Robert Ellis and Brightwater's electricity


Ellis Street in Brightwater is named after Robert (Bobby) Ellis "a man of considerable mechanical ingenuity and business acumen”.  Bobby was responsible for the first electrical streetlights in the district and the introduction of electricity to local households.

Born in England in about 1861, Bobby immigrated to New Zealand in the early 1880s to join his brothers Richard and Louis/Lewis who had a farm in the Upper Motueka Valley.  Finding the area rich in harakeke, he built a water-powered flax mill in the Norris Gully and Kōhatu area.

Brigthwater Flour MillThe flourmill and millpond at Brightwater, about 11 years before it was purchased by Robert Ellis. Image from Tasman Heritage.

Bobby tried a number of ways to supplement his income from the mill, including using the water race for wool scouring (it didn’t work), making mud bricks for housing, and inventing new uses for flax fibre, such as hardwearing trousers.1

One of his more successful projects was the installation of a high-pressure turbine to produce electricity for the family home. His wife Kate was probably the first woman to cook on an electric stove in the region; and the family had electric lights and a Pianola electric piano.2,3

In March 1911, Bobby purchased the flourmill and millpond at River Terrace, Brightwater. His plan - to harness the power of the Wairoa River to power the mill factory by day, and in the evenings to supplement the mill’s power source with a National (brand) alternator and supply electricity to nearby households.

Despite trouble obtaining the appropriate licences under the Public Works Act, and ongoing disagreements with the local council over water rights, by 1913 Bobby had built the necessary infrastructure and was supplying electricity to five streetlights in Brightwater. He had also connected a number of River Terrace households to his power network, with a fee of 1/- (a shilling) per night. 

Bobby’s electricity empire quickly expanded to 10 streetlights in Richmond. By October 1914, electric lights were being installed at a rate of about 50 a month.  Eventually Bobby was supplying the area from Tāhunanui to Wakefield with electricity from his power plant. 

Early electricity supply was not reliable, floods and debris in the river or sudden

Ellis' Power Building in Brightwater

Ellis' power house at Brightwater. Image from Tasman Heritage.

loads on the system caused frequent power outages. Supply of electricity continued to be rationed until about 1930 with electricity available only one day a week for ironing clothes and other tasks, and electricity for lighting only available in the evening from dusk until about 11.00pm.4

A well known eccentric, Bobby was interested in improving the emerging technologies. His inventions included various attempts at using switches and levers to control the electrical supply. At his home in Kōhatu he ran a long wire from his house to the flax mill, and pulled the wire to turn the power plant on and off.  In about 1915, he tried a more natural approach to control the street lighting in Brightwater – chicken power.  They didn't have time switches in those days, so he connected a switch to the perches in his chicken house. When the chickens started to roost at night the weight would turn the lighting on and in the morning when they got down off their perches, the spring switch would turn the generator and lighting off.5,6

Sadly, during the First World War Bobby’s eldest son Henry Levinge Ellis, a sapper in the NZ Engineers was killed in France. One of his other children, Howard, was seriously injured not long after and Bobby's wife Kate died in 1917. In 1924 Bobby donated a streetlight to the Brightwater War Memorial Committee in memory of his son. In 1991, another old style street light was installed by Tasman Energy to replace the original light.  This can be seen today near the memorial gates.7 

Bobby Ellis died in March 1935 and is buried in St. Paul’s Anglican Church cemetery. 

Brightwater Heritage Boards 2020

Updated August 16, 2022.

Sources used in this story

  1. Francois, L.G. (1977) From turbine to grid: a history of electric supply in the Waimea Electric Power Board's area, comprising the Waimea, Motueka, and Murchison districts. Tasman Electric Power Board. p. 10-22.
  2. Lash, Max D. (1992), Nelson Notables 1840-1940: A dictionary of regional biography. The Nelson Historical Society. p.56-57. 
  3. Public Benefactor (The Death of Robert Ellis). (1935, March 5). Nelson Evening Mail. p.4. 
  4. Stringer, Marion  J. (2006). More Wakefield spuds: more Waimea South history. Marion J. Stringer. p.304-306.
  5. Andrews, N. (1984, March). Interviewed by Runnacles, D. J. [Transcript of cassette tape recording]. Richmond Oral History Project, Richmond Borough Council. Richmond, New Zealand: p.4.
  6. Woods, E. H. (Sam). (1984, June 26). Interviewed by Slater, L. [Transcript of cassette tape recording]. Richmond Oral History Project, Richmond Borough Council. Richmond, New Zealand: p.38-45.
  7. Brightwater School. (2013). 125th Reunion of Brightwater School 1888-2013: Brightwater History & District Schools. Brightwater School. p. 45, 83-84.88.



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