Nelson's early settlement


Nelson's early history is a fascinating one, filled with many tales of hardship endured by the early European settlers, who left their homes in England in search of a better life, but with little guarantee of securing one for their families. This story commences with the first ships that left the English port of Gravesend in May 1841.1

Early Settlers Memorial, NelsonEarly Settlers Memorial, Wakefield Quay Nelson. Tony Stones, 2000
Click image to enlarge

During the early 19th Century, life in England was undergoing dramatic changes. To get away from the hardships of working the land many people turned to the cities and factories for work. Industrial centres,  like Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham, continued to expand. A consequence of the rapid growth in city populations was a decline in the quality of local resources, such as clean drinking water, sewerage removal and water drainage.

While there was work in the cities with the industrial revolution, life as an industrial worker was hard. The mills were dingy ill-lit places and wages were  low, with the pay being around 10-12 shillings for a week of 12 to 13 hour days for an adult male. These conditions are somewhat equal to the sweat labour shops in the East that we see to day.2

In 1825, the New Zealand Company had been set up in London to bring out English people to settle the new colony on the other side of the world. The main players in the New Zealand Company were Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Edward Jerningham Wakefield (Edward Gibbon Wakefield's son), Colonel William Wakefield and Captain Arthur Wakefield; these were the leading men in colonising New Zealand in the 1800s, following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which established British authority in European eyes, and gave British immigrants legal rights as citizens.

The New Zealand Company was set up by merchants, bankers and ship owners3 to sell plots of land to eager people in England and then transport them via ships to the new colony of New Zealand. The New Zealand Company established Port Nicholson (Wellington) as its first settlement, but wanted a second settlement in the South Island and had discussions with Governor Hobson about which land they could have.

The New Zealand Company knew there was going to be a place called Nelson and they knew they wanted it to be in the South Island, or Te Wai Pounamu as the Māori called it. In May 1841, the New Zealand Company had three exploration ships ready to sail to New Zealand for this second settlement. The three ships were the Whitby, the Will Watch and the Arrow and they were under the command of Captain Wakefield. The ships arrived in Wellington in late August - early September 1841.

View of Nelson Haven [Heaphy, 1841]View of Nelson Haven, Tasman Gulf, New Zealand, 1841. Attributed to Charles Heaphy. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection: AC 1025Click image to enlarge

In October 1841, Captain Wakefield had successful discussions with the leading chief at Kapiti, regarding land available for settlement.4 The ships set out looking for a place suitable for settlement in the top of the South. Boats were sent out every day. The surveyors of the ship had decided upon what is now known as Kaiteriteri, but Wakefield wanted to look further. He sent out men to look in the far South-East corner of the bay and it was there that the site was discovered. The natural harbour which is now Nelson, made it the preferred place for the new settlement. The Arrow entered Nelson on 1 November 1841.5

Lack of an actual site for Nelson did not slow The New Zealand Company down in its quest to populate the settlements. In October 1841 it had arranged for the next four ships to set sail for Nelson. These four ships, were the Fireshire, captained by Captain Arnold, Lord Auckland with Captain Jardine as its head, Captain Bolton with the Mary Ann and lastly the Lloyds, with Captain Green. All of these ships ended up in Nelson, the first to arrive being the Fifeshire, on the 1st February 1842. This is celebrated today as the date of the Province's anniversary.

The fate of the Lloyds

When the Lloyds came into Nelson, it brought with it many stories of sickness and death. While travelling the seas between Port Gravesend in England and Port Nicholson in New Zealand, 67 children under the age of 14 died due to an outbreak of whooping cough on board. Many at the time blamed the surgeon on the Lloyds. Shipboard health had been the responsibility of a ship's surgeon since 1803, when the English Parliament passed a law that made every vessel of 50 persons or more to carry with it a surgeon6. This Act of Parliament was brought about because too many voyages at that time were ending badly with many illnesses and casualties on board the ships.

