Teddy Rennell of Leatham Valley


A true pioneer

Tucked neatly in the southern hills of the Wairau lies the Leatham Valley, a rugged, steep expanse of bushland which winds its way up towards the Saxton and the Severne, then just a stone's throw away from the Tarndale. In its early days, a lumberman and labourer Mr. George Leatham found the valley the best place for his business, swinging across the Leatham river and milling trees on-site, doing enough of it for the valley and the river to bear his name. 

Those familiar with the early days of the Leatham will recall the three Lane boys; Stan, Les and Doug, who resided for much of their youth on the site and spent many years farming the high country merino sheep that grazed the property for decades. But the Lane boys weren’t the first generation of their family to work the land in the valley. In 1904, Mr. Joseph Edward Rennell and Mr. George Landon-Lane applied for the seventy nine thousand acre subdivision of Birch Hill Station. It would be through these two early farmers that the name Compensation would become known to the Wairau community.

Early life in Spring Grove

Joseph Rennell, who was affectionately known as Teddy, was born on the 22nd of February 1865 to Miss Lucy Maddock and Wilfred Rennell, somewhere in the area of Wakefield. Lucy was born in the area, her father being Thomas Maddock who worked for Sir David Munro at Bankhouse in 1848 and later as overseer on Starborough Station.

Teddy Rennell

Teddy Rennell- photo supplied by Thomas Fairweather

Little is known of Wilfred. It appears he did general farm and labour work around the district but little more is known. Wilf had not married Lucy at the time of Teddy’s birth so uncertainty remains as to what sort of relationship the pair had. Wilf did support Lucy and Teddy with help from his uncle Edward Rennell who was the first headmaster at Spring Grove school. Sadly, if there was ever going to be a union it was never to be as two months after Teddy’s birth, Wilf drowned while returning to his home at Spring Grove. Close to the home of blacksmith William Louden, Wilf and a few friends began to ford the Motueka River when his horse reared and like many other early settlers he did not have the luxury of knowing how to swim. Job Flower, one of his mates, immediately jumped in after Wilf in an effort to save him; however, after swimming two hundred yards got cramped and had to grab a manuka branch in the centre of the river. Mr. Orchard, another mate, raced on his horseback after Wilf but lost sight of him and went back to aid Job Flower out of the river.

Wilf was aged just nineteen years and now Lucy was faced with an uncertain future ahead of her. She began to worry as to what she should do. Fortunately for Lucy, Wilf’s uncle Edward, the headmaster at Spring Grove School, offered to take Teddy in and, with help from his wife Angelina, they raised the boy. Edward was much liked by the children in the area and would take both a day and evening class. In the evenings he'd teach children who could not attend the day class under the light of homemade candles to ensure all got an education. Angelina and her husband made sure that Teddy had as good a start as anyone. Sadly for both Teddy and Angelina, another tragedy would befall them. Edward would die just six months after Wilf from an illness. He was aged in his 50s and was so cherished by his pupils at the school that he was apparently buried in the school grounds by the roadside where the trees stand today at the Spring Grove Hall.

spring grove hall

Spring Grove Hall. Image supplied by author

It is said that other early pioneers are also buried here after a diphtheria outbreak in 1848 claimed an alleged eighteen adults and children. Some children that attended in later generations remember seeing burial mounds and being warned to not go to that corner of the field. The local Spring Grove Church lent helping hands to the now widowed Angelina. They offered support and assistance wherever necessary and helped raise Teddy.

Lucy would soon leave the district with her husband and raise a family in Blenheim. Even if she had wanted to take Teddy back it would seem she saw how much he truly meant to Angelina who had now lost her nephew and husband. For a time the two lived with local families, such as the Jeffries and Rutherfords. Teddy became close friends with Ernest Rutherford and kept in contact right up until his death in 1937. Teddy and Angelina eventually settled into a home on the corner of Jeffries Road and what is now Lord Rutherford Road, with Angelina’s sister Rhoda who was widowed in 1870. Teddy soon went to work doing shearing and mustering through the Tasman.

