The separation of Nelson and Marlborough


The separation of Marlborough from Nelson came about when the opinions of two very different groups, small-holders and large pastoral run-holders, were in accord, even though this was for very different reasons.

Marlborough's pastoralists, owners of large tracts of land, did not accept the democratic ideals of the new colony, which were to provide land for all the people.1 All went well for them while Edward Stafford, an Awatere run-holder, was Nelson's superintendent. But when he resigned to become Premier of New Zealand, the working man's nominee, John Perry Robinson, was nominated to replace him.

The pastoralists were concerned at the growing influence of small farmers and urban radicalism in some of the provincial governments and wanted to safeguard their occupation of the large holdings.2

Nelson to Blenheim Mail Coach early 1900's  - a daily occurence until Renwick Bridge was built in 1913. Marlborough Historical Society Collection  Marlborough Museum, 0000.900.0610
Click image to enlarge

Robinson introduced new measures such as raising the assessment of the pastoralist's lands.So, they devised a scheme to protect themselves. The New Provinces Act of 1858 separated their estates from Nelson and Robinson's interference. The Act ensured that the sheep farmers secured legal power to make their own assessments of land and to administer taxation to suit themselves.4

Meanwhile, the Wairau's small-holders were suffering from a deep sense of injustice. The Nelson Provincial Government had begun a policy of extensive land sales in the Wairau from which they had raised £157,000 5, but the money was spent in Nelson. In 1858, the only public works in the Wairau consisted of the cutting of a steep road over the Taylor Pass at a cost of just a few hundred pounds. 6

The Wairau settlers asked the provincial government for roads, bridges and schools but were told : "Well if you want roads and bridges, set up a road board and rate yourselves." This was the last straw and for a few months, Wairau's European settlers were in open rebellion and talked about taking up their rifles to fight for their rights. 7

They were in a serious position without roads, bridges or ferries and a large part of the lands in private ownership. Provincial revenue was likely to be small for the necessary public works, but they felt they had no choice.8

A petition for separation was drafted in 1858, with all but six settlers signing it. On October 4, 1859, the establishment of the new province of Marlborough, with its capital in Picton until 1866, was gazetted to take effect on 1 November.It was expected the new district would be named the Province of Wairau, but the name Marlborough was chosen in Auckland.10

The elections to constitute the newly created Provincial Council were held early in 1860. William Adams was chosen as Marlborough’s first superintendent and Cyrus Goulter was elected to fill the Speaker’s chair. The first Provincial Council members were: William Adams, William Baillie, Cyrus Goulter, John Godfrey, William Henry Eyes, Henry Dodson, James Sinclair, Arthur Seymour, Charles Elliott, Joseph Ward.

Mr. William Adams , first Superintendent of Marlborough Province. Marlborough Historical Society Collection Marlborough Museum
Click image to enlarge

Seventeen stormy years of provincial government followed with fierce rivalry between Blenheim and Picton to be the seat of local government.  The Council worked hard to develop the province but a lack of revenue was a severe handicap.11

Between 1866 and 1870, Marlborough tried to extricate itself from its financial plight, but land revenue never met expenditure, let alone clearing debt. Central government bailed Marlborough out several times and there were proposals to re-annex Marlborough to Nelson12 prior to the abolition of the Provinces Act in 1875.

There were many factors in Marlborough's difficult start: the loss of revenue to Nelson, sometimes- inept local governance and large run-holders who controlled the price of land and refused to rate themselves to provide funds for public works.

By 1900, the province had found its feet, with the Marlborough Express commenting: "That the 41 years has been a period of progress, slow at times but always sure."13


Provincial Government

Under the original provincial system of Government, New Zealand was a federation of half a dozen isolated and scattered settlements.14  A lack of easy communication (roads, railways, telegraph) would have made centralised administration difficult. 15

There was a central parliament with two chambers, located in Auckland, and provincial councils in Auckland, Taranaki, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Otago. It was felt that each province could deal more efficiently with its own requirements and resources. 16

Between 1858 and 1873 four new provinces were created - Hawke's Bay, Marlborough, Southland, and Westland. The provincial government system disappeared under the Abolition of the Provinces Act of 1875.17


Updated: 16 Apr. 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Buick, T.L. (1900) Old Marlborough. Palmerston North, NZ: Hart and Keeling, p 393.
  2. Marlborough Province and Provincial District. (2007). Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 
  3. McIntosh, A.D. (1977). Marlborough: A Provincial History. Christchurch, N.Z.: Capper Press, p 195-197.
  4. Buick, T.L. p. 394- 396.
  5. Buick, T.L p. 397.
  6. MacDonald, C.A. (2003) Pages from the Past: Some Chapters in the History of Marlborough (2nd.ed) Christchurch [N.Z.] : Cadsonbury Publications, p 270.
  7. McDonald, C.A. p 270.
  8. Buick, T.L. p. 398.
  9. Buick, T.L. p. 399.
  10. McDonald, C.A. p. 275.
  11. McDonald, C.A. p. 275, 279.  
  12. McIntosh, A.D. p. 255, 265.
  13. The Anniversary of the Province (1900, October 31)  Marlborough Express, p.2
  14. McDonald, C.A. p. 269.
  15. Provinces and provincial districts. (2007), Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand:  
  16. McDonald, C.A. p. 269.
  17. Provinces and provincial districts. (2007).

Want to find out more about the The separation of Nelson and Marlborough ? View Further Sources here.

Do you have a story about this subject? Find out how to add one here.

Comment on this story

Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Further sources - The separation of Nelson and Marlborough




Held Nelson Provincial Museum 

  • Monro, David. (1813-1877). Diaries, 1847, 1854-1876 MS MON. (Monro was an ardent separationist in the Nelson Provincial Government) 


Web Resources