Provincial Museum the Marsden Paintings and Book Collection, a unique Book Collection dating from 1773 to the early 1920s which relates to natural history, discovery and exploration of the Pacific. It provided the nucleus of the research library collection at the Museum archives at Isel Park, Stoke.

Cawthron's gracious residence, built in 1895 at 25 Examiner Street (6) , is now converted to motels.

Newstead HouseNewstead, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection, C2031Click image to enlarge
Opening of the Nelson InstituteOpening of 1911 Institute building, The Nelson Provincial Museum, FN Jones Collection, 6x8-33
Click image to enlarge

David Monro, the first president of the Nelson Institute was the original owner of Newstead, now Renwick House (7) and part of Nelson Central School. Margaret Mahy's book Crinkum Crankum illustrated by Robyn Belton features a huge historic bouganvillea vine that still hangs on the northwest corner of the verandah. Maurice Gee wrote a vivid history of the School in 1978 and has references to Nelson's Centre of New Zealand in The World Around the Corner.

Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) (8) is the home to an innovative Creative Writing course founded by poet Cliff Fell whose forebears lived in the historic Warwick House.

The present imposing School of Fisheries building (9), built in 1911, housed the Nelson Institute and then library for 79 years. The building replaced a wooden building on the site, the home of  the library from 1861-1906, which succumbed to a spectacular fire in 1906. The old wooden lean-to at the back of the current building was a remnant of the original building, and housed the children's library.

Download a PDF copy of this walk and map and take a tour when in Nelson; or follow our short version of the trail, updated August 2012.

This is one of a series of Heritage trails created by Nelson City Council, 2009

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Further sources - Nelson Literary Ramble



  • Alfred Domett - a promise unfulfilled (1971) New Zealand's heritage, v. 3. Sydney: Hamlyn Paul, pp.790-795
  • Diary of a christian voyager [Robert Lucas] (1991, March 5) Nelson Evening Mail,  sup.p.4
  • Dissmeyer, T. (1992, Oct) 150th Anniversary of the Nelson Public Library. North and South,  p.26-27
  • Kwasitsu, L. (1986) The production of the 'Nelson Examiner' in the context of the early New Zealand press.Turnbull Library Record, 19(2), p.123-139
  • Kwasitsu, L. (1986) Early libraries in Nelson New Zealand Libraries, 45(1) p.1-6
  • Kwasitsu, L. (1987) News reporting in the 'Nelson examiner', 1842-1874 Turnbull Library Record, 20 (1), p.31-43
  • Nelson Provincial Museum and Library (1977) Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 3(3), p.12-13
  • Traue, J. E  (2006) Public libraries and access to reading materials in early colonial Nelson. New Zealand Libraries, 49(13):p.465-473


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