Emerging from the bush

The discovery of gold and the search for grazing land were the initial driving forces behind the establishment of the township of Hampden - named after John Hampden, leader of the roundheads in the English Civil War 1642-1649.1 The town later became known as Murchison. Developing a settlement in wild, inhospitable, isolated country was slow.


Fox, William 1812-1893 :On the grass plain below Lake Arthur. 8th & 9th Feb. 1846. Alexander Turnbull Library, B-113-014 Four men (Fox, Heaphy, Brunner and Kehu) with their packs and a gun by a camp-fire in the foreground.

Māori axes and implements indicate that Māori passed through the area in pre-European times on their way to and from the West Coast and its valuable pounamu. The dense native forest in the Upper Buller/ Kawatiri provided excellent hunting for birds. It was difficult country to live in and there may not have been permanent settlements, but a number of Ngāti Apa pā, cultivations, mahinga kai, and urupā were located on the river and Ngāti Rarua had traditional tauranga waka (landing sites) and camps sites along the riverbanks.2

Located on the Four River Plain at the confluence of the Buller, Matakitaki, Mangles and Matiri Rivers, the heavily wooded flat was first described by Charles Heaphy.  In February 1846, each carrying a 75lb pack,3 Heaphy, Thomas Brunner, William Fox  and their Māori guide, Kehu (Ngāti Tumatakokiri) set off from Nelson to look for ‘the plain beyond Rotoiti.  Heaphy wrote of their first sighting of the Murchison Valley: “ an expanse of open manuka country, with pine (kahikatea) forests and fern flats on either side of the Buller, several valleys seem to join the main opening a mile or two down the plain.”4

Further surveys were conducted in 1859 by John and James Rochfort, who travelled up the Buller River from Westport in kayaks, reaching four miles above Lyell before their waka capsized in rapids and they returned by foot to Westport.  Early in 1860, James Mackay and Julius von Haast suffered severe privation when they conducted a survey in the area. Haast named Mount Murchison after noted British geologist, Sir Roderick Murchison.5

Gold in the Mangles

Upper Buller

Upper Buller - Trich Devescovi: near Longford on the Upper Buller Gorge Road (print by courtesy of Cobb Robertston)

The Nelson Examiner reported the discovery of a rich gold field in the Upper Buller region on 23 July 1863. Two days later, the newspaper announced that a party of four men had obtained a pound of gold out of the Mangles River after just a few hours work.  Within a month, 70 men were working on the new gold field.6

The Nelson Provincial Council lost no time in planning for future settlement and chose an area of flat land at the junction of the Buller and Matakitaki Rivers.7  In 1864, the council sent John Barnicoat to have a look. He was impressed with the agricultural potential of the land along some of the Buller’s tributaries, travelling about 25 miles along the Matakitaki River valley. On his travels, Barnicoat noted a number of gold diggers on the Mangles, Matakitaki and Lyell Rivers.8


Junction of Mangles and Buller Rivers. Ernest Wilton. Nelson Provincial Museum. 178430

Thomas Brunner was back in 1865. By now, he was the Provincial Council’s chief surveyor and town, suburban and rural sections were offered for sale.  They were mainly taken up as investments, and very few people lived in Hampden for the first ten years.9

George Moonlight, Newman brothers and a name change

In the 1870s, legendary explorer and prospector, George Moonlight must have seen potential in the district and settled at Hampden with his family. He set up a store and, in 1877, bought the Commercial Hotel, which became the social centre for gold diggers, with Moonlight as the unofficial sheriff in the Wild West atmosphere.10

Murchison early commercial hotel

View of several horse-drawn vehicles, including two covered wagons, outside C. Downie's Commercial Hotel.; Nelson Provincial Museum.181965

In July 1879, Moonlight and other locals were on the steps of the Commercial Hotel to greet Tom and Harry Newman’s first mail run between Foxhill and Longford.  The Newman brothers drove a horse-drawn coach over the muddy bush track, until they had to give up at Longford.11 Tom was determined to get the mail through so he put the mailbag over his shoulders and walked.  Hampden was renamed Murchison in 1882, like the nearby mountain after Sir Roderick Murchison an outstanding geologists of the day, when the regular mail service began, to avoid confusion with the Otago township of the same name.12

Born in Hampden in July 1880, lifelong resident, George McNee remembered the town in his childhood: “ ….all around was nature in unspoiled beauty. The axe and the mill had not begun to destroy the bush, there were hundreds of birds and insects to listen to and study.” He noted there were “two stores, a blacksmith’s shop, a cobblers and three or four private dwellings.”13


Geo. Moonlight & dog, April 1868. The Nelson Provincial Museum, W E Brown Collection: 11061

In 1882 Moonlight offered a ‘commodious building for a school' and the Nelson Education Board received a request to constitute Hampden as a separate district and build a house for a teacher.14 A teacher was sought for Hampden Aided School (salary £75 /annum with residence) in August 1883.15 The hall at the Commercial Hotel was rented for £4 a year and used until a school room was built in 1895.16

There was more contact with the outside world, when a telephone station was opened in July 1883.17 That year, Boxing Day races drew a crowd, with horses racing in events such as the Buller Plate and the Goldfields Handicap.18

In 1884, a Government Act empowered the Midland company to build a railway line between Canterbury, Nelson and the West Coast. While part of the line was built between Nelson and Kawatiri and Greymouth and Reefton, it never reached Murchison or Canterbury and valuable pastoral land was tied up for nearly 20 years.19

Supply Centre for Miners

Commercial hotel

View of two motor vehicles and a group of men and dogs outside the Commercial Hotel, Murchison. 178053 Nelson Provincial Museum

