Nelson's Church Steps


The Church Steps - centre of the community

"Meet you at the church steps" is often heard in Nelson and the steps, from the bottom of Trafalgar Square at its intersection with Trafalgar Street to the top of Piki Mai/Church Hill and the Cathedral, have been the rallying point for gatherings of every occasion in the city since its early colonial days.

Nelson Cathedral. Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Loan Collection: 314710
Click image to enlarge

Māori themselves had long used Piki Mai as a fortified . But, unaware of its use by Māori, the New Zealand Company recognised the hill's strategic position when it arrived in 1841 and claimed it for its own administrative base. Before long the hill was the centre of the newly emerging colony, housing not only immigration barracks for the newly arrived settlers, but also the Post Office, the hospital tent, the courthouse and the offices of the Examiner newspaper, with various paths worn as settlers moved about their business on the hill. 

The most direct path from Trafalgar Street at its intersection with Selwyn Place (Trafalgar Square) to the top of the hill was formed following the 1843 Wairau Affray, in which local settlers and iwi were killed during a dispute over land at Wairau in Marlborough.  Fearful of reprisal attacks by local Māori, a fort was built on top of the hill and settlers quickly formed a path as they scrambled up the hill to take refuge at night.

In 1848 the hill was transferred to the Church of England, which had held services on the hill since 1842. Wanting to provide easier access to the steadily expanding Christ Church (later Christ Church Cathedral), the Nelson Board of Works (the precursor to the Nelson City Council) and the church wardens co-operated to build three flights of wooden steps over the dirt path in 1858.1

Governor’s Reception, 1899. Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 182099. Click image to enlarge

The new steps quickly became the preferred gathering point for the growing colony and many of the events held there were captured on camera. One of the earliest images of an event on the steps was taken in 1863 when Nelson celebrated the marriage of Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.2  Later, the successful rescue of passengers and crew of the ill-fated immigrant ship, the Queen Bee, was commemorated with a thanksgiving service on the steps in 1877 and in 1887 the 50th jubilee of Queen Victoria was marked by a procession and gathering, at the top of Trafalgar Street and on the steps, of an estimated 8000 people.3

'Returning thanks to those who had been instrumental in rescuing the survivors of the Queen Bee' [c.1877] Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection: C5418
Click image to enlarge

At the turn of the century, the city both farewelled and welcomed back local troops from the Boer War and in 1905, photographer F.N. Jones drew a crowd when he drove his horse and buggy up the steps, a feat he later repeated so it could be captured as a moving image, which was subsequently shown in cinemas around the world.

However, the wooden steps had quickly became dangerous, growing slippery in wet weather, being overgrown with weeds and rotting in places.  Ongoing improvements and repairs over the ensuing decades since their construction failed to alleviate continuing calls for their replacement with new steps in permanent materials.  But it wasn't until Nelson philanthropist Thomas Cawthron stepped into the debate in the middle of 1911 that plans for new steps were finalised.

It had been suggested for several years that new steps would be suitable as a public memorial to one of two recently deceased Nelson notables - Albert Pitt, who had been prominent in military, government and local affairs, had died in 1906, and Francis Trask, a former city mayor and legislative councillor who died in 1910.  However, in both cases it was eventually decided to erect memorial gates at the northern and southern entrances to Queen's Gardens.4 

Acknowledging the need for safer and more durable steps and the opportunity to combine them with ongoing efforts to tidy up and beautify Church Hill and enhance the Cathedral, Thomas Cawthron offered to cover the costs involved himself and to present the steps to the city.5  He also offered to help pay for the removal of trees on either side of the steps and the planting of flowering shrubs their place.  At the same time he  undertook to fund the continuation of the stanchions and chains along the unprotected sections of the Rocks Road seawall.6

Work began on the steps in August 1912.7 Light cream Tonga Bay granite, New Zealand's only true granite, was specially quarried from a newly commissioned quarry in what is now part of the Abel Tasman National Park, and shipped to Nelson.  At the time it was thought the granite hardened with exposure to the atmosphere and sunlight, though this was later shown not to be the case.  Two other known structures  of Tonga Bay Granite remain standing: the Trask gates at Nelson's Queens Gardens and the former Public Trust Building.8

Old Cars at Church Steps [c.1907] Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy Collection: C1087
Click image to enlarge

