Early newspapers in Nelson


Charles Elliott was quite unsuspecting when a friend of his approached him back in 1842, telling him of the "English Country Town"1 in a little place called New Zealand. One thing led to another, and soon Elliott found himself on a ship, sailing to new lands with his printing supplies in hand. Just a few weeks later he had published the first issue of The Nelson Examiner, which marked the beginning of the story of newspapers in Nelson.

The Nelson Examiner

Nelson ExaminerNelson Examiner The first issue, 12 March 1842  Papers Past Collection
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The Nelson Examiner began its life as a weekly newspaper under the thumb of the New Zealand Company which been the stakeholder in this venture. Because of this influence, The Examiner was very political when voicing its opinion on many issues in the community, choosing to favour the large landowners. It sought to bring English values and traditions from back home through the means of a newspaper. In every issue, this was made clear with a quote from De Tocqueville in which it stated the purpose of the journal was to "secure liberty" and "maintain civilization".2

For the first 15 years of its life the journal was the only means by which public opinion in the region could be heard, thus anything published was considered as the truth. The Examiner reported on issues thought to be of interest to its readers. There was little local news aside from reports of major events. Many economic and political debates were sparked in the journal, and readers were given a correspondence section to reply to these, along with other issues readers found worthy of debate. The Examiner was very liberal in its correspondence column and printed almost all letters. At one stage there was no space left for any articles.3

As the only source of home news for the settlers, the Examiner kept up a lengthy section, which provided the people with news from Britain alongside other colonial news. The Examiner was essentially the colonial settlers' mouthpiece4 and its position was made clear on many issues.

The Wairau Affray, in which several Europeans were killed at the mouth of the Tuamarina Valley, received extensive coverage, and the paper's first supplement was devoted to the event5. A petition resulting from the Wairau Affray, about land regulation, was published in the Examiner. Obviously this newspaper was hugely influential in the community at the time, however its strong alliance with the landowners upset many working class people and led to the birth of a new newspaper.

The Examiner came to an end on 15 January 1874. In its last few issues it was clearly evident that its time was coming to an end. It continued to include very little local news and a small range of international news. The other columns were full of advertising and no correspondence column, a sign that its subscribers were diminishing in number. The Nelson community had lost interest in its content. Many subscribers now also lived in the newly founded Marlborough, which had its own paper. The Examiner ultimately, was unable to keep up with its competition and eventually crashed under financial difficulties.

The Colonist

The Colonist was started on 23 October 1857 to give a voice to the working-class and oppose the dominance of the large landowners in Nelson. William Willkie was at the forefront of this movement, and along with his supporters, convinced a Sydney Based printer, William Nation to immigrate to Nelson and start up the newspaper 15 years after the founding of the Examiner. The Colonist wanted to be the "defender of the people's public rights."6 Its overall aim was to please everyone in the community by not affiliating itself with any political party.

The Colonist offered another view on issues in the Province and showed a different truth than that of the Examiner, one that appealed to the more liberal members of the community, with the objective of looking to the future for a better life and not staying stuck in the traditions of their homeland. The Colonist reported on community news much more than the Examiner did. It seemed to be a paper that was concerned with the issues and people in the province. The Colonist offered a mixture of international news and advertising as well as a greater number of family notices than the Examiner. The paper built up a strong base of subscribers and, over time, was accepted as a reliable source of news.

A new competitor, the Nelson Evening Mail, came into the printing market in 1866 to offer yet another option for the settlers. Like the Examiner, The Colonist too went under after a time, and on May 1 1920, the Nelson Evening Mail bought it, and the Colonist was incorporated into the Nelson Evening Mail. The Colonist was closed due to financial difficulties, as the cost of printing increased heavily after the war. These costs were then passed onto readers who could simply not keep up. Overall, Nelson could not support two newspapers.

The Nelson Evening Mail

Robert Lucas arrived in Nelson in July of 1859 and immediately set up a printing business. Over the next seven years he founded three newspapers, the last of which was The Nelson Evening Mail. Lucas took a risk in publishing this journal, as right from the beginning it was intended to be a daily, the first daily paper Nelson had seen.

