Road built despite daunting barriers

23:58, Dec 02 2012
Rocks Rd
HARD LABOUR: Rocks Rd under construction, 1892-93.

With debate continuing over the best role for Rocks Rd, former city councillor Seddon Marshall traces the road's history.

When Frederick Tuckett, the chief surveyor of the New Zealand Company, was setting out the plan for Nelson, the only viable access to the farmlands of the Waimea was over the saddle we now know as Bishopdale.

He planned a road to be built around the waterfront, but this was not included in Mr Tuckett's 1842 plan for the Town of Nelson, as the cliff and rocks formed a formidable barrier.

Following its first meeting on November 3, 1853, the Nelson Provincial Council was established, and it took over all administration and public works from the New Zealand Company after its financial situation deteriorated. Under council control, public works progressed quite rapidly and the new town started to grow.

Under the board of works (elected on July 30, 1857) that functioned under the provincial government, Haven Rd and Wakefield Quay were improved and much development work took place - but still no Rocks Rd.

The board of works became obsolete when Nelson was declared a borough on March 30, 1874, and board members became the first Nelson city councillors, with their first meeting held in April 1874. Early in the life of the new council, it was agreed that citizens should have the best means of access to the Waimea.


In 1876, councillor Thomas Harley began promoting the idea that a limited half-tide road should be built around the rocks. This would provide a useable road from when the tide was half out until it was half in.

High tides and spring tides of around 4.3 metres were a major problem, and a substantial amount of work was required to build a road above that level.

Funding was a major problem, and the project disappeared off the agenda.

Haven Rd (initially known as Beach Rd) was finished in 1843 to provide access to the port. Road widening was required to accommodate the railway line, which the Government was extending to the port and wharf.

To help keep down the cost of the road widening and sea wall, the council was allowed to use prison inmates, which no doubt paved the way for the extensive use of prison labour in the later construction of Rocks Rd.

Around 1880, the then mayor promoted the idea that starting a road around the rocks would relieve unemployment, which was rife, but no funds were available during the difficult economic times. It wasn't until Francis Trask was elected mayor in December 1890 that the road was back on the agenda.

Mother Nature played her part. Tahunanui Beach was originally a sandy island, with the Waimea River flowing through what is today's Back Beach. In 1875, it started to change its course, and by 1881, the old river channel was dry, which made the construction of a road around the rocks easier.

Construction of Rocks Rd was estimated to cost £8000. Plans were prepared by the city surveyor, Samuel Jickell, and the road was to be about one mile (1.6 kilometres) long, with a stone sea wall. Fill for the road would be obtained from the adjoining cliff.

The year 1892 was Nelson's jubilee year, and many citizens saw Rocks Rd as a prestige jubilee project. By this time the city had a rateable value of £70,000 but gross revenue of only £13,000. The lack of revenue made larger projects very difficult to finance. But Mr Trask, the champion of the road, did not falter.

Construction work on Rocks Rd began, but it became obvious that the council would need more funds as the road neared completion in 1893. It transferred £300 from the gasworks account. A petition objecting to this transfer was signed by 337 citizens, but the council pressed on.

Despite a nationwide economic depression at the time, Rocks Rd was gravelled and ready for use by mid-1897. Contributions were: Nelson City Council £4300, Waimea County Council £1500, Richmond Borough Council £500, and the Government £1500. The final cost, including prison labour, was £11,000.

The road was completed and along came John Tinline, one of Nelson's early pioneers, who presented Mr Trask with a generous donation of £400 to provide a coping for the sea wall, plus stanchions and chains.

Mr Trask's friend Mr Tytler offered to find an additional £120, which he did from funds in the local government's account, left by his father, an early English immigration agent.

Prison labour Over the long period of construction of Rocks Rd, prisoners were marched through the city from the Shelbourne St Gaol up Washington Valley and over Pitts Hill (now Richardson St) to work on the rocks.

There was usually a gang of 15 to 20 prisoners marching two abreast, with armed warders at the front and rear. Citizens used to express their concern that there would be an escape attempt and the two warders would not be able to cope.

One evening when the prisoners were returning from the rocks, several prisoners tried to escape at the top of Washington Valley. The warders proved to be up to the occasion. Shots were fired and the breakaway was averted, with only one prisoner slightly wounded in the leg.

It turned out that the warders' rifles were not loaded with bullets, as expected, but merely with buckshot.

The procession of prisoners was led each day by a husky red-bearded individual who had been imprisoned for manslaughter. He was a foreign sailor who had gone ashore with his shipmates at Lyttelton and become involved in a fight that ended with a man being killed.

The sailor was charged with manslaughter, and spent many years in prison.

While he was in prison in Nelson, one of his former shipmates confessed on his deathbed that he had struck the fatal blow in the incident. The prisoner was duly set free.

On hearing that the prisoner had neither money nor friends in New Zealand, Mr Trask took him into his home and arranged for him to be comfortably returned to his homeland.