Getting established in Marlborough
Marlborough’s first decades after European colonisation were rather rocky. The Wairau Affray in 1843 badly frightened potential colonists to the Wairau. Strong earthquakes in 1848 and 1855 and severe flooding showed the power of nature as the settlers tried to build their new lives. Marlborough achieved separation from Nelson in 1859, however 17 stormy years of provincial government followed until the provinces were abolished in 1876.
The Marlborough Museum’s Archives hold a rich resource of diaries and letters which provide an insight into life in the colony at the turn of the 20th Century.
Lucy Dobson (1838-1916) was married to an early Blenheim surveyor Alfred Dobson and they had six children. New Zealand women had gained the right to vote on 19 September 1893 and Lucy was involved in women’s suffrage and the Temperance movement. One month later, on 19 October 1893, she wrote in her diary that after dinner with Mrs Scott, she and Mrs Rose went to meet Mr Buick (a Labour candidate) to arrange for him to hold a meeting for ladies. On 27 October, she wrote that the meeting was good and very well attended, with the speeches not over until 11pm.1
The Marlborough Express of 28 October 1893 reveals more details of the ladies’ meeting including a letter to the editor from ‘Polly Franchise’, no doubt a pseudonym, written in a satirical vein about the ladies’ voting meeting. The letter described Mr Buick as a Labour (or Liberal) candidate who wanted to encourage women to vote for him: “He said it was a novelty for us to have votes, but we would soon get accustomed to it.” It was noted that Mrs Dobson proposed the vote of thanks. The meeting clearly caused some discomfort in Blenheim as it featured several times in the Marlborough Express including another letter entitled ‘A Hole and Corner Meeting’.
For many of the early settlers, an interest in local body politics and establishing essential infrastructure was combined with developing their farms. In 1871 John Allison Lambert JP (1845-1934) bought Shrublands, a 1200 acre farm at Kaituna where he lived for 64 years until his death. He and his wife Ann had four children and he served on many public bodies including the Picton Hospital Board, the Marlborough Education Board; and he was a member of the A&P Association for 30 years.
On April 10, 1888 he wrote: “Went down to Blenheim to Education Board meeting, but not so satisfactory as I could have wished as far as the books etc. are concerned. Got home about 8pm.” Before the first Wairau River Bridge was opened in 1913, the Wairau River was crossed by horseback and as it was subject to flash floods could be very risky. A week earlier, Lambert noted he had to spend the night in Renwick after an Education Board meeting because of high river flows.
On 31 December 1889 Lambert wrote in his diary: “Threshing peas seeds- got about 12½ bushels instead of double that amount. Here endeth the last of another year of labour and toil but with fair prospects in some points, waiting time and patient development.”2
Builder John Fawcett brought his tools and trade to Marlborough arriving in 1887. He soon had his own business and erected some of the largest and best-known business premises and private residences in Blenheim and the district, such as the new Club Hotel, the Grosvenor Hotel, the second Express building in High Street and the Redwood Brothers' flourmill. The Fawcetts lived at Grovetown, and John was secretary and inspector of the Spring Creek Road and River Boards. In 1905 the family moved to St. Andrews, where timber supplies could be landed by the river boats on the Opawa River directly into his private yard.3
Fawcett quickly found work in Blenheim, writing in his journal in September 1887 that he and a fellow builder were going to the Awatere to build a seven-room house for Mr McRae. After several weeks of progress, he wrote on 11 October 1887: “Still rainy hard. The Arwatere (sic) River in flood, there are also hundreds of mountain streams flowing into the same over the perpendicular bluffs, some of them between 2 and 300 feet high, forming beautiful cascades and waterfalls. We are all scattered about in our worrie (sic). Some reading, some sleeping, smoking, talking by the wood fire and I have just finished stitching in the lining of my jacket sleeves. Taking all in all we are more or less miserable.”
His wife and baby eventually joined him from England, but on February 12, 1888, he forlornly wrote: “This is my 30th birthday and very quietly I spent it thinking of my Darling Wife and child far away over the sea.”4
Matilda and Charles Turner lived at Carluke in the Rai Valley - their pioneer’s cottage has been restored by descendants and can be visited. At the turn of the century, the Turners were clearing their thickly forested land and got most of their income from selling butter and turkeys, which was Martha’s domain while Charles (named Dad in her diaries) worked the land and did a little contracting and surveying work. While there was some social life in the valley, life must have been lonely at times for Matilda who was 48 in 1898. Their four children had all grown and left home.
On 25 March 1898, she wrote in her diary: “Haddy took 30lbs butter, a very fine and hot day. Dad at his paddock all day and in such a very pleasant mood all afternoon because I asked him what Arthur (his brother who lived nearby) wanted. Dad is off at Willies spending the evening leaving me alone. It’s very lonely. I think the best thing I could do would be to go and spend the evening with Arthur.” On 1 June, she noted a wretched day with showers and bitterly cold wind. “Dad put washer on kitchen door and locks on dairy and safe doors. Dear old Laurie came to stop until Friday as he is off to Richmond in a week and they all go soon after. It makes me sad to think of it.” Turner Diaries
Th excerpts in this story are from diaries which can be found in the Marlborough Archives. For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
2017 (updated 2022)
Sources used in this story
- Dobson Diaries 1857-1916. Marlborough Museum & Archives
- J.A. Lambert Diaries 1876-1889. Marlborough Museum & Archives
- John Fawcett: Builder and Contractors in The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts] (1906) Christchurch: The Cyclopedia Company, Limited
- John Fawcett Diaries 1887-1945. Marlborough Museum & Archives
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Further sources - Getting established in Marlborough
- Andrews, J.L. (1999) The Wairau Massacre: mindsets of the 1840s. Blenheim, N.Z.: J L Andrews.
- Brooks, C. (2013) The Calm Beyond: Tua Marina and Waikakaho – from the Wairau Affray to today. Tua Marina, N.Z.: Tua Marina/Waikakaho Residents and Ratepayers Association.
- Buick, T.L. (1900) Old Marlborough: or, the story of a province. Palmerston North, N.Z. Hart and Keeling.
- Elby, G.A. (1980) The Marlborough Earthquakes of 1848. Wellington.: New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.
- Hodson, G. (2014) Onamalutu: a sentimental journey. Renwick, N.Z.: Friends of the Renwick Museum and Watson Memorial Library.
- Kennington, A.L.(2007) The Awatere: a district and its people. Christchurch, N.Z.: Cadsonbury Publications.
- MacDonald, C.A. (2003) Pages from the past: some chapters in the history of Marlborough, Blenheim, N.Z.: H. Duckworth (E. H. Penny & Co.).
- McIntosh, A.D. (1940) Marlborough: a provincial history. Blenheim, N.Z. Marlborough Provincial Historical Committee.
- Neal, P. E. (comp.)  London to lonely Rai. Nelson, N.Z.: Pearl E. Neal.
- Neame, L. (2009) The Rai: our place, our time, our river. [Blenheim, N.Z.]: [N.Z. Landcare Trust].
- Rai Valley Centennial Committee (comp.) (1980) The Rai and its people. Blenheim. N.Z.: The Rai Valley Centennial Committee.
- Taylor, J. (comp.) (2000) Flaxbourne: its people and their stories. Ward, NZ.: Flaxbourne Settlers’ Association.
- Wastney, N. (2006) The valleys beyond: early Rai Valley and Upper Opouri. Nelson, N.Z.: Natalie Wastney.