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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 6, September 1986

Early Flaxmilling In Tahuna

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Early Flaxmilling In Tahuna

Ryder's Flax Mill

One of the earliest residents of Tahuna was a flax dresser, named Jonas Rider or Ryder (both spellings are given in the papers) who arrived in the barque New Zealand in November 1842. He set up his flax mill at Annesbrook, with I should imagine, the blessing of Captain Arthur Wakefield and laboured there for two or three years without achieving very much.

He was not the first to ply his trade in the settlement as others had arrived before him as you can see by their names in the paper. In fact by the time Rider had arrived some of the early arrivals had become well established in the flax-milling and rope-making business as shown in the following advertisement.

"Nelson Rope Works"

Mr William Gardner begs to announce that he has on hand an assortment of different sizes of rope, etc. made from New Zealand Flax. Low prices. Whale lines, log lines, twine, made at short notice.

His name appears in the Jurors' Lists as — William Gardner, Rope Spinner, Bridge St. His name also occurs in Nattrass' Diary of 1845 when he undertook to supply Nattrass with a quantity of rope at £ 10 a ton, to be sent to Sydney.

Other millers and spinners. McGlashen and Anderson, were also successful although a little short of capital. By the end of 1842 more flax millers began to arrive, and Captain Wakefield, who was desperately anxious to start a successful flax milling industry in Nelson, welcomed them all and aided them Co establish themselves. He was keen for them to succeed, and listened to their ideas on flax-milling. But his rather naive confidence in their ability to produce finished fibre was dashed at times as one after the other failed.

As early as February 1842, when the brigantine Sisters arrived from Hobart Town, he wrote to his brother William in Wellington, "There are some odd characters in her — among others a man with a flax mill. He is an ingenious fellow but his machine appears practicable".

In November 1842, an Irish flax dresser arrived in the Prince of Wales and in the same month two Scottish flax dressers also. These last two impressed Wakefield at first as they claimed they could get up to 2cwt of flax a day and at good prices. All they needed was a little manual labour and a slight chemical process, whatever that was. But by December Arthur Wakefield remarked ruefully, "The flax dressers are a disappointment. They cannot produce quantity like their small specimens".

So far out of all this effort and industry very few seemed to have been successful even in a moderate way and we can well imagine how desperately Wakefield wanted the new man, Rider, to succeed. He identified himself with Rider and his assistant and was pleased to write to William, "We started a water wheel today of about six horsepower. I hope it will prove what can be done with flax for which purpose it has been erected by the flax dressers. They have done it off their own hook."

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The Examiner, in its pages, also endeavoured to raise the hopes of the Nelsonians, who had begun to doubt if anyone could succeed at flax milling, by issuing rousing statements like, "There are people in the settlement from England, skilled in flax dressing, who are confident they have discovered a method to deal with New Zealand flax." Something better we hope than the two simple fellows at Evans Bay in Wellington who, following the example of the Maoris, were busy scraping flax with shells and making 15/- a week. They hoped soon to get up to 20/-.

The Examiner's next report again mentions Rider and his assistant, I fancy. "We spoke in our last issue of experiments being made in making flax available. Two flax dressers who came out in the New Zealand have been continuing their experiments with the most satisfactory results".

In March 1843, the Examiner again rebuffed the scoffers who said that nothing was being done, by assuring them that their remarks were uncalled for. "There is a probability", wrote the Editor, "that in a couple of weeks we shall have a machine capable of effectively dressing half a ton of flax a week. The machine is now being made under the direction of a man named Rider from Leeds, who appears to be an excellent machinist and thoroughly to understand his business. Mr Rider is very sanguine as to the results of his labours and as far as we can judge, we think not without cause. Although intended as a hand machine, steam or water power can be applied readily — the force required being about half a horsepower".

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It seemed a slow business and it was not until December 1843, nearly a year later that the next report appears in the Examiner. "A machinist named Rider, of whom mention has already been made, has nearly completed the erection of an excellent water power for driving his machine. It is Mr Rider's opinion that he wíll be able to dress the flax at a price that will leave a handsome profit to the shipper."

