Life in Linkwater


John Collins  did a bit of everything to make a living on his Cullensville hill country farm: milking cows, shearing sheep, mustering and mussel harvesting.

Linkwater JC Cemetary 7376

John Collins at Linkwater Cemetery. [Lucy Stronach, 2015].

Aged 25, John paid ‘a quid’ an acre for the 706 hectare hill country farm in 1964.   “It was just a block of land. There were no fences, buildings - nothing.  It was tussock country - native grass - danthonia. There were wild sheep, goats and pigs - it was character-building in that rough sort of country.

“You burnt the scrub - you put a match to it in February/March. You didn’t burn the whole place at once, simply because you’d have a rush of feed for the first two years and then nothing. You burnt about one quarter of your property every year and you only farmed that quarter, so you could have fresh grass each year.”

There were a lot of sheep farms in Linkwater  in the 1960's but by 2015, dairying was the main farming activity, with forestry and native bush in the hill country. “In the 1960's, I’d shear about 10,000 sheep a year. You’d be lucky to shear 500 now.”

John met his wife Pam in Linkwater and their two sons went to Linkwater School in the 1980's, which had 24 pupils at the time.  Everybody was involved in school and community projects and John is proud that the Linkwater Hall floor came from his Cullensville farm. 

Linkwater St Lukes Anglican Church

St Lukes Anglican Church and Hall at Linkwater. Image source Wikimedia, author Mattinbgn.

“The Linkwater Hall was over 100 years old. The floor was kaput and it got to the stage where it was unsafe.  My farm had quite a lot of native timber and I said they could have any amount of timber they wanted to renew the flooring.

“Rimu trees were selected. We took up Jim Shallcrass’s portable sawmill, felled the trees, sawed it into timber, carted it out and strip stacked them to dry for about 18 months.  Then we renewed the hall floor.  We only picked the best timber to make the best floor we could.”

John eventually sold the farm in the mid-1980's to a local farmer who planted it in trees. “It became uneconomic. It was a sound investment but you had to work hard farming it.”  

Linkwater JC Axes 7344

Māori axe heads and tools found at John Collin's property. [Lucy Stronach, 2015].

He bought a three hectare mixed farming block at the head of the Mahakipawa Arm and has discovered evidence of early Māori settlement  there. “It is an old pa site. I was set to begin building a house shortly after buying the property and we began to dig up Māori axes- they haven’t been dated but some would be very old. The Historic Places Trust decided we can keep the axes as long as they stay on the property. Local iwi have also been informed.”

There are also middens on the farm: “When I arrived there were huge piles of sea shells and blackened stones from fires on every terrace. I presume they (early Maori) must have cooked and eaten them up on the hillside. ”

Linkwater poisoning

Marlborough Express, 18 February 1907. Image from PapersPast.

Former Governor General of New Zealand, the late Sir Paul Reeves has roots in the Cullensville- Linkwater area and with an interest in local history, John was able to help him locate the grave of his grandmother.  Sir Paul’s grandfather Frank Sparks was a gold miner at Cullensville and married a Maori woman, Ruka.  In 1907, aged 56, Frank died after he accidentally drank poisoned liquid.1  “In those days there was only a Maori cemetery at Linkwater and he had to be buried in Havelock. There was no road so they had to come by boat to get his corpse and take it back to Havelock for burial.”

Their daughter Hilda married William Reeves and they had two sons: Paul and Bill:  “The boys grew up in Wellington but apparently loved coming to Linkwater to visit their grandparents.  They were little rascals like typical boys- climbed trees, threw mud at each other, got wet through and played larrikins.”

There is some mystery about the circumstances of Ruka’s death but she is buried at the Māori cemetery at the foot of Red Hill near Linkwater.   About 35 years ago, Paul, then a church minister, visited Linkwater and wanted to see his grandmother’s grave.  “I had been shown the grave by some old timers so we scrambled up through the scrub and found four graves. There were no headstones as we know them but hollows in the ground. One of the graves was Ruka’s and Paul was rapt to see them.”

Fifty years of Rugby

John began his rugby career for the Spring Creek school team in 1948 and played his last game for the Moutere Golden Oldies (Spring Creek) team in 2006.  He played  for six clubs including Pelorus and the Marlborough Golden Oldies in world tournaments in 1999 and 2004. He managed the team which took part in the 2010 tournament  in Sydney and continues to be the manager.

John played two seasons for the Marlborough representative side prior to buying the Linkwater farm in 1964. “It was a toss-up: do I stick with a rugby career or do I turn my back on it and buy a farm?  I stopped playing for several years until I sorted myself out on the farm.” 

Linkwater Golden Oldies 001

John Collins was still playing rugby in 2006. Image supplied by John Collins

The Pelorus rugby sub-union was formed in 1907 and in the 1920's when there were sawmills throughout the district, there were six rugby teams in the sub-union: Ronga, Carluke, Opouri, Canvastown, Havelock, Linkwater.  Once a year, a selection of players from the six teams would play a Marlborough B team.  In 1954, all of the teams were amalgamated under the banner of the Pelorus Rugby Club and played in the Marlborough Rugby Union competition.

John says Havelock’s rugby field was on the site of Havelock School and was 16 feet higher at one end than the other.” It was also only 60 yards wide (instead of regulation 75 yards). The players used to play four quarters instead of two halves because it was too tiring running up and down the hill for the players.  Eventually the Fissenden Brothers from Kaikoura won the contract to fill the site and even it out.”

John Collins was interviewed by Joy Stephens in Havelock in April 2015 (updated July 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Poisoning case at Cullensville (1907, February 18) Marlborough Express, p. 5


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  • Hi, John was my neighbour and was very knowledgeable on earlier times in Cullensville and the gold mining

    Posted by James Keenan, 30/08/2021 6:25pm (3 years ago)

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