Dr George F. Bush was the surgeon aboard the Lloyds. He was 37 at the time and came from Bristol and was well known among the New Zealand Company Directors, which may have been the reason his background check was never completed. Many believe that Dr Bush is the key reason why so many young souls lost their lives on their journey out to New Zealand during the months of 1841 and 1842. He was given 37 responsibilities to uphold during the voyage, the most important being:

  1. To give the proper medical care and attention to all emigrants. Also when needed to the crew members.
  2. To be responsible in the general moral conduct and manner of living of the emigrants.
  3. To ensure that their general living conditions and dress were as clean and as comfortable as they possibly could be.
  4. To hold a Sunday religious service, reading the Bible and leading prayers.
  5. To settle any quarrels or disputes that arose between the emigrants or passengers.
  6. To ensure that all received their fair ration of food and that it was properly cooked and served.
  7. To make sure that the captain fully complied with all of the terms of charter between the company and the ship's owners.

It was difficult to keep passengers clean while on a long voyage in the 1840's. There was barely enough water for people to drink, so bathing was not high on the priority list. Dr Bush should have made sure that all of the ship's food requirements went on board. However a comparison between the "Reeves List" (the list made by the Inspector for Shipping in England) and the actual ship's list of food shows that they did not have sufficient quantities of basic provisions.8

Arrival in Nelson

Upon landing in Nelson, Captain Arthur Wakefield's first objective was to set up an area where a township could be placed. While Captain Wakefield was making these arrangements, William Blundell was establishing a sawpit not far from the Mahitahi/Maitai River. Two sets of barracks had been set up as temporary headquarters for the surveyors, one where Church Hill now stands and another down by the port. Because the prime area for the town was about two miles from the port, tracks were made.9

In the first two years of settlement, ships coming into Nelson brought over 2000 people, with still more on the way. As further settlement ships arrived with hopeful immigrants, the New Zealand Company did very well in quickly establishing a functional settlement with wharves, a courthouse, police officers, meat and cattle markets and cemeteries being established.

The people who left England and other parts of Europe in search of a better life certainly had determination to succeed no matter what they had to endure. Following the long and difficult voyage, many were disappointed by what they found. There was insufficient cultivatable land, and insufficient work for the people not entitled to take up land. The New Zealand Company set up work-gangs to do relief work, but soon found it could not guarantee wages. The work gangs rebelled in 1843, and some landowners returned home or left the Province. The struggling NZ Company, which dissolved in 1858, was soon obliged to allot land to working men to pacify the situation, and many settlers who had not been entitled to become landowners benefitted from this. Rebellion worked for them.10

There is no doubt that the settler journey from Europe was long and difficult. Upon arrival, life was better, but it still required hard work, stamina and determination to achieve the better life they dreamed of.

Sammy McLoughlin, 2009, Nelson College for Girls. 

For the story of the voyage of the Lord Auckland, land allocation to the settlers and the Wairau Affray, read the related story from Nelson College for Girls (2009) student Rhona Phillips:  Early Settlers in Nelson (PDF)

Edited and updated: 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Brett, H. (1928)  White Wings Vol II Founding of the Provinces and Old-Time Shipping. Auckland, N.Z.: The Brett Printing Company Limited, p. 57
  2. Jackson, G.W.(1991) Settlement By Sail.  [New Zealand] : GP Publications, p. 11
  3. Jackson, p. 12
  4. Brett, p. 58
  5. Brett, p.59
  6. Buckely, B. (1990) Sails of suffering : the story of the "Lloyds", an original emigrant ship to Nelson, 1841-1842. Napier, N.Z. : B.F. Buckley, p. 27
  7. Buckely, p. 28
  8. Buckely,  p. 29
  9. Neale, J. (1982)  Pioneer Passengers. Nelson, N.Z. : Anchor Press, p. 2
  10. Davidson, J. (2021) The history of a riot. Wellington, NZ: Bridget William Books

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Further sources - Nelson's early settlement



  • Astle, A. (2015, May) Tracing my Ancestors [Charles Astle - early Nelson settler].  New Zealand Memories. 113, p. 4-11
  • The Nelson settlement (1971) New Zealand's heritage: the making of a nation, v.2.  Sydney : Hamlyn House, pp. 393-398
  • Nelson As we were: the re-enactment of Nelson's 1842 Landing of settlers February 3 1992 (1992, February 4) Nelson Evening Mail [supplement]

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