Page 1: Biography
Nolan, William Denis
Farmer, cheesemaker, cannery owner, businessman
This biography, written by Trish McCormack, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Patrick and William Denis Nolan were born at Arawata River, Jackson Bay, south Westland, on 19 September 1875 and 18 November 1877 respectively. They were the fourth and fifth children of Andrew Nolan and his wife, Mary Spillane, Irish immigrants who had met in the gold town of Stafford, near Hokitika, where Andrew was the licensee of the Empire Hotel and Mary worked as a servant. In April 1875 the Nolans moved to the special settlement of Jackson Bay, part of Julius Vogel’s ambitious immigration and public works programme. The Jackson Bay experiment was a failure, however, and the settlers struggled to farm poor land in extreme isolation. Most left, but Andrew and Mary Nolan stayed in the area, moving north by open boat to Okuru around 1882. The family established a farm there and acquired a pastoral run in the Cascade Valley.
Paddy and Dinnie (as Patrick and Denis were known) inherited their parents’ pioneering spirit and both were to contribute in different ways to the development of south Westland. After working as a road builder near Haast, Paddy became a farm labourer at Karangarua, and married Isabella Currie McIntosh there on 23 June 1899. The following year he was awarded the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand’s silver medal for bravery, after he saved three men from drowning when their rowboat capsized at Bruce Bay. In 1903, pregnant with their third child, Isabella Nolan was thrown from a horse. Unable to reach hospital because of a flooded river, she died in childbirth at Hendes Ferry, near Harihari. Paddy then moved to Rununga, north of Greymouth, and worked on the construction of a railway line to Canterbury. In 1912 he returned to south Westland to join his brother Jim in a flaxmilling venture. Over the years he remained active in search and rescue work, often helping to carry injured settlers to hospital over rough pack-tracks. He later invented a wheeled stretcher, and in 1930 travelled over 100 miles on horseback to help rescue survivors of the shipwrecked steamer Elsie at Hunt Beach, north of Bruce Bay.
Dinnie Nolan married Mary Honora Ritchie at Bruce Bay on 16 May 1911; they were to have five sons. Several years later he entered a farming partnership at Okuru with Paddy and another brother, Andrew. On 2 September 1918 Paddy married Johanna Theresa Eggeling in Hokitika; they were to have two daughters. Four years later Dinnie bought Andrew’s share of the farm. Paddy, as head stockman, oversaw the cattle drives to markets hundreds of miles away and kept detailed stock records charting the growth of the enterprise.
Paddy Nolan’s management of the farm left Dinnie free to pursue his entrepreneurial interests. His major aim was to develop industry in south Westland so that the government would be persuaded to build a road through the isolated province. In 1922 he bought a herd of Friesian cattle and made cheese, which was exported to markets in London and classed as ‘finest grade’. However, irregular shipping services doomed this enterprise. In 1928 he opened a whitebait-canning factory at Okuru, travelling to Sydney two years later to buy can-making equipment. The plant continued operating until 1952 and its whitebait was sold throughout New Zealand and Australia. During these years Dinnie also operated a sawmill at Okuru, driven by a portable Marshall steam engine.
In 1929 Dinnie Nolan led a delegation of Okuru settlers to Wellington to petition Prime Minister Joseph Ward for the construction of a long-promised wharf at Jackson Bay, which, they claimed, was the key to the development of south Westland; work began on the wharf in 1937. In the meantime Dinnie built an airstrip at Okuru, which was completed in 1932. A persistent advocate of a road linking the region to Otago, he did not live to see the project finished, though work on the Haast Pass road began before he died. In 1935 Paddy sold his share of the farm to Dinnie and moved to Kowhitirangi, near Hokitika, where he bought a dairy farm. Dinnie formed a company, W. D. Nolan and Sons, which farmed Hereford cattle, managed the whitebait cannery and operated two aeroplanes. He had served as a justice of the peace since 1919, and also wrote a number of ballads; one of them celebrated the local identity 'Arawata Bill’ (William O’Leary).
Paddy and Dinnie Nolan’s wives both died in 1948. Paddy, widely respected as a hard-working and modest man, died in Westland Hospital, Hokitika, on 28 May 1951; he was survived by three daughters and a son. Dinnie, one of Westland’s most colourful and well-known pioneers, died at Okuru on 28 November 1959, survived by his sons.