Newspaper Article 1983 – When Napier had water, water everywhere

The Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune, Saturday, June 4, 1983   9


When Napier had water, water everywhere… but barely a drop to drink



By Gilbert Lloyd

Napier, then called Scinde Island, was surrounded by salt and marshy water in the 1850s – but it was extremely short of drinking water.

One of the two sources in the town, apart from the tanks of rainwater, was the spring almost at the top of the Hill, near the regimental barracks.

This was reserved exclusively for the military for watering their horses and domestic cooking and laundry. The soldiers’ wives, after washing, tipped the water down ‘‘Soapsud Gully,” now Chaucer Rd.

The other well, for civilians, belonged to a publican at the bottom of Shakespeare Rd, near where the Tait fountain now stands.

With no water in the port area, horse and bullock wagon teams arriving with wool from the long haul from back-country farms had to be led over the Hill to this well for drinking before they returned.

Mr and Mrs Symonds were a poor immigrant couple who were spending their first night in New Zealand under a tent-fly on swampy ground near the port, when Mrs Symonds asked her husband to obtain a glass of water from the publican so that she could mix up a headache cure.

When asked for the glass of water, the publican replied: “Water is scarce right here. It has to be hauled over the Hill, delivered at 25c ($12.50 in 1983) a barrel.

“If you want a glass of water, it’s the same price as beer, 5c a glass.

Symonds paid his money, but he told his wife that they would move on to Clive the next day because he had been told the water there was free.

Tossing and turning on his blanket, he worried how he would earn a living, having no trade.

There was a boulder under his blanket. No matter which way he moved, the rock dug into his anatomy.

In desperation, he managed to lever it out and slept with his hip in the hollow.

An hour later he woke his wife and said the tide must be very high as his blanket was quite wet.

His wife replied: “Forget it, George. You’re imagining things.’’

So they both went back to sleep, but when they awoke at dawn they found quite a pool of water around their blankets.

Pulling the blankets aside, Mr Symonds found that a lovely spring of sweet, fresh water had gushed up from the spot he had removed the boulder from.

Mr Symonds immediately jammed the boulder back in the hole and stamped the ground down. He admonished his wife to say nothing to the other people camping around.

“If anyone remarked on the damp ground, say you have been up early washing clothes in the swamp water,” he told her.

Meanwhile, he hurried over the Hill to the land office to lease the section, then spend the remainder of his only $10 on a wheelbarrow and barrel to set up business as the sole supplier of fresh water in the port area.

Business was so brisk that within three weeks he could afford to trade his wheelbarrow in on a four-wheeled cart and horse and extra barrels.

By the time Napier, at last, found another source of water, Mr and Mrs Symonds were established wealthy citizens.

Mr Robert Brathwaite was a prominent Hastings citizen, carrying out two roles.

He was secretary of the Hastings Building Society from 1890 until 1932 and he also controlled our destiny from the cradle to the grave as Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

He was a neighbour of ours in Willowpark Rd around 1918 and told me one day that his father worked for the Union Bank and went to Napier in 1858 to open the bank’s first branch in Hawke’s Bay.

Mr Brathwaite Snr, his wife and baby Robert boarded at Marshall’s Hotel at the bottom of Shakespeare Rd and, until the big safe could be unloaded, he had to keep the hundreds of bank notes constantly in his possession.

He operated from the hotel with a revolver in his pocket.

The family ate and slept in one room and Mr Brathwaite Snr kept the money under his bed and his revolver under the pillow.

Mr Brathwaite complained to the publican one day that the well water had a funny taste and the well should be cleaned out.

On cleaning out the sludge, up came a horse collar and then a head-stall.

When everyone realised that a carthorse had fallen into the well some months earlier, Napier did not think Marshall’s well-water was funny at all.

The military well also had its problems.

When the soldiers left Hospital Hill around 1863, the barracks became an immigrant hostel.

But several children died from a strange fever and the source was placed at the well, which was located below a cemetery. It was believed that decomposing bodies were polluting this source.

The Symonds, with the only always-pure water supply in Napier, waxed rich for 10 more years after the dead horse era.

Then Napier gained its first artesian well at the corner of Hastings and Edwardes Sts on July 11, 1868.

After 14 weeks of trouble and bent pipes, the driller was about to give up when he struck water at more than 200 feet.

More beer was drunk in celebration that day than the new well supplied in water in the same hours.

Photo caption – Napier regimental barracks, near the top of the Hill, photographed in 1862. A spring near the barracks was one of Napier’s main water sources in the 1850s.

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Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published

4 June 1983

Creator / Author

  • Gilbert Lloyd


The Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


  • Robert Brathwaite
  • George Symonds

Accession number


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