The hilltop overlooking Whakatü is known to Mäori as Piki mai, which translates as ‘climb hither'. Piki mai was a staging point for the pakohe (argillite) industry, the nearest quarries being in the Nelson Mineral Belt. Pakohe products were moved from Piki mai to other flaking/flinting sites and to trading posts from where it ended up throughout New Zealand.
Click image to enlarge
Piki mai had a natural vantage point overlooking Whakatu to the north, the Whakapuaka and Maungatapu trails to the east and the Waimea trail to the west. It was a sentinel pā where whānau at pahi and kāinga could retreat to if under threat from outside communities.
Occupants of Piki mai and the other nearby pa, Matangi Awhio, went fishing and fowling at Mahitahi and Parororoa. The locals would also go to the pahi at Te Taero-a-Kereopa and Urenui for fishing. Harvesting parties would walk to the forests at Puke Tirohia Marama to spear or trap kereru (wood pigeons) and gather berries. At Koputiraha (the area now occupied by the Nelson City Centre) they grew crops and harvested harakeke (flax).
Piki mai appeared, to European settlers, to be unoccupied by Mäori in 1841 and its strategic position was quickly utilised by the New Zealand Company who set up camp. It was not long before a cluster of temporary buildings became landmarks on the hill.
Early Church Services
The Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, the practical and much admired Bishop Selwyn, arrived for his first visit to Nelson in 1842 with a tent. After being fitted out with axe-hewn kneeling boards, it was capable of holding 200 worshippers and was "taxed to capacity" at the first tent service on August 28. On Sunday 4 September, on a wet and stormy morning, the Bishop delivered a "most forcible and striking sermon in support of a church building fund". A few hours later the storm blew down the tent. Fortunately, enough money was raised during Selwyn's visit to purchase a surveyors' room and immigration shed for conversion to a temporary church.
The tent programme in Bishop Selwyn's own words (Services after sunset were not possible due to the lack of lighting):
"Native Service at 8 o'clock; English Sunday School, 40 children, 9½ o'clock; English Service, 11 o'clock; Native School, 1 o'clock; English School, 2 o'clock; English Afternoon Service, 3 o'clock; Native Afternoon Service, 4½ o'clock." Sunday August 28th 1842.
Click image to enlarge
Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection: AC447.
Click image to enlarge
The New Zealand Company found itself under pressure to find land to fulfil its obligations. Land disputes culminated in a confrontation in 1843 at Tuamarina, Marlborough (the Wairau Affray) between Europeans and Mäori. Lives were lost, including several Nelson leaders. In fear of their wellbeing, town-folk built a redoubt (defence refuge) on Church Hill and named it Fort Arthur.
Rebuilding the Church and Cathedral
Towards the end of the 1840s Nelson was finally recovering from a shaky start, which included the loss of leaders and a period of severe food shortages. By 1848 Bishop Selwyn had acquired the summit of Piki mai as a site for a new church. The cluster of buildings within the fort were removed. Enough funds were on hand to make a start on a purpose-built church which was completed in 1851 and stood overlooking Trafalgar Street.
That church became Nelson's unofficial Cathedral.
This information was produced for a Nelson City Council Heritage Panel, 2007-2009 (updated May 2021)
Do you have a story about this subject? Find out how to add one here.
Further sources - Piki mai
- Barclay, A. (2008) Snippets of history. Nelson, N.Z.: Marsden House
- Evans, J. (1964) Churchman militant George Selwyn. London, Allen and Unwin
- Horrocks, S. (1971) Historic Nelson. Wellington [N.Z.] A.H. & A.W. Reed
- Limbrick, L (1983) Bishop Selwyn in New Zealand 1841-68. Palmerston North : Dunmore Press
- Mitchell, H. & J. (2004-) Te tau ihu o te Waka: A history of Māori of Nelson and Marlborough. Wellington, N.Z. : Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatū Incorporation
- Tucker, H. (1879 ) Memoir of the life and episcopate of George Selwyn. London : W.W. Gardner
- Wilson, J. (2011) Thematic historical overview of Nelson City. Nelson, NZ: Nelson City Council
- Hill dominates landscape (1996, January 18) The Leader, p.10
- Church Hill, Cathedral Square. New Zealand Historic Places Register:
- Church Hill Walk. Retrieved from Nelson City Council 31 May 2021: