Battling the elements – Early Ashburton District history

When it comes to tales of Ashburton District’s past, there is no shortage of tales that testify to the harsh nature of early European settler life in the area.

In recent blog posts, we have explored the challenges winter weather posed to local transport and industry, station life, and domestic matters.

As Alex Hewson described in his 1918 reminisces, some of his most vivid memories of living at Clent Hills in the winter of 1878 include jugs of water freezing overnight indoors, and only being able to butcher slain sheep with a handsaw as all other tools were useless.

Hewson also fixated on the work and hardships endured at Mount Peel Station, the waters near which having claimed a number of lives during the station’s early days.

“Bush, Bullocks & Boulders: The story of the Upper Ashburton” by William Vance, 1976, gives us crucial historical background on subjects such as stations, hotels, and life in Alford Forest and other localities, spanning 36 chapters in all.

In keeping with our recent theme of winter woes and hardships endured by early European settlers in the area, this week we will be exploring the impact of hazardous winter conditions across Upper Ashburton in the early days.

Drifts and deluges

According to William Vance, “almost every decade saw a big Canterbury snowstorm. Each storm had brought its individual problem, but experience from the previous one enabled the sheep farmer to better cope with the new one.”

Without the use of modern machinery and the services available today – which we should consider a luxury – farming became a colossal challenge in the colder months.

Charles Cox of Mount Somers Station wrote about the 1867 Canterbury snowstorm, recalling that he had said to Robinson Clough, an old whaler at Alford Forest, “well, we are not going to have any winter this year.”

“Don’t say that,” he replied.

Cox mentioned that until the middle of July the weather had been so fine that they had seen a few ripe strawberries, apples, and pears – but on the 29th of that month, it seems that he had jinxed it.

“It commenced snowing, and never ceased until August 5, when the whole country lay a glittering sheet of snow.”

Allegedly, Mr. Peter of Anama had found sheep dead on their backs “in drifts which could not have been less than 90 feet deep.”

After a day’s work, Cox and company at Mount Somers Station managed to rescue 400 to 500 sheep who were trapped in drifts as high as the eaves of the sheds, having located them by dark spots in the snow.

Trapped and confused

During the 1895 snowstorm, six men endured a harrowing experience which only gets a brief mention by Vance.

At the time of the snowstorm, Walter Fagan was working behind Blackford station, in the company of Bill Wright, Bill Syme, Ed Vause, Aleck McLennan, and Tom Bright as packman.

The group were caught by the storm, “and for ten days snow imprisoned them in their tent.”

Eventually, the lot ran out of food and had nothing to eat but what they caught – sheep.

A more tragic story from 1875 attests once more to the sheer danger posed by the season, in which a man by the name of J. Armstrong became horribly lost.

Vance explains, “the bareness and lack of any land marks in early times is shown by the case of J. Armstrong. He was on his way home one day in 1875 to his home at Mt Somers Station where he was employed as a gardener. Getting completely lost in a snowstorm he succumbed to the blizzard and was found dead, huddled up in a snowdrift not very far from his own place.”

The stories presented in “Bush, Bullocks & Boulders” can make us aware of just how lucky our predecessors could be in some situations, and how quickly the elements which we rely on and coexist with can turn against us.
If you are interested in more stories like this, be sure to check our blog’s main page and check out some of our other posts.

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 30th of June 2020.


1- North Ashburton River, by T. Cane, 1880.

2, 3-Illustrations from Bush, Bullocks & Boulders by Dave Schofield.

4- Pudding Hill Range from Mt. Alford, under snow. No date. This photograph is from Barwell Studios, which was active in the 1930s and 1940s.

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