Nelsons Ditch


The Ditch - Nelson's original drainworks

The last time Trafalgar Street had major drain works was almost 150 years ago, when the original drain was laid, replacing the infamous ‘Ditch'.

Trafalgar Street 1845Bell, Francis Dillon 1822-1898 :Nelson in 1845, Alexander Turnbull Library, A-252-019, [Trafalgar Street, the main street, runs down from Church Hill to the left, through the buildings that line it.]

In 1858 Nelson was conferred the status of city by Queen Victoria, by virtue of having a Cathedral, therefore creating a seat for an Anglican Bishop. The population to reach city status was traditionally 20,000 and Nelson had a mere 5,000 residents.

Filthy town

Although thriving, it was a filthy town. Cattle roamed the streets and conditions were far from hygienic. In his book ‘Unfinished Business' author C.W. Bell describes what we now know as the Central Business District.

"The main shopping area was Bridge Street, reached from the Port over rough thoroughfares through a tidal swamp. Trafalgar Street boasted a few pathetic little buildings separated from one another by weed infested gaps. The street was cut in two by the notorious Ditch and except for a number of fragile planks across the smelly, open drain, the two sides of the street were isolated from each other.

Trafalgar Street, c.1860Trafalgar Street, Nelson, [ca 1860], Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-8964-01.
Click image to enlarge

The Ditch ran from the foot of the barren Church Hill to the centre of the raupo swamp where Halifax Street is now. There, it turned west and emptied itself into the tide, not far from present day Anzac Park. It was designed to dispose of surface water from Church Hill and beyond but, as the settlement grew, ever-increasing amounts of sewage seeped into The Ditch. Most of the dwellings along its route had pigs or poultry in their backyards, and seepage found its inevitable way into The Ditch. It was a foul thing at any time, but more so in high summer. It was not until repeated epidemics had ravaged the town's children that the powers that be were forced into taking action..."

Ten people died of dysentery in the 1855 outbreak, including three children from the same family. The outbreak was blamed on The Ditch, which was eventually enclosed in 1859, only months after the town became a city.

2009 (updated 2022)

Sources used in this story

  • Bell, C.W. (1979) Unfinished business: the second fifty years of the Nelson City Council. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council

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