John Ribet of Hope Junction


John Ribet 1835-1890. From France to Kawatiri : Mine Host of the Hope Junction Hotel

Ribet was born in France in 1835, and baptised into the Roman Catholic Church as Jacques-François. He was a man of many hats and several names – known variously as Jacques, James and John, or officially by his name in English translation – James Francis.

Ribet. Courtesy Hoult familyJohn Ribet. Courtesy of the Hoult Family
Click image to enlarge

Legend has it that Ribet was originally a crewman who jumped ship on arrival in Nelson.1 After first settling around Waimea South in the late 1850s, he was lured inland by opportunities to be found in the Upper Buller Valley. The discovery of gold along the Buller River set plans in motion for a settlement to be established on flat land at the confluence of the Buller and Matakitaki Rivers. In 1865 Brunner carried out a survey and sections in this new township and its surrounding farmland went up for sale. Most were sold sight unseen to Nelson speculators, who had no intention of living there, but Ribet ventured into the hinterlands to see for himself the future site of the town called Hampden, but renamed Murchison in 1882. At the time it was all bush, with just a few miners’ huts scattered about and a boggy pack track the only way in.2

Ribet and his business partner, Swiss-born accountant Florian Adank, were visiting Adank’s compatriot Alphonso (Alf) Jacklin, an influential early Buller goldminer and storekeeper. Jacklin was keen to sell the accommodation house and store he had established in 1865 at the Four Rivers Plain opposite Doughboy Creek, and his two visitors were looking for a business with possibilties. Adank took the store but was really after the bright fine stuff and moved on to Lyell, however, astute Ribet realised that the real money was to be made in associated services (accommodation, transport, food and drink) rather than digging. He saw Hampden’s potential as a gateway to the Inangahua and Lyell goldfields and, by late 1871, was running the former Jacklin’s Accommodation House as Ribet’s Upper Buller Accommodation House and Stables, along with a ferry across the Buller River.3

A social and supply centre for gold-miners working the nearby rivers or passing through to the West Coast, the isolated new settlement had few permanent residents during the 1870s and ‘80s. It took luck as well as hard work and resilience to survive and make a living there. Accidents were common,4 especially drownings, with the nearest doctor a good 97 km away in Westport. With no midwife either, women facing the perils of childbirth braved the trek to Westport or Nelson for their confinements. Early settlers several times saw the results of their labour washed away by the Buller River. During the “great flood of 1878” much of Ribet’s farm was swept away, and very nearly his house and family as well. Of his stock, the bodies of sheep left entangled in treetops were all that remained after the waters subsided.5 He persevered, rebuilt his farm and took an active role in the affairs of the small Murchison community.

Ribet Hope SaddleNewman's coach at the summit of the Hope Saddle. Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection. 182023. “Up one side and down the other the road winds about in a most devious and fantastic manner."
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Although Ribet‘s main interest lay in breeding sheep, he also grew crops, ran cattle and had a particular passion for horses and horse-racing. He was a founding member of the Central Buller Jockey Club, and started an annual Murchison tradition with the Upper Buller Boxing Day Races and Festivities he hosted at his Four Rivers farm.6 He was also a member of both the Inangahua County Council and the Hampden Road Board, and campaigned vigorously for improved access by road and rail from the Buller to Nelson. Getting a road right through from Nelson to the Coast by way of the Hope Saddle and the Buller Valley would prove crucial to the later success of his Hope Junction enterprise. When gold-bearing quartz reefs were discovered on the slopes of Mt Owen in 1882, Ribet finally succumbed to gold-fever and with a couple of fellow speculators put together a syndicate called the Golden Fleece Quartzmining Company, one of many such hopeful consortia. Despite the resources poured in, attempts at extracting gold from the Owen Reefs were mostly abandoned as fruitless by 1890.7

