The earliest human footprints across the Mahitahi floodplain, upon which Nelson City now sits, belong to the tangata whenua and manawhenua tribes of Whakatū. What is now Alton Street was an area that directly crossed the path of those travelling to and from the upper Mahitahi (Maitai River valley), in search of food and argillite to manufacture into tools, or on journeys to other districts in Te Tau Ihu. Oral traditions speak of nearby Pikimai (Church Hill) as a sentinel pa. Waimarama is the Māori name for The Brook Stream that runs across the southern boundary of Alton Street.
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Eight ‘Town Acre' sections were surveyed along Alton Street in 1841 by the New Zealand Company, each section having a boundary on Hardy, Nile or Manuka Streets to which their official address was assigned. Named by Nelson's ‘street naming committee' in 1842, Alton was chosen in honour of the many residents aboard the immigrant ships Willwatch and Whitby who came from Alton, near Hampshire, England. The name also recognised the "well-behaved, steady man" Thomas Cresswell, a Company labourer from Alton, who died in Nelson in 1841.
The water race
A short time after being named an elevated water race was installed along the length of the street, taking water from the Brook Stream at Manuka Street to the Nelson Flour Milling Company's mill situated across Hardy Street at the southwestern edge of Reserve H (the Eel Ponds; now the Queens Gardens). It remained over Alton Street for seventeen years. When the water race was placed underground, one local resident was inspired to express his viewpoint - artist J.C. Richmond had found the sound of the leaking pipe "a soft soothing sound as good as a fountain in a garden of terraces and statues, and the aqueduct has a primitive old world look which makes me regret to hear that the progress of improvement and of the Dun Mountain Railway is soon to remove it". 1
Dun Mountain railway
For ten years (1862-1872) Alton Street had the Dun Mountain Railway line running along the middle of it. The previous, soothing sound of leaking water from the overhead race was replaced by the sound of horse-drawn wagons on iron rail. Wagons of chrome rumbled from near the Dun Mountain to Port Nelson. The Dun Mountain Company had a yard fronting Alton and Manuka Streets, where trees felled from beside the railway were milled for firewood and timber. The land now forms part of the back field of Nelson Central School.
Town Acre 506 - Nelson Central School
This corner section was owned by Frederick Schumacher, recorded in 1851 on a jurors' list as a cabinet maker. It is said the land was used to bury horses. Schumacher, who lived in a small cob cottage on his land, cleared his section to grow wheat and later established a cherry orchard and planted many loquat trees. His granddaughter Mrs Fairey sold the land to the Department of Education in 1893. The first school building on the site was razed to the ground by a local arsonist. The current building is the third school and was opened in 1930 by Member of Parliament and Minister of Education Harry Atmore who spent his childhood at No.7 Alton Street.
In June 1895 the headmaster of Nelson Central School, F.G. (or "Sos") Gibbs, planted the lime trees that continue to flourish along the Nile and Alton Street boundaries. The history of the large redwood tree next to the school gate is unknown but its age, calculated in 1994 at about 100 years, suggests that it could have been planted by F.G. at the same time. His pupils planted many other trees around the city and along the banks of the Maitai River.
The entrance to Renwick House, on the grounds of the School, is in Alton Street. This was once Newstead House and the home of Thomas Renwick and David Munro.
Town Acre 509 - Gibbs Family Home
In 1877 Henry Hounsell, wine merchant in Bridge St., sold 94 Nile Street for £1500 to Mary Gibbs who was attracted to the ‘large' residence in which to house her nine children. She also liked the position of Bishops School ‘just down the road'. Mary became a well-identified figure throughout her long life in Nelson, always seen in a black, ankle-length taffeta dress and a black lace cap. One of her boys, Frederick Giles, graduated from Canterbury University and became the first headmaster of Nelson Central School (for boys) where he served from 1894 to 1923.
Town Acre 424 - Griffins Factory
In the mid 1860s John Griffin established a flour mill in Nelson. He later added the manufacturing of biscuits and confectionery when operating from the Alton/Nile Streets corner. His sons continued the business until a public company was formed after a disastrous fire that destroyed the buildings on 7th February 1895. Eight years later, Griffin's was once again razed to the ground. This time the rebuilding was in brick and the factory remained a corner landmark for decades. The residents of Alton Street were treated to a variety of aromas issuing from the factory - apparently the best were after chocolate making machinery was installed, first in 1897 and then again after the fire.
During the early 1900s, buying a 3d bag of broken biscuits was a lunch treat for many Central School pupils, "the fun was to look through it to see if there were any chocolate ones."
After 1938, when most of the biscuit making operations moved to Lower Hutt, the mainstay of the Nelson factory was confectionery. Central School once again had a special relationship with the factory over the road - teachers in the know would request treats for school camps and were rewarded with tins full to the brim with chocolate coated confectionery. Thank you letters brushed up the writing skills of the young diplomats. Another relationship centred around the 3pm factory Smoko. So many workers rushed away in their cars at the sound of the whistle to do 10 minute errands, that the school principal programmed classes to start earlier in the morning so that they could finish at 2.55pm. This gave his pedestrian pupils a 5 minute headstart! These school hours remained long after the factory had closed.
Griffin's Alton Street factory eventually required a $6 million dollar upgrade under new earthquake standards and was closed in 1988 with the loss of 137 jobs. It was demolished to make way for Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology expansion.