By the end of the 1880s, Murchison was steadily growing as the supply centre for surrounding gold mining communities.20 When George McNee left school aged 15 (1895) his father set him up in a store up the Matakitaki River. McNee wrote that there were about 100 Chinese miners in the area, who were honest (“I’m sorry I cannot say that of the other residents”) and kept their simple whares spotless. He said he learnt some Cantonese, including counting to 100 in the language, and was invited to their homes for meals.  He sold opium to them, until it became illegal.21

Access to the small township, however, was still difficult. In May 1900, an article in the Colonist,  headlined: "The Central Buller. Much Needed Works", described ‘the necessity’ of constructing a road to Murchison, now a bridge across the Buller River at the Mangles was completed. The article also recommended the construction of roads up the Maruia Valley and from the Matakitaki into the Maruia.22  

Twentieth Century Developments

Between 1900 and the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, three bridges linking Murchison with the outside world were built, the main highway passed through the town, much farming land was taken up, a butter factory was built and various social and sporting clubs were established.23 In 1904, the Oddfellows first anniversary concert and ball was declared the ‘most successful ever held in Murchison’.24

By 1909, the population of Murchison was 300.25 The first dairy factory was opened in 1909, producing the ‘Airship’ brand of butter, which was transported by wagon to the railhead at Kohatu at night to keep it in good condition. The factory closed in 1973.26

Six Mile hydro scheme. NZGeoview M.Boyce

Six Mile hydro scheme. NZGeoview M.Boyce

Molly Borkin’s family arrived in the Tutaki Valley in 1911. Her Irish father, a school teacher had won land in a farm ballot.  “There were over 20 settlers in the valley and soon it was like one big happy family.  It took four hours to drive from our home (on mud roads by horse and cart) to Murchison initially.  Anyone who happened to be going to town, contacted the neighbours on the way to get various messages for them,” she wrote.27 

Murchison residents were some of the first in the country to enjoy electric heat and light.28 The Six Mile hydro-electric scheme was opened on 25 January 1922. At a cost of £13,000, it had an output of 80 kilowatts and was used by the dairy factory, farmers and households, and provided street lighting in the town.29   

Murchison Earthquake

By 1929, Murchison was on its feet, a supply town for farmers and, as it had been in the days when it was a Māori settlement, a crossroads for travellers.  But on a cold foggy winter morning, at 10.17 am on 17 June, 1929, explosions sounded around the hills, chimneys fell, buildings crumbled and hillsides collapsed.30 The magnitude 7.8 Murchison earthquake was centred in the Lyell Range west of Murchison and was felt from Auckland to Bluff.  You can read more about it here

For more information

With a proud, pioneering history, the very active Murchison District Historical and Museum Society, has collected stories of life in the region for many decades - excerpts from some of these accounts are used in this story. Contact the Society.

There are many books and accounts of Murchison’s early days and the 1929 earthquake, particularly the titles by former teachers in the area: Difficult Country: an informal history of Murchison and Murchison, New Zealand: how a settlement emerges from the bush. For details see further sources.

2017 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Irvine, B. (2009) Can-do country : Murchison's century of mucking in. [Richmond, N.Z.] : Tasman District Council, p.22
  2. Brown, M (1976) Difficult country. [Murchison] : Murchison Historical and Museum Society, p 1; Te Tau Ihu Statutory Acknowledgements 2014, Nelson City Council, Tasman District Council, Marlborough District Council:
  3. Grigg, J.R. (1947) Murchison, New Zealand : how a settlement emerges from the bush. Nelson, N.Z.: R. Lucas, pp.4-5
  4. Brown, pp.8,9
  5. Grigg, pp.7,8
  6. Brown, p.10
  7. Grigg, p.31
  8. Brown, pp.40-41
  9. Grigg, pp.31-32
  10. Brown, p.72
  11. Brown, pp.74-75
  12. Grigg, p.33
  13. McNee, G. & Murchison Historical Society (1983) Early days in Murchison. [Murchison, N.Z.] : Murchison District Historical and Museum Society, p 9.
  14. Education Board. (1882, November 3) The Colonist, p.3
  15. New advertisements: Teacher (Male or Female) (1883, August 22) The Colonist, p.3
  16. Brown, p.101 
  17. West Coast Times (Editorial) (1883, July 10) West Coast Times, p.2
  18. Hampden Races (1882, December 29) Nelson Evening Mail, p.3
  19. Brown, pp.124-125
  20. Brown, p.106
  21. McNee, p.18
  22. Much needed works [roads] (1900, May 29) Colonist, p.2
  23. Brown, p. 155
  24. Murchison (1900, May 29) Colonist, p.2
  25. Irvine, Timeline 
  26. Irvine, p.9
  27. Borkin, M (1989, Jun) Memories of old Tutaki days. Journal (Murchison District Museum & Historical Society), pp.10-11
  28. Irvine, p.45
  29. Brown, pp.180-81
  30. Brown, p.199

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  • A very interesting account of the early settlement of the area. MT Harte is named after my Father who was a chainman for the survey team surveying the Mt Owen area and surrounding valleys. I would very much like to know who was the Head Surveyor at that time and what years were the surveys done .Much appreciated. Ed. we will investigate

    Posted by John Michael HARTE, 05/11/2017 10:24am (7 years ago)

  • Wrong Museum link in article, you have Australia Murchison not New Zealand Murchison. Ed: apologies - fixed

    Posted by Chris, 04/06/2017 9:11pm (7 years ago)

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Further sources - Murchison



  • Borkin, M (1989, Jun) Memories of old Tutaki days. Journal (Murchison District Museum & Historical Society), pp.10-11
  • Large mining site restored (1988, January 23) Nelson Evening Mail. [Wilkims and Davies claim on Matakitaki River being reworked].

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