Unfortunately, the next entry on flax milling in the Examiner does not appear until 1844, and by this time changes have come in the little settlement of Nelson. The Wairau Incident had changed everything and Wakefield was dead so that he never saw the end of the flax milling experiments. Fox had taken over the leadership of the settlement when the flax milling actually started at the mill on Jenkins Creek. Perhaps he was not so concerned in the mill as Arthur Wakefield, for Saxton, in his diary, mentions some criticism of him by interested parties. Saxton may have been gossiping and he has another remark in the Diary about Rider, himself. Saxton attended a flax meeting and wrote, "I did not put my name down as a subscriber, not only as having no spare money, but also thinking that Rider's reservations against disclosing his plans and calculations as a bad sign when he wished to be assisted. I mentioned this but was silenced by the remark that it would be unfair to require such information."

Still, in spite of these doubts and shortcomings the mill seems to have got under way at some time in 1844 and the next announcement in the Examiner is very cheerful. "February 1844. The Flax Mill in the Waimeas (about two miles from Nelson) worked by Mr Rider, is in operation and the flax turned out has been pronounced by a judge to be the best he has seen. Better still it is produced at a moderate cost — £ 12 a ton to the shipper and should be worth £20 in England."

Everything pointed to Rider's success and you would think, "Here is indeed a successful venture!" But strangely enough by 1845, about two years later, he had given up and sold the mill to Greenwood.

You may wonder why, but it is a melancholy fact that no one could make a flax mill pay. Time and again flax mills were started in what seemed to be the most favourable conditions but after a short period they were unable to carry on with any degree of profit.

It was so tantalizing. Everything seemed auspicious when starting a flax mill in Nelson — the flax was there in abundance, the Company was ready to give aid in starting a new industry, there was plenty of unemployed labour, and there was a ready market for all the fibre produced, but in the end the high cost of production always seemed to beat them.

The papers at the time were full of it. There were columns on flax production, letters from merchants on prices, reports on new and cheaper ways of preparing the fibre, lists of prices from the London Exchange, meetings were being called to discuss setting up mills (as Saxton reported in his Diary), and calls being made for capital to install better machinery — apparently the whole community was interested.

Flax dressing even invaded the sanctity of the Nelson Anniversary Day Celebrations — that special day when for many years the people of Nelson remembered their beginnings and celebrated the occasion with contests page 12of all kinds from boat races, canoe races, sailing contests right up to horse racing around Church Hill. Not that the serious minded prelate Bishop Selwyn approved of the last when the site of his cathedral to be was used by the ungodly as a racecourse grandstand. On his visits to Nelson he commented unfavourably on the misuse of Church Hill with its useless for-tifications, cannon and even a powder magazine in close proximity to the buildings used as a church! Why? A vigorous thump on the pulpit by an emphatic clergyman might have caused an explosion that sent the whole congregation precipitously skyward accompanied by various pieces of the church interspersed with odd bricks from the magazine.

Into the various contests yet another was introduced by the generosity of a certain Mr Hewling who desired to present a prize for the "Best preparation of flax both as to quantity and time." There was to be a prize of one guinea for the best, and minor prizes of half a guinea for the second and third placed efforts at flax dressing in one hour by hand dressing machines producing the best sample of dressed flax with the least manual labour. I don't remember reading the results of the competition but it apparently took place in the Institute which was decorated with samples of duck, canvas, drill and matting made from New Zealand flax by Donlan's process.

Today we see very little flax around Nelson but in the 1840's there seems to have been plenty in the swamps near the town. Wakefield saw areas of flax when he called in at Tahuna on an afternoon's row up the Waimea River. Heaphy, in his book, considered the flax in Nelson the best he had seen in New Zealand. "Some which I saw on the river banks in the Nelson country measured fourteen feet in length, with a breadth in the leaf of six inches," and again, "the most luxuriant growth of the plant which I have seen was at the head of Tasman's Gulf in the country now occupied by the Nelson settlement; which in my idea is the finest flax district in New Zealand."

