Blenheim is situated on the Wairau Plain at the junction of the Omaka and Opawa Rivers. The town occupies low-lying land, much of it former swamp, about 4 miles inland from the common mouth of the Opawa and Wairau Rivers on Cloudy Bay. The surrounding country comprises the floor of the Wairau River Valley – Wairau Plain. West of the plain the land rises to the Richmond Range and to the south and south-east is bordered by hills. Several main highways converge at Blenheim and the South Island Main Trunk railway passes through the town. By road Blenheim is 17 miles south of Picton (18 miles by rail), 72 miles south-east of Nelson, 166 miles north-east of Westport, and 202 miles north-east of Christchurch (200 miles by rail). The Opawa River is navigable by small coastal vessels of shallow draught and port facilities are provided close to the town centre. The main port for the district is Picton.
Sheep farming is the predominant industry. Farm production on the Wairau Plain is of considerable diversity and includes cereals (wheat and barley), small seeds, dairying, pig raising, poultry farming, market gardening, and fruit growing (pip, stone, and berry fruits). Cheese is manufactured at Tuamarina (6 miles north) where there is also a brick and tile works. Flax milling is carried on at Marshlands (7 miles northeast). Lime is produced near Seddon (16 miles south-east) and near Ward (30 miles south-east). Salt, produced by solar evaporation, is harvested near Lake Grassmere (about 27 miles south-east). By-products of abattoirs are processed at Riverlands (3 miles south-east). There is a large cool store and fruit depot at Spring Creek (3½ miles north). Blenheim is the principal commercial town and administrative centre for the greater part of Marlborough. Industrial activities of the town include the manufacture of butter; flour; smallgoods; stock, poultry, and pet foods; coal gas; joinery and furniture; clothing; footwear; paua shell jewellery; caravans; and concrete products. Bacon and hams and frozen foods are processed. Seed cleaning; general, mechanical, marine, and structural engineering; motor-body building; and boat building are also carried on. There are a milk-treatment station; wool, skin, grain and seed stores; and a stock saleyards in the town.
About 1826 sealers visited the inlet extending northward from Cloudy Bay, which they named Port Underwood. Captain John Blenkinsopp, of the whaler Caroline, induced Te Rauparaha and other chiefs during the 1830s to sell him the whole of the Wairau Plain. Blenkinsopp's doubtful title, later repudiated by the Maoris, eventually passed to the New Zealand Company. The Company attempted to survey the area, but Maori resistance, which culminated in the Wairau Affray in 1843, caused the work to be abandoned. About 1846 N. G. Morse and a Dr Cooper squatted on country in the upper Wairau Valley. Charles Clifford, who had leased a large tract to the south-eastward (later known as Flaxbourne), followed in 1847. In March 1847 Sir George Grey purchased the lower parts of the Awatere and Wairau Plains and, later, acquired the remainder of the territory. Following Grey's land purchases, settlement accelerated and the country was taken up by sheep farmers.
Blenheim came into existence because of its proximity to a good ford and landing place. James Sinclair, who built the first hut in 1852, is regarded as the founder of Blenheim, but the settlement is said to have really begun with the establishment of Wynen's store in 1855. The town was laid out in 1856 on 300 acres of land held jointly by Henry Seymour and Alfred Fell. With the discovery of gold at Wakamarina in 1864 the town grew in importance. In 1865 the provincial capital of Marlborough was transferred to Blenheim from Picton. The railway from Picton was opened for traffic to Blenheim on 18 November 1875, but through rail communication to Christchurch did not come until 1945. Blenheim was constituted a borough on 6 March 1869. Prior to 1860 the settlement was known as “The Beaver”, because the first survey party, caught in a flood, were forced to squat on the highest bunks in their huts “like a lot of beavers in a dam”. Governor Sir Thomas Gore Browne chose the name Marlborough when the new province was created in 1859 and, evidently, selected the name Blenheim to commemorate the victory of the Duke of Marlborough over the French in 1704.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 7,051; 1956 census, 9,219; 1961 census, 11,942.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.