Early Renwick


Scottish town on the Wairau Plain

Scotsman, Dr Thomas Renwick, was the ship's surgeon on the Thomas Harrison, which arrived in Nelson in 1842. He bought Dumgree in the Awatere in 1848, and the Delta Dairy (originally owned by the Honourable Constance Dillon), a 4800 ha1 run at Waihopai, in 1855.2

Dr. T. Renwick. Hand-coloured photograph [1942]. Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Library.
Click image to enlarge

Like many of the early pastoralists, Dr Renwick lived in Nelson, however he travelled over the Tophouse to his Wairau properties each month and ensured they were well managed and productive.3  

William Brydon, the first dairyman in the Wairau, was manager of the Delta. Dillon described him and his wife as very active and good servants, ‘who do ample justice to the cows'.4 Brydon bought the property after the death of Dr Renwick in 1879.5

Staff of Gibsontown Flaxmill, 1906. The town, located at the Renwick end of Tuamarina Track,  no longer exists.  Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Library.
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Howard Lakeman, assistant to the surveyors Cyrus Goulter and Joseph Ward, suggested to Dr Renwick that a portion of the Delta land should be surveyed into town sections. Six acres were allotted for a church and a school. The town was named after Renwick, and  the names of battles, generals and places: Oudenarde, Clive, Havelock, Clyde, Alma, Picton, Anglesey and Uxbridge were adopted for street names.6

While Dr Renwick was one of the leaders in the fight to establish a separate province in the Wairau, and a member of the Nelson Provincial Council, he took no part in the new Marlborough Provincial Council.7

John Godfrey, one of the earliest residents in the locality, squatted on 20 acres belonging to Dr Renwick and put up an accommodation house known as the Sheepskin Tavern for which he paid a peppercorn rental.8 Primitive as it was, the tavern, insulated with a roof of sheepskins, was a great boon to travellers between Blenheim and Nelson.9

Gustav & Sarah Bary and family at their golden wedding. Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Library.
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Other businesses soon followed. Gustaf Bary, born in Sweden, jumped ship and settled in Renwick where he married Sarah Blaymires in 1863.10  They collected butter from outlying farms, processed and exported it to England and established a general store on the corner of Uxbridge and High Streets, later carried on by their sons. The first blacksmith and vet, Robert Watson, drowned in the Wairau River. His business was bought by an employee, John Vorbach, who later married Watson's widow.11

Renwick's Globe Hotel. Owned by W. Newman.  Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Library.
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Renwicktown was a Scottish town and a Presbyterian settlement. The Rev T.D. Nicholson arrived from Nelson in 1857 and established the first church in the Wairau. It was built of pit sawn timber from Grovetown by Robert Thomson.12

Marlborough's second public school was established in Renwicktown, with the Reverend Nicholson offering the use of the Presbyterian Church as a school room. Renwick School opened in 1861 with 16 pupils - 10 boys and six girls.13 The first meeting of the newly formed Marlborough Education Board was held in Renwicktown in May 1862.14

By 1905, with a population of about 350, Renwicktown boasted a Government building, with a post, telephone, and telegraph office, a large public school, two churches, two hotels, several general stores, cabinet-making, blacksmithing, engineering, and other establishments. The surrounding countryside was devoted to sheep farming and agriculture.15

Bridging the Gap

Opening of the first Wairau Bridge, 1913.  Renwick Museum & Watson Memorial Library.
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Crossing the Wairau and Omaka Rivers at the Renwick Fords west of Renwick was once a difficult and dangerous venture. In 1882, a system of flags signaling the state of the rivers was replaced by a system of coloured balls displayed at signal stations on the South bank of the Opawa River and the North bank of the Wairau River.16

There was much debate about the problems involved in crossing the sometimes treacherous waters. In 1897 the Marlborough Express angrily reported that the coach from Nelson had to be diverted as the river was in flood: "It is surely disgraceful enough that such a dangerous river as the Wairau should be unbridged at this important ford, situated as it is on one of the main roads of the Colony, but it is scandalous that there is no telephonic communication between each bank of the river at Renwick, and Blenheim and Havelock."17

The new Wairau Bridge was opened on January 24, 1913. "The bridge will confer a great, benefit on the settlers and the travelling public, as in winter the Wairau is often flooded, and in the past several lives have been lost in the river."18

2011 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Lash, M. D. (1992.). Nelson Notables 1840 - 1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson Historical Society, p.121 
  2. Adams, L. (1993) Renwicktown. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2(5) 
  3. Airey, E. (1979) Renwick: the story of a pioneer familyWellington : Airey, p.25
  4. McIntosh (1940, 1977) Marlborough: A Provincial History. Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, NZ, Australia, London. Reprint published by Capper Press, p.107 
  5. Adams
  6. Adams
  7. Airey, p.31
  8. Adams
  9. Renwicktown. In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand : industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations. V.5 Nelson, Marlborough and Westland provincial districts.(1897-1908) Wellington, N.Z.: Cyclopedia Co. 
  10. Davis, A. et al (1991) Old Renwicktown : the Olga Watson Memorial Library and the Renwick Museum. Friends of the Renwick Museum, p.5
  11. Adams
  12. Adams
  13. McIntosh, p.339
  14. McIntosh, p.407
  15. Renwicktown
  16. Information for Travelers (1882, March 6) Marlborough Express, p.2
  17. The Renwick Fords (1897, February, 25)  Marlborough Express, p.2
  18. The Renwicktown Bridge. (1913, January 25) Colonist, p.5

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  • Renwick museum is a superb insight to early days . The article shows the pioneering spirit of New Zealand emigrants . The population of NZ are still to a large extent pioneers although they don't seem to realise it as they go forward with their everyday life's .

    Posted by William Hair, 11/03/2019 10:05pm (5 years ago)

  • William Moore, a Scottish school master and published poet was appointed as the first teacher at the new Renwick School in 1861. On his retirement, he became the private tutor to the Newman family at Cowslip Valley where he and his wife lived in a comfortable cottage. The Newman family held him in great esteem and buried him in the Newman family plot at the Wairau Cemetery where there is now a headstone in his memory.

    Posted by Jane McDonald, 18/03/2017 8:00am (7 years ago)

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Further sources - Early Renwick



  • Adams, L. (1993) Renwicktown. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2(5) 
  • Information for Travelers (1882, March 6) Marlborough Express, p.2 
  • Killed by Lightning (1899, January 20) Thames Star, p.1 
  • Mrs Thomas Renwick (1937, September 30) Evening Post p.11  
  • Some Early Journeys from Nelson to the Wairau (1982) Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies 1(2) 
  • The Renwick Fords (1897, February, 25) Marlborough Express, p.2
  • The Renwicktown Bridge. (1913, January 25) Colonist, p.5 
  • The reported gold find (1898, January 19) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  • Thomas Renwick plans a town (1971) New Zealand's Heritage: the making of a nation, v.2. Sydney: Paul Hamlyn, pp.641-643
  • Watson, H. (1983) Renwick Militia. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(3) 




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