William Adams


A leading voice in the separation of the Provinces

Eton and Oxford educated barrister, William Adams was a leading voice for the Wairau’s discontented settlers and became the province’s first Superintendent after the province separated from Nelson in 1859.1

Adams William

William Adams. Marlborough Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Archive

William and Martha Adams arrived in Nelson on the barque Eden in 1850. They went to the Wairau and settled on the Redwood Run in the Avondale Valley.2 In 1851, Adams sent a man to select a run for him in the Awatere Valley. He may have been put off by the report Stephen Nicholls wrote on his return, as nothing came of it.  Nicholls wrote: “And if anyone offered me a flock of sheep to go and live there, I would not.” He described ravines and precipices and great chasms made by earthquakes which were “both frightful and awful to look at”.3

Adams applied for the Langley Dale run on the north side of the Wairau River in about 1853. Its 6000 hectares was covered in heavy bush fern and scrub, while the long narrow flat near the river was largely swamp occupied by numerous wild cattle and pigs.4

Adams Martha

Martha Adams. Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Archive

The original building at Langley Dale (Martha’s maiden name was Langley) was a single room cob dwelling and the Adams family extended it by four large rooms when they arrived in 1857. Additions over subsequent decades show four distinct periods from mid-Victorian to Edwardian architecture. Much of the building remains in its original state.5

By the 1850s, the Nelson Provincial Government had begun a programme of land sales in the Wairau raising nearly £160,000 but nearly all of this revenue was spent in Nelson. Justifiably the Wairau settlers felt a deep sense of injustice and Adams led the campaign for reform with great vigour and success.6

On 4 July 1857, Adams wrote to the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle: “ In answer to your remark, that before any portion of the Colony should be erected into an independent Province, there should be some considerable amount of population within it, &c. Now, -sir/if these districts are to wait for separation until their plains are populated by agricultural labourers, and possess a town and port, why then it will never be; for until local inducements are held out — good roads made, a certain transit for our produce to colonial and home markets, punctual and direct postal communication, schools for our children, protection for all, and confidence in the management of the affairs of the districts, every care and possible advantage being given to small agricultural settlers — these districts will never be anything more than merely pastoral ones."7

adams langley dale painting

First painting of Langley Dale. 1890-1900. Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Archive

By September of that year, Adams was in Auckland delivering a petition to the General Assembly seeking Marlborough’s separation from Nelson.8

The province of Marlborough was gazetted on 4 October 1859 and in December, Adams travelled with Thomas Gore Browne the Governor of New Zealand, from Nelson to Langley Dale, where he signed the document separating Marlborough from Nelson. You can read the full account of his visit and Adam’s account of events leading up to the separation of the two provinces.9

adams langley dale

View with Langley Dale in background and well-dressed people- possibly members of the Adams family- in boat in foreground c.1890-1920. Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Archive

On 1 May 1860, Adams was elected the first superintendent of the new province.  He said: “I very reluctantly left (my farming pursuits), but when I saw year after year our district drained of its resources for the benefit of Nelson and its neighbourhood, I joined with others to gain what we now possess – the management of our own affairs.”10

The year 1861 was full of political interest and intrigue11 with fierce rivalry between Adams and Provincial Council member,William Eyes, combined with bitter local jealousy between Picton and Blenheim.12

adams langley dale now

Langley Dale. c.2010

At the second session of the Provincial Council at the new Council Chambers in Picton, Adams outlined the advantages of a rail connection between Picton and Blenheim and later travelled to Auckland to promote the Picton Railway Bill. However Eyes had links to the new incoming Government of William Fox. He was strongly against Adams and the railway, and the Bill was killed. Adams also became aware that the Fox government was against him holding the two roles of Superintendent and Commissioner of Crown Lands for Marlborough and he resigned from the former role, retaining the more lucrative commissioner role.13

