The 1884 plague of rats


Early settlers in the Nelson Province faced many challenges. One of these was the rat problem – which exploded to plague proportions in 1884.


Illustration of Polynesian Rat, Rattus exulans from 'On the New Zealand Rat. (With Illustrations.)', by Walter Buller, Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Volume 3, 1870. The Polynesian or Pacific Rat is known in New Zealand and other parts of Polynesia by the Polynesian word kiore.

Rats were introduced to New Zealand long before Europeans arrived. The Polynesian rat or Kiore, arrived with Polynesian sailors. Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus), also known as brown or water rats, were on the ships of the first explorers, who arrived in New Zealand in the late 1700s. These voracious rats quickly spread. European settlers brought ship rats (Rattus rattus), also known as black or roof rats. While these did not become established until after the 1860s, their large growth in numbers soon caused a decline in the populations of the larger Norway rat and kiore.

norwegian rat

A Norwegian rat on a barrel.

Rats were always a nuisance, but in 1884 there was an explosion in numbers. In Picton there was an invasion of kiore:

"In Picton, during the swarm of 1884, the stench becoming unbearable in one of the houses, the floor of the sitting room was removed, when forty-seven rats were found lying together dead near the fireplace. ... Indeed, the whole town was pervaded with the odour of dead rats. It took the place of pastille in the drawing rooms, and overpowered that of sanctity, even, in the churches."1

The black rat Rattus rattus

The Black Rat (Rattus rattus) is one of the most common of the world's 56 Rattus species, and is also known as the house, roof or ship rat. It is found throughout Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas. CSIRO

It was not only kiore that invaded people's homes. Mr Saunders, an early settler, was talking about ship rats, when he described “a plague of these rats….creeping up the blankets to smell our ears and chin, so that we never felt sure they would not want to taste them too. They would devour our boots, or any possibly edible thing.. .In no part of the world have I seen a plague of rats anything to be compared to that on the banks of the Maitai for a few weeks after the arrival of the Fifeshire."2

Frederick Tuckett, chief surveyor, explorer and acting New Zealand Company resident agent complained that the rats "have no cunning or timidity, and are killed in great numbers, but there is no sensible diminution." He advised prospective settlers to bring good strong terrier dogs and wire traps and gins.3

plague of rats

The plague of rats in Nelson and Marlborough. Nelson Evening Mail, volume xix, issue 283, 8 December 1884

The rats were a particular problem for farmers and anyone attempting to grow crops. The Royal Society of New Zealand reported on the 1884 “perfect invasion” of rats in the top of the south island: “….Living rats are sneaking in every corner, scuttling across every path; their dead bodies in various stages of decay, and in many cases more or less mutilated, strew the roads, fields, and gardens, pollute the wells and streams, in all directions… Young and succulent crops, as of wheat and peas, are so ravaged as to be unfit for and not worth the trouble of cutting and harvesting. A young farmer the other day killed with a stout stick two hundred of the little rodents in a couple of hours in his wheat field.”4 Farmers also had to contend with introduced birds, notably sparrows and parrokeets5, attacking their crops.

Apart from manual killing, many rats were taken to the gasworks for destruction.6

The rat problem persisted. In 1928, Bell reported that the waterfront and port area were overrun with rats, which chewed the insulation around power cables. The rats were electrocuted, but it also resulted in frequent power cuts.7

Rats remain a problem today, with periodic rises in populations - in beech forests these are associated with mast years. In 2010 the Nelson Mail reported a “plague of rats” in the city area, following a particularly warm Autumn.8 With climate change this problem may increase.

2018 (updated Dec 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Rutland, J (1889) On the Habits of the New Zealand Bush-rat 
    (Mus maorium). In Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 22 (1889), pp.301–302.
  2. Saunders, quoted in Broad, L. (1892). The jubilee history of Nelson : from 1842 to 1892. Nelson, N.Z.: Bond, Finney & Co, p.20
  3. Tuckett, F.  Letter, February 12, 1843. In Smith, E. (1843) Letters from Settlers & Labouring Emigrants in the New Zealand Company's Settlements of Wellington, Nelson, & New Plymouth: From February, 1842, to January, 1843. London: Smith Elder & Co, p.64
  4. Meeson, J. (1884) The Plague of Rats in Nelson and Marlborough. In Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand 1868-1961, 17
  5. Meeson
  6. In Nelson: The rat crusade. (1900, May 10) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  7. Bell, C.W.(1979) Unfinished business: the second fifty years of the Nelson City Council. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council, p. 55.
  8. Kidson, S. (2010, June 8) Plague of rats strikes Nelson. Nelson Mail on Stuff:

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