Popular and well-respected, Ribet was fêted by the locals with a lavish and well-lubricated banquet8 when he moved to the Hope Junction (now Kawatiri) in April, 1883, after making an exchange with pioneer John Rait: Ribet’s Upper Buller Accommodation House, on the outskirts of Murchison, for Rait’s Accommodation House near the junction of the Hope and Buller Rivers.9 Built close to the road, the two-storeyed Hope Junction Hotel (later referred to as the Kawatiri Accommodation House) was a snug licenced establishment of 20 rooms, with its own vegetable gardens, orchard, home farm and stables all set on 180 acres of leasehold land. A staging post for Newmans’ coaches and a welcome stopping point for travellers taking the grueling overland journey from Westport to Nelson and back, it flourished with Ribet as its genial host, and soon gained a reputation as the “most comfortable resting place on the route”. Before long it became known simply as “Ribet’s”.10

Kawatiri Accommodation House

The Hope Junction Hotel Built in 1878 by John Rait’s brother-in-law, Stephen Oxnam. Burned down in 1894. Nelson Provincial Museum, ref. 326758. Click image to enlarge

Ribet was quick to see the value in tourism. Annual races held on land next to the Hope Junction Hotel brought in punters from far and wide and, by his own initiative, he put through a bridle track to Lake Rotoroa, providing access for hunting parties and sightseers. A trip taking in Lake Rotoiti, the Owen and Lake Rotoroa became a fashionable excursion for adventurous tourists from Nelson.

Early in 1886 there was some excitement when Ribet nearly lost the Hope Junction Hotel altogether. There was severe drought and the land was tinder-dry. Fast-moving fire threatened Ribet’s stables and was only turned aside after two days and nights of desperate work. There’s a dramatic story told of how the Newman’s coach was caught by the fire down the road, after a stop at Ribet’s, and had to battle to safety through thick black smoke and flames. It emerged miraculously intact, but with driver, horses and coach all well singed. The state of the sole passenger remains unknown!11

Mary Ribet nee Hoult

Mary Ribet (nee Hoult) 1838-1910. W.E. Brown Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Collection, ref:14862. Date taken Feb. 1882

In January, 1858, Ribet was granted British citizenship and, on the 31st August the same year he married Mary Ellen Hoult (b. 1838) at St Marys Catholic Church in Nelson. It seems likely that they met while he was working as a sawyer for her father. Mary was from a devoutly Catholic English family, a daughter of Waimea South pioneer Joseph Hoult, who came out from England on the ship Prince of Wales with his family in 1842. He settled at Upper Wakefield , where he built a homestead called “Willowbank” and ran a farm and substantial sawmilling operation on a large block of land in the area now named after him – Hoult Valley.12

Ribet Moonlights HotelMurchison ca. 1880. Nelson Provincial Museum/ Tyree collection. 181965 George Moonlight's Commercial Hotel in the foreground.
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Jacques and Mary farmed around Upper Wakefield and later at Bigg’s Valley, Stanley Brook, until Ribet developed itchy feet.13  They had seven children, with Mary travelling to her brother Edward’s Wai-iti home for the last three births in 1868 , ’71 and ‘73. Two sons were stillborn, and a daughter died in her first year. Of their four living daughters, only one survived her parents. The girls, Adelaide, Rowena, Mary (Polly) and Ellen (Nellie), were educated as boarders at St Marys Catholic School in Nelson and, when at home, helped their mother with the domestic tasks necessary for the smooth running of an accommodation house. In 1884 Rowena married Irish-born Michael Fagan, proprietor of the Owen Junction Hotel, and the couple ran the business together, but in 1888 both died within a few months of each other.  The whole district turned out for Rowena’s burial, but the story of her husband Michael’s funeral is pure frontier tragicomedy - truth stranger than fiction. With ghoulish delight, the Nelson Evening Mail takes up the tale in an article entitled A Remarkable Funeral. The Mr Moonlight called into service was not the famous George, but son John, along with his trusty horse, Rory.