Farming in Tasman

Dedicated to his work, he took up ‘Te Arowhenua’, a property in Pig Valley Road in Waimea South, which was also owned for a time by ‘The Wool King’, Thomas Carter. In 1884 Teddy was leasing a 150 acre-section in the Motupiko Valley and in 1888, a property in the Tadmor Valley was in his possession, presumably after owning Te Arowhenua. However, besides this there isn't much evidence of his early farming in the Tasman.

Marriage to Bessie Moran and move to Marlborough

At some stage, Teddy started droving animals through Tophouse and down to the Wairau where he got employment at a rabbit factory. It is here he met and married Bessie Moran of Redwoodtown. Bessie was the daughter of two Irish immigrants Denis and his wife Elizabeth Moran who came out to New Zealand on board the Sir George Pollock with many members of their close and extended family. Just six months after landing at Nelson the family moved to Beaverton where they continued to grow their family. Bessie was born in 1868 and attended catholic schooling at St. Mary’s. She was just ten years old when her father Denis disappeared at the mouth of the Queen Charlotte Sound on board the steamer Lyttelton. He was on his way to Nelson to seek medical advice but something caused him to go overboard. His body was never found. Two years after his drowning Bessie’s mother remarried to Michael Desmond who proved a difficult man for her mother and her siblings. He soon deserted the family leaving Elizabeth to care for her children alone which pushed many of her boys to take up work at very young ages. Her house may have caught alight in her later years and so she moved in with her son John who may have also been living with other siblings of his. Bessie’s grandmother Hannah had also come to New Zealand, a survivor of the famine and English persecution. Bessie was working in a clothing factory as a seamstress in Blenheim when Teddy met her and decided to marry her.

The pair married on the 2nd of November, 1892 in Blenheim and they are said to have first resided at Marshlands and then at Springlands before taking up a property at the foot of Mount Patriarch at about the turn of the century. Around this time, Angelina passed away at Spring Grove. She died just ten days after her sister Rhoda and two months after her only other sibling Syd. All of whom were buried at St. Paul’s Churchyard. Teddy would have worked on many runs with evidence suggesting he worked on the Ugbrooke Estate in the Awatere Valley. Their eldest daughter is said to have been born on the 3rd of November, 1892 which would make it the day after their wedding. Whether this is true or not, I do not know.

Teddy worked for W. H. Tapp as a shepherd at the turn of the century. While residing here at Mt. Patriarch their eldest son Eric Jasper Rennell died at the age of nine from peritonitis at the family home. He was buried in the Wairau Valley Catholic Cemetery - a few hundred metres west of the main Churchyard. Teddy appears to have been involved in horse racing, a very popular hobby in those days with many of the backcountry farmers becoming skilled in the art. In 1898 Teddy’s horse ‘Tracey Queen’ scored seventeen points in the first handicap trot alongside another farmer George Landon-Lane’s ‘Key West’. George was a very skilled horseman, refusing rewards for his efforts as this would make him an official jockey. I’d imagine the pair became well acquainted as in 1904, the subdivision of Pastoral run 149 was split between the two, perhaps as compensation for an owed bet involving the races.

Pastoral run 149

Pastoral run 149 was originally part of the Birch Hill Station, one of Wairau Valley's early stations. First taken up by George Duppa, a man who was quite the wealthy chap by the end of his life. Dr Renwick also had it in his possession amongst many other notable early Marlburians. 149 had been up for lease since 1903, experiencing little inquiry into its purchase. George and Teddy must have seen the benefit in the land for high country, rugged stock such as Merino. George was no stranger to the type of backcountry, being head shepherd for one of the stations that now forms the current Molesworth Station. Teddy took his family to the property, building a two roomed slab cottage above the Branch River where they continued to grow their family. By 1913, Bessie had given birth to thirteen children; Ness, Monica, Hettie, Eric, Bessie, Beattie, Nell, Joe, Bertha, Grace, Paul and Phyllis, with all but Eric surviving to adulthood. The home was guarded by strong trees and overlooked the river where once their Merino sheep grazed, but now is just river rock.

