The Remnants of Taylor Ford


By the banks of the great Awatere River, nearby to Taylor Pass road, there once stood a township known as Taylor Ford upon the river terraces. A bustling little town with blacksmith and stables and with a pub at the centre of it all ran by Mr. William Earll, a strong English man, whose premises welcomed all weary shepherds, shearers and coachmen who passed through the town on their way to the stations of Molesworth, Starborough and the like.

map of Taylor Ford

Map of Taylor Ford. Image supplied by author

Prior to the installation of a railway bridge in 1901, there were no other means of getting to the southern side of the Awatere other than on horseback or wagon. The town was an important stop for all travelers, but after the bridge was put in, attention was focused on Seddon. As the people left Taylor Ford so did the businesses and the buildings, which were pulled down or, like the church, moved to Seddon. Nothing remained of the town of Taylor Ford except one thing which is made to last; The town cemetery.

Taylor Pass Cemetery sits idly by the Awatere Road with the 100-year-old tombstones soaking the sun's rays. The people buried here help explain the difficulties people faced in this early period of New Zealand’s history. The town of Taylor Ford was situated to the south of the roadside, down upon the lower terraces, where it was shielded by the wind but high enough to avoid the flooding that occurred lower on the scrubby flat. The hotel’s site can still be seen thanks to three tall poplar trees which stand at the rear of where the two-storey hotel once was. The town had cottages and a dairy, a show ground and race course, as well as a little Presbyterian church further up by the roadside, overlooking the little township.

In 1862, Dr. Thomas Renwick donated some land for the erection of this church as well as the establishment of a cemetery for the little town. Donations were asked to aid the establishment of the church with many old Scots gladly pitching in. One of the people to donate money for the church was Mr. George McRae, who became the first person to be buried at Taylor Ford.

The McRae Family
George was born in the Highlands of Scotland to Roderick and Katherne McRae in the year 1800. It is said in 1816, George as a young lad set sail for Hudson's Bay, North America under the orders of Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk. George returned to his home of Scotland accompanied by his new wife Helen, whom he met and married at the Red River Settlement, where he took up a sheep station of about nine thousand head for seven years. Helen has been a victim to the Highland Clearances when she was just a little girl. He then had a few other farms, one of which was given to him by the first Duke of Sutherland, George Granville Leveson-Gower. In 1841, he sailed to Nelson with his wife and their many children.

Eventually, George removed his family to the Awatere in 1850. He had spent the last decade farming in Waimea as well as 88 Valley. He also purchased Lake Rotoiti Station but sold this and moved to the Awatere. The Awatere was scarcely populated then. George may possibly have even been the first Pākehā to settle there. He took up considerable property naming one ‘Blairich’, after one of the properties he managed in Scotland, and another Braes of Sutherland, which his son William Sutherland McRae took up. In September, 1864, George was assisting in the rendering of tallow from carcasses at his Blairich estate when he lost his footing and fell into the boiling tallow. George passed away as a direct result of this on the 3rd of September, 1864.

The McRae plot also holds the remains of Nehemiah, son of George and Helen. Nehemiah was just a boy when his family immigrated to Nelson. Like most of his family, he farmed in the Awatere, working sheep and droving, and would have likely become a similar figure in the community as his father was. Nehemiah didn’t live to old age, but he did accomplish a great goal in his life. He is regarded as the first to summit Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku in the Kaikoura Ranges. Nehemiah, along with three others, traversed the mountain in 1864 being the first to do so successfully, and left a five-pound note which was claimed a decade later. That same year he married Miss Janet Aiken and raised a family of two daughters and two sons. Nehemiah sadly drowned on the 15th of May, 1872 when he was washed off the back of his horse in the Awatere River. Dick Jackson noted to Nehemiah that the river was dangerously high but he assured Jackson that he’d be alright if he followed his lead. It appears that the horse lost its footing and went head under, causing it to roll. Unfortunately for Nehemiah, his foot got stuck in the stirrup and he was dragged with the horse down the river. He’s quoted by Jackson as calling out “Farewell, Remember me” before he sank beneath the water. His body was found by Mr. Edwin Trolove soon after and brought him home. He was thirty-four years old and left a pregnant widow and four children.