What are we to make of these flax dressing failures? Well, in the first place I wonder how much the settlers knew of the Maori methods of flax dressing. According to Elsdon Best there were innumerable varieties of flax known to the Maoris, over 40 varieties, I think. I doubt whether the settlers knew which variety was used by the Maori, the best time for gathering the leaf, the methods used or all the other knowledge accumulated by the Maoris over centuries of use. Besides this, I doubt whether the amateur flax dressers made the best use of what skills and knowledge they had. Petre, who wrote a book on the New Zealand settlements, states that flax from New Zealand fetched £20 a ton in England but would have fetched £40 if it had been useable. Apart from the fact that the amount of flax fibre processed was fairly small, there was also a certain amount of indifference in its production so that little interest was shown by foreign manufacturers.

In an article in the Examiner, "Spectator" pointed out faults found in some flax sent home by the ship Indemnity. The flax was not sufficiently dry before it was packed and was not pressed tightly enough. An old colonist, who was formerly engaged in the flax trade in New Zealand, was shown the flax when it arrived in Sydney and at once had it heckled, made into page 13bales, packed very tightly and covered with a canvas wrapper so that it fetched £40 a ton on the English market. The tow from the heckling paid for the work done on the flax.

So there may have been various reasons why Rider could not make his mill pay and he departed and the mill, made over to Greenwood, probably lay idle for a year or two. Rider disappeared from the Nelson scene but strangely enough he is mentioned again by Alfred Saunders in his book, "Tales of a Pioneer." After living for some time in Nelson, Saunders decided to go for a holiday in Australia. He writes, "Directly I stepped upon the wharf at Sydney I met an engineer named Rider who had been employed in Nelson by the New Zealand Company's Agent to put up a flax mill. He was now employed by a wealthy owner of a steam mill and offered me a job."

After having collected such a quantity of material relating to Rider and his flax mill at Annesbrook it is rather odd to have to say that today there is no trace whatever of the mill and no one seems to know quite where it was (or more correctly, I should say, that no one appears to know that such a mill existed). If you walk up the track formed under the old Overhead Bridge at Annesbrook where the railway line used to emerge and keep on till you reach the banks of Jenkins Creek you will come to the probable site of Rider's Mill.

How do we arrive at such a conclusion? Old notices in the Examiner give such directions as the mill is "at the top of the Waimea Road," "in the Waimeas, two miles from Nelson," "on the flat at the commencement of the Waimea Plain close to the little wood where was the Musgrave station."

The first doesn't tell us much, except that you head up the Waimea Road from Nelson. Two miles from Nelson would take you to the bottom of Annesbrook Hill (1.6 miles to the Black Cat), but knowledge of the starting point is necessary. The third direction needs explaining. The Waimeas in the 1840s began outside the city boundary, so Annesbrook would be in the Waimeas. The Waimea Plain began at the first flat land outside the city boundary — so Stoke and Tahuna would be in the Plain. Musgrave, the Company surveyor of the Suburban sectíons, evidently had his headquarters for surveying Suburban South on Annesbrook Hill just above the Black Cat. As he wrote it "On the little piece of flat ground near a clump of trees above the beginning of the Waimea Plain."

This is on the top of Annesbrook Hill just above the Black Cat. The clump of trees may be reflected in the name of the area given later — "Grove Farm" and the direction to Nattrass and Edwards by Fox when they used the "mill site", that, "no timber was to be cut on the section without permission."

Luckily Ruth Allan did an investigation into Rider's activities and found that he was Jonas Ryder (Rider) who, with the aid of a loan from the Company Agent, Wm Fox, had erected a machine on Section 19, Suburban South. This section lay along the Main Road, Tahuna, from Maire Street to Hays Corner. It was triangular in shape with the base line running up to the top of Maire Street, one side lying along the Main Road and the other side an imaginery road line from the Observatory down along the hillside to Hays Corner. The line of this road used to be quite visible from page 14the Main Stoke Road as the fence line running down it separated a grassy field on one side from a field of gorse on the other, but today it is lost in a sea of gorse. The hedge line ran along the hillside above Douglas Road on its way to Hays Corner and Ken Gibbons, who owned the adjacent land, remembered it quite well.

