Rai Valley


Māori occupied the Rai and Te Hoiere/Pelorus until 1828, when Te Rauparaha's war parties occupied Te Tau Ihu and local Māori were killed or scattered from their lands. They returned to catch and preserve birds and eels from the Pelorus and Rai Rivers well into European times.1

Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Kōata, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, and Te Ātiawa continue to have a close association with the Rai River, as a tributary of Te Hoiere/ Pelorus River. The River has important cultural values and was a source of mahinga kai such as eeling and birding (especially Kereru). For Ngāti Kuia, Titiraukawa (Pelorus Bridge, at the junction of the Rai and Pelorus Rivers) was a pā, kainga and seasonal food gathering site. Several important trails met at Titiraukawa and it was a terminus for pakohe and other trade.2

In 1838, Colonel Edward Wakefield travelled to the head of the Pelorus Sound/ Te Hoiere and wrote that the area would be good for farmers and ship builders: "...timber of the finest quality covers the magnificent mountains and excellent game of all kinds can be got ashore."3

RaiBrownlee1.jpgAenaes McMillan and his bullock team hauling logs in the bush in 1885. Image courtesy of Marlborough Museum - Marlborough Historical Society Inc
Click image to enlarge

Charles Turner, a London University graduate, was one of the earliest European settlers in the area.  He, his wife Matilda and their four young children lived in an isolated cottage made from locally pit-sawn totara slabs from the early 1880s until 1909 when they moved to Nelson.4 Turner supplemented his income with farm work, roading contracts and bush felling.5

Sawmillers were trail blazers, making roads, building bridges and tramlines, and establishing settlements.6  Sawmilling was at its peak in the Rai area between 1889 and the beginning of World War One.7

RaiBrownlee2.jpgOpouri Valley. The desolation left by the millers with burnt and fallen trees on the flat land. The sleepers from the tramline can be seen in the bottom left of the photograph. Image courtesy of Marlborough Museum - Marlborough Historical Society Inc
Click image to enlarge

In 1898, a petition, signed by 4000 people, sought the preservation of the Ronga, Tunakina and Opouri Valleys.8 The Nelson Scenery Preservation Society accepted that ‘the clearing of the bush was necessary to profitable settlement' but also believed ‘some portions of the forest should be preserved in their natural state'.  This was New Zealand's first major public campaign to create a national park. The petition was unsuccessful and milling began in the area by about 1905.9

Blocks of milled land were offered for settlement in the Opouri Valley. The Carpenter family moved there in 1913 not long after a bush fire had swept through and Mrs James Carpenter's first impression was one of loneliness and desolation. "My nearest neighbours lived at Carluke, but to pay them a visit was out of the question." The only ray of hope was mail from England and Blenheim, collected from the Rai Valley store and delivered by passing bushmen.10

The biggest and most enterprising sawmills in the Rai were run by the Brownlees and Craigs between 1880 and 1920. They mainly milled heavy stands of native trees on the flats. Returned servicemen began to cut timber from the steeper slopes and gullies after World War One.11

In 1974, the remaining Government timber reserves at Rai Valley were incorporated into the Mount Richmond Forest Park.12 There had been 58 sawmills in the Rai and Upper Pelorus Valleys, but only two remained by 1974.13

RaiPitt.jpgIn the Rai valley. Image courtesy of Marlborough Museum - Marlborough Historical Society Inc
Click image to enlarge

Rai Valley didn't get on the map until the road between Blenheim and Nelson over the Whangamoa and Rai Saddles was completed in 1885.14 Pickerings and then Newmans Brothers provided regular coach services.15  Horse drawn coaches left the Blenheim or Nelson Post offices at 8am sharp, arriving at either end 10 hours later at 6pm.16  Septimus Eyes developed the Rai Falls Accommodation House, which became a popular holiday resort. 

Rai Valley [or Falls] Accommodation House. Nelson Provincial Museum. Sclanders Collection. 9135Click image to enlarge

Fire and floods were disruptive events in Rai Valley. In January 1898, a bush fire burnt out a valley containing 500,000 feet of millable timber and 81 chains of bush tramway.17 In 1904, a flood swept down the valley with the loss of stock and the destruction of the Pelorus Bridge/ Titirakawa.18 In the summer of 1908, bush fires threatened several saw mills19 and burnt down the Robertson Brothers' sawmill.20

Charles Turner wrote to Matilda in 1868: "there has been nothing but floods and earthquakes here, one (earthquake) that made the ground jump so we could see it all moving and there was a noise like flames coming out of hell.21

The Rai Valley Dairy factory opened in 1909.22   In 1913 the Marlborough Express said:"....in no district has this growth been more rapid than the Rai Valley. Here the fast disappearing bush is giving place to fertile grazing areas....the Rai Valley dairy factory now receives the daily product from no less than 560 cows."23

In 1980, the Rai Valley factory combined with the Marlborough Cheese Co-operative Ltd, with production transferring to Tua Marina.24 This factory is now also closed.

RaiLeov.jpgMrs. C. Leov (Nov 1870) W E Brown Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum. 11364
Click image to enlarge

There were many clubs in the region: cricket, shooting, rugby, tennis - to name a few.25  In the early 20th Century, people travelled to attend socials at Rai Valley, Carluke, Deep Creek, Canvastown, Pelorus Bridge/ .26  Film nights were held in the Rai Valley Hall once a fortnight.27

RaiSalesbook.JPGBrownlee & Co timber Sales Book Jun1900 - Jan1905. Image courtesy Marlborough Museum-Marlb. Historical Soc. Inc.
Click  to enlarge

Many were involved in the life of the thriving community.  Mrs Nellie Schroder (1903-1993) arrived in 1922, married dairy farmer, Arthur (Sam) Schroder and was awarded an MBE for services to the community in 1964.28

At one time there were at least eight schools in the area. In 1939, four schools (Ronga, Opouri, Carluke and Rai Valley Schools) were consolidated into one school.29 Rai Valley School's roll increased from 37 to 122 pupils.30 The school became an Area School  for years 1 to 13 in February 1978.31

2013 (updated 2021)

For more information about this region contact Faye Leov (chairperson), The Rai Valley Cultural and Archives Trust at P.O. Box 68, Main Road, Rai Valley.

Sources used in this story

  1. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee (1980) The Rai and its people. Blenheim, New Zealand: The Rai Valley Centennial Committee. p.9
  2. Te Tau Ihu Statutory Acknowledgements 2014 [PDF], Nelson City Council, Tasman District Council, Marlborough District Council
  3. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.10
  4. Rai Valley Cottage. Historic Places Trust Register, Retrieved. 29 Jan 2013 from:
  5. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.35
  6. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.27
  7. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.29
  8. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.30
  9. Lochhead, Lynne. The battle for the Rai (1898). Australian and New Zealand Environmental History Network. Retrieved. 29 Jan 2013 from: environmentalhistory-au-nz.org/2012/11/the-battle-for-the-rai-1898/
  10. Hale, A.M. (1960). Rai Valley Co-operative Dairy Factory Company Limited: a history of the company's progress and the development of the Rai Valley district. Blenheim, New Zealand: Rai Valley Co-operative Dairy Factory Co, p.23
  11. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, pp.54-56
  12. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.78
  13. Leov, N (1974) Rai Valley Sawmills, Nelson Historical Society Journal, 3(1), p.36:
  14. Walrond, C. (2010) Te Ara, Land Transport. Nelson region - Land transport. From Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:http://www.teara.govt.nz/mi/nelson-region/page-7
  15. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, pp.36-37
  16. Halket Millar, J. and Spencer, G. (1979). High noon for coaches 1879-1979. Wellington, New Zealand: H. & A. W. Reed, p.83.
  17. Bush Fire (1898, July 8) Marlborough Express, p.3
  18. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.40
  19. Bush fires (1908, February 18) Marlborough Express, p.8
  20. Sawmill destroyed (1908, January 28) Marlborough Express, p.5
  21. Neal, P.E. [1980]. London to lonely Rai. [Nelson, New Zealand]: P.E. Neal, p.54
  22. Rai Valley (1909, December 21). Marlborough Express, p.8
  23. The dairying industry (1913, April 9). Marlborough Express, p.2
  24. The Rai and its people, p.53
  25. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, pp.92-93
  26. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.91
  27. Dillon, N.W. [2008]. Life in the upper Opouri [Christchurch, New Zealand: N.W. Dillon], p.13
  28.  Kate Hunter (2010) Schroder, Nellie Winifred Bernice - Biography. from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand 
  29. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.78
  30. Consolidation (1937, September 21). Evening Post, p.15
  31. The Rai Valley Centennial Committee, p.85

Want to find out more about the Rai Valley ? 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


  • Are there copies of the Rai valley dairy company history still available? I own a pewter mug awarded to a Mr. Souness of the Rai Valley Dairy Co-op for champion cheese at the Waikato Winter Show in 1935 and would like to know more about the co-op, Mr. F. Souness and the award winning cheese.

    Posted by stuart schwartz, 14/11/2019 7:40pm (4 years ago)

  • This is the most thorough article I have found on teh Rai Valley, where my grandfather farmed in the early 1900's. Many thanks.

    Posted by Kathleen McKay, 11/05/2018 7:13pm (6 years ago)

  • The correct title of my father N. W. DILLON's piece about the Upper Opouri is "Life in Upper Opouri", with nothing else appended to the title, written in 2005 ... It is about the family he grew up in at Upper Opouri and the other people in the valley. I should know because I wrote it from my father's rough handwritten notes. Peter Dillon

    Posted by Peter Dillon, ()

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

Further sources - Rai Valley



From Papers Past:


Web Resources