A look at Bluff’s past




“Upon landing at Bluff, I immediately asked to be shown some Maoris, but was told that they were very scarce in that part of the country. Indeed it seemed as though I might as well have asked for a moa!”
The English author Anthony Trollope on his arrival in Bluff in 1872
Anthony Trollope, 1874, Australia and New Zealand in Hall Jones – 1976
When he arrived in Bluff from Melbourne in 1872 Anthony Trollope looked aver a somewhat raw port town set on a peninsula at the southern tip of the South Island. It was dominated by a 265 meter hill from which magnificent vistas spread in all directions To the south and east lay Foveaux Strait and in the distance Stewart island and Ruapuke Islands. To the north lay Bluff Harbour itself, beyond to the north and west the vast expanse of the Southland Plains to which Bluff was connected by a narrow neck at the northwestern corner of the peninsula.

Its steep topography and location on a peninsula combined to make it appear as an island from the sea and to the Maori it was known as Motupohue, ‘island of convolvulus’. Bishop Selwyn, visiting Bluff in 1844 – 30 years before Trollope – described its hill as a bold wooded headland standing out of an extensive plain’

Bluff was not a settlement until the arrival of Europeans but the area surrounding served a variety of functions for the Maori before European settlement.

The main Maori settlement in the area which became known as Southland, was Ruapuke Island, which with its seven pas was the base of the paramount chief of the South Island, Tuhawaiki, otherwise known as ‘King of the Bluff’ or Bloody Jack’. Smaller Maori settlements were scattered along the Southland coast, including villages at Ocean Beach, Omaui and Oue on what is now known as the New River Estuary.

Although a village was established by Te Wero at Ocean Beach, on the neck of the peninsula, the settlement was transitory in nature. The Maori people appeared to move in cycles and Ocean Beach was another stopover point.

A Maori settlement needed a combination of resources, food and water, flax for clothing and of course a defensive position. Food sources in Bluff were good, especially kina and paua, although much flax was speckled and not of good quality. But one important resource abundant in the vicinity of Bluff was argillite, which was quarried and worked into adzes at Tiwai Point across the harbour. Studies have shown that the site appears to have been used about 500 years ago, but during the summer months only.

The European arrived in Bluff sooner than in many other parts of New Zealand. The first record of a boat entering Bluff Harbour was in 1813 when a Sydney expedition, on board the ‘Perseverance’, was sent to report on the possibilities of trading in flax. Robert Williams, an ex-convict who was engaged on the Perseverance, as an expert flax-dresser and ropemaker provided the first description of Bluff Harbour. (The fact that Williams was allowed to leave Australia at all is an indication that his crime was of a minor nature). The expedition named the harbour ‘Port Macquarrie’ in honour of Lachlan Macquarrie, the Governor of New South Wales. The name was retained until the late 1850’s.

The expedition may not have been the first European venture to visit Bluff. It is widely held that as early as 1792 there had been extensive whaling and sealing in the area and it is highly probable that ships engaged in the industry used Bluff Harbour. About 1806 it is believed, a whaling party visited Bluff and all party members were killed except a small boy who was raised by Topi Patuki.

The first European to settle at Bluff was James Spencer a veteran of Waterloo. he arrived in 1823. aboard the ‘St Michael’ while he was a member of Johnny Jones Waikouaiti based whaling team and returned the following year to establish a permanent home. Spencer’s settlement was one of the earliest in New Zealand – the first to survive to become a town. Bluff therefore has a longer history than any other town in New Zealand.

James Spencer built the first European house in Southland. He bought land from local Maoris and cleared 24 hectares for cultivation before importing a herd of cattle. Finally, he set up a fishing station where ho employed a total of 21 Europeans and Maori. Spencer was soon joined by other settlers and the nucleus of the town was formed. Maori people living in the Bluff area were subjected to European influence long before the Maori living in most other parts of New Zealand. Very few of Bluff’s early settlers had European wives. Intermarriage between the Maori and British, Norwegian and Portugese arrivals occurred, creating a multicultural community which is still evident today.

Bluff grew to become a popular haven among whalers and the production and sale of supplies to meet the needs of both whalers and sealers, provided the basis for the town’s further development.

In 1856 the town was surveyed by J T Thomson, who called it Bluff Town and named the streets after rivers in Ireland. That did not meet instant approval for he was ordered by the Superintendent of the Province, Captain Cargill, to change the name of the town’s main street from Shannon to Gore Street, to honour Governor Gore Brown and to rename the town Campbelltown to honour the Governor’s wife who was a Campbell. The Governor’s word was law and the town was officially known as Campbelltown until 1 March 1917 when the name of Bluff was officially adopted.

A road to Bluff was first sanctioned by the Otago Provincial Council in 1859 and in April 1860 1, 000 pounds was voted by the Provincial Council for the work to start. In 1861 when the Southland Provincial Council came into being, work was pushed ahead more vigorously but the first attempt to put a road through proved an expensive failure. The swamp simply swallowed up the metal. That made the idea of putting a railway across the swamp instead an attractive alternative The railway line from Bluff to Invercargill was opened in 1867 and communication was maintained in the meantime via a temporary ‘road’ following a route nearer the coast Use of the ‘road’ which threaded its way between swamps and sandhills, was completely dependent on the tide.

Completion of rail and road links meant Bluff was no longer isolated from the rest of Southland. The separation of Southland from Otago meant immigrants could enter Southland directly and between 1862 and 1864 a total of 1680 immigrants arrived in Bluff on 12 vessels. A wharf was established in 1864 and the way for ships was marked by buoys, Not surprisingly. the volume of trade passing through the port also increased the building of large wool and grain stores attested to the fact that the provincial hinterland was proving most productive By the end of the 1860’s the port of Bluff and the township were facing a secure future in unison.

In 1877, regular ferry services to Stewart Island began. The Bluff Harbour Board was established in 1878 and the Campbelltown Borough Council was incorporated the following year.

The came the developments upon which both the province and its ports would hinge – the Mataura papermills in 1876, the country’s first dairy factory at Edendale in 1681 and the exporting of frozen sheep and lamb carcasses from 1883. In 1885, a freezer was established in Bluff by the Southland Frozen Meat and Product Export Company Limited. In 1892. the Campbelltown Mayor and Bluff Harbour Board Chairman, Joseph G Ward, opened the Ocean Beach Freezing Works.

By the turn of the century, province, port and port town could face the future with confidence.

Framed copies of some of the Historic Photographs are available at A Touch of Bluff Secondhand.