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Hanmer Springs History

Nestled in the Hanmer Basin, the village of Hanmer Springs has a history that can be traced to the days when greenstone was both wealth and currency among the Maori tribes and this plain was on one of the routes by which they crossed the island to the West Coast where it was found in abundance. The hot springs were known to the Maori and legend has it that after the volcano Ngauruhoe had erupted in the North Island, it gouged out the channel of the Whanganui River and when it reached the sea it rose in the air and travelled to Banks Peninsula but an ember of this fire fell to earth at Hanmer Springs.

The Hanmer Plains were known to the early European settlers as they sought suitable stock routes from both the Marlborough region through the Wairau Valley to Canterbury and from the Nelson region to Canterbury. Thomas Hanmer, after whom the valley is named, never actually settled here but was said to have been responsible for early surveying in the area in 1852. More than one European lay claim to having ‘discovered’ the hot springs and by the early 1870s Mr John Fry, the proprietor of the Jollies Pass Hotel, had erected a shed and steps on the site and people were bathing in the waters.

The Hanmer Plains Reserve of 2,500 acres was surveyed in 1879 and 300 acres of this reserve were set aside for a township, although it must be said this proposed site is not where the town is today, nor were the original baths included. In 1881 the Lyttelton Times stated that the government ministers “were not averse to laying out a township at the Hot Springs in the Hanmer Plains. It has been suggested that the sites for one or two hotels should be let on long leases, under stringent regulations as to the provisions and charges for baths…” The article went on to state that with the imminent prospect of a railway stretching to the area, hotel accommodation would be a necessity. By 1884 the same newspaper reported that an area of five acres had been securely fenced with the ground therein having been broken and levelled and would be planted in grass with a border of ornamental trees.

Handisides Bridge, the first Waiau Ferry Bridge, was built in 1864 but was destroyed in a northwest gale ten years later and it was to be 13 years before a replacement was built. In the interim not only were there lives lost to drowning, but a controversy raged over the wisdom of the government spent money in developing a site which was not easily accessible, with passengers having to ford the Waiau River. In the early years people travelling to Hanmer Springs were faced with at least a full day’s journey with a train from Christchurch to the station at Culverden and from there by horse and carriage (and later motor car) to the Waiau Bridge where there was a hotel. People were then transported to Hanmer Springs.

Early accommodation in the Hanmer Springs area was in the form of accommodation houses. There were various incarnations of a hotel at the Ferry Bridge site as well as Lahmerts Accommodation House at Jacks’ Pass (which later moved into the township to the site of where Monteiths is today) ,the Jollies Pass Hotel (close to where the town’s cemetery now lies) which was burned down in 1927 and the only one which is still standing is the Accommodation House at the junction of the Acheron and Clarence Rivers. In 1897, Mr Robert Hood, then the lessee of the Jollies Pass Hotel, built The Lodge on the site of the present Heritage Hotel. Mr Hood had been granted a lease on the land for 42 years at a rate of £2.17.0 per annum. As well as the Lodge there became a steady proliferation of guest houses.

In the early days of European settlement the Hanmer Basin and surrounding valleys were home to some very large pastoral leaseholds with some very well-known names among them, such as Molesworth, St James and St Helens.

The original St Helens lease was a run of some 8000 acres with the Count de la Pasture, whose family had fled the French revolution, taking over this leasehold from Mr John Watts and subsequently adding further blocks to what became St Helens Station. At one stage this included much of Molesworth Station, much of what is St James as well as Glen Wye Station in the Lewis Pass. It is difficult to give a precise history of these stations because during the tenures of different runholders these stations seemed to expand and contract with the sales and purchase of various blocks. When W A Low bought St Helens in 1877 it was a total of 32,000 acres and he paid $20,000. To this he added 50,000 acres plus of Glen Wye and 200,000 acres of land in the Clarence Valley. The stocking of these areas with sheep coupled with intensive burning off saw a decline in the productivity of the land and this coupled with the low lamb and wool proves at the turn of the century saw Mr Low abandon his leases and his interests to the Loan and Mercantile Company. This company ran the leases under management until they sold their interests. St James Station occupied the headwaters of the Waiau and Clarence Rivers and had harsher climatic conditions to contend with and it was farmed by several different pioneering block holders. It was difficult farming with much of the area being snowbound in winter. After being run for a time by the Ensor family, the farm was purchased by the Stevenson family in 1927 who owned it until its purchase by the government in 2008.

Both Moleworth and St James stations are now owned by the government and administered by the Department of Conservation as National Park and areas for public recreation.


Alpine Springs Motel | 121 Argelins Road | Hanmer Springs | North Canterbury | Phone +64 3 315 7211
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