Teddy Rennell

Teddy Rennell. Photo supplied by Thomas Fairweather

Teddy likely would have farmed alongside George and Walter Landon-Lane who kept the lease on their section of property for a short while. George was considerably older than Walter who was known for being a ladies' man and quite fond of gambling. One story goes that George discovered his younger brother at the Waihopai Accommodation House, preparing to bet his property. Not having any of this, George grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and threw him outside. It appears George tried to do his best by his youngest brother, supporting him and trying to establish a suitable property for Walter. In 1906, George transferred run 149a into the ownership of Walter who retained it for just a year.

It is said that while carting wool out on a dray from Teddy’s land, the wheel slipped causing the whole wagon to topple over, crushing Walter under the weight of the packs. Unable to lift the packs off Walter, George had to dig underneath his brother as his head was submerged beneath the Leatham’s waters. When he finally got him out he rushed him to the nearest hospital where he was found to have several broken ribs. If this story is true it would seem likely that this contributed to Walter releasing the lease from his ownership. Walter married not long after to Miss Sarah Melhuish, daughter of Mr. William Melhuish of Birch Hill Station. He also got Miss Tiripa Kere in Picton pregnant. Walter would end up living in Dashwood Street with his family, going off to work on various stations in the Wairau and Awatere Valley. He died when he was just forty five when he was caught in bad weather and died of pneumonia. One story is that he was found dead in a hayshed having tried to get warm. As for his brother George, he lived to the impressive age of ninety six, outliving all but one of his younger siblings. He was much respected by the community both for his experiences and his knowledge.

The valley was inhospitable in winter and unforgiving in summer. For the time period one is easily forgiven for wondering what they saw in its remoteness. Although known for its inhospitality, it soon became a bustle of life. With his eleven children,  Teddy ran the property with assistance from musterers outside of the family, some of which wound up marrying Teddy’s daughters. The sheep were put to roam on the great expanse of property until Christmas when the sheep would be mustered in for shearing and any other necessities. Grandchildren soon were welcomed to the land and with their assistance as well the shearing and mustering became something to truly enjoy.

Relics of the era can still be found. At the Caves Bluff at the Leatham River can be found Teddy’s signature, scratched into the wall amongst many others of his family’s. The original family homestead is no more, yet the hundred year old daffodils still bloom and the chimney’s base still remains. After the death of Bessie in 1942, Teddy left the Leatham for Springlands where he stayed with a daughter. He died at the age of eighty three at his daughter's residence in Springlands. His body was taken to Wakefield where he had spent his youth and laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church next to Bessie. Fortunately for Teddy, he died knowing the land would continue on in his descendants' hands.

The Leatham property after Teddy Rennell

Whit Landon-Lane, son-in-law and nephew of the previously mentioned George and Walter, took over the mustering and shearing of the merinos on the land with help from his wife Phyllis and four children. The pair resided at Hartley Hills, Hillersden but continued the operation at the Leatham. They built a hut next to the woolshed and the existing woolshed was added on to later by his son. At times, such as the Polio Epidemic, the family stayed at the Leatham for considerable time. Whit’s children Stan, Les, Doug and Doreen all helped on the land with mainly Les and Doug rounding in the sheep at Christmas. This would take many days though the echoes of bleating from up the valley told the family at the woolshed they were getting closer. The trips to Blenheim were made on horseback by his sons and the farming continued until wool prices no longer made it viable. Even then, the Lane children still would routinely come back to enjoy the land they grew up on. Whit would later die while driving home from a day spent at the Leatham, turning to his wife and stating “You’re going to have to be brave” before slumping over.

