Nelson becomes a City


Nelson became a city in 1859, an event which has been seen as a significant cause for celebration as centenary and 150 year events by the Council and the Anglican Church (in 1959 and 2009 respectively).  Nelson actually becoming a city in 1859, however, seemed of little consequence at the time.

Local intelligence, Nelson ExaminerLocal intelligence (1859, June 1) Nelson Examiner and Evening Chronicle, p.2
Click to enlarge

The local paper, the Nelson Examiner, reported on 1 June 1859 in its ‘Local Intelligence'1 column a small article headlined ‘Nelson a City.' More coverage was given to the Odd Fellows' Hall concert and a coroner's inquest farther down the column.

Christchurch CathedralChristchurch Cathedral, 2008, Karen Stade
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The process of becoming a city began when Queen Victoria signed the Letters Patent in September 1858.  This document (which can be viewed in its original form or as a transcript)  established a Bishop's See, allowing the construction of Nelson's Cathedral, and officially changed the small town of Nelson into a City. However, it wasn't until Nelson's first Bishop, the Right Reverend Edmund Hobhouse, was officially installed in April 1859, that Nelson was able to truly claim the auspicious moniker of ‘City'. The way it was reported, City status was greeted with neither fanfare nor celebration.

There are three significant dates relating to Nelson becoming a City:

  • 27 September 1858 - the Letters Patent, the official documents declaring Nelson a City, were signed by Queen Victoria
  • 18 February 1859 - the Letters Patent arrived in Nelson
  • 28 April 1859 - the first Bishop was installed at the cathedral

Nelson in 1858/59

Trafalgar Street, Nelson, ca.1860Trafalgar Street, Nelson, [ca 1860], Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-8964-01. Click image to enlarge

Although Nelson could claim it was a city, according to Lowther Broad, Esq. in Jubilee History of Nelson: From 1842 to 1892,2 Nelson ‘exhibited little of that bustle and activity that should characterise a City; but there was a great improvement in the street architecture - rickety, barn-like stores had given place to handsome shops, and the old packing-case style of houses had been superseded, in many instances, by dwellings having some pretensions to taste and comfort.'

Jim McAloon, in Nelson: A Regional History3, shares that in 1858, Nelson was still largely a wooden town, ‘with 434 buildings of wood and only 27 of brick or stone.' He agrees with Broad on the lack of architectural foresight saying that town planning at the time was non-existent with the ‘houses of the well-off and the cottages of artisans and labourers often sharing space with workshops, shops, breweries and tanneries.'
Still, ‘the little port town achieved something of an exalted status  in 1858, when it was created the seat of an Anglican diocese,' says McAloon.

In the time of Bishop Hobhouse, Nelson had a population of just over 5,000 people; in 2009 nearly ten times that number call Nelson home.

In 1858 Nelson had:

  • 17 merchants
  • 25 storekeepers including 5 bakers, 5 butchers, 9 milliners, 4 breweries, 12 shoemakers, 4 blacksmiths, 17 carpenters, 9 cabinet makers, 6 boarding houses
  • 434 wooden buildings
  • 27 brick or stone buildings

Cost of living in early Nelson

A look at what some common grocery items cost in early Nelson.

In 1851 you could buy:

Item                        Price                                Currency conversion

Wheaten Bread       3 pence per pound loaf     3c per 500g loaf

Milk                        4 pence per quart             4c per 1200 mls

Butter                     1 shilling per pound          10c per 500g

Cheese                   1 shilling per pound          10c per 100g


This article was first published in LiveNelson, 2008, issue 234

Updated May 14, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Local intelligence (1859, June 1) Nelson Examiner and Evening Chronicle, p.2
  2. Broad, Lowther (1892). The jubilee history of Nelson : from 1842 to 1892. Nelson, N.Z.: Bond, Finney & Co, p.27
  3. McAloon, Jim. (1997) Nelson: A regional history. Whatamango Bay, N.Z.:Cape Catley Ltd.


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