Ribet leased the Hope Junction Accommodation House to local man Robert Win in June, 1888. He then shifted to Fern Flat, between Murchison and Inangahua Junction, after being granted a publican’s licence for the Fern Flat Hotel. This wasn’t perhaps the wisest move. The Fern Flat Hotel had previously been run without success by two of Ribet’s sons-in-law in turn, Alfred Smith and Henry O’Loughlen, with both ending up in financial strife over it. Ribet had already bought the Owen Junction Accommodation House in 1886, after the death of his other son-in-law, Michael Fagan, and this second outlay may have left him over-extended. He had hoped to keep his family close, but making a go of it around the Buller in the early days was tough and the attrition rate high, especially after the Long Depression bit home. After going into bankruptcy, Adelaide’s husband, Henry O’Loughlen, and Polly’s, Alfred Smith, were forced to move elsewhere to make a fresh start. The O’Loughlens went to the Wairau, the Smiths to Lyell.

buller ferry

Ferry ‘cross the Buller - a punt transports a coach over the Buller River. Nelson Provincial Museum, ref 182003.

Grief, age and the economic slump were taking their toll. Adelaide died, lost, like her sister Rowena, to consumption. Investment in quartz-mining hadn’t paid off and Ribet appears to have been having financial difficulties. He was also embroiled in a legal suit for arrears in rent against a blacksmith called George Edwards, to whom he had leased the Owen Junction Hotel. In February 1890 he went missing while out walking his dog along the Owen River. The dog returned home; Ribet didn’t. Search parties scoured the area over several days, with no success. Adding to the mystery were reports that a man believed to be Ribet was spotted around the Owen Valley and Owen Saddle acting as if he was “out of his mind” - he wasn’t wearing a coat or hat, but had a bunch of shrub attached to his head and, when he saw the searchers, he ran away and hid. It was eventually concluded that he must have met with a fatal accident while of unsound mind. His body was never found.14

Ribet Percival Fagan

Percival Michael Fagan, 1885-1910, only child of Michael & Rowena (nee Ribet) Fagan. As a 3-year-old orphan he was sent to live with his father’s family in Barnanstown, Co. Dublin, where he died at the age of 25. Nelson Provincial museum, ref. 21217

It was a sad end for this enterprising man, described as “one of the fathers of settlement in the Upper Buller district” and much admired for his energy and bonhomie. Although Ribet was a Frenchman at an outpost of the British Empire, the people of the Buller claimed him as one of their own. By way of greatest possible compliment for the time, one local remarked, “He is as good a specimen of the Britisher as any true bred John Bull”.

The iconic Hope Junction Accommodation House went up for auction in a mortgagee sale at the end of 1890 and was bought by its existing tenant, Robert Win.15 It burnt down in 1894. Ribet was gradually forgotten, becoming no more than a name inscribed on an overgrown cairn erected to the memory of notable Hope settlers. Mary Ribet saw the wedding of her youngest daughter, Nellie, to Adam Mathers at the Lyell home of her sister Polly in 1897,16 and the death of Polly herself, who drowned at the Inangahua Junction in 1908. Mrs Ribet died at the Mathers’ Reefton home in 1910, aged 72.17

The hard road to Hampden: early travel between Nelson and Murchison 

“In the 1860s, before the Hope Saddle was opened, the diggers trudging from Nelson came up the Wai-iti or Motueka Rivers to Gordon (now Golden) Downs, crossed “Berneyboosal” (Kerrs Hill) to the Motupiko, then tramped up Rainy Creek and over to the Buller River at Station Creek. Then they continued up the Howard, over the Porika Track to Rotoroa, and down the Mangles Creek to Hampden (Murchison).”18

Work on the Hope Saddle started around 1874. The road from Nelson to Westport via the Hope Saddle was not finally completed till 1878 and, even then, did not directly connect with Murchison.