The descendants

Today the Leatham is leased by two grandsons of Whit and is enjoyed by the many descendants of Teddy and Bessie. Doreen's family spend their Christmases at the farm and Les's family visit whenever they can. Doreen died in 1986 and Les in 2016. Doug still farms up the Wairau and Stan is retired in Blenheim having had great involvement with local cricket. The eldest daughter of Teddy and Bessie Rennell resided with her parents until she married at the age of thirty five to Percy Andrews. Percy was from the Tasman and about fourteen years Agnes’s senior. They resided on the Old Coach Road by Tophouse where she lived for most of her life until she moved a few hundred metres away by the state highway. They were married for just twelve years when Percy died after an operation on his kidney. He was buried in the grave of his father and two of his siblings at Wakapuaka. She remarried to Jack Palmer who was from Motupiko. She died in 1963 only a few months after her seventieth birthday and was laid to rest in the Mararewa Cemetery. Monica, or Tibbie, followed Agnes. She took up work as a nanny for the Kruse family at Manuka Island Station for Louisa Ellen Kruse’s daughter Ellen Louisa, a girl that kept a close connection with the Rennell family. Tibbie married Eddie Reynal-O’Connor who was born in Buenos Aires. His sister Corina was notably murdered by an unknown assailant back in his homeland in 1913. Eddie embraced Kiwi life and became a farmer, rabbiter, flax dresser and taxi driver in his life. He is remembered by his grandchildren as driving about in his Morris Minor and often giving bags of lollies. Tibbie, sadly died as a result of tuberculosis at the age of sixty. Eight years later Eddie followed and they were buried together in Omaka Cemetery, Blenheim. Their grave has been refurbished by a granddaughter of theirs.

Hettie was Teddy and Bessie’s third child. As a kid she was called Lummill and took up work as a domestic help for the Gunn family as well as working on the farm at the Leatham. She was 27 when she married Noel Andrews and moved to Wairoa Gorge where they took up the property of Noel's parents Bill and Martha Andrews known as ‘The Forks’ which is situated at the mouth of Garden Valley Road. They farmed merinos at various places in Tasman such as Motupiko but after Noel's parents' deaths they went back to ‘The Forks’ and retired there. Hettie died in 1965 and Noel in 1981. In my possession is a bridle that was made by Noel for his nephew Les Landon-Lane, my grandfather. My grandmother said he was quite proud to have received the gift from his uncle.

Eric was Teddy and Bessie’s first son and was born after Hettie. He, as mentioned above, died in August, 1905 and was buried in Wairau Valley. In 1897 a daughter named Bessie Fitzgerald was born (commonly known as Betty). She changed her middle name to Mary prior to her marriage in 1920 to Howard Andrews, an uncle of Noel Andrews who married her sister Hettie. They also lived at ‘The Forks’ but later moved to Brightwater where they lived out their lives. Howard died when he was 82, leaving Betty on her own. She followed when she was 84 some years later and was buried with him in Wakefield. She is the only one of Teddy’s and Bessie’s children to be buried in the same cemetery as them.

Next followed Trix, born in 1900. She married Thannie Atkinson and lived with him on their farm known as ‘The Traverse’ not far from the Branch River where Thannie worked on the Rabbit Board and as a farmhand. They both died at the age of 84. Trix was followed by Nellie Rennell. Nellie married Bob Atkinson and lived at the Wye River before moving to Blenheim. Their home was notable for the absence of electricity when others around it did. When Nellie died her son Merv Atkinson took it over and lived in it until his death. Merv was a notable figure amongst the classic car scene in Marlborough with his pride and joy being his 1929 Dodge. Bob was a member of the Machine Gun Corps in the First World War. Nellie was followed by Teddy and Bessie’s second son Joseph Wilfred, named in memory of Teddy’s father. Like all the children they helped on the family run until they got married. He married Vera Spencer and moved to Te Arowhenua, a property that his father once owned. After managing the farm Te Arowhenua Joe took up work in a market garden. Bertha followed Joe and, like Hettie and Betty, married into the Andrews family and lived at the Wairoa Gorge. They retired to Brightwater where they both died.

Grace Rennell was Teddy and Bessie’s tenth child and was born at the Leatham in 1908. For nearly all her life she was cared for by her mother due to an illness she received when she was about nine. What that illness was is unknown to me. When her mother became too old to care for Grace she moved in with Tibbie and then later went to live with her younger sister Phyllis at her home in Hartley Hills. She died there in 1943, a year after her mothers death, when aged just 34. She was buried at Omaka Cemetery where three of her siblings, including Phyllis, are buried. Teddy and Bessie’s third and final son was born four years after Grace. Paul Walker Rennell farmed the land at the Leatham with his brother Joe and family for many years until he married Syster Vanda Falk in 1938. They lived in both Tasman and Marlborough before they moved up to Napier where they spent the remainder of their lives. Paul was the last remaining sibling of the thirteen to pass away when he died in 1997.


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