Blenheim, or The Beaver


The Wairau Affray in 1843 badly frightened potential European settlers of the Wairau and it was to be several more years before the Nelson settlers again began to consider the potential of the wide plains.

In 1845 some hardy Nelson settlers returned and were very impressed with the suitability of the Wairau for settlement. By 1847, a few European settlers had trickled across from Nelson and become involved in pastoral pursuits.1

James Wynen, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives
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Blenheim's early river port, 1872Blenheim's early river port, 1872, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives, 0000.900.0631
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James Wynen was the region's first shopkeeper. With his brother William, he set up a highly lucrative business in 1847 at the entrance of the Wairau Bar.2 Their virtual monopoly included shipping and receiving goods,3 a store, accommodation house and drinking shanty. Boats from Wellington and Nelson moored outside the Wairau River mouth, not wanting to cross the Bar.  Cargo was discharged into Wynen's whale boats and taken up the river to be stored at his large raupo warehouse located on the banks of the Omaka River, which he eventually converted into a shop.4

In 1852, a rival arrived and set up shop nearby. Scotsman James Sinclair was to become one of the most influential men in the Wairau and became known as the King of the Beaver.5  He was the principal land agent in the area, owned a store and a hotel and acted as banker and merchant to the pastoral runholders.6

The early settlement, located at the junction of the Omaka, now known as Taylor, and Opawa Rivers was dubbed The Beaver, Beaver Town or Beaverton because of frequent floods.  At first, buildings were clustered around the two stores and two hotels of James Wynen and James Sinclair. The fledgling township, located in what is now lower High Street7 also had a blacksmith, wheelwright and shoemaker, supplying the basic needs of the European settlers.8

Blenheim's earliest Europeans were very isolated with no roads, fences or bridges and mail just twice a month. Bullock teams would camp on the banks of the Wairau or Waihopai Rivers waiting for the high waters to subside. It was a day's journey to Waitohi (now Picton), with horses swimming across the Wairau and people following in canoes.9

First courthouse and post office, 1866First courthouse and post office, 1866, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives, 19950150073
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James SinclairJames Sinclair, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives, 0001
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The earliest days of The Beaver were also known for their informality and friendliness. ".....then the little community was simply like one large family, entering readily into each other's joys and sorrows.....There were no luxuries, but a plentiful supply of substantial necessaries..."  wrote T.L Buick in Old Marlborough.10

In 1857, Dr Stephen Muller arrived from Nelson as resident magistrate and postmaster.11  By this time, The Beaver had a Court House, Post Office and plans for a Customs House. One hundred coastal vessels sailed up the river in 1857, and took away 2,288 bales of wool to the value of £51,450.12

The settlers in Waitohi had nurtured hopes of the town becoming the provincial port, if not its capital. In 1849, Governor George Grey had promised that a road linking Waitohi to the Wairau would be constructed and the township would become the Wairau district's port. However, the rapid rise of The Beaver and its river port saw bitter rivalry between the two towns throughout the provincial government years.13  Picton remained the provincial capital until 1866, when it changed to Blenheim.14

Plan of blocks and holdings on the south side of the Wairau River. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives. Click image to enlarge

Blenheim and Picton formally gained their names when the Wairau was gazetted as the new province of Marlborough in 1859. The Beaver locals had tired of the jokes about floods and beavers and dams, and urged the Government of the day to change the town's name to something more dignified.15

[2009. Updated Dec. 2020] 

Permission should be sought from the Marlborough Museum prior to any reuse of these images.

Plan of blocks and holdings on the south side of the Wairau River, Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives.
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Plan of blocks and holdings on the south side of the Wairau River. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives. Click image to enlarge


Sources used in this story

  1. Buick, T.L. (1900, 1976) Old Marlborough  Palmerston North, NZ: Hart and Keeling. Reprint published by Capper Press, Christchurch. p 317- 319.
  2. McIntosh, A.D. (1940, 1977) Marlborough: A Provincial History. Whitcombe &Tombs Ltd, NZ, Australia, London. Reprint published by Capper Press, p 155.
  3. Buick, p. 331.
  4. MacDonald, C.A. (1940?) Pages from the Past: Some Chapters in the History of Marlborough. H. Duckworth, Blenheim, NZ, Printed by Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, p 199, 258-260
  5. McIntosh,  p. 157
  6. MacDonald, p. 261
  7. McIntosh, A.D. p 170
  8. Buick, p. 350-351
  9. MacDonald, C.A. p 266
  10. Buick, T.L., p367
  11. MacDonald, C.A. p 264
  12. McIntosh, A.D. p 191
  13. McIntosh, A.D. p 186- 192
  14. Marlborough Province and Provincial District (2007)  from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  15. MacDonald, C.A. p 266

Want to find out more about the Blenheim, or The Beaver ? View Further Sources here.

