“I tossed my arms, I sang aloud,
My voice exultant blending
With thunder from the passing cloud,
The wind, the forest bent and bowed,
The rush of rain descending.
Men call me Mad, and well they may,
When, full of rage and trouble,
I burst my banks of sand and clay,
And sweep their wooden bridge away,
Like withered reeds or stubble”.
“On the night of Monday, between the hours of eight and nine o’clock it began to rain and during the night rained incessantly, they compared it to raining just like it had been poured out of buckets” – Janet Spicer, 1877.
In February of 1877, Benjamin Kemp owned a small farm at Pangatotora just down the road from Ngatimoti in a picturesque valley near Motueka. Pangatotara is the also the site of some famous Colin McMahon paintings.
When the flood occurred, Benjamin was married to wife Mary Ann and had seven small children. From the accounts in books and the letter below, we know they lived on a flat above the Motueka river and near to Rocky Creek which can still be found on maps today.
The letter below is an account of the flood from the perspective of Mrs Spicer, a neighbour of the Kemp family and was sent to me by Roger Kemp. In it, Mrs Spicer details Benjamin Kemp’s experience of that terrifying time including watching houses being washed away down the valley. Benjamin’s land was washed away, the river rose to within a chain (20m) of his house. Sadly, he was forced to sell up and move away to nearby Moutere.
March 21st, 1877.
Dear Mrs Holder,
I take the opportunity of answering your letter which we received about ten days ago. Mr Spicer thought that I might be able to tell you the dreadful account of what has happened in the Valley since you were in it. I have no doubt you will have heard a little of it but there is one thing I am persuaded of, that unless your were to see it, you could not believe it, for the scene that the place presents is beyond thought.
We were not eye witness of it for we were in nelson at the time when it happened, if we had not been there, we should not have been hereto have said anything about it.
We had no storms in Nelson, a little tain , the wind was blowing very hard but we did not think anything of floods. I will tell you what Mr Spicer said about it. On Saturday the 4th Feb, Sunday 5th and Monday the 6th the river was very high. In the afternoon of Monday, he and F.Grooby went up as far as Kemps. It was raining very hard, Kemp said that he was going up to or place to milk and stay at Mr Cassidy’s for the nigh, he wished Mr Kemp goodnight as he was not going to return that night. Kemp went on and W.Spicer returned home.
When Kemp went up to Cassidy’s he could not get to our place. Mrs Cassidy was put about very much for the river was high and rising very fast so they arranged for them to go to the hill to Clark’s house, not a nice thing for Mr Cassidy as he was very ill. He went and was none the worse for going.
It was with the greatest difficulty that Kemp could return to his own home as the little creek had risen so in the time that he had gone.
On the night of Monday, between the hours of eight and nine o’clock it began to rain and during the night rained incessantly, they compared it to raining just like it had been poured out of buckets.
At eleven it thundered and lightninged, it was very dreadful to hear and see the lightening, large sheets of blue looking lightening. I think there was not many sleeping eys that night in the valley. W.Spicer said he hardly lay downs for the night, he kept going out and in. looking what was going on, the night was very dark.
In the morning, Tuesday at daybreak when he could see, the water towards the river was close up to the barn or very near and just beginning to come between the barn and the hill. I think it had washed down some fencing. He called Frank Grooby to come and look and by this time the had not long time to look, the water was rising so very fast.
He went and milked his cow and then let out his pigs, his firewood began to float but he still thought it would go down, he went and had his breakfast, in the meantime the water began to come in the house, not many minutes and the fire was out, he said to Grooby they would have to look out. They were too late now, they could not get to the hills. In great composure and presence of mind the picked up the bread and the milk, the clock and sundry other things and went into the barn. The water was just beginning to go into the barn he had his horse tied in the stable and the cow, and the barn full of grain, the water was by this time a foot or more and rising fast so he went and took the horse and got him on top of the grain, a rather difficult thing to do, put up the cow and two little calves and two dogs, himself and Grooby. This is Tuesday morning between eight and nine o’clock. The river was rising very fast, there was bout three feet of water in the barn by this time. They kept a pitch fork and he could reach out and turn the logs off, for by this time the river was nothing but wood and mud. One solid sheet of water from hill to hill, the scene that it must have been.