The steps were designed by Arthur Reynolds Griffin and constructed by Messers J. and A. Wilson Ltd of Wellington.9 Griffin was a Nelson architect who was also responsible for designing the Nelson Institute building in Hardy Street (later the public library and then the New Zealand School of Fisheries) and the Plunket and Rest Rooms in Trafalgar Square (currently the glass studio Flame Daisy).10

They were unusual in that their design represented elements of Gothic church architecture, not usually seen in a public walkway,11 and were described by the Colonist12 as "a massive and imposing structure' which "will be in every way in keeping with the beautiful eminence it is to adorn'. They consisted of three double and three single flights of steps, separated by five formal landings and decorative gardens (long since filled in and made into viewing balconies) and rose 11.5m from Trafalgar Street to the top of the hill.  The steps were flanked by low stone walls with balustrades (now gone) and stone pillars topped with decorative metal fleur-de-lis capping. Six of the pillars were originally fitted with gas lamp standards.  These were removed and three electric lampstands installed in the centre of the steps sometime prior to 1941

Cawthron wrote from Australia in 1912 that the ornamental work on the steps should be first rate.  "I want a real good job, bold, massive and ornamental."13 He had insisted the original design be modified so the landings were of granite rather than asphalt as originally planned.

The Governor, Lord Liverpool, officially opened the steps on Dominion Day, 20 September 1913 before a large crowd.  Cawthron was thanked by the mayor, William Lock, who referred to him as "Nelson's grand old man".14 His generous gift was recorded on the first landing in a slab of dark polished Aberdeen granite with the wording: 'these steps were presented to the city by Thomas Cawthron Esq.. A.D. 1913'. 

Less than a year later World War I broke out and over the next five years the church steps featured prominently in a succession of gatherings.  Nelson farewelled troops, welcomed injured servicemen home, decorated a soldier for bravery at Gallipoli and held many fundraisers for the war effort that centred on the Church Steps.  The annual Daffodil Day and Flower Queen festival culminated at the steps and provided the war-weary city and province with a splash of brightness for a few days each year.

Welcome to Our Heroes, Bishop Sadlier Speaking (1916). Nelson Provincial Museum, Print Collection: 287823
Click image to enlarge

The first Anzac Day service was held in 1916 to remember the fallen of Gallipoli and subsequently all those who died in the various theatres of war, before the armistice of November 1918 allowed a mass celebration.  This was followed in July 1919 with a gathering to mark the signing of a peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles

The war over, the region made good use of the steps to celebrate throughout the 1920s.  Highlights were two royal visits, the first in 1920 by Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII who abdicated in 1936), who was in New Zealand for a four week tour, and the second in 1927 by the Duke and Duchess of York (later George VI and Queen Elizabeth, parents of the current Queen, Elizabeth II).

The Prince of Wales charmed the crowd gathered at the steps to welcome him but wrote home in less than complimentary terms of a dance held in his honour in the city in which he had to "lug those wads of ham faced women around, altho' (sic) we were all feeling very weary and thoroughly peeved".15  The much-loved Duchess of York fell ill shortly after the royal reception on the steps and spent several days in the city recuperating while her husband continued his tour.  In 1921 the Governor General, Viscount Jellicoe, addressed a large crowd on the steps with stirring words about the country's loyalty to the Empire during the war.

When the dark clouds of war again broke in 1939 the church steps drew large crowds once more to farewell troops and, in 1942, the Victoria Cross was presented on the steps to Sgt Alfred Hulme for a series of heroic acts during the Battle of Crete.  The end of hostilities in Europe (VE Day) in May 1945 saw thousands gather on the steps and along Trafalgar Street but it was VJ Day (Victory over Japan) in August that year that saw joyous scenes as the city celebrated peace in the Pacific.  An equally ecstatic crowd, estimated to be 8,000 in number, welcomed the visit by the hero of the Battle of El Alamein, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery ('Monty'), during his tour of Australia and New Zealand to visit the soldiers he fought alongside.15

In 1942 the province's centennial was celebrated, albeit in a somewhat muted fashion.  In preparation, the two decorative gardens on the steps were replaced with viewing balconies.  The plaque commemorating Thomas Cawthron was moved to the face of the second landing and the lower viewing balcony was fitted with a sculpted marble centennial memorial depicting the early European settlers, one hundred years after the founding of Nelson.17

Royal Visit, 1954. Nelson Provincial Museum, Miscellaneous Collection: 319545. Click image to enlarge

The 1950s saw Nelson celebrate the 150th anniversary of Trafalgar Day on the steps, as well as the visit of the Governor General, Sir Bernard Cyril Freyberg, a hero of WWI and commander of WWII.  It was also the decade in which the first reigning monarch visited New Zealand.  The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, carved a swathe through a large and enthusiastic crowd on the steps as they walked from a service held in the cathedral to their hotel on Trafalgar Street in January 1953.

