The Brownlees enterprise


William Brownlee, and later his son John's, sawmilling enterprise was far more of a struggle than most reports suggest. The Brownlee family, with a number of close relatives, who all hailed from Carluke in Scotland, came to Mahakipawa from Otago, after the tragic drowning of two of their young men, and lived initially under canvas.  There were already mills in the area, taking their timber from land belonging to the first settlers there.1

william BrownleeWilliam Brownlee, Marlborough Historical Society Collections -Marlborough Museum. Click image to enlarge

Over the ensuing years, the Brownlees team operated in various places, especially in the Kaituna. In the late 1870's, they joined forces with a number of other millers to build a tramway up the Pelorus Valley, but the consortium went bankrupt at the onset of the 1880s depression.

Brownlees took the great risk of buying up the consortium's assets in 1881.2 They persevered with the tramway, extending it over the next 25 years or so, as far as the Ronga and Opouri Valleys, an effort which entailed building a number of big bridges over the rivers, as well as baulk roads over the numerous gullies. Again, they milled timber from private properties, or land they progressively acquired themselves.

It was a long and arduous gamble, in the face of very difficult terrain, floods, fires, and accidents3 and Brownlees were, more than once, close to bankruptcy. But Scottish cussedness, audacity, sheer nous, excellent management and engineering skills got them through. They, with the other mills, employed a whole range of loggers, millworkers, teamsters, tramlayers (known as ‘doodads') and seamen.These were among the few sources of jobs in the area. 

They pulled out of the area in 1915, not because the forests were by any means worked out, but because of an act of government bad faith.   At the beginning of the twentieth century, the government began to open the vast forests it controlled to milling on contract, and pressured the Brownlees to build a larger mill in Carluke than they had planned, on the understanding that they would be awarded the contracts for both the Ronga and Opouri forests. In the event, once the Ronga contract was completed, the government awarded the Opouri contract to another firm, locally known as Craigs, and Brownlees had to pack up5.

Sawmilling continued on a considerable scale in the area, and involved a number of mills, until after the second world war.6

Nola Leov 2010 (Nola has her roots in the Rai Valley area and is an author and historian)

Updated April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Wilson, G. (1962) Linkwater. New Zealand : Linkwater Settlers' Association, ch. 5  
  2. Johnston, M. (1992) Gold in a Tin Dish, 1. Nelson, N.Z. : Nikau Press, ch.12.
  3. Pelorus Guardian, passim. Available on PapersPast:
  4. Rutland, F.H. Rutland family histories. [Marlborough Museum Archives] ; Foster, Frank (2009) Rutland: Families are forever. Thames, N.Z. : F.T.R. Foster.
  5. Brownlee, John. Sawmilling around Pelorus Sound. Marlborough Museum Archives, Ref. no 2008.165.0265.
  6. The Rai and its people : a centennial history of the Rai Valley district, 1881-1981 (1980) [Rai Valley, N.Z.] : Rai Valley Centennial Committee, ch.5; Hale, A.M. (1960)  Rai Valley, 1900-1959; Leov, L.C. (1974) Rai Valley sawmills. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 3(1), p.36

Want to find out more about the The Brownlees enterprise ? 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


  • I lived in Havelock from 1945 till 1960. I love reading about Havelock's history and its people. Thank you Nola for sharing your writings - on the Brownlees' and their milling days.

    Posted by Pauleen Wilkinson - nee Wells, 18/01/2015 2:26pm (9 years ago)

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

Further sources - The Brownlees enterprise




  • Brownlee, John. Sawmilling around Pelorus Sound. Marlborough Museum Archives, Ref. no 2008.165.0265 
  • Rutland, F.H. Rutland family histories. [Marlborough Museum Archives]