Asbestos and the Chaffeys


A place to hide was what the Chaffeys sought when they moved to the Cobb Valley in Nelson's remote northwest mountains. It was their desire for solitude, and asbestos that kept them there.. 

In 1913 Henry Chaffey brought his wife-to-be, Annie Fox, who was escaping a violent marriage in Canterbury and left two teenaged sons behind, to “a lost land”1 in some of Nelson’s remotest mountains.

Annie and Henry Chaffey and Violet Rolleston (left)Annie and Henry Chaffey and Violet Rolleston (left) taken behind Asbestos Cottage by Ruth Pahl in February 1941, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection, C5509
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Chaffey first explored and prospected gold and other minerals in the Cobb Valley area, at the foot of the Wharepapa / Arthur Range in northwest Nelson, in 1908. He and Annie took refuge in an old hut at Arthur Creek for a couple of years, before moving into Asbestos Cottage. Believed to have been built around 1897 by a company prospecting nearby asbestos deposits, it was accessible only by foot. Annie remarked, with some irony, “I can see the car lights going over the Tākaka Hill, making it more civilised.”2

Visitors, often hunters, trampers and miners were welcome, although the Chaffeys liked warning of their arrival. Jack Boyer met them in 1936, while constructing the first road in the valley for the new Cobb power scheme. Walking in with Bertie McPherson, Boyer saw a sign asking visitors to shout as they approached the cottage. When the Chaffeys came out “both of them appeared to be dressed in their Sunday-go-to-meeting finery, which had me putting Bertie on their list of very important visitors. On the way back to our camp Bertie told me they dressed up for everybody…That space between your warning shout and your arrival at the cottage gave them time to don their best.”3

During nearly forty years in Asbestos Cottage Annie lived reclusively, leaving the cottage only once, for surgery in Nelson. Henry spent weeks away hunting, prospecting or working on the maintenance and improvement of the Flora track. He often walked to Upper Tākaka or Motueka to fetch supplies and mail. Beginning in 1923, he and Annie took rainfall measurements for the Meteorological Service for nearly 29 years.4

Henry also advocated the development of the region’s asbestos resources and mined and cleaned asbestos. In later years he was the asbestos mine’s caretaker.5

Asbestos miners, Upper TakakaAsbestos miners, Upper Takaka, Tyree 54950/3 ½, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection 54950/3
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Asbestos was first surveyed in the Cobb in 1882. Henry Chaffey took shares in a Canterbury company prospecting asbestos there in 1908, later forming a syndicate that acquired 490 acres of adjoining land.

Although packhorses had brought out about 100 tons of asbestos fibre by 1917, it was not a successful venture.6

In 1935 it was decided to work the asbestos in conjunction with the development of the Cobb River power scheme. The opening of the Cobb road allowed the Hume Company to begin operations in 1940 and by 1949 about 40 tons of asbestos was being produced monthly. The mine closed in 1964 because the short length of its asbestos fibre limited its commercial use. 7

Henry Chaffey died on the side of the track in the winter of 1951 aged 83. Annie left Asbestos Cottage “very much against her will” soon after and lived with her sister in Timaru, but she never adjusted, taking her own life in 1953.8

Asbestos Cottage passed to the Forest Service and is now a category four trampers’ hut in Kahurangi National Park administered by the Department of Conservation.9


Updated, September 9, 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Henderson, Jim (1981) The Exiles of Asbestos Cottage, Auckland, NZ.: Hodder & Stoughton, p.16.
  2. Henderson, p.17, 18, 171, 173 ; Asbestos Cottage : Historic Golden Bay. Department of Conservation.
  3. Hindmarsh, G. (2010).  Kahurangi calling. Nelson, NZ: Craig Potton Publishing, pp 109-128.
  4. Boyer, Jack (2000), ‘Recollections of the Chaffeys,’ Nelson Historical Society Journal, 6, (3), pp.65-67.
  5. Newport, J.N.W. (1978). Footprints Too, Further Glimpses into the History of Nelson Province, Nelson, N.Z.: Jeff Newport pp.157-158.; Asbestos Cottage : Historic Golden Bay.
  6. Markwell, C, ‘Annie and Henry Chaffey’ in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:
  7. Chaffey, H.F. (1947). A Short History of the New Zealand Asbestos Deposits, Historic Resources, DOC, Nelson, p.1., and Henderson, p.171.; Newport, pp.157-158.
  8. Newport, p.158.
  9. Henderson, pp. 227-229, 233, 237, 243-5.
  10. Henderson p.234 ; Asbestos Cottage: Historic Golden Bay.

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  • Many people don't realise that there were 2 asbestos mine sites, grecian Creek and what is now known as Asbestos. Asbestos was first mined starting Dec 1917 at Grecian Creek, pack horsed to Upper Takaka along the newly formed Barrons Flat track and then waggoned to Waitapu. This mine was closed in 1921

    Posted by Mac Harwood, ()

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Further sources - Asbestos and the Chaffeys




Unpublished Resources:
Nelson Provincial Museum

  • Boyer, Jack. (1995, 11 September). Pre-war Gold Digging and the Chaffeys of Asbestos Cottage. Sound recording NHS 49.
  • Chaffey, N. (4.1.1940). Letter, Asbestos Cottage to Mr [?]. Letter describing the weather and the day's activities at Asbestos Cottage. UMS 543.
  • Johnstone, Paul (2006). No stone left unturned: a history of the mineral extraction industries of the Nelson Province. qMS JOH.
  • (N.D.) Plan of asbestos workings, Tākaka. PL1693.
  • Plan of sec C26, Blk 1, Flora S D showing topography and asbestos deposits (1936, 1 February). PL1692.
  • Plan of sec C26, Blk 1, Flora S D showing topography and asbestos deposits (1958, 18 February). PL1694.
  • Sketch plan of asbestos area (1.2.1936). PL1691.

Web Resources

Image links

  • Annie Selina Chaffey (1877-1953) at Asbestos Cottage, Upper Tākaka. Ref: 1/2-092160-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23107533
  • Harwood, Lillian, active 1979. Mrs Annie Selina Chaffey and Mr Henry Fox Chaffey. Ref: 1/2-092157-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22726971