Branford Park and the Richardson holdings


Branford Park lies alongside the northern banks of the cherished Maitai/Mahitahi/Maitahi River close to the city of Nelson. The park has a history of conflicting rights and needs which created a decade of legal battling between the Richardson farming family, the locals and the Council.  Branford is now a popular and peaceful local reserve with the swimming holes along the river enjoyed by locals and visitors. The park also offers walk and cycle ways, play areas and access to public harvest-fruit.

Picture of Branford Park SignageBranford Park
Click image to enlarge
Formation of Branford Park

The Maitai/Mahitahi/Maitahi is the river most Nelson Māori use in their mihi/introductory speech as their tupuna awa, or ancestral river. It is one of Nelson's most loved landmarks. Branford Park sits along the northern bank of the river. This reserve was created on part of the land purchased under the Public Works Act by Council in 1918 from the Richardson family. More land was later purchased in 1971 to create more recreational areas including a golf course and motor camp further up the river.

A playground area was developed at the Reserve in 1973 when a new Jickell's Bridge  (believed to have been named after Samuel Jickell, the early Nelson chief engineer and city surveyor) was completed in 1973. A flood in 1970 had destroyed the old bridge. Branford Park had play areas installed in 1973 at the completion of Jickells Bridge. The park was developed extensively as a recreation area in 2006.  It is named after Councillor R.G. Branford who served Nelson from 1953-1971.

The Richardson holdings

In 1870 Ralph Richardson took the Maitai Run as his coming of age settlement. This was a portion of the land owned by his family who had accumulated large holdings in the mid-1800s.  He added to it and, when he died young, the land went to his wife Euphemia Newbiggen Richardson and daughters Ralphine and Effie Louisa. They left the land in the care of tenants until they returned to settle in 1908 and farm the land themselves. By 1950, with the purchase of adjoining lands, the Maitai Run reached 6,500 acres, comprising approximately two thirds of the Maitai Valley.


The Richardson's first Maitai home started as a thatched cob cottage, believed to have been built in 1842 on a terrace overlooking the Maitai River flats. Named Edendale after a lessee Samual Eden, the cottage was extended around 1914 to become a substantial dwelling when the tenant leases ran out, and the Richardsons took possession.  A shearing shed was created by adding onto an old hop-kiln already on the property, servicing the adjacent hop-garden.

Part of Edendale was moved to the Maitai roadside in the early 1940s and extended to become the family's summer residence. Shearers' quarters were built nearby. This modified Richardson Homestead is still standing and in private use, sited between Jickells and Gibbs bridges.

The Richardson family and the Farm

While Mrs Richardson dealt with legal battles to protect the property, Effie Louisa preferred life at Muritai, the Richardson's town property where she enjoyed crafts, arts and religion. The practical management of the farm was left to Ralphine who proved to be an able farmer, as strong and independent as a man.  Ralphine thrived on the hard work and knew every acre of the property from walking over it. She learnt to muster, crutch and dip her sheep, working alongside her employees. Using hand-shears, she learnt how to shear sheep but the later machine-shearing she left to the experts. By the time she was 30 she had the respect of her workers and peers alike.

To aid the World War 1 effort, an early venture was the running of a dairy farm. This was repeated during World War II. Milk-cans were washed in the river opposite the dairy building, downstream from what was to become the popular Denne's Hole, named after a lessee, J.G. Denne. Ralphine, on 12 April 1915, was issued her own Dairy Registration Certificate. A dairy building for a diesel-powered milking machine was built behind the homestead.

After World War II the Maitai Run’s 6,500 acres supported 6,000 sheep. Wool, the main revenue, produced 100–120 bales per annum, with the mustering of some blocks often taking all day. To reach the abattoir, mobs of sheep were driven through the outskirts of Nelson City, often with amusing incidents, and that practice continued until the early 1950s. Ralphine also ventured into cropping including strawberries, plums, raspberries and potatoes.

Ralphine was  busy, but found time to add her support to the cultural development of Nelson, involving herself not only with Federated Farmers and the AMP Society but also with The Nelson French Society, the Nelson Chamber Music Society, Scouts and The Suter Art Society among other pursuits.

Mrs Richardson died in 1928, Effie Louisa in 1955 and Ralphine in 1969. In 1987 the Waimea County Council paid tribute to Ralphine naming a street on the site of the shearing shed and her old walkway 'Ralphine Way'. 

Conflict over the swimming holes

The various swimming holes along the river are known to locals as Big Hole, Black Hole, Willow Hole, Denne's Hole and Sunday Hole.  While he was alive, Mr Ralph Richardson had encouraged the use of these swimming holes by boys from Nelson College. After his death, with Mrs Richardson and her girls living overseas, locals continued to enjoy access to the Maitai Valley, the river and its banks for their leisure activities. On her return to Nelson Mrs Richardson may have expected that her rights to the water of the Maitai, as a landowner, would be automatically respected. But access to the river and the recreational opportunities it presented were keenly sought by locals, other property owners and lessees.

Picture of Black Hole signage Branford ParkBranford Park
Click image to enlarge

Despite an attempt by Mrs Richardson to restrict public use to Big Hole, a local primary school headmaster Mr Frederick Giles Gibbs stirred things up by taking his children to Sunday Hole, and Denne's Hole had become the traditional swimming hole of the school boys. Both the Waimea and Nelson City Councils became involved in the conflict, and eventually the government gave notice of its intention to procure part of the Maitai run for a reserve.  This inspired a local protest which in turn sparked an enquiry.  

Eventually, when the land was purchased in 1918 after years of wrangling, the swimming holes could be freely used again by the public. Over the last decade fruit and nut trees have been planted that are available for public harvest in the area. Many of the fruit trees in Branford Park were planted by the friends and family of Nelson Lawyer David Phillips as his legacy to Nelson.  Mr Phillips died May 26 2012.

2015 (updated 2021)

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