Timber Pioneers - Brownlee and Baigent


William Brownlee (1828-1917) and Edward Baigent (1813-1892) were two of Marlborough/Nelson's most successful sawmillers. Generations of both families continued to work in the timber and forestry industries until the end of the twentieth century.

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

When William Brownlee, his wife Christina and their family arrived in the Pelorus District in June 1864, they found the area timbered with dense, virgin native forest.1

Brownlee's Mill, HavelockBrownlee's Mill, Havelock, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection 178818/3
Click image to enlarge

Brownlee had a sawmilling background in Scotland and brought sawmilling machinery with him. He arrived in time to supply timber for the Marlborough gold rush and the Vogel public works boom.2

With initial cutting rights for more than 1000 acres, Brownlee was reputed to have made more than £7000 in the first two years. He had plenty of capital for further expansion -and expand he did.3 Between 1864 and 1915, Brownlee and Co. shipped 189 million feet of timber out of the region.  Brownlee milled the Mahakipawa, Kaituna, Nydia Bay and Kaiuma Bay forests, establishing himself as the ‘king of sawmillers'.4  By the 1880s, 75 men were employed by Brownlee. He was a good employer and many men worked at his Blackball mill for the 30 years of its operation.5

Developments in bush tramway technology, later used nationwide, were attributed to Brownlee, with his tramway being described as ‘a marvel of sawmill engineering."At its peak, the Brownlee empire included three sawmills, 28 miles of tramline, four locomotives and a fleet of coastal traders. However, by 1915, the Marlborough forests were worked out and Brownlee and Co. relocated to the West Coast, where the company remained until 1987.7

Baigent's Timber Yard,  The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection,Baigent's Timber Yard, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, 115213/3
Click image to enlarge

Edward Baigent, who arrived in Nelson in May 1842 with his wife Mary Ann and their children, also had a sawmilling background. He too brought a variety of saws and tools, with the intention of setting up a sawmill. In 1844, Baigent built a water-race from the Wai-iti River and erected a water-wheel which he used to power a flourmill. A year later he added a water-powered sawmill, which operated during the day, while the flour milling was done at night.9

The need for money to develop his sawmill saw Baigent working for the New Zealand Company in contract labour gangs. He worked on improvements to the sawmill at night, taking two years to get it working to full capacity. By 1850 he was employing eight men.10

Horse team hauling logs about 1904Horse team hauling logs about 1904. Marlborough Historical Society Collections - Marlborough Museum Click image to enlarge

Baigent provided timber for the building of Nelson's first cathedral in 1850/51.  It took 10 bullock teams to transport the timber from Wakefield to Nelson.11  In 1869 Baigent opened his first Nelson timber yard on the corner of Collingwood and Hardy Streets. A year later he moved to Waimea (Rutherford) Street, where the business remained for more than 100 years.12

The economic depression of the 1880s and 90s seriously affected the Nelson timber trade, however the family firm of H. Baigent and Sons continued to grow through the 20th century. They developed and owned substantial forestry holdings, timber yards and the Eve's Valley mill, now owned by Carter Holt Harvey.13

Many early pioneers made their living from cutting down and milling native timbers, and a review of forest policy in 1925 indicated the indigenous timber resource would be exhausted by 1965-70. Nationwide state plantings of exotic forests were increased to 300,000 acres between 1925 and 1935.14

Pulling a stump Pulling a stump Marlborough Historical Society Collections -
Marlborough Museum            Click image to enlarge

By the end of 1939, Golden Downs, Nelson's state-owned forest, covered 19,250 acres. Production forest plantings, 88% of which were pinus radiata, covered a total of 120,000 hectares in Marlborough/Nelson by 1992.15


Additional Information

  • For an alternative view of the Brownlees enterprise, see Nola Leov's story.
  • William Ross Brownlee died 29/11/1917 aged 89. Buried Havelock (from the Blenheim death register/Marlborough Museum)
  • Edward Baigent died 9/11/1892, aged 79.16
  • Letters from Isaac Baigent of Windlesham Mills, 1853, and notes about the Baigent family, supplied by Philip Parker (2006) [PDF]

