German settlement in Nelson
Nelson's earliest German settlers faced disappointment and hardship and were driven away from the Moutere Valley by poor soil and constant floods. The close-knit, industrious communities re-established themselves on the Waimea Plains and eventually returned to the Moutere to form the settlement of Sarau.
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In 1842, John Nicholas Beit heard about the New Zealand Company’s plans to develop a colony in New Zealand. He became the company’s Hamburg agent and soon various northern German cities were buzzing with news of the opportunities in this far off colony.1 With the Hamburg firm of Chapeaurouge and Co., Beit bought five allotments in Nelson. He also persuaded the North German Missionary Society to buy one, as it was eager to establish a Māori Mission.
The 380 ton St Pauli left Germany on December 26, 1842. Trouble began almost immediately, with Beit arguing with the captain and missionaries, cutting rations, and bullying passengers. Pastor Heine described him as “a fat, arrogant man”.
The St Pauli sailed into Nelson on June 14, 1843, just days before news of the Wairau Affray hit town. The odious Beit would not employ the German labourers and their care was left to the New Zealand Company.2
More disappointment was in store for the four Lutheran missionaries, the Revs J.C. Riemenschneider and J.F.H Wohlers and pastors J.W.C Heine, and J.H. Trost. They discovered that the few Maori in the area were already enthusiastic Wesleyans.3
Leaving Pastor Riemenschneider in Nelson to look after the Lutheran flock there, the other pastors began working on their Moutere allotment, naming the settlement St Paulidorf after the immigrant ship. 4
The soil was poor, and flood after flood washed away their efforts. By the spring of 1844, all of the Germans had abandoned the area. About half of the German immigrants left Nelson, with many heading for South Australia.
Those who remained were heartened by the arrival of the Skiold , which arrived on September 1, 1844, the eve of the collapse of the NZ Company. Sponsored by wealthy nobleman and entrepreneur, (Count) Graf Kuno zu Rantzau, this group arrived to an uncertain future. They had a good supply of stores, however, and were fortunate in having brothers Carl and Fedor Kelling as company agents. These men were hard working, fair and generous benefactors.5
The Skiold immigrants squatted on land near another group, from the St Pauli, who were led by Cordt Bensemann, a well-educated guardsman, who had settled at Waimea East. A small north German settlement, named Ranzau, after the Count, was soon prospering on the fertile Waimea Plain. It was later renamed Hope.
Meanwhile, Heine was the only missionary left in Nelson - the others having gone elsewhere to fulfill the original goal of ministering to Māori. He married Bensemann’s daughter Anna and was ordained in 1849, and the couple lived in the Lutheran manse at Ranzau.
By this time the German settlers were leading relatively prosperous lives. In 1850 the Kelling brothers began running stock in the Moutere and, in the same year, Bensemann built a new home for his wife and family. Later, in 1857, he added a two-story wing which became the Moutere Inn, a popular watering hole on the long journey between Motueka and Richmond.
Pastor Heine moved his family back to the Moutere in 1853, settling near his wife’s parents in the new village of Sarau. He devoted his life to his German countrymen, and both he and Anna were highly esteemed by them.6
By the 1860s the Lutherans had schools at both Upper and Lower Moutere and supported churches at Ranzau and Sarau. St Paul’s Church at Sarau was consecrated in 1865, with a new Lutheran church being built on the site in 1905 which is still in use.7
Upper Moutere was considered to offer better prospects for small farmers than the Waimea Plain. More German immigrants arrived and settled near relatives in the Moutere valleys, with a smaller number at Waimea East. Four percent of the Nelson population were Lutheran in 1861.8
The early Germans were well respected for their law-abiding habits, diligence and ability to fend for themselves. While they were well integrated politically and socially, they remained culturally distinct into the 20th Century.9
Updated October 2023
Sources used in this story
- German emigration to New Zealand. (1843, 27 May). Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.253.