However, the 1950s were also when the steps became the focus of widespread public protests.  Between 1952 and 1955 numerous public rallies were staged there in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to save Nelson's railway.  The protests continued through the 1960s and 1970s and on into the 1980s.  Huge crowds congregated in 1962 to protest at the Government's abandonment of the cotton mill at Stoke, while a decade later anti-apartheid marches up Trafalgar Street culminated at the steps.  In 1981 police riot squads clashed with crowds during anti-Springbok rugby tour demonstrations and in 1982 Nelsonians again marched to the steps to demonstrate their desire for a nuclear free world. Today, the church steps continue to be the rallying point for public demonstrations on a wide range of societal, political and environmental issues.

But it wasn't only protests that were staged on the church steps.  They are still used for celebrations, receptions, commemorations and discourse.  From official receptions for dignitaries and political rallies, to services to mark military anniversaries and occasions, including Trafalgar Day and Anzac Day, the steps are the perfect backdrop for formal occasions.  They're also a popular meeting point for friends, young and old; a place to sit and eat lunch or simply to rest weary feet, a vantage point from which to show visitors the city, and they remain the most direct route from town to the cathedral. 

From brass band competitions, arts and music festivals, and the start or finish of sporting events, to the highly popular Carols by Candlelight sessions held since at least the 1960s; the spectacular Piki Mai audio visual light show in which Nelson's history was projected onto the steps and cathedral during the 2011 Arts Festival; and the mass haka resoundingly performed by Nelson College students on the steps at the start of the 2011 Rugby World Cup along with the recreation of the first game of rugby, the Church Steps remain the city's most prominent and popular landmark.

Ownership of the Church Steps was transferred to the Nelson City Council in 1922  by the Nelson Diocesan Trust Board.18  Over the years various modifications have been made to them, including the removal of gardens and trees from various locations, the addition of the Nelson Centennial Memorial, the removal of a flagpole and standard lamps on a number of pillars, and the provision of two 'street' lamps.  However the steps generally retain their original planning, scale and design19 and are an integral part of the public walkway up and around Church Hill and northern access to Christ Church Cathedral.20  From a historical point of view the steps are a strong visual symbol of the ongoing use of Church Hill - Pikimai - by both Pākehā and Māori.

The steps have an 'A' classification in the Nelson City Council Resource Management Plan, according them the highest classification as an object of major significance to the district and whose protection is considered essential.21  They are also registered by New Zealand Heritage as Category Class 1, a status given to places of special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value.22

The quality of their construction remains evident today, although the granite used did not prove to be as hardy as intended, containing large crystals of transparent quartz that does not weather well.23  The steps are vulnerable to deterioration from storm water runoff, ground movement, vandalism, graffiti, and wear and tear from foot traffic and the use of wheeled transportation such as skateboards.  The Nelson City Council commissioned a conservation plan for the treatment and ongoing maintenance of the historic structure in 2009 in order to develop a strategy for the conservation, future use and development of the steps.24

The centennial of the Cawthron Steps was marked in 2013 with the launch of a photographic history book celebrating the central role both the granite steps and the earlier wooden steps have played in Nelson's social history.25

