Life in Canvastown and the Wakamarina


These memories, contributed for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canvastown in 2014, give a good picture of life in the region in the first 100 years of European settlement.


Thomas (Tommy) Alfred Auckrum arrived in the Pelorus District in 1875. He began working as a bushman and married Eliza Rickard Foote in Havelock the following year. He undertook contracts around the Marlborough Sounds and district to clear bush and supply timber to the Manaroa Mill until it was destroyed by fire in 1881.

wakamarina Smart and Lodge sawmill 013

The sawmill belonging to Messrs Smart and Lodge in the Wakamarina Valley. The foundations still remain immediately to the south of the present Rutland Memorial. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

The family moved to Havelock and Tommy began working at the Kaituna mill for William Brownlee. Using bullocks, Tommy and Bob Anderson, with head bushman Tom McDonald, hauled logs across the Wakamarina River to a landing below Ruapeka.  They cut up to six trucks of logs each day.  In 1887, he signed a 30 year lease on eleven acres in Canvastown and a house was built with timber from Brownlee’s mill. Eliza was fulltime midwife for the Canvastown area, as well as delivering babies for the Māori population at Te Hora.

By 1897, the cutting of native timber had dramatically changed the landscape of the lower Pelorus Valley. The summer of 1897-98 was a particularly dry one and fires swept through the debris left by the bushmen. On 15 January 1898, a small fire was fanned by a strong south westerly. Houses around Canvastown were evacuated and Brownlee’s mill was threatened. 

Devastation by flood and fire and the cutting out of most of the millable timber meant that work was hard to come by. Later in 1898, Tommy and his family moved to the Rangitikei district. Tommy and Eliza are both buried in the Wallaceville Cemetery.1

Wakamarina washday

Washday in the Wakamarina. Photo supplied by Linden Armstrong

Timber and gold

George and Elizabeth Pope came to Marlborough from New Plymouth in 1860 and George opened a sawmill in Wakamarina with his brothers, Robert, Roger and John.  They lived in small huts built on the riverbank where the Canvastown Trout Hotel now stands.   Elizabeth is credited with the discovery of the first specks of gold while washing clothes in the Wakamarina River a short distance upstream from their hut.  In 1864, the brothers obtained 44 oz of gold in a week before returning to sawmilling at the Grove.2

Wakamarina Goldfield 50th 1914

Some of the old Wakamarina identities at the 50th Jubilee in 1914. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

Gold Jubilee
Wakamarina workers c1915 010

Workers at a goldmine in the Wakamarina Valley. Back row (l-r) unknown, Frank Foley, Sam Hyett, Walter Franz, ? McAuley. Front row Myrtle Jones (married Walter Franz), Lee Willis, Edgar Elliston, Jim Torrance, Jack Mitchell, ? Burroughs, Stella Jones. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

On Saturday 4 April, 1914 twenty old identities met to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of gold in the Wakamarina Valley at the Pelorus Hotel in Canvastown. The men had come to the district during the first two to three years of the gold rush in 1864 and remained after the gold rush subsided, mostly taking up land and farming.

The oldest of the group was Chas Leov, aged 90 and the youngest was his son Charles, aged 47. Frank Rush had been the first to arrive in the district in 1859, with George Rutland arriving in the following year. The others at the celebration dinner (which was ‘well prepared, excellently served and in every way well worthy of the occasion’) arrived in the following years up to 1873.

William Hadfield Smith expressed great pleasure at presiding over the anniversary of the industry which drove the development of region.  He compared the present ‘up to date’ township of Havelock to the little settlement as he first knew it- with calico roofs (tents) and high fern everywhere.

James Hughes, who convened the event, said the history of the Wakamarina goldfields was an unfortunate one. Firstly the West Coast gold rush drew a number of people away from the district and also the Wakamarina field was difficult to work with irregular leads of gold.  However Mr Hughes was confident there were better days to come and that the Wakamarina would yet be the mining centre of the South as Waihi is in the North.3

Meat deliveries
wakamarina Pelorus Hotel

Outside the Pelorus hotel at Canvastown. Photo supplied by Linden Armstrong

In the early 20th Century, William Simmonds of Havelock delivered meat to the Wakamarina - he was the first of three generations to do so. His farm dog accompanied him and fought heroically to keep all other dogs away from his master’s vehicle.  At Canvastown, patrons of the Pelorus Hotel (as it was then known) would bet on the dog fights.

Wakamarina milking time at The Wilderness 014

Milking time at ‘The Wilderness’, Dalton’s Farm in the Lower Pelorus Valley above Canvastwon. Emily Dalton milking and Miss Blanche Andrews holding the bucket. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

The hotel owned 50 acres of farm land up to the Dairy Factory which was located in Wakamarina Road behind the hotel. The proprietor of the Canvastown Hotel, Pat O’Donoghue owned and bred horses and he and his sons carted gravel for road building. A high terrace bank at the south eastern corner of the hotel’s farm was used for the local Rifle Club’s targets. They shot from the back of the hotel, or at shorter range from mounds across the paddock - lead can still be found in the bank.4

Wakamarina milking time at The Wilderness 014

Milking time at ‘The Wilderness’, Dalton’s Farm in the Lower Pelorus Valley above Canvastwon. Emily Dalton milking and Miss Blanche Andrews holding the bucket. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

Lola Hart was born in Havelock in 1928 and her family moved to the Wakamarina in 1934. She went to Deep Creek School, along with Harold Hart, whom she later married. She left school aged 14 and worked as a house keeper and on farms milking cows and feeding out.  After marrying Harold in 1948, they lived in the Hart Homestead in the upper valley and raised their three children, Pauline, Aven and Murray.