Helen McRae, wife of George and mother of Nehemiah is also laid to rest here. She died at the respectable age of seventy-six years in Richmond, Nelson, having survived her husband by fifteen years and raised eleven children. Instead of being buried in Nelson, she was bought back to her husband and laid to rest.

Another early settler interred here was Alexander Linton, who landed at Nelson in the year 1854. He did not spend long in Nelson, coming to the Awatere not long after to manage Upton Downs Station for Sir Edward Stafford, the third, eighth, and tenth Premier of New Zealand. He did this for over two decades before taking up his own property in the Lower Awatere Valley where he resided for the remainder of his life alongside his darling wife Janet. He was remembered by the community for his willingness to lend a hand and being of a ‘kindly, genial disposition.’ Janet survived him by six years, dying at seventy-one in 1897.

The Awatere claimed many lives over the years. In June 1894 a body was discovered on the banks of the river by Mr. Avery, two miles below the main river crossing. This was discovered to be Mr. Frank Allayne (Alleyne) who had drowned in the river three months earlier on the 18th of March.  Four years earlier George Evans, a worker at Tarndale, was sucked under the water by a whirlpool while in the accompaniment of Charles Williams. His body was lost for quite a while. After a few months, another search was done for the body of George to no avail. A few days afterward a wagoneer named Mr. Hendra discovered a body but was unable to retrieve it. The Silvius family later rediscovered the body while boating, finding it pinned against the wire netting of a bridge. He was taken and interred in the cemetery after being dead for forty-six days.

Behind the McRae plot can be found the final resting place of Mr. Gilbert Templeton. Gilbert was a publican at the Boulder Bank Settlement in its heyday. The Boulder Bank settlement was somewhat infamous and was known as being a questionable place for questionable people. The settlement slowly fazed out, largely due to the 1855 Earthquake causing widespread subsidence. One settler to the area, William Budge of Budges Island, had to leave due to the land becoming flooded and water-damaged by the effects of the Earthquake.

Taylor Ford Accommodation House

Accommodation House at Taylor Ford. Image supplied by author

Sometime between 1861 and 1865 Gilbert moved to the Awatere and took up an accommodation house called the Awatere Crossing Hotel. It was close to Templeton’s accommodation house that another person interred at Taylor Pass met his untimely fate. Samuel Read (Reid), the town blacksmith, attempted to cross the Awatere River but slipped off the back of his horse. He was known to have been an able swimmer and had swum across that very river before. It is thought that he was struck by a kick from the horse, rendering him unconscious. Gilbert had earlier told Sam that the area in which he was attempting to cross was too deep but Sam, being the able-bodied swimmer he was, deemed it passable. Two years prior Sam had lost his daughter Sarah Ann when she was aged just five months after their house caught alight one evening. His home was close by to Gilbert’s and that day, Sam had gone to the accommodation house with one of his children. Mrs. Reid, confused as to the whereabouts of her child, went to the Gilbert’s Hotel and found them there. She decided to bring the child back home, but as soon as they left the building she saw the house engulfed in flames. She quickly alerted her husband who rushed to get their other children out of the wooden cabin. All children were saved from the building but sadly, little five-month-old Sarah was ‘severely scorched’ and succumbed to her injuries.

Gilbert remained in the Awatere at his hotel up until his death. He met his death one evening while sitting at his table with some guests. While talking his head ever so slowly slumped forward until he let out a sigh. When the guests finally got up and investigated they found that the old publican had died, likely of a heart problem. He had a large funeral with people from all over Marlborough coming to pay their respects, reportedly one of the largest funerals in the area. His quaint headstone is guarded against sheep by means of a wrought iron fence.