Tradesmen and Politicians
No. 1 Alton Street was occupied in 1899 by bootmaker George Batchelor; joiner David Jack occupied No. 3, while Mrs Aker ran a boarding house at No.9. Edward Atmore, Hardy Street greengrocer, resided at No.7 and used the front of the property as a market garden. Atmore's son Harry, who lived there until he married and settled atop Atmore Terrace, became Nelson's Member of Parliament as an independent. In 1928 Joseph Ward led a reorganised and newly-named United Party to a landslide victory and appointed Harry Atmore as Minister of Education with retention of his independent status. Although he lost his cabinet position during the Depression he remained MP for Nelson until his death in 1946. Dorothy Annie Way, off Atmore Terrace, was named after Harry's wife.
In the 1960's many craftspeople were drawn to Nelson, encouraged by pottery pioneers such as Mirek Smisek and Harry and May Davies who helped establish Nelson as an art and craft destination. In 1968 Danish born and Auckland raised Jens Hansen arrived in Nelson with his Danish wife Gurli to restore an old wooden villa in Alton Street as a home and silversmithing studio. Jens had returned to Copenhagen as a young man to study his craft, returning to Auckland with Gurli to establish a successful jewellery business. With success came the realisation that they could live anywhere in New Zealand. They were attracted to Nelson's old buildings and pace of life. For 12 years No.8 Alton Street was a centre of creativity.
The home studio was a model of inspiration for aspiring craftspeople, a focus of social gatherings and a tree-filled space to raise the couple's two boys, Halfdan and Thorkild. Expansion of Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology in the 1980s precipitated the selling of the home. The Jens Hansen business continues to operate in Nelson and is renowned for The One Ring that Jens created for the film trilogy Lord of the Rings.
Opposite No. 31 Alton Street a small building housed a telescope that once belonged to Arthur Atkinson of Fairfield House. F.G. Gibbs secured it for the Nelson Institute, intending to place it in the school grounds. The site granted by the Education Board was too close to trees so it was erected in Alton Street. Trees and buildings eventually forced its relocation, but, from 1903 for about twenty years, "people came on clear nights to view the stars and learn something of astronomy".
Alton Street Today
Alton Street is numbered north to south. The street has always been on two levels, at one time with a more rural ambiance than today - long grass growing down the middle was suitable for children to graze their pet lambs. The north western block of the street remained predominantly residential until the 1980s when Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology started acquiring property for expansion. One of the first houses to go was the two-storey home on Hardy Street, on original ‘Town Acre' 427. Once sold, others were acquired quickly as residents could see that the city block of old wooden family homes with large, tree-filled gardens was entering a new era of development.
Other Town Acre properties in and around Alton Street
Town Acre 202 - In 1845 a flour mill operated here, taking water from the Brook Stream. The mill was later owned by Matthew Campbell.
Town Acre 427 - Miller, storekeeper and educationalist Matthew Campbell lived here in a small cottage in 1845. He managed Tasman Street School 1842 as well as the Matthew Campbell School in Bridge Street which became incorporated into the Suter Art Gallery.
Town Acre 506 - was said to be used as a horse burial site. It was covered in the poisonous native plant tutu.
Town Acre 505 - In 1851 this land with a home was purchased from W.F. Maiben by Nelson College for Rev Bagshaw, their first principal; later owners of the property included Nathaniel Edwards, Sir David Monro and later Dr Renwick. ‘Renwick House’ stands today as classrooms within Nelson Central School.
Town Acre 425 - Constantine Dillon owned this property in 1851; it remained unoccupied for several decades.
Town Acre 509 - A four-roomed cottage originally owned by Matthew Campbell was transformed in 1865 with a northern extension fronting Nile Street by new owner Henry Hounsell.
The text for this story comes from the Alton Street Heritage panel, created for the Alton Street Historic Precinct to celebrate the diverse history of the street, its buildings and its people. It was unveiled on World Heritage Day April 18th 2010 when international links were made with the town of Alton, Hampshire, England.
Updated Jan 2021
Sources used in this story
- Richmond, James Crowe, 1822-1898 (183) Diary. Nelson Provincial Museum. Bett Collection.
Much of the text for this story was taken from:
Alton Street (1978) Nelson Historical Society Journal, 3(4) September 1978, 20
Want to find out more about the Alton Street ? View Further Sources here.
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Further sources - Alton Street
- Gee. M. (1978). 1878-1978 Nelson Central School: A History. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Central School Centennial Committee.
- Stade, K (2008). The school by the sands: a century of Tahunanui School, Nelson : 1908-2008. Nelson, New Zealand: The School.
- Alton Street (1978) Nelson Historical Society Journal, 3(4) September 1978, 20
- Disastrous fire in Alton Street. (1895) Nelson Evening Mail, 7 February 1895
- Parry, G.(1995) Remember Griffins. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2, 6, p.10
- Parry, G. (2000) Memories of Griffins. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 6,3, p. 56
- Archaeological Monitoring of Griffin's Factory Site (NMIT 'H' Block), 13 = 25 Alton Street & 101 Nile Street, Nelson (includes substantial information about the history of the Griffins Factory and site):
- Porter, F. (2007) Atkinson, Arthur Samuel 1833 - 1902. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
- The Griffin's story. Retrieved 15 Feb 2021 from Griffins: