Construction of Rocks Road and sea wall


Rocky Road to Completion

When Frederick Tuckett, the chief surveyor of the New Zealand Company, was setting out the plan for Nelson, the only viable access to the farmlands of the Waimea was over the saddle we now know as Bishopdale. Travelling south by road from Nelson to the Waimea (Tahunanui, Stoke, Richmond and beyond) prior to 1897 required using Waimea Road and Bishopdale Saddle. On foot the options were to scramble around The Rocks at low tide or to walk one of the hill tracks. Tuckett planned for a road to be built around the waterfront, however this road was not included in Tuckett’s 1842 plan for The Town of Nelson as the cliff and rocks formed a formidable barrier.

The Rocks, Nelson, [ca 1890] Alexander Turnbull Library. Tyree Studio. 10x8-0223-G
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Following its first meeting on 3 November, 1853, the Nelson Provincial Council was established and took over all administration and public works from the New Zealand Company after their financial situation deteriorated. Under the Council's control, public works progressed quite rapidly and the new town started to grow up. Under the Board of Works, elected on 30 July 1857 and which functioned under the Provincial Government, Haven Road and Wakefield Quay were improved and much development work took place - but still no Rocks Road.

The Board of Works became obsolete when Nelson was declared a Borough on 30 March, 1874 and Board members became the first Nelson City Councillors, with their first meeting held in April 1874.  Early in the life of the new Council, it was agreed that citizens should have the best means of access to the Waimeas.

In 1876, Councillor Thomas Harley began promoting the idea that a limited half-tide road should be built around the rocks. This would provide a useable road from when the tide was half out until it was half in. High tides and Spring tides of around 14 feet (approx. 4.3 metres) were a major problem and it required a substantial amount of work to build a road above that level. Funding was a significant problem, however, and it disappeared off the agenda.

Haven Road (initially known as Beach Road) was finished in 1843 to provide access to the Port. Road widening was required to accommodate the railway line, which the Government was extending to the port and onto the wharf. To help keep down the cost  the Council was allowed to use prison convicts, which no doubt paved the way for the extensive use of prison labour in the later construction of Rocks Road. In 1879 the road and low seawall of local granite blocks was built, connecting the town of Nelson with the Port. This extended to near the bottom of what is now Richardson Street. Parts of this first wall can be seen today between the Marine Rescue Centre and the old Electricity Substation.

Rocks Road construction. Nelson Provincial Museum, Sclanders Collection: 8774
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In 1880, the mayor promoted the idea that starting a road around the rocks would relieve unemployment, which was rife, but no funds were available during the difficult economic times. It wasn’t until Francis Trask was elected in December 1890, that the road was back on the agenda. Mother Nature played her part. Tahuna Beach  was originally a sandy island with the Waimea River flowing through today’s Back Beach. In 1875, it started to change its course and, by 1881, the old river channel was dry, which made the construction of a road around the rocks easier.

Construction of Rocks Road was estimated to cost £8000. Plans were prepared by the city surveyor, Samuel Jickell, and the road was to be approximately one mile (1.6 km) long with a stone sea wall. Filling for the road would be obtained from the adjoining cliff.

The year 1892 was Nelson’s Jubilee year and many citizens saw Rocks Road as a prestige jubilee project. By this time the city had a rateable value of £70,000 but a gross revenue of only £13,000. The lack of revenue made larger projects very difficult to finance.  However Mayor Trask, the champion of the road, did not falter. Construction work on Rocks Road began, however it became obvious that Council would need more funds as the road neared completion in 1893. They transferred £300 from the Gasworks account. A petition objecting to this transfer was signed by 337 citizens, but the Council pressed on.

Rocks Road. Tasman Bays Heritage Trust / Nelson Provincial Museum, C3539
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Despite a New Zealand wide economic depression at this time, Rocks Road was gravelled and ready for use by mid-1897. The opening was postponed to enable the post and chain barrier to be manufactured and installed and this was completed by 1898. Final contributions to the project were: Nelson City Council £4300; Waimea County Council £1500; Richmond Borough Council £500 and the Government £1500. The final cost, including prison labour, was £11,000.

The opening of the road

The opening of Rocks Road took place at the Basin Reserve on 3 February 1899, with the ceremony, complete with flowers, bunting and band music, led by Premier Richard Seddon. The Nelson Evening Mail 6 February 1899 reported on Seddon’s speech: “When this project was first mooted the inevitable croakers and pessimists had cried it down, but the completed work was now a thing of beauty to be viewed and admired by visitors on entering the harbour.”