2013 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Nelson Board of Works Annual Report, Nelson Provincial Museum, AG 123, Box 14, GI Annual Reports 1858-1864, p.5; Vestry Minutes, Christ Church, Nelson, Anglican Centre, February 1858.
  2. Nelson Examiner (1863, June 17) Nelson Examiner, p.2.
  3. Queen's Diamond Jubilee (1897, June 21) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  4. The Projected Memorial (1901, May 3) The Colonist, p.2 ; Pitt Memorial Gates (1914, June 17) Colonist, p.1.
  5. Interview with Hon. R. McKenzie (1911, July 26) The Colonist, p.6
  6. Public Benefactions (1912, June 26) The Colonist, p.4.
  7. Cleared Outwards (1912, August 12) The Colonist, p.1; News of the Day (1912, August 17) The Colonist, p.4.
  8. Church Steps, Church Hill, Cathedral Square, Nelson. Register of Historic Places, New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
  9. The Church Steps (1913, September 20) The Colonist, p.4
  10. Church Steps at Church Hill, Pikimai Conservation and Maintenance Plan (2009) prepared for Nelson City Council by Opus International Consultants Ltd, p.1
  11. Church Steps at Church Hill, Pikimai Conservation and Maintenance Plan, p.22
  12. Public Benefactions
  13. Miller, D. (1963) Thomas Cawthron and the Cawthron Institute. Cawthron Institute Trust Board: Nelson, p.55.
  14. News of the Day (1913, September 22) The Colonist, p.4
  15. Alexander Turnbull Library Acquires 1920 NZ Letters of Edward Prince of Wales, media release from ATL, reported on Scoop,  2 July 2007:
  16. Montgomery of Alamein, Nelson's Welcome to Great Soldier (1947, July 24) Nelson Evening Mail, p.5
  17. Church Steps, Church Hill, Cathedral Square, Nelson (2003) Final draft, Register of Historic Places, New Zealand Historic Places Trust, 2003
  18. Certificate of Title Under Land Transfer Act,  contained in Church Steps at Church Hill Pikimai, Conservation and Maintenance Plan, p.136.
  19. Church Steps at Church Hill Pikimai, Conservation and Maintenance Plan, p.20
  20. Church Steps at Church Hill Pikimai, Conservation and Maintenance Plan, p.23
  21. Church Steps at Church Hill Pikimai, Conservation and Maintenance Plan, p.4
  22. Church Steps at Church Hill Pikimai, Conservation and Maintenance Plan, p.5
  23. Church Steps, Church Hill, Cathedral Square, Nelson', Register of Historic Places, New Zealand Historic Places Trust
  24. Church Steps at Church Hill Pikimai, Conservation and Maintenance Plan, p.3
  25. Stade, K. (2013) Meet You at the Church Steps - A Social History of a Nelson landmark Nelson, New Zealand : Karen Stade 

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  • What a great story these steps have to tell -- can't wait for the book to be published!

    Posted by Penny Griffith, ()

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Further sources - Nelson's Church Steps


  • Church Steps, Church Hill, Cathedral Square, Nelson (2003) Final draft, Register of Historic Places, New Zealand Historic Places Trust, 2003.
  • Church Steps at Church Hill, Pikimai Conservation and Maintenance Plan (2009) prepared for Nelson City Council by Opus International Consultants Ltd
  • The first 100 years, Nelson Cathedral centenary: Centenary of Christ Church, Nelson, 1851-1951 (1951). Nelson, New Zealand: Cathedral Erection Board of the Diocese of Nelson. 
  • Jaques, W. R. P. (1967). A guide to Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson, New Zealand. Nelson, New Zealand: Vestry of the Cathedral Parish.
  • Miller, D. (1963) Thomas Cawthron and the Cawthron Institute.  Cawthron Institute Trust Board: Nelson, p.55.
  • Rowling, G., Bloomfield, E. R., & Christ Church Cathedral. (2002). Christ Church Cathedral Nelson. Nelson, New Zealand: Christ Church Cathedral.
  • Stade, K (2013) Meet you at the church steps: A social history of a Nelson landmark. Nelson, N.Z: Karen Stade.
  • Young, F.J.L., Drogemuller, J.A., & Tyrell, Charles (2000). Nelson Cathedral: The story of the Church on the hill.  Nelson, New Zealand: Dean and Vestry of Nelson Cathedral. [Christ Church Cathedral]


  • Farley, S. (1997, January 4) Night and day on the Church Steps. Nelson Mail, p.9
  • Montgomery of Alamein, Nelson's Welcome to Great Soldier (1947, July 24) Nelson Evening Mail, p.5
  • Stade, K. (2013) 1913 The opening of the Church Steps. Nelson Historical Journal, 7(5), p.41 

 Papers Past


  • Nelson Board of Works Annual Report, Nelson Provincial Museum, AG 123, Box 14, GI Annual Reports 1858-1864
  • Vestry Minutes, Christ Church, Nelson, Anglican Centre, February 1858

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