Nelson's Boathouse


For over 100 years this much-loved building on Wakefield Quay has played a role in the social lives of Nelson citizens. Friendships have formed, young people have learned about boats and the sea, and many a couple has met and later married there. It is a legacy that continues to this day.

Rowing was hugely popular in early Nelson, so much so, that by the early 1900s the Nelson Rowing Club had outgrown its club rooms along the road at what is now The Boatshed Restaurant. In 1906 it built bigger premises on Wakefield Quay.

Nelson Rowing Club, Nelson baths, and the ship Penguin. Jones, Frederick Nelson, 1881-1962 :Negatives of the Nelson district. Ref: 1/1-002362-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Click image to enlarge

The Nelson Rowing Club sold the building in the 1920s to the New Zealand Scout Association, when its membership declined following World War 1. An agreement was reached allowing the club to share the building with the recently formed Iron Duke Sea Scout Troop.

The 1920s to 1960s were the golden years for this building. The fortunes of both the rowing club and Sea Scouts improved and the Haven was bustling with activity. Fundraising through the sale of firewood and fish became a big focus for the Sea Scouts; however, the rowing club's regular Saturday dances became by far the biggest source of income.

Nelson’s Rowing Club Official opening (1931, October 6) Evening Post, p.5 from Papers Past
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Between the 1940s and 1960s the building was one of Nelson's main dance venues. A band played to a packed dance hall almost every Saturday night. With rowing skiffs slung from the ceiling and walls strung with coloured lights, the atmosphere was nautical. There were wonderful suppers of oysters and crayfish. Talcum powder was scattered on the floor to aid dancing, but in high tides the boards still got damp. The toilets were long drops straight into the sea. 

By the mid 1960s, dancing was out and television was in. Without the crowds, the rowing club dances were stopped. It was the end of the club's main source of income, and an end of an era in Nelson. However, the bills kept mounting. The building's slipway needed major repairs and piles needed replacing. When the Harbour Board offered a site at the reclaimed land on Akersten Street, it was too good a deal to refuse. The rowers and Sea Scouts moved out.

With the building on its last legs and about to be washed away in the next storm, the Sea Scouts decided to sell. Twenty five Nelson residents raised the $25,000 needed to purchase the building and formed the Iron Duke Boat Club Society, later changing the name to The Boathouse Society. This cooperative of the owner-shareholders then set about finding new members to fund the restoration of the building, which in 1982 was listed as a Category 2 Heritage building.

Between 1992 and 1994, piles were replaced, the old deck and boat ramp removed, the front wall was totally rebuilt and a new deck constructed. Where possible, original features were retained or reused and the old timber recycled. The Boathouse, as it is today, was born.

By 2011 the Society counted over 240 members. Community support was essential to the survival of the Hall, when on February 1 2018 Cyclone Fehi hit Nelson and caused huge damage to the building.  Fortunately covered by insurance, the community fully  supported the repair work, which was completed for a reopening in October of the same year.1 Bands continue to play most Friday nights and The Boathouse has become a popular location for weddings, functions and meals. The old building continues to play an important role in the social lives of Nelsonians - let the band play on!

The 1906 building

  • Architect: William Houlker
  • Builders: Scott's Estate
  • Painting: Mossrs Louisson Bros.
  • Plumbing and gas fitting: Mr H McArtney

2016 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  1. Gee, S. (2018, October 20) Nelson's waterfront venue The Boathouse open once again after storm repairs. Nelson Mail on Stuff:

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