Wave breaking, Rocks Road, Nelson, 14 Mar 1910. Alexander  Turnbull Library. [Frederick Nelson] 1/2-035393-G.
Click image to enlarge
The sea wall

The Rocks Road seawall was designed by British-born engineer Samuel Jickell, Nelson City’s engineer from 1890–1901. He was experienced in public works, having designed a seawall in Scarborough, Yorkshire. Previous Southern Hemisphere jobs included the Calliope graving dock in Auckland and railways, sewerage and bridge works in Melbourne. His Nelson seawall-supported roadway was designed as a concrete block wall, in-filled with material from the adjoining cliffs. 

Since 1897 the seawall has been subject to winds, heavy seas and increasing traffic loads. Over the years these have resulted in modifications to the wall. Each wall change has recognised the essence of the original design: its sweeping curves, high quality craftsmanship and regularly positioned stanchions. When heavy seas were seen to be washing out the mortar joints and eroding out the fill behind the wall, a cement plaster coat was applied to the entire wall in the early 1900's. However by the mid 1900's it was apparent that the greater load and increasing frequency of traffic, coupled with heavy seas striking near the south western and north eastern extremities, required major alterations to the wall. In 1958–1959 a reinforced concrete wall was built against the face of the original wall between Tahunanui Beach and Magazine Point. Designed by Geoffrey Toynbee in the Nelson City Engineer’s office, the wall’s ribbed, raking form improved its capacity to absorb wave energy and the new height provided some protection to traffic from high seas. In 1962–1963 and designed by the same office, a reinforced concrete wall covered a section between Richardson Street and Victoria Road, again raising the height and deflecting waves with its shape. At some time the level of the road at Magazine Point was raised, but the seawall left intact.

Rocks Road.

Rocks Road 1940s. Nelson Provincial Museum Copy Collection C3554

The Rocks Road seawall change this century was designed by a firm of consulting engineers to help retain the sand of Tahunanui Beach. Stormwater drains were discharging directly from the wall. A new addition at the base of the wall, built in 2003–2004, now diverts outflows along the face of the wall.

Today, one of the best places on land to see the only original remaining section of the concrete block seawall is from the nearby Connolly’s Quay. Elsewhere the wall has been covered with sections of new, ribbed concrete. Over the years the best of the original stanchions and chains have been reused and the most recent stanchion replacements are still cast using the original pattern. The remaining spiked chain is similar to the original design.

Character Stanchion and Chain Barrier

Once the road was completed, John Tinline, one of Nelson’s early pioneers,  presented Mayor Trask with a generous donation of £400 to provide a coping to the sea wall, plus stanchions and chains. A great friend of his, Mr Tytler, offered to find an additional £120, which he did from funds in the local government’s account, left by his father, an early English Immigration Agent for the Nelson Provincial Government.

Engineer Samuel Jickell had a sample stanchion cast – its weight was 84 lbs (38.1 kilograms) – before the remaining order was made by the Anchor Foundry, sited on Haven Road at Port Nelson. Stanchions were placed every 10 feet along Rocks Road. Fourteen years later more stanchions and chains were added along Wakefield Quay, gifted by Thomas Cawthron.

The original positioning of the stanchions has influenced subsequent designs to the Rocks Road and Wakefield Quay seawall. The regular 10 feet (3.2 metre) interval has served as a highly visible grid. Every concrete rib on sections of new wall has been centred on a wall-top stanchion above, reflecting the original concept by Samuel Jickell, who is remembered in the name of a bridge over the Maitai River near Branford Park.

Prison Labour

Over the long period of construction of Rocks Road, prisoners were marched through the city from the Shelbourne Street Gaol  up Washington Valley and over Pitts Hill (now Richardson Street) to work on the rocks. There was usually a gang of 15-20 prisoners marched two abreast, with an armed warder at the front and one at the rear. Citizens used to express their concern that there would be an escape attempt and the two warders would not be able to cope.

One evening when the prisoners were returning from the rocks, several prisoners tried to escape at the top of Washington Valley. The warders proved to be up to the occasion. Shots were fired and the breakaway averted, with only one prisoner slightly wounded in the leg. It turned out the warders’ rifles were not loaded with bullets, as expected, but merely loaded with buckshot.

The procession of prisoners was lead each day by a husky red bearded individual who had been imprisoned for manslaughter following a fight.  He was a foreign sailor who had gone ashore with shipmates at Lyttleton and become involved in a fight which ended with a man being killed.  He was charged with manslaughter and spent many years in prison. While he was in prison in Nelson, one of his former shipmates confessed on his deathbed that he had struck the fatal blow in the incident. 

The Nelson prisoner was duly set free. On hearing that the prisoner had neither money nor friends in New Zealand, Mayor Trask took him into his home and arranged for him to be comfortably returned to his homeland.

This story was written by Seddon Marshall, Nelson City Councillor from 1968-2001. He has used Council records and his family collection of local historical material to research this story. Updated 2016 and May 2020 with information from a Nelson City Council Heritage panel.

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