About ten o’clock they began to see hay stacks, later on he saw one of our cow shed, but where it disappeared he could not say, they came down just as they stood. Sutherland’s house went first, the people were out about twenty minutes before it went and then it was with persuasion they left it, the house went just as it was and everything in it, it went across Mrs Gasgoyne’s place.
I only tell you this that you may think of the quantity of water that must have been going down that way, he did not see any of the houses going down, only the sheds. Kemp saw the house go down and he said that the roof was downwards and the floor turned up. Sutherland’s house went first, then Clarke’s hay shed, then Cassidy’s. Ours was the last. Mrs Cassidy told me that the water was very near up to the top before it went, Then the river began to lower about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then very slow.
The people who saw the cattle go down said it was a sight to see them struggle for their lives. So much for that day.
Wednesday morning as W. Spicer looked our of his resort at day break he said to Grooby “you need not expect to see any of your people any more”. Sad ruin to look at. They thought of Kemp and Cassidy and made sure they must all be drowned. He did not know of them going to the hills, went along the tops of the hills as far as Kemp’s all right, then Kemp accompanied them, the went on the hills as far as Herring Stream, could see your house was standing but great destruction, they could not see very well what had happened.
The next time they visited the place they could see nothing but mud and wood in great heaps, some of them perhaps ten feet high. At the top end of your place there is not a stump to be seen, the land is principally covered with sand from the creek, they say the creek is completely washed out like a river. Down towards your house it is not so deep in sand and mud, in the garden and orchard you can see only the tops of trees, the water in the house was level with the mantelpiece. All the glass doors were burst open and the glass very much smashed out and everything on the lower floor washed out, the blankets and the flour you left and I think there were one or two chairs, which you left, they are gone, the table, the bench and the stretcher, they are left and the things you left in the bedroom you occupied they are there. The door was shut the same way as the water came in , the folding doors were burst open, three veranda posts, the ladders, the earth closet, the fowl house clean washed away. The porch is moved round so that it is difficult to get in, the boiler that was built up outside was washed down but not taken away.
At the standing bush between you and us, it is just a mess of wood, there is not a bit of fencing left on the place. Spicer says that if the quantity of ground that is covered with grass is measured, there would be about four acres.
I have given you the particulars about your place dear Mr and Mrs Holder, I cannot help telling you a little of the disaster of our own place, if it was not for the two or three poplars standing, we could not tell where our house stood, it is nothing but a mass of ruins, the front paddock where we used to grow our potatoes and all our crops, there is about eight feet of sand, there is no fencing to be seen. The paddock next to your bush where we took our hay off is level with mud and sand, you can just see the top of a post here and there, every apple tree is either washed away or covered over, we cannot see anything of them. I dare say you will remember the creek that ran about seven or eight chain from the house, that has no outlet now, it is just like a little river, one cannot see any way of letting it out.
I have no doubt you will be able to think of the change to us when we returned from Nelson than when we went, leaving a good home and having no home to come back to. The thought of it was enough to break anyone up, we lost everything we had except the clothes we took with us, not one rag was saved except a few blankets and they were picked up on W.Spicers ground in a large heap of wood at his place. I can see lots of dresses all twined around the logs, quite rotten in your hands. We lost eight head of cattle and eleven pigs, the poor old bull got drowned, he was on his chain, all the fowls, all the turkeys, one horse and the pet lambs. We are living in Mr George Deck’s house with Mr Spicer, his own house where he used to live is not habitable, four feet of mud in it, he lost about 150 sheep, one foal, his cart and all his grain, peas and barley, he took the peas out of the barn, just like mud and even the pigs would not touch them, plough, harrows and sundries.
