The Pattern of Settlement
As devised by its New Zealand Company sponsors, the Nelson settlement was to consist of 221,000 acres divided into 1,000 allotments of 201 acres, to sell at £300 per allotment. An additional 100 allotments were intended as native reserves. Each allotment comprised a “package deal” of three geographically separated sections of land – 1 town acre, 50 “suburban” acres, and 150 “rural” acres. As the location of a purchaser's sections was to be fixed by lottery following survey, the “compact and contiguous” settlement envisaged by E. G. Wakefield would be achieved only if the majority of allotments were sold and occupied promptly. The plans were made with no particular site in mind and, although they might have been applicable to a large plain such as Canterbury, were hopelessly ill-adapted to the terrain of the northern South Island with its fragmented pockets of flat land, infertile hill soils, and extensive mountain tracts. The choice of Tasman Bay (then known as Blind Bay) for the site of the Nelson settlement was a hasty compromise. The Company's officials in London hoped to select the grassy plains of the Port Cooper district (later to become Canterbury), but when the advance party arrived in New Zealand Governor Hobson insisted that the settlement be located either in the Cook Strait area on lands already included in the Company's purchase from the Maoris, or on an alternative site near Auckland. Little time could be afforded for exploration, and a hasty reconnaissance of Blind Bay failed to reveal more than a fraction of the 200,000 or so acres of good agricultural land required by the planners of the settlement. However, a port of a kind, behind a long boulder bank, was found to be within ready communication with the small Waimea Plain, and there the new settlers were landed in 1842.
The 50-acre “suburban” sections were laid out on the fern- and scrub-covered Waimea Plain, the Motueka-Riwaka flats, and the northern slopes of the Moutere Hills, but the 150-acre sections were not available until the purchase and survey of the Wairau Plain after 1847. The Nelson settlement had its share of infantile troubles. The population built up rapidly to 2,940 in 1843 but then grew slowly to 3,370 in 1849. Only 40 of the original land purchasers took up their holdings which were scattered amongst unsold lands or those bought by absentee speculators. Most of the immigrants were unskilled labourers, induced to emigrate, no doubt, by the company's assurance of work at reasonable wages until the landowners were able to give employment on their farms. In the event there were few employers, and after much suffering and near starvation it was decided to abandon one of the fundamental “Wakefield plan” tenets and give unsold land for labourers to work without any payment on their part. Finally a deferred payment plan was devised for purchase of small holdings, and the Waimea and Motueka Plains came to be settled predominantly by a “cottier” class of small farmers. Subsistence farming gave way to a mixed livestock, cereal, and potato-growing economy and the small size of holdings encouraged the adoption of crops with a high return per acre. The few men of means in the Nelson settlement preferred to invest their money in sheep farming in the distant grasslands of the Wairau, Awatere, and Amuri, while the lowlands of Tasman Bay became the most intensively settled rural district in New Zealand.
In 1861, of the overseas-born population of Nelson Province, 75 per cent were English, 12 per cent Scottish, and only 5 per cent Irish. Most of the English came from the vicinity of London. A small but significant German contingent among the emigrants of the mid-1840s settled in the Moutere Valley. They were represented in the 4 per cent of the Nelson population who were of Lutheran denomination in the 1861 census – the highest percentage of adherents of this church ever recorded in any province. One feature of Nelson's provincial organisation which had wider implications in New Zealand was its educational system. Its Educational Ordinance of 1856 provided for a school rate of £1 a year on every householder and that “religious instruction, when given, shall be free from all controversial character” and should be given at such times that children could stay away from it. Several other provinces borrowed much of their legislation from the Nelson ordinance and the influence of the province in hastening the movement towards universal public education in New Zealand was substantial.
From Tasman Bay the settlers fanned out in two directions; north-west to Massacre (later Golden Bay), and east and south-east to the Wairau and Amuri. Golden Bay was first settled at Takaka in 1845. The district developed slowly with small-scale farming and timber milling, and spasmodic coal mining until a small gold rush to the Aorere Valley brought in some 300 diggers in 1857. This event turned the thoughts of Nelson people to the possible mineral wealth elsewhere in the province. A few pastoralists quickly established a skeleton occupation and were able to entrench themselves in vast estates with no competition from outside. Between 1859 and 1866 virtually all the plain and downland was bought at between 5s. and 10s. per acre, leasehold areas on the mountains being isolated by carefully selected freehold purchases. The area thus became the stronghold of some of New Zealand's wealthiest and best-known “wool kings” of the seventies and eighties. In 1874, the date of the last census before abolition of the provinces, there were only 350 people in the district.