Sands of Time: Tahunanui Beach

Now is the time of year when New Zealand families make like a D-Day assault team and storm the beaches.  The ice cream vendors make a killing while people get sand in their hair, work on their tan and lap up the beach culture.  Of course none of this is a new phenomenon.  Today I thought I’d share some previously unpublished vintage photos of one of New Zealand’s favourite Summer destinations – Tahunanui Beach in Nelson.

Tahunanui was my home in the 1990’s and as a local I got used to the annual influx of visitors that pour into the suburb from Boxing Day until mid-January.  The holiday camp there is the largest in the southern hemisphere.  Holidaymakers are attracted by the family friendly beach and sunny weather.

A few years ago I bought an old album of photographs on Ebay. It documents a travelers visit to New Zealand in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  I bought the album as it included some fantastic images on maritime history along with a few showing the damage caused by the Murchison earthquake (I’ll post these another day, when I’m not in such a summery mood), but it was no surprise to see that Tahunanui beach was among their destinations.

I hope you enjoy these photographs taken in January and February 1933.

Bathers in the sand dunes at Tahunanui Beach, 1933Lemuel Lyes Collection

Bathers in the sand dunes at Tahunanui Beach, 1933
Lemuel Lyes Collection

I’ve stitched these three photos together.  Notice the two people in the background.  The script-writer in me wants to believe that they are spying on them.

Tahunanui Beach 1933Lemuel Lyes Collection

Tahunanui Beach 1933
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Perhaps this woman was a chaperone of sorts?  In any event, I like her idea of taking a good book to the beach.  Her name is mentioned as “Miss Slowey”.

Tahunanui Beach 1933Lemuel Lyes Collection

Tahunanui Beach 1933
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Tahunanui Beach, 1933Lemuel Lyes Collection

Tahunanui Beach, 1933
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The bathers names are Pauline, Bruce, Claudia, A.T. and Tess.

Tahunanui 1933Lemuel Lyes Collection

Tahunanui 1933
Lemuel Lyes Collection

This view shows Rocks Road.  A while ago I blogged about the sea smashing into this road during a storm.  This is the road that I used to bike up and down delivering the weekly community paper and on many occasions I’d get caught out by large waves at high tide.  Few of these old houses are left today and instead mansions take their place, a change I admit that I may have played a small role in as I also delivered the “Property Press”.

Tahunanui Beach, 1933Lemuel Lyes Collection

Tahunanui Beach, 1933
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The view from a house in the Tahunanui hills.  I had a view similar to this when counting down the seconds to the new millennium.

This history of Tahunanui Beach does of course go back further, but not as far as you might presume.  Beaches are highly ephemeral (perhaps that is why I like them).  When settlers first arrived in Nelson the beach now known as Tahunanui was primarily gravel and had a river going through it.  You can see a neat diagram showing the change in the river path here.  Some of the stones and gravel were used for building local roads and most of the rest was presumably covered with sand in the following years.  Don’t believe me when I say it used to be a gravel beach?  Check out this photo from the Nelson Museum.

It was in the early 20th century that Tahunanui beach really started to grow in popularity as a destination for holidaymakers.  The following column was printed in the Marlborough Express on 27th February 1909, under the title “Through a Woman’s Specs”.  It gives a fun insight into one woman’s trip to the beach.

Next day I start off to explore Tahuna, the fashionable seaside suburb which has sprung into existence during the last few years. I join a merry party of giddy girls— ages ranging from five to fifty years—and we board a motor-bus in Trafalgar Street and speed off to Tahuna. Down to the Port, past the old “Fifeshire,” round the Rocks Road, and so on to what we used to call “The Sands” now styled “Tahuna” by the City Council, but “Tatahi” by the postal authorities. On the white sands, where we used to hunt for the coy cockle in my youthful days, there are now two wide streets, with rows of pretty villas and cottages; also, a post office, two general stores, a tea kiosk and a State school. The sight of the broad sweep of shining sand, broken here and there by rivulets and lagoons, and running gradually down to the blue waters of the bay, was too much for any native-born Nelsonian to resist, and in doublequick time all footwear was discarded and we were capering about like an infant school out for an airing. Some of the braver spirits ventured into the foaming main, where the water was quite six inches deep, and all promised themselves to come again in correct bathing costume and have a game of “mermaids.”  Strolling along the sands, I noticed a canvas-covered edifice, like a sentry-box on runners. Native curiosity impelled me to take a closer view, and I discovered the following legend inscribed on one side: “Bathing-machine on hire. Horse, towels, bathing costumes and attendance, sixpence an hour. Apply ___ ____”.  Talk about being “ruined by Chinese cheap labour” after that. I would have liked to investigate farther, and see what was meant by the term “attendance,” but one of our party said it only meant that they sent someone along to keep the horse from being frightened by bathers, and another one said: “Save your sixpence for afternoon tea,” so I came away, only half satisfied. Then we adjourned to the kiosk, and regaled ourselves with delicious afternoon tea, daintily served on the verandah. Either the tea or the ozone which we had been imbibing had a mildly intoxicating effect, for I grieve to say that some of our party behaved in a very undignified manner; shouting and waving to all the “mere men” who passed in traps or on bicycles. Most of them returned the greetings, but one of them mistook us for a party from the Mental Hospital, and thought we ought to have more than one keeper with us. I must “ring off” now, and leave my further adventures till next week.