If the mill was built on this section there appear only two places where it could have been as it required a stream of water for its "water power." At Maire Street a valley runs down the hill to the Main Road but except in flood time there is very little water in it, and I doubt whether it would be sufficient.

The only other place is on Jenkins Stream, flowing down below Annesbrook Hill and it is here I would place it.

Having identified the site of the flax mill more or less satisfactorily, we are faced next with the problem of finding by what road Rider reached his mill after leaving the main Richmond road between Enner Glynn and Bishopdale. Strangely enough, part of an old road leaves that road just after you cross the bridge at Enner Glynn over Jenkins Creek. This road is called Chings Road and although now cut in two by the Main Road at Wakatu, it runs from the bridge over Jenkins Creek at Enner Glynn down to the old concrete bridge at the bottom of Beatson Road. Here it is lost in Beatson Road but a little further on you can track it again as it runs down the old railway line beside Jenkins Creek. I imagine this road was the route used by Rider to bring in any heavy materials and machinery for his mill.

Chings Road, of course, is a modern name and called after a man who lived on it just above the concrete bridge on Beatson Road. Its old name, I suggest, was "The Flax Mill Road." Saxton mentions such a road twice in his Diary. He said in one case when he was riding into town from Stoke, "for the first time, went by the Flax Mill path towards the Port." I suggest that he left the Main Road to Nelson just on the far side of the bridge over Jenkins Creek at Enner Glynn and went down this road by the side of the stream until he reached the Main Road of Tahuna somewhere near the overbridge. Probably the railway line built in the 1870's used this old road which, as Saxton suggests, ran right from the Enner Glynn bridge down to the Main Road, Tahuna, and following this to Tahuna beach and the Port. I have shown the route on the sketch map.

Saxton mentions the route a second time. As he was travelling into town one day from Stoke via the Enner Glynn bridge accompanied by Wm Fox, the Company Agent, they parted after they had passed Greigs Hill and Fox rode off at the Flaxmill Road and then by the Main Road, Tahuna, around the Cliffs to the Port. In fact the Main Road, Tahuna, was actually known as "The Port Road" for many years, long before the name Tahuna was introduced.

So Rider left the flax mill which fell into the hands of Dr Greenwood, as far as I can see, one of the original owners but this was not the end of flax milling in Nelson and after a year or so the mill was reopened. This brings us to the second part of the story of Rider's Mill.

In 1845 Nathaniel Edwards and Luke Nattrass arrived in Nelson bringing page 15skilled flax workers and up to date machinery for flax milling designed by the English expert Donlan. Their equipment was shipped out to New Zealand in the two ships Slains Castle and the Caledonia.

We are lucky that Nattrass' diary is held by the Nelson Museum, so that we may work out fairly accurately what happened to the flax industry over the next two or three years.

When Nattrass arrived in Wellington he saw Colonel Wakefield and questioned him eagerly as to the best locality to erect his flax mill. After discussing such places as Pelorus, Manawatu, Wanganui and Taranaki, he finally decided that Nelson seemed the best for his venture and wrote to Dr Greenwood enclosing letters of introduction from Edwards. He spent the next two weeks awaiting a reply and must have received a favourable answer as we next hear of him in Nelson. The entry in his diary for 1st February deals with landing the stores and machinery from the Slains Castle, and the Caledonia at Nelson. The unloading took several days to complete and on February 3rd, which he noted was a holiday for Anniversary Day, he was prevented from doing much work because of the boisterous and rainy weather.

He was eager to start work with his new machinery but the men had no inclination to do so and only two turned up on the fírst day, to his annoyance. To fill in the time, Nattrass inspected two colonial flaxdressing machines in use in a Nelson mill but was not impressed as he considered that they were very simple and merely scraped the flax leaf just as the natives had done.