The memorials that weren’t shielded from sheep have fared worse then those that were. Many headstones have become dislodged or shattered, including that of Ern Finney. His small, shattered marble cross can be found lying in the McRae plot to preserve it’s many pieces. A much loved farm hand all over Marlborough, He met a grisly end when he consumed toxa, a rabbit poison, on the 2nd of February, 1897 at Welds Hill, Awatere. The incident was described in an article headed ‘The Welds Hill Tragedy’ in the Marlborough Express of 4 February 1897.  Like many of those buried at Taylor Ford, it’s another sad and tragic demise.

Sadly, Finney was not the only one buried in the cemetery who took his own life. A man named Fred Barry was found hanging in the Blind River Station outhouse by a boy who alerted Edward Blick, a station hand (possibly Edward Gay Blick), who then cut the body down. The man was about twenty eight years old and stood at a height of five foot seven. He sported a short sandy beard and mustache with dark brown hair on his head and was on the property in search of accommodation and a job. He had told no one his name but papers in his possession were marked with the name Fred Barry. 

Sadder yet are the deaths of children. In late March, early April 1897, the young son of Mr. John Gregg, probably called Robert Mattey Gregg, of Upper Jordan died as a result of eating unripe fruit when he was just two years old. He was interred in the cemetery in an unmarked grave. Another child buried here was young Howard Hodgson who resided at Richmond Brook with his father Abraham and mother Amelia. Howard was just three when he died at his home and was buried soon after. When his parents died in Blenheim, his father's headstone was also given an inscription memorialising Howard at the Omaka Cemetery. There is also the grave of J. Sim who died in 1896. I think that this may have been Jessie Sim, who was just ten years old when she died in the Awatere Valley.

Many damaged and unsecured headstones can be found leaning against the wrought iron surround of Miss Sarah Ried. One such headstone belongs to David Stokes. David had borrowed a horse from Mr. Stace and went for a drink at the accommodation house before his ride to Blenheim. He left and was followed by two others who had also wet their whistle at the house who soon came upon him lying on the ground next to his horse. The two thought that, having just drunk, he was in a drunken nap so he was put to rest. It was later discovered by Mr. Stace that David had died. The inquest found bleeding to the brain, likely resulting from a kick from a horse. Another of these headstones is that of James Witton, that he died 9 December 1873 is the only information so far found about him.

Another damaged headstone is that of John Fissenden, a roadman at Kekerengu, who was found dying in his tent with a bottle of whisky beside him. He had spent Christmas in the Awatere and had been drinking during the week, but not to excess. The Marlborough Express reported the inquest on the 9th of January, 1893.

One of the oddest tombstones in the rural Awatere is that of Capt. Richard Scott at Taylor Ford Cemetery. Capt. Scott was captain of trading ships between Marlborough and Australia, acting in that position for several years. His stone reads that he was formerly master of the ‘Spray’, a brig that arrived in New Zealand in 1851, and possibly the Steamer Lyttelton. He retired to the Awatere where he stayed at the home of his daughter Bertha, wife of Philip Roderick McRae. Philip was the son of the previously mentioned George and Helen McRae. The family resided at Blairich where Capt. Scott died at the age of eighty-two years.

A similarly marked grave is that of Mr. William Lovell, a station hand at Richmond Brook. At seven o’clock William would go out and chop wood for Sunday morning when the washing would be done and hot water was needed. The following morning his body was found by Mrs. Richmond next to the chopping block. It appeared that as he brought down the axe he died, indicated by how the wood on the chopping block was cut. The funeral was decided for 11 o’clock so the Rev. Grace was there waiting. The minutes quickly turned into hours and it quickly became apparent that the high river was causing problems. The coffin was loaded into the largest dray and weighed down as best as it could so the dray didn’t become a boat. The dray eventually made it across and the service began at 5 pm, six hours later than intended.

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Taylor Ford Cemetery in 2021. Image supplied by author

As with almost every cemetery, Taylor Pass had many unmarked graves. The earliest recorded unmarked grave is that of Mr. William Henry Bursill. William resided at Glen Lee in the Awatere. He died after suffering from a stroke at William Atkinson’s Butergill property, despite the aid of Dr. Renwick and Dr. Horn. He may have had a headstone but it has either been damaged or completely removed. 

