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Lower Hutt Past and Present (1941)


The Hutt River Board

The story of the river and a description of the magnificent bush which almost covered the Valley when the white man came appear elsewhere. Native forest disappears quickly where the settler thrives; but this process had not gone far when the settlers found that the course of the river where the banks had been cleared became wider and shallower, and the banks were undermined with every fresh. The position became more acute as the clearings were extended, and much valuable land was swept away. The river was less steady in its flow, and when the river rose, it grew ugly.
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The Hutt River, Looking Upstream From Molesworth's Farm, 1846.

Brees.—Courtesy Wellington Harbour Board.
As the menace from the floods increased, steps more or less futile were attempted by the river-side dwellers to restrain the river, and as early as 1853 the advice of Mr. Roberts, a civil engineer, was sought. He recommended the widening and straightening of the main channel and the construction of an embankment to keep the river to its course. But such an undertaking was quite beyond the resources of the residents.
For a long time a selfish policy was followed: each river-side owner protected his own frontage as best he could, regardless of damage done to his
neighbours lower clown, until the position became intolerabale. Then a River Board was set up to co-ordinate the work.
The first board was formed in 1879, its members being Messrs. Thomas Mason (chairman), S. R. Johnson, P. Bruce, W. B. Buick and P. Speedy. Few meetings were held, and little useful work was done. The last recorded meeting was held in 1887, though apparently this board nominally existed until 1898.
Flooding was then very frequent, but no real effort was made to cope with it. Many old residents still give vivid accounts of their disastrous experiences, and a visible record hangs on the wall of the present River Board's office shewing the dimensions of the flood in November, 1898. Feeling ran so high that prominent residents took action, and eventually presented a
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Village of Hutt, Near Wellington.

—Courtesy Hutt River Board.
This illustration was published in an English newspaper in 1868 and was taken from approximately the present bridge site. The spire is that of the Catholic Church, recently removed, and the river protection works may be seen on the right.
memorial to the Government requesting the abolition of the board. This request was granted, and Dr. J. R. Purdy and Messrs. W. A. Fitzherbert, G. Scales, W. G. Foster and E. P. Bunny, who were mainly responsible for the agitation, were elected the first members of the new board.
They appointed Mr. E. P. Bunny legal adviser, a position he still holds after nearly forty-two years.
The many big floods of 1898 gave the board much to worry about. The "Hutt and Petone Chronicle," in June, 1898, was insistent that a remedy
could be found, and a prophetic article appeared in that journal:—"We do not for a moment suggest," it stated, "that a perfect remedy is at present possible, but what we are certain of is that a scheme of river conservation, unselfishly pursued, would make the Hutt Valley the garden of New Zealand." The formation of the first active board was authorised by Proclamation gazetted on February 16th, 1899, and an election was held a month later.
This resulted in Messrs. D. Sladden (father of the present engineer), W. A. Fitzherbert, W. G. Foster, E. J. Riddiford and Dr. J. R. Purdy being elected, and they chose Mr. Sladden as their chairman. Mr. P. R. Purser, the Town Clerk, was appointed clerk at a salary of £25 per annum. The board rented the Borough Council Chambers for its business meetings at £20 per annum.
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The Laing-Meason Memorial.

Finance for the building of the stop-banks was offered by private persons and institutions, but the board declined these offers in favour of an inscribed loan of £48,000. The wisdom of this decision is shown by the fact that already more than half of the amount has been re-paid and by February, 1945, the whole debt will be wiped out.
Mr. Laing-Meason was appointed Engineer, and it is largely due to his knowledge and ability that the stop-banks, commenced in 1901, have proved so effective.
There followed a period when the board, for reasons of economy, decided to dispense with the services of the engineer whose plans were so complete that the loss was not apparent for some time.
The board launched a new scheme to keep the channel clear by means of a floating bucket-dredge, but difficulties arose, and the newly-elected board "recalled the pilot," disposed of the dredge and inaugurated the present scheme of licensing contractors to remove shingle on a royalty basis. During the last ten years over one million cubic yards of metal have been removed by the several drag line shingle plants operating in the area controlled by the board.
On the eastern bank of the river, between the two bridges, stand two structures. One, a big stone flanked by ornamental walls and pillars, is erected "In memory of G. Laing Meason, Engineer to the Hut& River Board, 1898-1924." The other, a little further south on the same bank, is a recently-completed square concrete tower containing an instrument that automatically records every variation in the rise and fall of the river.
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Main Street of The Hutt, 1904.

—From an old photo
This shows the last flood in the lower part of the township. The Oddfellows' Hall and Mr. T. Burt's store and house are shown in the distance.
After the death of Mr. Meason, Mr. H. Sladden was appointed engineer. Mr. Sladden had, as a cadet under Mr. Meason, become fully conversant with all the details of the river protection scheme, and was able to continue the plans as laid down by his former chief.
The board has, from time to time, acquired lands adjacent to the river, and these valuable assets now include Gear Island and land at the estuary.
The present board controls the river from Silverstream to Wakefield Street on the western side and to the sea on the eastern side of the river.
The need for unified control of the whole of the river in the Valley, to which attention has been drawn by recent events, was recognised by Mr. W. T. Neill, late Surveyor-General, who, reporting on the river in 1931, said: "It is essential that the River Board should have control of the river from Maori Bank to the sea. . . . ."
In spite of the fact that each successive flood has demonstrated the adequacy of the protective works there can, and will be, no slackening of the important work of improving the channel.
The present board consists of Dr. B. J. Dudley (chairman), Messrs. J. W. Andrews, F. J. Jones, J. Mitchell and Ward Pearee, with Mr. E. P. Bunny as solicitor and Mr. A. J. Gearing as clerk (a position he has occupied for fourteen years).
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Mr. P. R. Purser.

Mr. Purser was appointed Town Clerk in February. 1892, a position he held for 21 1/2 years. He was also the first clerk of the Hutt River Board, established in 1899.

Hutt County Council.

The Hutt County Council held its first meeting in the Court House at Lower Hutt on the 4th January, 1877, and Mr. T. Mason was elected chairman. At the following meeting, held in the Mechanics' Institute, Wm. Jones was appointed Clerk and W. A. Fitzherbert Engineer to the County. The subsequent meetings were all held in Wellington.
The increasing powers of the County Council at the expense of the Highways Board eventually led to the Board being merged with the County Council on the 30th April, 1892. Each of the boards levied a rate of 1/2d. in the £1, and when they were merged the rate struck by the County Council was 1d. in the £1 of the capital value.
To-day the Hutt County Council controls an area of about 100,000 acres, 35 per cent. of which is non rateable. The total revenue last year was £30,189, of which £27,618 was collected in rates.

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