Eventually he managed to install his expensive machinery in the Company's old store at the Port and another flaxdressing venture was under way. Later he moved to more suitable quarters at Auckland Point, according to Judge Broad, and work commenced there. For the start, he found great difficulty — there was not enough flax handy to the mill. At first two of his men, Devaney and Hyland, accompanied Dr Greenwood to all the likely spots around the town but only a limited quantity of flax was available. By the end of the week he had six men at work, but was finding it hard to get enough flax to keep them busy. It was found that Wakapuaka was a good spot for flax and men were sent out there to gather it, bringing it back to the mill by rowing boat in many cases.

I had started to read Nattrass' diary mainly to find out about his flax milling at Tahuna in Rider's old mill but it was not until June 1845 that the idea of using this mill became important.

Meanwhile, the diary deals with work at the flax mill at the Port and at Auckland Point. Both men and women were employed and for the next three months all the petty matters of everyday work are noted in the diary — troubles with the men, absenteeism, quarrels, arriving late at work with subsequent stoppages of wages, and so on. I don't think that Nattrass could have enjoyed this period very much.

Many names are mentioned in the diary. A James Smith was a regular worker, receiving payments for several loads of flax cut by him and delivered to the mill. Devaney, Hyland, Finan, Kingstone and Perry were among the other workers. Some of the entries in the diary are quite interesting and give us an account of the day to day work.

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  • Weighed to Smith 17½lbs of Maori flax
  • Received from Wakapuaka 10 bales of flax
  • Smith — 40lbs Maori flax — produced 31 lbs clean, 5lbs tow,
  • and 3lbs waste
  • Received from Maoris 256lbs flax at 1d 1lb — £ 1 1s 6d
  • Packed a bale of tow and sent on board Bandicoot for Hobart
  • Town
  • Devaney, James Smith and wife, John Day and wife, Grogan
  • and wife, Ryan, Murphy and Swainey all at work
  • Ryan, Smith and Murphy heckling Maori flax.

During this time Nattrass sent samples to Sydney and received a letter from a Mr Dunn there, that rope spun from the tow would fetch £24 a ton. Nattrass then entered into a contract with Gardner & Porter, rope spinners, to spin a quantity of rope at £ 10 a ton.

But the days of the flax mill in town were numbered as flax was too hard to acquire from the surrounding areas and a notice was posted in the mill informing the workers that only three days' work per week could be given until the Waimea Mill was put in order. For by now, in June 1845, Greenwood, Edwards and Nattrass had finally decided that they would be better to shift to Rider's old mill which of course, had water power to drive their machinery.

Accordingly, the three men saw Fox, the Company Agent, who still owned Section 19 as it had never been sold. They signed an agreement with him which gave them the land, the mill, and the water power, rent free for a year, from 1st June 1845, to 1st June 1846, but after that it was to cost them £ 30 per annum. There were certain conditions attached to the agreement — they were to have power to alter, repair and erect buildings on the land, providing they left the mill water power, including the lead, in as good a condition as they found it. This last turned out to be rather ironical. They had also to allow William Small to farm his 5 acres on Section 19 which had been given to him, probably at a small rental, by the Company Agent, Fox. Another interesting condition was that no timber on Section 19, was to be cut without permission, which of course, reminds us of "the little wood" and "the clump of trees" mentioned earlier as being on the Section, and of the later name given to the area "Grove Farm".

At this stage, Dr Greenwood and Mr Edwards went out to the mill with an engineer to make an estimate of the expense to be incurred in repairing the mill and to complete the arrangements for accommodating the workers. Besides the house occupied by William Small, wherever that was, there must have been a number of houses for the workers if we examine the evidence in Nattrass' diary. I don't know what they lived in first, possibly tents, but by September we find the carpenters were busy there, "flooring the habitations for the workers" and then "shingling the roof and rebuilding the chimney of the house intended for Mr Nattrass. There is, of couse, no trace whatever of these houses nor of Wm Small's, although I have a note somewhere that Small's house was damaged in a land slip so he was probably near a hill.

