Winter Woes – Early Ashburton District history

When it comes to staying warm, many of us are privileged to have electric heaters, puffer jackets, and nice warm blankets to swaddle up in.

As for travelling short and long distances, our cars and buses have heating which usually suffice in keeping us cosy while we commute.

In the early days of Ashburton District, or Ashburton County as it was then, things were very different when it came to staving off the elements.

Alex Hewson’s “Early Days in the Ashburton County” was first serialised in the Guardian in 1918, then published as a booklet later that year.

Eventually, these reminisces were republished in 1996 by the Ashburton Museum and Historical Society.

This booklet contains a number of interesting and valuable stories from Ashburton’s past.

Such stories dwell on the hardships of early pioneer life in the locality, including one tale about a swagman who unfortunately lost his legs to frostbite, which we retold in a 2018 Heritage Page article.

As winter comes to a close, let’s take a look back in time to the mid-to-late 1800s and see how our predecessors handled the colder months.

The freezing hills

Domestic life for early Pakeha settlers was full of unpleasant surprises.

In a past article, I discussed the notion that while the Māori had much more time to acclimate to New Zealand’s extremes, nineteenth century European colonists had only just begun to understand what it meant to live in Aotearoa.

It would take much time and effort to establish the infrastructure and way of life that the Europeans were used to, and this was quite evident in early Ashburton County.

Hewson describes the winter of 1878 as the coldest he ever experienced.

He was at Clent Hills that year, northwest of Mount Somers and just southwest of Mount Taylor.

According to Hewson, at one point it froze for ten days straight without a thaw, and he goes on to describe some of the hardships he and Mrs. Hewson faced that winter.

“I killed a sheep for mutton, and it was hung up for a few days in the woolshed. I was going to cut chops, but could do nothing with knife or tomahawk, so I took it outside on the frozen snow and started with the axe; but all the impression I could make was chips flying off the same, just as hitting freestone. The only way I could cut chops was with a hand-saw. The bone was the softest.”

He makes further testament to just how cold it was at Clent Hills as he describes how “there had been an enamelled iron jug full of water left in a bedroom. The water had frozen solid and burst the jug.”

At night, he continues, Mrs. Hewson filled the range with Mount Somers coal before bedtime, and put the night’s milk on a chair close to the range.

In the morning, they had to cut the milk in the pan or break off pieces of the solid mass.

“I have had, when in bed, to break the ice on my whiskers; they were all frozen with my breath. The Ashburton was frozen over, and all the lakes were a sheet of ice. The sheep crossed the lakes and also the horse and cattle.”

The cold can still be a menace, and so it is important to check on our loved ones to make sure they are not struggling with the cold when the mercury drops – as winter comes to a close, it is something to keep in mind when the next one rolls around.

By Connor Lysaght

This article was modified for this blog and originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 2nd of June 2020.


  1. Ashburton railway in snow, post 1920
  2. Mill house and out buildings after snowfall, c. 1900-1917.
  3. Old St Stephen’s church in the snow, 1894.
  4. Jennifer, Norman, Joan, and Merilyn Harris with their frosty friend.
  5. Greenstreet in snow

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