Mr Cassidy lost all they had, it was not much, but too much for them to lose, they are living at the village. At Limmers and Clark’s place the timber is cleaned washed away and the stumps covered with mud, hardly any sand.
Now we come to Kemp’s and Grooby’s, the Rocky Creek is clean washed out from hill to hill, all the flat land is taken away. Grooby says he has lost about 30 acres of ground. The river rose till within a chain of Kemp’s house, they were afraid and had to clear out and go up on the hills. As they were sitting at breakfast on Tuesday morning, they heard a great noise, and on looking our there was a mountain of timber coming down, sweeping everything before it. They say there are rocks washed down about fifty tons, it is quite a sight to see it, really worth going to look at.
You will remember the little track under the bank, that is washed up level. Kemp has sold out and gone to Moutere to live. In some places on the river side one would almost think that the bed of the river and the ground is level.
Now we will go down to Gasgoynes place, the ground thee is nothing but shingle, beach and sand. I think that there, from the river to the hill , the eis not a blade of grass to be seen, their place is about the worst.
The Grooby’s have suffered very much. John Grooby’s and the cemetery are left on an island. There are two rivers there now, it first begins at the Wright’s place, quite a deep river running around that way. Young Tom Grooby’s place was off it’s piles and somehow turned over and them in it, they were like that twenty four hours, no one could get near.
Mr Jennings saved his boat and that was of great benefit of saving them and his father’s family. On the Wednesday morning, George Grooby, young Chapman and Herateous Jennings went at the risk of their own lives, they began to cross the river opposite old F.Grooby’s place among the Poplars. W. Limmer was in great danger too, his house was broken up and they were obliged to take refuge on the logs, they were there one day and night and the people had to bring a boat from Moutere to take them off and it was with the greatest difficulty they could reach them, their loss was great.
Where the bridge was at Mrs Heath’s they crossed with a boat. Mrs Heath suffered in a degree less than anyone. I think it has fenced her all in.
I must conclude about the flood although I could tell you lots more. I hope you will excuse all the mistakes I have made. If there are any things about your won place you wan tot know I shall be glad to let you know. W.G. Spicer has cleaned all the mud out of the big house, and other places. They are busy as there, the floors are a good bit destroyed, the boards are turned up, not all of them, some. I said before there were three feet of mud but is was a mistake, one foot would be about it. They also wished me to say id you would like to let them have the run of if for five pounds a year they would give it, if you could send some grass seed they would sow it. We have got the glass for mending the windows but it was not done. I do not know whether the glass was destroyed or not it was left at Knowles.
I shall now say goodbye, kind love to your deer children except of same to yourselves. Spicer joins in kind love to you all.
This leaves us well, hoping this will find you all the same.
Following the flood, it appears Benjamin sold up and relocated to Moutere to live. The government were also offering free land to those affected by the floods in the wasteland of the district. Did Benjamin take advantage of this?
J.P. Salisbury mentions the flood in After Many Days. He says… “all the floods before, and they were many, were water floods, but this was an earth flood”.
Cyprian Brereton writes “Suddenly, at the same time, hundreds or thousands of slips slid into the swollen torrents. These landslides carried standing timber with rocks and boulders as big as houses…these avalanches tore their way into the Motueka River it in its turn became a huge swift flowing glacier of mud which had the devastating power of running water. The settler may have contributed to this calamity in some small way by chopping some of the forest. There was no evidence of such a devastating flood before this one…for a very natural reason such a flood will not be repeated, the slips that fell off the hillsides, leaving bare rock, cannot be replaced to slip again”.
Brereton, Cyprian Bridge, No Roll of Drums (1947) Wellington, NZ: A.H.& A.W. Reed. Ch. XIV, pp. 140-145. (Stories of Ngatimoti’s early settlers).
Read more about the February 1877 flood at Motueka in a newspaper clipping here.