Other graves in the Cemetery include:

  • Alexander Dalziel, a well-known Awatereian, was discovered on the banks of the Awatere River. His coat and waistcoat were behind his body in a paddock between him and Dumgree Station, where he had stayed the previous night. Mr. John Watson stated that the night previously Alex had told him that two men were after him with a rifle. His body was interred at the cemetery.
  • Andrew Brown, a worker at Richmond Brook Station, was carried for two days by his mates, down to the Awatere Accommodation House in search of medical aid. He had quickly gone unconscious so the men rushed him as fast as they could to the nearest assistance. He died just two hours after arriving at the house, being unconscious for the entire trip down from the backcountry of Richmond Brook. He died at the age of forty-five.
  • James Townsend Edwards was found dead in his bed at the Accommodation House  in June 1901. He was sixty-five years old and died of natural causes. James was a Lieutenant in the 14th regiment of foot and later Major of the Wellington Defence Force. James was in the Awatere working when he died. He had complained earlier of feeling unwell. Both he and Brown are also in unmarked graves.
  • Allan McMaster, the Awatere road inspector, was found in his hut two days after death and was buried in an unmarked grave. He had resided in the Awatere for over twenty years, forming roads and mapping streets. He sadly, was a victim of the drink. He was about fifty when he passed away at his small home.
  • Unnamed swagger (Arthur Morris?) - in July of 1895 the body of an unnamed swagger was recovered from a snow drift by Constable Costin of Culverden and Mr. Gilbert Gordon close to the Clarence River. Gilbert was a shepherd on the St. Helens run and was there to aid the constable in locating and returning the body to a town. The weather in the area had been particularly harsh that time of year. The pair left Jollies (Jack) Pass at 10:30 one Saturday and made the nine hour journey through six feet of snow, trudging for fourteen miles (twenty-two kilometres) until they reached the Awatere. The Constable felt unable to go further at about the eleven mile mark and urged Gilbert to go on, to which he refused and instead managed to get the constable about half a mile away from the Awatere when others came to their aid. Upon getting to the Awatere Accommodation House the constable’s boots had to be torn from his feet. As for the body, it was found and conveyed back to Taylor Ford. The swagger had stopped a month prior at Molesworth and was advised not to continue on but had done so. His name was unknown but inside his pocket was a book named Arthur Morris. His body was apparently well preserved having been dead for about a month. He was interred at Taylor Ford in an unmarked grave.
  • Mrs Young and Mrs Young - the last burials occurred in 1909, when two Mrs. Young’s were buried at Taylor Ford. The first was Janet, wife of Robert Whitley Young of Dumgree Station. She was born in Dumfries, Scotland, and was the daughter of Halbert (Herbert) and Martha Renwick, relatives of Dr. Thomas Renwick. In 1895, she married Rob and with him, she had three children; Herbert, Janet, and Margaret Young. On the 8th of February, 1909 she passed away at Dumgree Station at the age of forty-five years. Her eldest Herbert was four days shy of his thirteenth birthday. Her youngest was just seven.
    Four months later Robert’s mother Sarah Jane also passed away at the station. She was the wife of Robert Brash Young who resided in Auckland. She was seventy-three when she died and was buried alongside her daughter-in-law Janet. As for Rob, he later remarried to Lillian Fairhall and took up residence at the old Nelson house Newstead. He died there aged fifty-nine in 1922 and was buried at Wakapuaka Cemetery.

Dr. Renwick’s generosity in donating the land for the Taylor Ford Cemetery provided those early settlers who loved the valley the chance to be buried where they lived.  Very few people passing through the area would ever realise that on the site was once a bustling little town but, much like other early towns in New Zealand, like Lyell on the West Coast, the cemetery is the only remnant of the nineteenth century township. The stories of those buried here tell of hard lives, long careers and sad endings.


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