This postcard gives you an idea of what the beach looked like in the early twentieth century.

The Beach, Tahuna, Nelson. N.Z.  Postcard from the 'Alf. Robinson Series'.Lemuel Lyes Collection

The Beach, Tahuna, Nelson. N.Z. Postcard from the ‘Alf. Robinson Series’.
Lemuel Lyes Collection

The author of the 1909 Marlborough Express article mentions the change in Tahunanui’s name.  There is an interesting story here.  It was originally called “The Sands”, but in 1902 a competition was run to find a new name.  “Tahuna” was chosen, meaning “sandbank” in Māori.  The winner of the competition was Mr. M. P. Webster of Trafalgar Street and he was awarded one guinea.

However there was a problem.  It was fine to call the area Tahuna but there was already a Tahuna Post Office in Morrinsville and a double-up like that was something the postal service had serious issues with.  I can imagine the debate between postal clerks at the time….

Clerk 1:  Those folks at that beach near Nelson, what did they change their name to?

Clerk 2:  Errr, it says here “Tahuna”.

Clerk 1:  They can’t do that!

Clerk 2:  Why not?

Clerk 1:  There is already a Tahuna, up north.

Clerk 2:  Couldn’t we just call them Tahuna South and the other one Tahuna North?

Clerk 1:  Well that did work when we had the problem with the two Palmerstons, but it really is a lot of paperwork.  Tell them we want another name that isn’t Tahuna. They will do as we say damn it, we are the postal service and we WILL be obeyed.

And so it was that ANOTHER name was briefly given to the area – Tatahi.  Tahuna remained the name favoured by the masses and a compromise was made in early 1911 when the name Tahunanui was given.  Everyone was happy, the post office, the city council, the bathers and even Mr. Webster who got to keep his guinea.

Collecting nerd alert – this means that the Tatahi post office was only in operation from 24th Feb 1908 – 1st Feb 1911 and existing examples of this post mark are exceedingly rare.  For example you can buy a Tatahi marked cover here for $750!  So whenever I see an early postcard of Tahunanui beach I always check the postmark, just in case I get lucky.  What about the postcard I shared earlier?  Was that marked Tatahi?

Back of Tahunanui Postcard, 1914Lemuel Lyes Collection

Back of Tahunanui Postcard, 1914
Lemuel Lyes Collection

Tantalizingly close, but unfortunately this time no cigar.  The stamp of King Edward was issued in 1909 when the Tatahi name was in use, but the stamps continued to be sold until at least 1915.  The postmark is dated 21st January 1914, a few years too late to be from ‘Tatahi’, and it was sent from the main Nelson post office anyway.  Bugger.  The search will continue!

However there is indeed a treasure on the back of the postcard, and it is one of the reasons I love collecting these things.  There is a short personal note from the sender mentioning his trips to Tahunanui beach.

This is where I bathe everyday.  Such a lot of children paddle here.  When are you going to write to me again.  I send you my fond love.  Daddy

So ends my tribute to Tahunanui beach and the summers of yesteryear.  It is a beautiful sunny day and I think a trip to the beach might be the perfect way to spend it.  I hope all my readers from the southern hemisphere are enjoying their summer break and to those in the north – your time will come soon enough!

© Lemuel Lyes


For more on the history of Tahunanui Beach check out this fantastic website

I’m also thankful to Logan Coote for checking some facts for me in his copy of B. E. Dickinson’s ‘Historic Tahuna’ and also to Papers Past from which I gleamed the details of the name-changes and the delightful article from the Marlborough Express.

4 replies »

  1. Brings back memories for me of a youthful pilgrimage to the McCashin brewery c1987, ending up at the Tahunanui beach motor camp, then crawling into town next morning where we found we could get breakfast at Chez Eelco (another Nelson icon, back then)… ahem.

    On a more serious note, the 1930s Tahunanui pictures, to me, sum up the essence of the age – the youthful freedoms of a new generation juxtaposed against the disapproving eye of what Belich has called our ‘tight’ society that emerged after the First World War. Good stuff.

    • I also remember Chez Eelco! It was still running when I was a local. I used to pop in there for refreshments after exploring the ramparts (what is left of them) of Fort Arthur or visiting the old cemetery next to the site where the Maungatapu murders were hanged.

      I do hope you have some photos of your time at Tahunanui in 1987, I’m sure they will also one day be an important part of the historical record of the area!

      Interesting observation on the 1930’s snaps, I can certainly see what you mean. Sad in a way when you think that in less than a decade the younger generation would go through a similar that which their parents had in the Great War. My take on it is that if freedom is worth fighting for then surely it is also worth enjoying.

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