The following workman, Burke, Finan, Hyland, Kingstone, and Perry were page 17sent out first – their bedding and kit being carried in Ross' cart. Wm Small was engaged as foreman at 2/6d a day, to superintend their work. A number of old Nelson names are mentioned in the diary – Hargreaves supplied three wheelbarrows, Blundell supplied 4000 feet of planks from Waimea West, and these were carted by Songer of Stoke from the landing place at the bottom of Songer Street, to the mill.

The mill had been left so long that the amount of repair work to be done was enormous – in fact, practically the whole, including the dam, had to be renewed. The wheel was rotten, the dam needed cleaning out and repairing, a reservoir had to be built, a cutting had to be made to hold the water wheel, and a deep drain made to carry off the waste water from the tail race. Supplies of timber, cement, lime (from the Waimea kiln), sand, piles, planks, were sent out and by September the mill was brought into working order again. As Nattrass remarked in his diary, "Dr Greenwood, Mr Edwards and Mr Nattrass went to the mill and got a trial of the wheel and found a few little things wanted altering." I am afraid Nattrass was a little too optimistic, for when they commenced rolling the flax, later in September, with their new smooth iron rollers they found that they were useless for the task and had to resort to the old style wooden rollers!

There is not much to report during October but by November a new difficulty arose – the diary began to record such statements as –

  • "Short of water"
  • "Slack water at 10 a.m."
  • "Slack water at ½ past 11."

It became evident that even with a dam and a reservoir, they could not get enough water from the creek to turn the wheel! I suppose they counted on the creek filling both the reservoir and the dam at night so that there would be enough water to carry them through the next day, but this didn't happen.

It seemed a great pity that with all their fine new machinery they were no better off than Ryder had been and on Tuesday 5th November, a message from Mr Edwards told the men that work would cease on Saturday night. This was startling news for the workmen, many of whom had been brought out specially from England, and they were so annoyed that they walked out at 2 p.m. Before they were discharged on the 15th November, Nattrass asked them to sign a curious document –

Nelson, New Zealand. 10th November, 1845.

This is to certify that we, the undersigned, worked in flax having been employed by Mr I. I. Donlan at Rugby, England, and as workers of New Zealand flax, declare, that the machines used by us here are the same or precisely similar to those used at Mr Donlan's factory, at Rugby, by us, and that for working the fresh cut New Zealand flax are perfectly inapplicable and completely useless.

Laurence Devaney
Thomas Flaherty his mark X
Andrew Devaney
Michael Devaney
James Smith his mark X

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This then was the end of another venture in flax milling in Tahuna. The confident advertisement on June, 1845, in the Examiner "Messrs Greenwood and Edwards are prepared to receive tenders for the supply of green flax to be delivered to their mill in the Waimea Plains, known as Rider's Mill", was followed in June 1846, by a much humbler notice, "The Mill in Suburban South, commonly known as Ryder's Mill will be let. The dam and water power have been improved."

Late in 1846, Edwards sold the mill to J. Mackay for a few pounds, and a mill was started at Wakapuaka. In 1860 a paragraph in the Examiner stated that "Burns & Rout have installed a steam engine in the flax mill", so Rider's Mill may have lasted a little longer, although it seems that the export of flax from New Zealand had practically ceased by 1853.

Anyway, by 1861, Section 19 was finally sold to Hugh Tytler Stafford who named his farm "Grove Farm" after an earlier farm that had been on part of the land and I don't suppose the mill had any further life. Stafford bred race horses and I don't suppose he had time to run flax mills.

In regard to the workman who were so summarily dismissed at the end of 1845, their fate was not forgotten and in correspondence in the Examiner in 1847 from Greenwood criticising Fox's use of Company funds, he was answered by a letter asking if Greenwood's criticism also referred to the Flax Company of which Dr Greenwood was the mainspring.

It ended with the words: "I have frequently heard of some poor Irish dressers telling doleful tales of the unsatisfactory way in which their services were dispensed with, previous to the expiration of the term they signed articles for, before leaving England." Signed "Phormium Tenax". Nelson, December 31st, 1847.