“We used candles and lamps for five years then later we got a diesel motor that ran a stove, washing machine and electric lights. In 1971 we had the power put on…..we got an electric water cylinder….before that we heated the water by lighting the stove and that didn’t heat the water until about 10am. On wash day I boiled the copper for the sheets, towels and nappies and to scrub the back verandah.”

Wakamarina canvastown school

Canvastown School photo 1950s. Waihere (Joe) Mason is second on the right in the back row- he became the principal of Nelson Intermediate School. Linden Armstrong is third from the left in the third row. Photo supplied by Linden Armstrong.

Lola’s three children went to Canvastown School in 1954, after the Deep Creek School closed, and then went to Rai Valley High School. In 1973, Murray and Aven started contract forestry planting. Tragedy struck the family when Murray was killed in a car accident in January 1982. In December 1983, Harold died suddenly while felling trees he and Lola had planted in 1949. In 1991, Aven died from a heart attack following a fire in his forestry. Lola eventually moved to Blenheim and then Nelson.5

Community Life

Waihere (Joe) Mason lived at Ruapaka from 1946-61 and attended Canvastown School from 1947/48-1955. He remembers swimming lessons at the confluence of the Pelorus and Wakamarina Rivers being a free-for-all before the teachers arrived to supervise: “It was not a safe swimming hole. No-one ever considered anyone could have been drowned!”

wakamarina Canvastown Post Office 012

Mrs Jones on the steps of the Canvastown Post Office, 1951. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

As a six year old at his first school concert in the Canvastown Hall, he recited Little Jack Horner on the hall’s stage from behind the curtains.  There were dances in the original Victoria Hall and an annual bazaar. The hall that replaced the Town hall was partly built by locals. Waihere’s family hosted the Māori artist, Oriwa Haddon for about six months  in 1954/55 while he painted the murals for the hall which are still there. Guy Fawkes celebrations were held each year at the back of the Canvastown Hotel. A large jar on the bar was filled with money during the year to pay for the annual fireworks celebration.

Waihere remembers walking to school sewn up in a wheat sack to keep out the cold. In the years after World War II, there was the regular appearance of ‘Swaggies’ in the valley. “We inevitably took pity on them, as poor as we were, and gave them meals, tobacco and the odd bit of clothing.  In return they offered services, usually chopping up a pile of wood. We could never get them to take a bath!”6

School Days

The family of Patsy Schwabe (nee Broughton) lived up the Wakamarina Valley in the 1940s where her father worked at Baigent’s timber mill or in the forest felling native timber. Workers lived in small cottages tucked into spots near the mill itself. 

Patsy began school at the Deep Creek School in February 1947. She remembers the end of year trip to Pelorus Bridge on the back of a covered truck as a highlight. “We held on around corners and were swished backwards and forwards, clinging on for grim death to whatever was solid enough to hold on to.” At Pelorus Bridge, they played games, swam (Patsy wearing saggy hand knitted togs made by her mother) and picnicked. “ was a very rare occasion for anyone to get out of the valley on a picnic.”

The Wakamarina Valley could be cold and Patsy’s mother remembered frosts right up to Christmas one year. Second hand clothing was cut up and remade into clothes for children, boys’ trousers were lined with bleached flour bags and salt bags were washed and used for handkerchiefs. “We were still living a pioneer-type existence. Life was simple, but life could be hard also.”

When Patsy’s father was injured at work suffering internal injuries and breaking ribs, he  spent months in Wairau Hospital and then convalesced with friends in Blenheim. With five children to look after, Patsy’s mother got out of the valley only twice to see him during the nine months he was away.7

There is a comprehensive display about Canvastown and the Wakamarina’s history in the Canvastown Hall. For further information about this, contact Linden Armstrong,

2015 (updated 2024)

Sources used in this story

  1. Contributed by Don Auckram;, June 2013
  2. Contributed by Laurelle Price
  3. From the Pelorus Guardian, 6 April 1914 and Wakamarina Goldfields (1914, April 8) Colonist, p6
  4. Contributed by Roy Rush
  5. Contributed by Lola Hart
  6. Contributed by Waihere Mason
  7. Contributed by Patsy Schwabe

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  • I have just recently passed through canvas town and noticed a street sign titled "Tapp Road" My maiden name was Tapp and my father Lester Tapp was born in Blenheim. I just wondered if there was any special story behind the naming of this Road. I would be very keen and interested to know any information you may have please. With many thanks Denise Bartosh ( nee Tapp).

    Posted by Denise Bartosh, 28/02/2018 7:45am (6 years ago)

  • Awesome thank you, I really enjoyed these Canvastown stories. The Prow is the 2nd thing that I go into each time I switch on my iPad & the 1st is always geo net checking on earthquakes.
    I must say I am always looking for Marlborough stories, good work please keep it up. Thank you regards Morice

    Posted by Morice Stratford, 02/11/2015 3:35pm (9 years ago)

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Further sources - Life in Canvastown and the Wakamarina





  • Photographer unknown :Portrait of Deep Creek Township. Pringle, William Pilliet, 1897-1984 :Photographs of New Zealand and Australia. Ref: PA2-2442. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22493265
  • Tyree Studio. Water pumping equipment at Wakamarina Gorge, Marlborough [189-?] Retrieved August 19, 2009 from Timeframes. Image from Alexander Turnbull Library

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