Early colonial life in Nelson


Nelson’s early Europeans

Who were the first European colonists to Nelson? What kind of people were they?

They were tough and inventive.  Nelson’s first European houses were often built from little more than fern branches. One writer commented: ‘I was passing one of this description…situated on low land near the river, and ventured to express an opinion that fern thatch could not afford much protection from rain, and that I thought some danger was to be apprehended from the rising of the river, when the matron of the house replied: “Oh! the river often rises, and the rain pours through the roof, and then we stand on top of a big box, and hold up an umbrella all night.”’1


The town and part of the harbour of Nelson in 1842, about a year after its first foundation / drawn by John Saxton Esqr; Day & Haghe lithrs. London, Smith Elder & Co., [1845]. Alexander Turnbull Library Manuscripts & Pictorial

Alfred Saunders described the rats which plagued the early settlers. "The native rats were an intolerable nuisance. They appeared not to have the slightest fear of man, but as soon as it was dark, ran about the house in swarms, walked deliberately over our feet, climbed on the table and would drop like flies from the thatch. At night we had to keep a stick in hand to thrash them away from the candle, but, worst of all, they ran over us all night, and would come creeping up the blankets to smell our ears and chin, so that we never felt sure they would not want to taste them too.2


Frederick Tuckett (1807-1876) The Nelson Provincial Museum, OP 295095

Some of the first Europeans were Quakers from Bristol - intelligent, honourable people who enjoyed mutually respectful relationships with local Māori. Three of the first Quakers were surveyors Frederick Tuckett, Samuel Stephens and John Cotterell.

Tuckett was known for his hospitality. One settler wrote: “The best dinner I have had since I landed was one I ate with Mr Tuckett, the chief surveyor; he overtook me on my road home and insisted upon my going to him – sack trousers and all. We had some New Zealand quail and I thought I had never eaten anything so nice.”

Stephens often described warm and friendly relations with Māori neighbours, Mary and Etani at Riwaka. In January 1843, he noted :“Oh! How do I blush for my countrymen, when I write that our fears for the safety of ourselves and property are not from the natives, but from the gangs of bad white men who now infest the country.”

Surveyor, John Barnicoat also noted the natural dignity of Māori when he sailed into Nelson Harbour in February, 1842.  Two days later he noted that a public ‘grog shop’ was very popular with drunken sailors. “This evening one of them was purposely annoying one of the natives by bawling in his ear and swearing at him…..The native at last quietly got up and knocked the sailor down then gave him two or three tremendous blows on the head and walked off in their usual dignified manner.”


[Coates, Isaac] 1808-1878 :Piki Warsa. Chief of Motuwaka. [1843?] Alexander Turnbull Library: A-286-007

On a visit to the Motueka Pa in 1842, Cotterell met a chief  known as Atopikiwara: “He saw no good in being paid for the land…but the best way would be for the white people to pay whenever they cut down a tree, built a house, or made a garden thus establishing a perpetual rent.  This will, I think, be found the general idea of the New Zealand chiefs, as regards utu (payment).”

The early Europeans were productive.  William Fox noted: “A little further north-west is Mr Redwood, formerly a Staffordshire farmer.  His attention has been chiefly turned to grazing and dairy pursuits.  He supplies a considerable quantity of meat consumed in Nelson, both beef and mutton and sends between 40 and 50 pounds of butter to market weekly…(He) has built the best farm house of the settlement,” he wrote.

While they tried to create a little England, the first Europeans quickly came to enjoy the benefits of the landscape and climate.  Cotterell described his new lifestyle to his mother: “You would smile at our independence, when on these excursions, only making a large fire, roasting pigeons or ducks….then rolling up in a blanket and lying on the bare ground or grass.”  27 March, 1842.

Samuel and Sarah Stephens lived at a beach camp at Stephens Bay near Kaiteriteri for several months each summer. “We have just returned from a three months residence at the seashore….living a kind of bush life under a tent, supplied with the usual necessaries of life in the eating way from my farm at Riwaka,” he wrote on 28 April, 1849.


Sarah Greenwood The Nelson Provincial Museum, Davis Collection 1102/1

Sarah Greenwood took to pioneering life like a duck to water and her letters show she was optimistic and indomitable. On  first arriving in Nelson in April 1843, she described the Nelson climate as ‘delicious': "We have now been lying at anchor for some days in this lovely haven surrounded on three sides by picturesque mountain scenery, and shut in by a natural breakwater that renders the harbour perfectly secure." She took to housekeeping with gusto: “ I am now quite expert in household work, which I like well enough, and in cooking which I really enjoy. I only wish you could taste my stewed pigeons, my pea soup, and my light plain puddings; and then Danforth [her husband] is such a good admirer, he finds all so well done. In truth….I never was happier or better in my life.” August 1843.

Nelson’s resident agent, Francis Dillon Bell noted in 1849 that Nelson was virtually crime-free and attributed this lack of crime to the climate: “ I deny any man, unless he is superlatively cross, to be long out of temper in the perpetual sunshine….he can’t but be cheerful and good humoured, when he and everybody else around him are in robust health and share together the bracing and delightful air that prevails nearly all the year around.”  While Bell acknowledged that the New Zealand Company ‘experiment’ had been seriously flawed, he wrote: “A colony is truly the place for a poor man: and comparing a labourer’s previous life in England with that…in a new settlement, he has incomparably the best of it.”

For more stories about early colonial life in Nelson, check out the People section of this website.


Updated 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Carl Walrond. 'Nelson region - European settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12
  2. Broad, L. (1892) The Jubilee history of Nelson. Retrieved from NZETC:

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