2014. Updated June 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Stringer, Marion J. (1999) Just another row of spuds: a pioneer history of Waimea South. [Wakefield, N.Z.]: M.J. Stringer, p. 398
  2. Newport, J.N.W.(1978). Footprints too : further glimpses into the history of Nelson Province. Blenheim, N.Z.: Express Printing Works, pp. 45-54
  3. Brown, M. C. (1976) Difficult country: an informal history of Murchison. Murchison: Murchison Historical and Museum Society, pg.64.
  4. Upper Buller News Roundup (1873, January 11) Grey River Argus.
  5. From Reefton to the Lake Country (1888, February 29) Inangahua Times  (Includes a short interview with Jacques Ribet about the 1878 flood in Murchison.)
  6. Race Day Festivities at Ribet’s, Doughboy Flat (1872, January 5) Colonist.
  7. Public notification: Golden Fleece Quartzmining  Company - Application for a Goldmining Lease at Mt Owen (1883, May 18) Nelson Evening Mail .
  8. Dinner to Mr Ribet (1883, May 3) Nelson Evening Mail
  9. Grigg, J. R. (1947). Murchison, New Zealand: how a settlement emerges from the bush. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison School Committee. pp.20-25.
  10. A Trip to the Owen Reefs (1887, March 29) Colonist (Contains a description of a stopover and conducted tour around Ribet’s Hope Junction Accommodation House.)
  11. Arnold, Rollo D. (1994) New Zealand’s Burning – The Settlers’ World in the Mid-1880s 1994, Wellington: NZ, Victoria University Press. Online at NETC See Part One, Ch. 8 South Island, pg 97
  12. Stringer, pp. 396-7
  13. Government Notices for the years 1859-69 listing Waimea South residents in the Waimea Electorate qualified to vote, published annually in the Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle; NZ Electoral Roll for the District of Waimea, 1870
  14. An Old Settler Missing (1890, March 19) Colonist
  15. Advertisement: Sale of the Hope Junction Accommodation House (1890, December 15) Colonist
  16. Marriage at the Lyell (1897, April 28) Inangahua Times
  17. Mrs Ribet: An Obituary (1910, July 27) Colonist
  18. Nolan, T. (1976) Historic Gold Trails of Nelson and Marlborough. Wellington [N.Z.] ; London : A.H. and A.W. Reed.

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  • Wow Thank you....I have just found your comment.Iv e mailed my details to you and v much look forward to hearing from you.

    Posted by Julianne Fagan , 25/05/2021 2:32am (3 years ago)

  • Hello Julianne Fagan,
    My family discovered a box of letters written to my grandfather Kit Monks (Oldtown) including some from his close Michael Fagan. Please contact me for more information.

    Posted by Patrick Monks, 13/02/2020 6:46am (4 years ago)

  • I can confirm that the photograph on your site is indeed Percival Fagan as we too found the same photo in Barnanstown Dublin (not Wicklow) Ireland.The photograph would have sent to his Irish Grandparents. I came across two more photos in the same box that may be of interest to you.I am very interested in finding out who they are.No serial number on the back but the girls are Vera and Kate Colvin or Galvin [photos sent separately, marked Sherlock, Reefton and W.H. Vincen, Westport]

    Posted by Julianne Fagan, 16/02/2017 2:34pm (7 years ago)

  • Interesting article as Percieval Fagan mentioned was a cousin of my mother Margaret Kelly nee Fagan

    Posted by Pat Hirst, 26/06/2016 12:58am (8 years ago)

  • Hi,my name is Julianne Fagan from Dublin Ireland.John Ribet's grandson,son of Rowena and Michael Fagan is buried in the Fagan Family plot in Ballyboughal,Co.Dublin.Percival who died in 1910 at the young age of 25 has always been a mystery to my family. Thanks to your article we now know that both his parents died when he was three years of age and he was somehow returned to Barnanstown where I now live. It was such a sad story we can now understand why my husband's Grandfather(cousin of Percival and just a few years younger)chose not to pass the story on. On a happy note Percival has been remembered and prayed for, and the older Fagans happy to know where their grand uncle Michael is buried.

    Posted by Julianne, 04/09/2015 11:13am (9 years ago)

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