Edward Baigent - father of many mills


The mill which Edward Baigent built at Ryversdale, at the entrance to Pigeon Valley in 1855, was not the first he had built in the Wakefield area, nor was it to be the last.  He had begun his life in the new colony with his wife and five children on a property in Brook Street after a journey on the Clifford of 151 days.  As a sawyer, he had come well prepared with two pit saws, six circular saws, a circular spindle and files and tools of all kinds.  What he needed was good millable timber and this he found at Wakefield.  A deal was done with Capt. Wilson, the owner of the land, and he quickly took possession with the aid of his friend and associate, David Clark.  He describes what happened next in his memoirs.

Edward and Mary Ann Baigent Edward and Mary Ann Baigent, Nelson Provincial Museum/ Tyree Studio Collection 25811.

“…our first object was to build a whare, next to dig a pit and saw boards for our houses, one for Clark of weather-boards with a board roof, and a small one for myself of cob of two rooms loft square with a boarded roof.  This done, we had to see about a mill-lead and dam.  By making a dam-head and sinking a water-course, I found I could bring the water from the Eighty-eight Valley stream by means of a lead for about two chains with plank sides to guard against floods.  My next work was to build a water wheel and fix my circular saw to the best of my judgement.  When complete, I found my wheel was far too small, not being powerful enough to drive the saw at more than half the speed, but still I could cut a good deal by sinking a pit and breaking down the logs by hand.”

He persevered, obtaining work on the roads for the New Zealand Company and bringing his wife and children from Nelson.  The work he says “…was a boon which I did not expect, and it furnished us with our rations and monthly wages…. Many a night did I work till twelve o’clock at the mill and were soon tolerably settled in our little home, with every prospect before us of getting a road to Nelson by the time I was ready to cut timber for town.”

With the failure of the New Zealand Company in 1844, the settlers fell on hard times.  They had no means of converting their corn into meal except by grinding it in a coffee mill, so Edward put to good use the small water wheel he had made first.  He converted a small hand flour mill, bought from Mr Kerr, and rigged it up to connect with the little water wheel.  He was able, by this means, to grind a bushel an hour.  Barley, wheat and corn could all be ground and so bread or bannocks could be produced in useful quantities.

 Ryversdale Mill, Pigeon Valley, Wakefield- Roger Batt Ryversdale Mill, Pigeon Valley, Wakefield- Roger Batt.

The need for an ever more powerful sawmill was always present so he resolved  “…to build a larger and more powerful wheel with a long shaft having a 7ft spur wheel at each end, one for the two vertical and the other for the circular saw. I had also a great deal of labour in making the lead deeper and wider, which took me about two years to complete, but when done, it answered my purpose for many years.”

By 1846, he was in the position to supply the timber for a great deal of building activity occurring in the district.  There was St Johns at Wakefield to cater for, as well as extensions and additions to the school. In 1850, he was employing eight men, six days a week, ten hours a day.  His timber mill worked by day and the flour mill at night.  He provided the timber for the first Nelson Cathedral, opened by Bishop Selwyn, on Christmas day 1851.

His younger brother Isaac, a skilled carpenter, arrived with his wife and children in 1853 and joined Edward in Wakefield.  When writing to the folks back home he addressed his letter “Wyndlesham Mills”, presumably in reference to the chief activity being carried out there, although Edward had built “a good, substantial house” named Gleniti on the site of the present Gleniti house in Clifford Road. Edward’s land extended from the Ryversdale property and mill south to the Jimmy Lee River, and included the Wakefield domain and Baigent Memorial Park.

It was in 1855 that the large flour mill was built, which we see today next door to Ryversdale, powered by a 300 yard lead from the Wai-iti.

 Ryversdale Abandoned mill wheel at Ryversdale, Wakefield Ryversdale Abandoned mill wheel at Ryversdale, Wakefield.
Click image to enlarge

In 1867, the first steam powered mill was built further up Pigeon Valley at a cost of 800 pounds and employed eight men.  The Ryversdale mill was still running, using an eight horsepower water mill with four men. 

Edward had achieved much in 25 years since he and his friend Clark had discovered in Wakefield “ …everything suitable for my purpose” and even greater things were to follow. The business expanded to Nelson and further afield until the Baigent name became synonymous with timber production and one of the chief industries of the province. 158 years later, the mill at Ryversdale still stands as a reminder of Edward’s achievements. 

This story was first published in "Windows on Wakefield" a community newsletter for the town of Wakefield, Nelson. Also published in the Waimea South Historical society book "The way we were". (Updated May, 2020)

Postscript - The Baigent dynasty in timber

Of Edward Baigent's eight sons, five spent most of their working lives engaged in the timber industry. Arthur and Samuel both worked in their father's sawmill in Pigeon Valley for long periods before taking up farming in the Wakefield area, and Henry, Thomas, and William, the three youngest sons, spent their whole lives in the timber business. In 1873 Thomas entered into a sawmilling partnership with elder brother Henry. With William, they established a mill in the Riwaka Valley in 1889, and also entered into sawmilling partnerships in the Tākaka area - probably with capital provided by their father.  Most of the timber produced was shipped through Waitapu to Henry Baigent's Nelson yard. The Tākaka mill was larger than the Wakefield one.

Thomas settled in Tākaka. His family home, Fairholme, in East Takaka was built 1873 and was the lifelong home of daughters Ella and Eva who never married. Ella was a remarkable photographer. The grade II listed house remained in the family until 1986 when it was purchased by artist Merrin Westerlink.

The Baigent industry struggled to compete with Marlborough counterparts through the 1870s, partly because of transport difficulties and the depression of the 1880s. However the name remains linked with the timber industry through to the 1990s.  In the 1970s Peter Baigent, fourth generation descendant of Edward, purchased land in the Tinline Valley between Nelson and Marlborough and established plantations. Baigent family interests in the Moutere area were bought out by Carter Holt Harvey (CHH) in 1987, which had already developed the Eves Valley Mill. The family bought licences to the Hira and Waimea forests in 1990, but CHH bought these out two years later.


Sources used in this story

  1. Batt, Roger. (2015). The way we were. [Wakefield, N.Z.] : Waimea South Historical Society.


  2. From River to Range (1992). [Wakefield, N.Z.]: Waimea South Historical Society.

  3. Stringer, Marion J. (1999). Just another row of spuds: a pioneer history of Waimea South. [Wakefield, N.Z.] : M.J. Stringer.
    http://www.worldcat.org/title/just-another-row-of-spuds-a-pioneer-history-of-waimea-s outh/oclc/45726534&


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