“He abandoned a position for which he was eminently suited, possessing a comprehensive grasp of the principles of Government, and a practical mind to apply them to local circumstances, wrote Lindsay Buick in Old Marlborough.14 However in a later Marlborough history, Alister McIntosh noted that Adams’ resignation adroitly retained the substance of his power as land commissioner while getting rid of a fractious executive: “Adams’ high handed administrative methods had caused much irritation and a split within his executive…”15

After resigning as Superintendent, Adams was appointed legal adviser to the Provincial Council, but when his political opponents voted for a reduction of his provincial emoluments he resigned the commissionership and moved to Nelson, where he founded the legal firm of Adams and Kingdon.16

Meanwhile, his son William was doing a very good job improving Langley Dale, clearing and developing the run, draining swamps and planting trees. By 1903 the run was carrying 7,000 sheep and 400 cattle, while a water wheel drove an electric generator and a flax mill.4

Adams was the MP for Picton from July 1867 to May 1868.17  William and Martha retired to live at Langley Dale in 1872. He died there suddenly in 1884 and was buried on the "rock" near the homestead, Martha was buried beside him when she died in 1906.4


Updated September 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Fisher, Karen; editor: Brooks, C. (2011). Marlborough: celebrating 150 years. Blenheim, N.Z.: The Marlborough District Council, p 49
  2. Buick, T.L. (1900) Old Marlborough. Palmerston North, NZ: Hart and Keeling, p 399
  3. Kennington, A.L. (2007). The Awatere: a district and its people. Christchurch, N.Z.  Cadsonbury Publications, p 39
  4. The early sheep runs of Marlborough (1983, November) Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(3)
  5. Brooks, p 49-51
  6. Buick, p 397-400
  7. Correspondence; Education and its opponents(1857, July 4) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle
  8. Brooks, p 50.
  9. Visitor his Excellency the Governor to Marlborough (1859, December 31) Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle
  10. Buick, p 404.
  11. Buick, p.424
  12. Superintendents of Marlborough (1906) The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough Westland Provincial Districts]
  13. Buick, p 420-425.
  14. Buick, p 425.
  15. McIntosh, A. D.(ed) (1977). Marlborough: a provincial history. Christchurch, N.Z. : Capper Press, p 422.
  16. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts]. Marlborough Provincial District - The Marlborough Land District (published 1906) Mr William Adams
  17. McIntosh, p 425.

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  • Further to my previous comment - have just spotted an ad in the "Nelson Evening Mail" 4 October 1888, pg 3, which confirms the site of Wm Acton Adams' Nelson home.
    "To let - "Wilden Lodge", pleasantly situated at Shakespeare Walk. Rent moderate. Adams & Kingdon"

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, 08/10/2017 2:29pm (7 years ago)

  • The name “Wilden” is closely associated with the Adamses and followed them from England to Nelson, New Zealand. “Wilden Manor”, near Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, was a family home and William Adams' sons William Jnr (known as William Acton Adams) and John Langley Adams were born there.

    Upon arrival in Nelson, William Adams had a cottage built on Cambria Street and named it ‘Wilden Cottage”. The family moved in at the end of 1850.

    Following his marriage in 1869, son William Acton Adams built his own house in Nelson called “Wilden Lodge”, where his first son Herbert was born in 1871. It’s not clear if this was on the same site as “Wilden Cottage” or on William Acton Adams’ own section at Shakespeare Walk – does anyone know?

    The wonder is that William Adams’ sheep run in the Wairau Valley didn’t end up as “Wilden Dale”! Perhaps Mrs Adams (nee Langley) who apparently hated her own name, Martha, and preferred to be called “Patty”, thought it was time that she had a say and put her foot down.

    However, there was in fact a "Wilden Run”. It was eatablished in West Otago (where there is still a settlement called Wilden) by Reginald Acton-Adams. The second son of William Acton-Adams, Reginald even named one of his own sons Wilden.

    Posted by Anne McFadgen, 07/10/2017 2:54pm (7 years ago)

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Further sources - William Adams




  • Adams, M. & Adams W.  Journals 1850-1852 (Ref: MS-0005)  (Alexander Turnbull Library)

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