Nelson Anniversary Day


Nelson Anniversary Day

The early European settlers celebrated anniversary day in fine style on various days throughout February. In fact the anniversary commemorates the arrival of the first New Zealand Company boat, the Fifeshire on 1 February, 1842. Anniversary celebrations in the early years featured a sailing regatta, horse racing, running races and shooting and ploughing matches. The horse races were run on a track cut through the manuka around the foot of Church Hill.

Nelson RegattaNelson Regatta, the Nelson Provincial Museum, AC959
Click image to enlarge

The first Nelson Anniversary celebration was held on February 1, 1843 and the Nelson Examiner urged Nelsonians to participate: “Women, children and all, turn out – especially you young ones, and set to the cake and bread and butter, and tea, and laugh and dance as if it were your one such holiday in the whole year.” 1

John Barnicoat wrote about the day in his journal, saying the weather was fine and Nelson assumed a happy holiday aspect. He noted that the most interesting and animated event was the Maori canoe race. “ One canoe had eight rowers (including a woman or two) and the other nine. The whole had thrown off all European dress as not being free enough and presented the bare, brawny unencumbered shoulders. They contested the prize to the utmost and seemed to enjoy the fun.”2

Fellow settler, Samuel Stephens had a more peevish view of proceedings, writing that “some of the amusements advertised are of a coarser nature which might as well have been avoided – running in sacks, climbing a greased pole, catching a pig with a soaped tail etc.”3

The first Nelson Regatta was held on 4 February, 1843. Strong winds and an ebb tide meant that only two out of more than a dozen boats completed the race, but the event was still enjoyed by a large number of people lining the waterfront. “After the sailing boats came in, everybody wended his way through the rain as best he might, to get a look at the Vegetable and Flower Show; but a much greater number of specimens had been sent than was anticipated, and the judges were detained with closed doors for several hours, awarding the different prizes.”4

Nelson c.1845Nelson from above Saltwwater Bridge, copy painting., c.1845. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection.
Click image to enlarge

Remembering back to the anniversaries of the 1850s and 1860s, a 19th Century columnist in the Nelson Examiner, George C, wrote that the early gatherings took the form of a big family party with young and old entering enthusiastically into the games. “Dull care was banished for the day, and the years’ experiences of old shipmates were related and listened to with a fervor that showed that these brave souls were not disheartened by the disappointments and struggles of pioneering.”

In 1892, the Nelson Jubilee Celebration featured an official week-long programme with church services, sports, concerts, a ball and a grand display of fireworks. On Tuesday 2 February 1892, a perfect day with a splendid spring tide, bright sun and moderate breeze, dawned for the Nelson Regatta. The newspaper reported that “at about noon when the first and third class open boats and second class yacht races were all on at the same time, the harbour presented a very pretty sight, with the 20 contestants dotted about.”5

Also taking part in the 1892 regatta, was a totara dugout which had been made in the Aniseed Valley and hauled over to the Waimea Inlet five years earlier. It was owned by four local lads who used it around Moturoa / Rabbit Island, with its longest voyage being to Port Nelson for the Jubilee. Remains of the dugout are on display at The Nelson Provincial Museum in Hardy Street.

The 1895 regatta was held in January and described as being very successful with the Nelson Evening Mail reporting that the Nelson Rowing Club won four out of five races. “The weather on Jan 1st  interfered with the attendance of the public at tbe Regatta, but considering the unpleasant rainy day it is surprising that it was so well patronised."6

As the 19th century closed, there was less of the friendly, family feeling shared in the earliest days of settlement, but, no doubt, Nelson Anniversary Day was still an opportunity for people to take a break from their labours, dress up in their finery and enjoy a day of fun with fellow Nelsonians.

Written by Joy Stephens and published in Wild Tomato, 2009, with the support of the The Nelson Provincial Museum.

Updated May 17, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. [Anniversary Fete] (1843, January 28). Nelson Examiner, 1(47),186.  
  2. Barnicoat, J.W. (1814-1905). Journal and papers, 1841-1902, Bett Collection. [Nelson Provincial Museum].
  3. Stephens, S. Letters & Journals. Bett qMS (4 vol typescript). [Nelson Provincial Museum].
  4. [Anniversary Fete] (1843, February 4). The Nelson Examiner, 1(48), 190.
  5. Nelson Jubilee. (1892, February 22). Colonist,Supplement, 1.
  6. Nelson regatta. (1895, January 21). Colonist, 1.

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Further sources - Nelson Anniversary Day




  • Barnicoat, J.W. (1814-1905) Journal and papers, 1841-1902, Bett Collection.[Nelson Provincial Museum].
  • Stephens, S. Letters & Journals. Bett qMS (4 vol typescript). [Nelson Provincial Museum].

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