Updated: April 03, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Paton, Brian. (1982) Sawmill Pioneers in the Pelorus [Dissertation (Dip. P.R.)]. Christchurch : University of Canterbury, p. 8-9.
  2. Mahoney, Paul (1995, Jan) Innovation isn't easy. New Zealand Historic Places n.51:p.11-12.
  3. Paton, p. 15-16
  4. Paton, p.26 ; Orman, Tony. (2002, July 27) Havelock ‘lokey’ reminds us of Pelorus timber days. Marlborough Express
  5. Paton, p. 18-20
  6. Orman, T. ; Paton, p. 22
  7. Paton, p. 24 ; Mahoney, P.
  8. Stringer, M.J. (1999) Just another row of spuds: a pioneer history of Waimea South, p 208
  9. Allan, R. (1965) Nelson: A history of early settlement A.H. and A.W. Reed, p. 212
  10. Lash, M. D. (1992.). Nelson Notables 1840 – 1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson Historical Society, p 14;  Evans, D. (1992) The Baigents of Wakefield: a family history. Auckland, NZ: Evagean, p 13
  11. Evans, D. p.13.
  12. Evans, D. p 18; Lash, M. p 14.
  13. Evans, D. p 19 
  14. Ward, John & Cooper, Don (1997). Seventy years of forestry : Golden Downs Forest, Nelson, 1927-1997. Richmond, N.Z. : Forest History Trust, p 9.
  15. Ward and Cooper, p 51. ; Nelson/Marlborough : number and size of forests
  16. Lash, p.14

Want to find out more about the Timber Pioneers - Brownlee and Baigent ? View Further Sources here.

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  • Hi - Can you please tell me anything about Joe Hoult's sawmill in Hoults Valley - I do have a photo but no information. Cheers Diane

    Ed. Have contacted Diane.

    Posted by Thomas Rewita, 25/01/2019 3:44pm (5 years ago)

  • I am sure the picture of 'William Brownlee' on this page is not William Brownlee. Does not look like the pictures I have.

    Posted by Claire Brownlee Smith, ()

  • (from Marlborough Museum) So far as we can tell it is William - there is a question mark next to the name William but comparing it to other named photos he looks very similar - there is a photo in the Cyclopaedia of him when he was much younger.
    This was copied from a collection of photographs held by J.H. Brownlee, Havelock, in 1963 (ish)

    Posted by Megan, ()

  • The picture of William Ross Brownlee at the top of the page is now correct. Claire

    Posted by Claire Brownlee Smith, ()

  • This is interesting re production forests. Apparently in about 1870, a Motueka Valley resident, John Burrup Stanley(yes Stanley Brook is named after him)brought back some Douglas Firs from England and planted them in the Motueka Valley. They were felled and milled in 1929, with the State Forest Service collecting seed from them. Several thousand hectares of trees were then planted from this parent stock.

    Posted by Joy Stephens, ()

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Further sources - Timber Pioneers - Brownlee and Baigent



  • Erosion and sediment production from forest roads in south-west Nelson (1988) What's new in forest research, Forest Research Institute, no. 168
  • Forestry & logging (1997, March 26) Nelson Mail [supplement - state of the industry and regional training in 1997]
  • Hay, Jaquetta. (1998, Jul) Tasman's green belt.  New Zealand Forest Industries,29, 7, pp.23-24, 28
  • Hobbs, William. (1995) Trees talk in Nelson economy. New Zealand Forest Industries, 26, 3, pp.26-27
  • Kelly Logging - energy and experience. (2004 Feb). New Zealand Logger magazine, pp.24-34
  • Law, Gillian. (1996, Jul). Southern woodbasket. New Zealand Forest Industries, 27, 7, pp.43-44,47  
  • Millen, Paul. (1988, Aug).  'Sounds' interesting. New Zealand Tree Grower, 9, 3, pp.64-65
  • Palmer, Harriet. (2003). Long-term relationships make for stable industry. New Zealand Forest Industries,  34,10, pp.35-37
  • Palmer, Harriet. (2002). People, focus & planning. New Zealand Forest Industries, 33,12, pp.16-20


  • Nelson, N.D, (1981) Edward Baigent : a pioneer Nelson settler, businessman, and politician : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History at Massey University
    [full text available at:

Brownlees and Marlborough Forestry
Marlborough Museum has a significant selection of unpublished material about Brownlee.

An 1893 Barclay locomotive used by Brownlee and Co. in the bush sits outside the Havelock Museum.


Other published resources:


A large totara on part of Edward Baigent’s section (now the Wakefield Domain) is labeled as ‘The Baigent ‘sleeping tree’, as it was reputed Edward slept under it on his first night in the area.

Resources at the Nelson Provincial Museum

  • Baigent, Edward. (1891). E. Baigent's manuscript, Wakefield, December 1891. UMS 62
  • Baigent, Lewis E.H. ( N.D.). New Zealand sawmilling in the forties. UMS 61
  • Allan, Ruth Mary. (N.D.). Baigent Family. UMS 467

Golden Downs

Web Resources