Mount Somers Letters

Among the staff at Ashburton Museum are many volunteers who undertake various roles. Some act as receptionists, welcoming and assisting visitors with our popular programs, activities and research enquiries. Others help care for collections. A few transcribe records to provide access to fragile or interesting items that it would otherwise become damaged by use.

Transcribing or indexing can be thankless task and one that some people loathe. It takes a special person to embark on a project that may last months or years. Not only is the project long, but often it is slow, as the contents may be hard to understand, the writing hard to decipher and the actual item difficult to work with due to size, weight or fragility.

One large project has recently been completed by a museum volunteer after 18 months of hard work. It is the first correspondence book for the Mount Somers Road Board, a large book with all the Board’s incoming correspondence pasted onto its pages.

This in itself poses some problems, as we often can’t know the full story related to a letter as we only have one half of the conversation. Sometimes there may be a handwritten note inserted by the secretary of the Board providing an insight into what they said. Frustratingly, many of the incoming letters simply state that the author agrees to what was said in a letter sent to them.

Being inwards correspondence the letters are all in different handwriting. In most records, such as minutes, reports, and so forth, there are only few people writing the entries so even if the handwriting is hard to read at first a reader can soon to get know the style and easily decipher it.

In the Road Board book, each incoming letter had a new style and sometimes there was creative spelling to deal with.

The letters date from 1880 to 1914 and number 1051. It is one of the largest letter books in the Ashburton Museum collection.

In the book, there are memos, flyers and letters, both from official organisations such as the government and other boards, as well as local people.

One thing noticeable when looking at the book, is the number of women who wrote the letters for their husbands. Were these women the literate partner in the relationship, or was the husband just too busy to write a letter? The range of literacy in the letters is also interesting. Some were beautifully written, while others were barely a scrawl of phonetically spelt words.

This means that one of the most important reasons for transcribing this letter book is the detail and insight it gives into everyday people of our district. It is also a useful source for people today who are researching their ancestors.

The Road Boards

The history of road boards in our area is interesting. The first road board in this district was the Ashburton Board, which was constituted in 1864.

The second board was Mount Somers. Essentially the top half of the district was governed by this board. By the time our letter book was begun, the area managed by Mount Somers had reduced, due to more road boards being established, however it still contained a fair chunk of the area, including all the lakes. It bordered Methven and included Anama. So the geographic range is quite large.

The topic of the letters is also varied. Some letters could be written today – people discussing roads or lack of them, enquiring about rates, or requests for services and facilities.

As the name implies, originally road boards focused on roading and infrastructure, but soon it became a body that dealt with all manner of things, including charitable aid. Some road boards had houses that the government assisted with erecting for immigrants to the area, so in the letter book there are also applications for those houses.

There are also a number of petitions for works to be carried out in specific areas, which were signed by landowners, which is a great snapshot of who was living where at any time.

Other people also advised of land transactions to ensure they weren’t paying rates on property they no longer owned.

With this important piece of knowledge about our district transcribed, the letters show a variety of information about a busy community that is rich in detail and fascinating.

By Kathleen Stringer

This article first appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 3rd of September 2019, and was modified for publication to this blog.


  1. The Mount Somers Road Board letter book and examples of letters contained between its pages.
  2. This photo taken in 1881 shows the cottage where the Mount Somers Road Board worked from. Mary Cookson and ‘Bob’ the horse are standing out the front.

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