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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1998

Nelson – a Regional History

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Nelson – a Regional History

Published by Cape Catley and the Nelson City Council, 1997 (price soft covers $39.95 Hard covers $49.95)

This well written and profusely illustrated book of over 260 pages traces the development of Nelson up to the 1990s. The book was commissioned by the Nelson City Council to commemorate the sesqui-centennial of Nelson. Before commenting on this work it is worth recording that the Nelson Historical Society expended much effort in the late 1980s trying to get published a companion volume to Ruth Allan's scholarly "Nelson A History of Early Settlement" which appeared, under the auspices of the City Council, in 1965. Nothing materialised at the time due to infighting within the Nelson Bays United Council and plans by a local publisher to bring out a history in parts, following the format of the successful New Zealand's Heritage and other such works that were current at that rime.

Nevertheless the Society's efforts were not in vain for the seed had been sown and eventually, in 1997, Nelson – A Regional History appeared. Thus the City Council is to be congratulated on three fronts. Firstly in taking up the challenge to ensure that Nelson's history and the contribution Nelson has made to the development of New Zealand is acknowledged. Secondly that it decided that the history was to be a regional one and not confined to the city's boundaries and thirdly that Dr McAloon was selected to write it.

The history is divided into nine chapters, each conveniently spanning a distinctive period in Nelson's growth. The first chapter concerns the period prior to 1842. It is succinct, which partly reflects the council's brief that the history was to primarily cover the period 1842–1992 as well as the author's freely acknowledged own limitations in dealing with such a complex subject. However, the region's history prior to the arrival of the New Zealand Company's ships will be dealt with in depth in a forthcoming publication by Historical Society members Hilary and John Mitchell.

The next chapter coincides with the period covered in depth by Ruth Allan and which saw the successful establishment of the Nelson settlement despite limited land resources. It was also the time when the foundations for local government were firmly laid. Chapters 3 and 4 deal largely with the provincial government era. During this period political supremacy passed from the upper land owning, classes to the farmers, miners, storekeepers and labourers, whose champion was John Perry Robinson, second Superintendent of Nelson. It was also a period when the lack of arable land was almost forgotten, with the discovery of payable gold in the Aorere in the late 1850s, and the economic benefits mat arose from the less ephemeral West coast diggings. Other mineral resources of coal, copper, chromite and silver proved to be illusory. Consequendy in the latter half of the 19th century Nelson largely depended on widely dispersed families, growing a variety of crops, on numerous small farms in isolated valleys. The lack of adequate communication links between these valleys and the rest of New Zealand was to be a recurring theme in the region's history.

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Nelson also provides a good example of the plethora of local government bodies that flourished in New Zealand following the abolition of the provincial councils in 1876. Thus adult men, and from 1893, women were able to vote for such things as county councils, road and education boards, school communities and the like. While taking local input, and democracy, to its highest peak it was ultimately, with increasing sophistication, expensive and led to amalgamations that culminated in the local government reorganisation of 1989. While it could be argued that the Nelson-Marlborough Regional Council of 1989 resulted in a unified government unit similar to the provincial council, such a comparison has no validity. Certainly Nelsonians regarded the regional council as fundamentally flawed, democratically unsound and wasted little time in getting rid of it. The democratic spirit espoused by Robinson remains very much alive.

As portrayed by Dr McAloon in the latter part of bis history, life in Nelson in the early and mid 20th century was pleasant enough but hardly dynamic. If population is a measure of growth, then there was a steady decline in Nelson's relative position, and influence, compared to the rest of New Zealand. The somewhat inward looking, or perhaps self content, of Nelsonians was impacted on by two world wars and the Depression. Accelerating this relative decline was the continuing loss of political clout which saw the closure of the Nelson Railway. Despite the efforts of the Nelson Progress League and Chamber of Commerce, attempts to attract industry, were mostly unsuccessful.

The remaining chapters document the changes that occurred to both metaphorically and literally give Nelson its place in the sun. Increasing leisure time provided New Zealanders with the opportunity to take advantage of Nelson's beaches, rivers and climate. This and the unhurried life style attracted a varied community of artists and potters. In addition Nelson's economic base was expanding, often as a result of decisions taken decades before. The Cut through the Boulder Bank in 1906 opened the way for the major developments that began in the late 1940s and transformed Nelson from a coastal to an overseas port capable of transporting its resources to the markets of the world. These resources included the products from maturing radiata forests planted on the infertile hill country in which Nelson abounded. The conversion to trees was to lead at times to bitter arguments between foresters and farmers. Fishing was another resource the region was to capitalise on, resulting in the basing in Nelson of trawlers up to 10 times the size of the little ships that had brought the NZ Company settlers 150 years earlier. Ruth Allan's statement that Nelson's history revolves around how the people changed the land and the land changed the people is, as Jim McAloon repeatedly confirms, an apt one.

In this book the multitude of themes that intertwine to give Nelson its character have been successfully synthesised. Adding to this are the numerous controversies, which appear to arise more frequently than in many other communities, that have punctuated Nelson's history. Such controversies show that the democratic principles established by the settlers are still firmly entrenched. This highly readable, abundantly illustrated, history is a credit to its author and those involved in its publication. Not only is Dr McAloon's history concise, yet scholarly, it is, to apply present day idiom, user friendly, with a good index, and a full set of references.

Mike Johnston