Madge Wilson of No.52 Russell Street


While researching the history of Russell Street, for use on a historical interpretation panel for the Nelson City Council, I met Madge Wilson on 3 April 2017, at her home. This story is written from notes and a recording of our conversation, as we sat in the front window seat that overlooks Haven Road and Port Nelson.

MW Madge Wilson

Madge Wilson. Janet Bathgate

“I don’t understand new people moving in here and then a few months later complaining to the local authority about the Port noise. It’s a working Port and always has been. They should have paid more attention before purchasing. I bet the real estate agents keep quiet about it.”

Madge was raised with Port noise, being born at No.52 Russell Street in 1924. Her parents, May and John, bought the house in 1918. The house was first built in 1903, and sat prominently against the skyline at the top of the ridge. Madge had one sister and one brother, and when she was 16 a nephew, John, came to live with them and he was like a young brother to her as well.

MW no.52

No.52 Russell Street, built in 1903. The sign on the front of the home reads Haumoana (home beside the sea).

Back then the road up the hill was a rough dirt road. There were cottages clustered together near the bottom of the hill but the upper slopes were farmland. Local boys and girls played together all over the hills. They would roam over to the western side of Queens Road and look down into the back of the large Nelson Foundry building that was located on Wakefield Quay.

In those days Nelson Haven had not been reclaimed for Port and associated industrial use. The estuary came right up to a sea wall on Haven Road.

“We swam at the bottom of the hill, beside the sea wall opposite Franzen’s ship chandlery; there was an open space for small boats and it was good for a swim. At low tide we got in under Franzen’s1 and would explore the pools for cockabully’s.”

Back then, boats would be seen anchored in the Haven and sometimes moored right up to the wall. A railway line to the Port ran around beside the road. The Wilson children attended Auckland Point School and later the respective Nelson colleges (Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls).

MW looking down Russell St

Looking down Russell Street from the veranda of No.52. Note the sections of the lower Russell Street houses extending right up to Queens Road, at left.

“The boys always looked after us when we were little. When we went to tech to do cooking and sewing in standards five and six, we had bikes by then. The boys would always meet us after cooking so they ate what we had made that day.

When I left school I went to work at Louisson's,2  Nelson premier womens’ wear store, and it was during this time that my friends and I were ‘Manpowered’ for the war effort. We went to Stanley Brook, way up the valley, to work in the tobacco. We worked very hard. The first time I went there was with a larger group of girls and the local M.P.’s wife Dorothy Atmore came and cooked for us until a cook could be arranged. The second time it was just with my friend Betty Henderson and we had to pump water and light a fire at night to do our cooking”.

At the end of World War II Madge went to Auckland to train as a nurse. Unfortunately she contracted tuberculosis (TB) and had many weeks in hospital followed by sick leave at home in Nelson. She was absent from training for so long that her nursing friends had moved on in their studies. Madge worked for a time in Nelson at Louissons before joining her friends on an overseas working holiday. They travelled by ship to England through the Suez Canal.

During her overseas adventure, Madge stayed often with her father’s relatives, in London, Cambridge and various European countries and doing office work that she learned quite quickly. One skill never mastered was shorthand, but by keeping the notebook well slanted towards her, Madge created a ‘long-hand, short-hand’ that got her by.

MW Russell St from Haven

Russell Street from The Haven. No.52 can be seen prominently on the ridgetop skyline, sitting to the right of Russell Street. FN Jones Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum

Upon returning to New Zealand Madge finished her nursing training in Nelson, living at the Nurses Home. In 1965 she went to Wellington to carry out post-graduate maternity training and came back to work at Nelson Hospital.

"The hospital was my life. I worked there until my early sixties. It was a supportive place. Colleagues stood up for you and it was like family. I did theatre work and later social work.

Our father died in 1959 and that’s when I went home to look after our mother. Mother died in 1967 and left this home to my sister and I. I have lived here ever since, on my own. I like being by myself. People ask me if I am lonely but I am never lonely; I’m too busy to be lonely.

There was always a strong community feel here up until WW2. Before then there was the cluster of houses near the bottom and only a few at the top. Then things changed. The arrival of B.B.Jones, the developer and house builder, was quite significant. He built a lot of houses in Russell Street and around the hills. Things became more crowded; more people; more buying and selling. Children from the working class houses at the bottom of the street, when they grew up and married they were quick to move into homes further up the hill.

Most families for a long time had connections with the sea. Many ship’s captains and several harbour-master’s lived around here. Gilbert Inkster used to be up there on Victoria Heights and at Christmas he played his bagpipes down his street and the neighbours formed a procession.

When the reclamation was being formed the boys would find materials to use for building huts and other uses – boxes, timber, that sort of thing. One day I was coming home and there were John and Ken’s legs under a huge box going up the hill. They couldn’t see where they were going and were stumbling about. Nephew John married one of the Hadfield girls. Their family run the Abel Tasman tourism business now.

This home has been altered slightly over the years. The veranda has been enclosed. That’s the warmest part of the house in winter because the sun is low and gets right inside. As soon as the sun comes up in winter it hits the sunroom and shines in all day long. The trees have grown up in front. Ken and father planted the largest of the two pohutukawa. I was five, so around 1929; it’s a listed heritage tree now.”

2017 (updated August 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. B. Franzen's advertisements (1872, June 6) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1:
  2. Advertisement [Louissons] (1912, August 7) Nelson Evening Mail, p.4

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  • This was a wee surprising gem I found on Google while looking for a place on Russell Street this morning. I don't know Madge but what a cool lady! With cool stories! Thanks for this.

    Posted by Isaiah Pihema, 07/08/2019 11:15am (4 years ago)

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