Nelson Evening Mail OfficeNelson Evening Mail Office Tyree Studio Collection, 32964/3 Nelson Provincial Museum
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In its first issue the paper stated that it would be "a thoroughly independent journal, attached to no party, devoted to no faction". It seems that it was a purely commercial venture and wished to ensure "a wide and extensive circulation."7. This risk paid off, as it was evident that Nelson was in need of a daily paper after its initial years of settlement had provided a measure of affluence and solidarity.8

The paper was similar to the Colonist in many ways and, while offering plenty of news from overseas, still kept a strong community section. Being a daily paper meant that the Nelson Evening Mail kept on top of news and important notices. It was also quick to criticise the other papers when they failed to inform the community of events, and took to calling them names, The Examiner was known as "Our Old Rip Van Winkle" and the Colonist, "sleepy and idle".

The Nelson Evening Mail is the paper that stands before us today. Its success seems to lie in the fact that it was a reliable and up to date journal, and it established this fact from the beginning. It was not the first newspaper in Nelson, but it was the most successful, forcing its opponents to go under while it continued taking steps forward to become what we know it as today.

The Nelson Mail celebrated its 150th anniversary in March 2016.8 In October of the same year it sold its iconic Bridge Street property.9 The publication, like all similar publications, was coming under increasing financial pressure from competition with digital media. In August 2017 it dropped its Tuesday and Thursday editions, so it was no longer a daily paper, and became a morning, rather than afternoon, publication.

Contributed by Maddy Pears, Nelson College for Girls, 2010 (edited and updated 2016 and May 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Mitchell, D. (ed) (1992) Nelson's Newspaper: The story of the Nelson Evening mail.  Nelson, NZ: Nelson Evening Mail
  2. The Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle (1842, March 12) 
  3. Kwasitsu, L. (1986) The production of the 'Nelson Examiner' in the context of the early New Zealand press. Turnbull Library Record, 20(1), pp.31-43   
  4. Mitchell   
  5. Kwasitsu  
  6. The Colonist (1857, October 23)  
  7. The Nelson Evening Mail  (1866, March 5), p.1
  8. Meij, S. (2016, March 5) Nelson Mail 150th anniversary exhibition opened at Nelson Provincial Museum. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
  9. Redmond, A. (2016, October 1) Nelson Mail's Bridge Street building up for sale. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
  10. Pullar-Strekkar, T. (2017, June 13)  Nelson Mail cuts Tuesday and Thursday editions. Nelson Mail on Stuff:

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  • How do I find the death notices for the year 1936, my Uncle's name is/was Rex McLeod, he was originally from Christchurch but moved to live in a Nelson hospital during his young years. He died when he was 10 I understand. Keryn Morten

    The best way to search deaths that occurred more than 50 years ago, is go to the New Zealand Births, deaths & marriages website https://www.bdmhistoricalrecords.dia.govt.nz/home/
    I did a quick search there and found only one Rex McLeod who died in 1949, aged 19 years. The best way to verify that this is the correct Rex McLeod is to request a death certificate from that website, quoting the Registration no. which comes up when you do the search - Ed

    Posted by keryn morten, 13/04/2014 7:40pm (10 years ago)

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Further sources - Early newspapers in Nelson



  • Evans, V. (2005) A discursive struggle for the dominant truth: class in Nelson newspapers 1857-67. BA Hons Thesis Massey University
  • Kwasitsu, L. (1986) The production of the 'Nelson Examiner' in the context of the early New Zealand press.Turnbull Library Record, 19(2), p.123-139
  • Kwasitsu, L. (1987) News reporting in the 'Nelson examiner', 1842-1874 Turnbull Library Record, 20 (1), p.31-43
  • Redmond, A. (2016, Oct 1) Nelson Mail's Bridge Street building up for sale. Nelson Mail, on Stuff:

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