Nelson's power struggle


Electricity was not commonly used in New Zealand until late in the 19th Century, with some cities and towns using electricity for street lighting and trams from 1888. Many businesses and industrial enterprises and some farms set up their own generators, but few households used electricity. In the 1920s the use of electricity for home lighting increased. By the mid-1930s electrical appliances were standard in the homes of the better-off.1

 “The latest technological marvel” was displayed in Nelson in 1881 when the Soho Foundry displayed a flood light which lit up various areas of Nelson town.2  However, it wasn’t until 1926 that Hardy and Trafalgar Streets were lit by electric lights between dusk and 9.30pm six evenings a week.3

Brightwater was the first town in the Nelson region to be supplied with electricity for lighting and ironing in 1911.4  Brightwater’s electricity was generated and supplied by Robert Ellis, a Kōhatu flour miller who brought a small hydro-generator back from England in 1908, which he installed on his property by the Motueka River.5 He obtained a licence and set up the Waimea Electric Supply and Manufacturing Company in 1911 and supplied electricity to Brightwater, followed by Richmond and Wakefield.4

Turning on Electric Power for Nelson

Turning on Electric Power for Nelson (1923)  Nelson Provincial Museum. FN Jones collection

In 1912, the Kirkpatrick Jam Factory installed electric dynamos (placed on brackets above the heads of the workers) to provide lighting and electricity for the factory. “Every portion of the building is profusely lighted by hundreds of lights…. Even such fine work as grading and sorting can be done as accurately at night as during the ordinary working hours.”6

But there were no light bulb moments for the rest of the region until the 1920s. In 1919, The Nelson Evening Mail noted there was “nothing that so quickly gave visitors to Nelson the impression that the town is out of date than the absence of electric light.”7

The city gasworks located halfway between the town and the Port, produced about 30 million feet of gas per year from carbonising  3000 tons of coal. Gas was mainly used for cooking, heating and lighting in homes. Nelson’s streets were lit by 132 street gas lamps.8

Nelson and Marlborough were far from the Government’s dams and relied on local electricity generation for many years after the rest of New Zealand was plugged into the national grid.9

Opening of the Electric Power Station at Port Nelson

Opening of the Electric Power Station at Port Nelson. Nelson Provincial Museum. FN Jones collection

By 1920, the Nelson City Council began looking into electricity generation proposals, but a scheme to use the waters of the Wairoa Gorge was deemed too expensive at an estimated cost of £138,000.10 In 1920 some of the city’s business and professional men formed a syndicate to buy a number of surplus boilers from a Coromandel goldmine.11 This new coal-powered steam plant, costing £85,000 pounds, was located at Wakefield Quay and was switched on in 1923.  By 1928, there were 2186 electricity consumers and it was clear the power station at the Port would not keep pace with demand.12

There was a piecemeal electricity generation network in the rest of the province. As well as Ellis’s operation, there was a suction gas plant at Motueka (1921), Murchison’s Six-Mile hydroelectric scheme was commissioned in 1922 and the Pupu hydroelectric scheme was commissioned in Golden Bay in 1929.13

In 1934, the Nelson City Council was told its existing generation would not be able to meet demand by the winter of 1937.14  The Government prevaricated, the councils in the region couldn’t agree and the situation was becoming desperate for Nelson. But it wasn’t until 1935 when the Nelson City Council and the Waimea and Golden Bay Electric Power Boards got behind a bid by the privately owned Hume Pipe Company, that a Government licence was issued  for the construction of a hydro-electric power scheme on the Cobb River.15

The Cobb

Cobb partially built powerhouse

Cobb partially built powerhouse. Kingsford Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Collection

The Cobb has the highest hydraulic head in New Zealand - an almost 600 metre fall from dam to turbines.16  The power scheme is situated in beautiful but difficult country and was to take 22 years to fully complete. The access road was tortuous, the work sites were isolated, and snow and wet weather caused many delays. Many workers were injured on the Cobb and nine men died: three travelling on the road and six at their work.17

Cobb Valley Power House Upper Takaka

Cobb Valley Power House Upper Takaka. Te Ara Flickr Collection.

Progress was affected by the outbreak of World War II and the resulting shortage of labour and imported raw materials. In May 1940, the Government made ‘a liberal offer’ to the Hume Company and took over the project. Electricity began to flow in May 1944 and Nelson’s power problems seemed to be solved.18  The Cobb was only able to meet Nelson’s full electricity requirements, with supply to Marlborough, for a few years. But it did save the districts from power shortages experienced elsewhere and bolstered development.19   Major relief did not come for the province until it was connected to the national grid in 1958.20

The fascinating story of the Cobb and the people who worked on it is comprehensively covered in The Cobb by A.K. Blair.

 2016 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  1. Megan Cook. 'Energy supply and use - Electricity, late 19th to mid-20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 11-Apr-16 
  2. McAloon, J. (1997) Nelson: A Regional History. Whatamango Bay, N.Z. : Cape Catley in association with the Nelson City Council, p 163
  3. Bell, C.W. (1978) Unfinished business; second 50 years of Nelson City Council, p55
  4. Rennie, N. (1989) Power to the people : 100 years of public electricity supply in New Zealand, p 54
  5. McAloon, p163
  6. Keeping pace with the times (1912, January 31) Nelson Evening Mail, p.6
  7. McAloon, p163
  8. 1906 Cyclopedia, Nelson Corporation:
  9. Rennie, p 108
  10. Jubilee History of the Nelson City Council 1874-1924 (1924) Nelson: Nelson Mail, p 36.
  11. McAloon, p 163
  12. Bell, p 54-55
  13. Network Tasman:
  14. Bell, p 56
  15. Blair, A.K. (1994) The Cobb : the history of the Cobb River hydro-electric power scheme, p5
  16. Blair, pvii
  17. Blair, p 481
  18. Bell, p 59
  19. Blair, p 478
  20. Network Tasman website

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  • I am looking for some images of the Nelson/Tasman area that have a connection with Network Tasman Ltd.

    Posted by Melanie Powick, 24/04/2019 2:27pm (5 years ago)

  • Hi there, I am seeking information/confirmation that my grandfather, Joseph Alexander Kilpatrick DOB 26/9/1899, lived and worked at the Cobb. He was a bachelor and I have a photo of 'camp 4'1938. There are also photos of it flooded. I think it is one of the camps at the Cobb. I have looked at the photos/names in AK Blairs book but none match exactly. He might have worked in the area from 1921 when he arrived in NZ from Ireland up until 1947 when he moved to Gisborne once he married. His marriage certificate says tunneller for occupation. Has anyone any information or ideas? Did they keep lists of employees? Thanks. Claire

    Posted by Claire Reid, 11/09/2018 1:14pm (5 years ago)

  • I am seeking information on an article published in the Ch-Ch Press, and assume that it was also in the Nelson paper concerning two people, during a January drought period in 1955 or 1956?? left the power house to go to Lake Cobb and see if it was possible to clear any obstruction in the outlet pipes, and if not able to clear them, to Dynamite the outlet and thus allow water to flow down valley and into the reservoir. I was one and the other was Electrical Engineer George Miller. The outlet was blown up!! Ken Black

    Posted by Kenneth Black, 02/05/2017 5:09pm (7 years ago)

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