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  • I am a direct descendant of John Hedgeland and have visited his home site at section 38 Big Bush and also his grave site at Ica Station. I asked my father and my Grandmother some 40 years ago as to how John lost his arm as all my research at that time revealed nothing. This is the story that was told to me from my Grandmothers recollections but has never been qualified. John had several men working for him in his gold mining venture off the Wairau River. He would swim the river weekly to go to Beaver Town to secure wages for the men. On this occasion the river was swollen and he was pushed into a gorse bush and got a bad prickle which infected his arm causing the amputation. If anyone can add to this I would be grateful.

    Posted by Theo Lawrence Hedgland, 18/10/2014 2:25am (10 years ago)

  • could the John Hedgeland please get in touch with me, not related but... have been granted permission to view the grave after finding where it is, not far from me in Wairarapa.. Janet and her second husband, Ward Parker are buried at Karori in Wellington. John Hedgeland worked at Langland Station, sadly he drowned.. I am in touch with a Parker family member. I know the name came from Devon in West Country of England.. thank you.

    Posted by adele, 08/10/2013 12:14pm (11 years ago)

  • I sek an ancestor with the surname of Leake who arrived about the time of the Edwin Fox He is not on the passenger roster but may have jumped ship.
    Blenheim area location? Ed. - we will get back to you on this asap.

    Posted by Leake, ()

  • John Hedgeland arrived Picton on the Spray 29/4/1855 marrying Janet McNaught in Wairau, or Beavertown 14/5/1866. He lived on Benjamin Dixon land known as section 38 and was said to be in Big Bush from 1866 - 1878. Are there any records of John,his wife and children or his employment? We believe he lost his arm during that period; is their any record of this event? Records we have suggest his freind was School teacher Ward Parker known as black beard Parker who fathered some of the Hedgeland children. Ed. We will get back to you on this.

    Posted by John Hedgeland, ()

  • You might want to have a look at the article in the Nelson Examiner of 30 Nov 1859 for a nearly contemporary account of the origins of the names Beaver Station, the Beaver, and then Beaverton. This seems more specific than your account above and perhaps would allow some improvement. If it is not wrong that is. Ed. I have added this reference under web resources: A glance at the Province of Marlborough (thank you)

    Posted by derek leask, ()

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Further sources - Blenheim, or The Beaver



  • Andrews, J. (1985) Some glimpses of history along the Tua Marina - Picton Road. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(5), p.23-24
  • Andrews, J. (1989) Marlborough river transport of bygone days and some of the colourful operators Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies.2(3),p.13-20
  • Denton, R.T/(1982) Tewkesbury. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(2), p.10
  • Farnell, N. (2000) Blenheim's Cob Cottage New Zealand Legacy, 12(2), p.18
  • Fulton. J. (1988) Sixty years ago : recollections of an old settler Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies,2(2), p.21-23
  • Gray, M. (2006, July 14) My town Blenheim. New Zealand Woman's Weekly, p.30-31
  • Hindmarsh, G. (2006, Spring) Whales, war & wine. Heritage New Zealand, p.30-35
  • Holdaway, B. (1995) Some Christmas thoughts on the siting of Blenheim Marlborough's Past & Present.3, p.18-20
  • Kerr, L. (1996) Taylor Ford township - where man and river meet Marlborough's Past & Present, 1996; n.5:p.2-5
  • Kerr, L. (2000) Picton -- port of entry to the South Island : a photographic essay New Zealand Memories,  n.25:p.62-63
  • Leov, B. (1995) Early central Blenheim morning Marlborough's Past & Present,n.2, p.18
  • Marlborough's first years (1971) New Zealand's Heritage: the making of a nation, v.2. Sydney: Paul Hamlyn, pp. 635-640
  • Neill, J. (1980) The road that had no name Journal of the New Zealand Federation of Historical Societies,1(10), p.47-50
  • Petman, E.&G (1993) Letters from Blenheim : 1890 Historical Review,41(2),p.94-107
  • Pryce, M.H. (1977) Picton - a short history New Zealand Marine News,27(4) p.142-145
  • Spanning the Wairau Marlborough's Past & Present, 1996, 4, p.22

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