- Allan, R. (1965). Nelson: A history of early settlement Wellington, N.Z.:A.H. and A.W. Reed, pp.309-314
- Briars, J. and Leith, J.. (1993.). The road to Sarau. Upper Moutere, New Zealand: Briars, J & J Leith p.38
- Briars and Leith, p. 60.
- Allan, R., pp.334-336.
- Briars and Leith, p.90; 95-96; 98-99.
- Briars and Leith, p.95; 105; 108; 115.
- Briars and Leith, p.100.
- Allan, R., pp.350-352.
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Further sources - German settlement in Nelson
- Allan, R. (1965). Nelson: A history of early settlement. Wellington, New Zealand: A.H. and A.W. Reed.
- Briars, Jenny and Leith, Jenny. (1993). The road to Sarau. Upper Moutere, New Zealand: Briars, J & J Leith.
- Bruning, M. (2014). To seek my fortune: Bruning family history : from Mecklenburg to Moutere. Tauranga, New Zealand : Maureen and Norm Bruning.
- Caughey, A. (1994) Pioneer families. Auckland: David Bateman Ltd. pp.59-74, Johann Wohlers.
- Lankow, H., Bensemann, M., & Lutheran Church of New Zealand. (2017). A chronology of the Lutheran Churches in the Nelson District, 1843-2015 & other related material. Nelson, N.Z.: Heather Valda Lankow.
- Lash, M. D. (1992). Nelson Notables 1840 – 1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society.
- McMurtry, G. (1992). A versatile community: The history of the settlers of Central Moutere. Nelson, New Zealand: R.G.C McMurtry.
- Natusch, Sheila (1969). Brother Wohlers: a biography of J.F.H. Wohlers of Ruapuke. Christchurch, New Zealand: Pegasus Press.
- Perry, C., & Bensemann, M. (2016). The Neudorf Valley: 100 years 1860-1960.
- Tyree, Graeme K. (2021) Moutere pioneers: the German settlement of Nelson: the north German immigrants; and their settlement of Upper Moutere and Neudorf, in Tasman, Nelson, New Zealand. Nelson, N.Z.: Graeme Tyree.
- Wohlers, J.F.H. (1895) Memories of the Life of J.F.H. Wohlers. Dunedin [N.Z.] : Otago Daily Times & Witness Newspapers. ENZB.
- Batt, R. ( 2019, July). 175 Years of German Settlement: Paul Bensemann Speaks on “The Filthy Hun” or 175 years of German Settlement. Window on Wakefield, p.14.
- Bensemann, P. (2016) A German settler family experience of WWI. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 8(2), 15-22.
- German emigration to New Zealand.(1843, 27 May). Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 253.
- German settlers faced hardship. (2009, April 4). Nelson Mail, p. 14.
- German settlers in Nelson (1971) New Zealand's heritage: the making of a nation, v.2. Sydney : Hamlyn House, pp.444-448.
- Stade, K. (2022) Erratum. Relling not Kelling. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 9(2) pp.59-61.
Available at Nelson Provincial Museum:
- Kelling Brothers. (1839-1896) Papers. AG 308
- Ranzau agreements.(1844) AG 296
- St Paul's Lutheran Church, Upper Moutere. (1848-1920). Records. AG 224
Available at Motueka District Museum:
- St Pauli (n.d.) [scale model]:
- German Settlers in the Moutere- the first 20 years (2006/7) [Notes and photographs from a 2006/07 exhibition]
- Sarau [Aerial photographs].
- Bade, J. N. (21 September 2007). Germans, Te Ara - the encyclopedia of New Zealand.
- Bensemann family website. [includes information about the family settlement in Nelson]. Retrieved 26 July 2010.
- Neill, S. (Director). (1978). New country - new people [Short film]. National Film Unit. NZ On Screen.
- Upper Moutere School: Our story our place: Upper Moutere history. (n.d.). Retrieved 5 August 2008 from Living Heritage:
- Upper Moutere, Wikipedia. (2008). Retrieved 5 August 2008, from