West Coast Splits Away From Canterbury’s Provincial Government – 1868

The news that the South Island’s West Coast (between the Grey and Arnold Rivers) was once a part of Canterbury would come as a bit of a surprise for some. But it is true. Canterbury’s provincial government governed over Westland from Christchurch; even Bishop Henry Harper (the first Anglican Bishop of Canterbury) made the back breaking journey back and forth over the Alps – without roads – to preach in the furthest corners of his Canterbury diocese.

Canterbury was just 9 year old when the Crown purchased Westland on 21st May 1860. In an area known as Mawhera Pa, 14 Poutini Ngai Tahu Chiefs signed over 7.5 million acres – which they had lived on for 1000 years – for just 300 gold sovereigns. This purchase did not include today’s Greymouth as this was part of 6724 acres set aside as Maori reserves.

With the discovery of gold four years later, the area soon became unrecognisable as thousands of would be miners came pouring in to the region from all directions, even from the sea. Christchurch felt the pinch of this too as within the first two weeks of this discovery, over 2000 of the city’s able bodied male workforce walked off their jobs to seize the opportunity to ‘…chase a bit of the colour…’.

It’s not hard to imagine how quickly Westland came into a life of its own. The population boomed, construction broke ground, all sorts of businesses opened – and with this, the crime rate rose. This illustrated the difficulty of travelling to the area and being in communication with it.

The Canterbury Provincial Governments first move was the construction of a road to the coast and they sent a very young surveyor by the name of Arthur Dudley Dobson to pick the best route through the Alps. Having lived in Christchurch since the age of 11, he spoke fluent Maori and learnt from his Ngai Tahu contacts about a Maori track through the Alps. When this route became known as Arthur’s Pass after he passed on his recommendations and full written report, he was more than a little embarrassed.

But this was still not enough. Holding the Hokitika seat (and Secretary of the Goldfields) in the Canterbury Provincial Council was James Alexander Bonar who, very publically, disapproved of what was suggested next: Westland should just govern itself. In 1868, the Westland County Council was formed and Westland officially became separate from Canterbury. Despite of his feelings on the subject, Bonar supported the first council chairman, Sir John Hall, and took over the reins when Hall resigned. When Westland became New Zealand’s last Province in 1873, Bonar became its first (and last) Superintendent on 17th January 1874. In addition to being the first Mayor of Hokitika, Bonar was a huge part of the community, taking on the roles of numerous public offices and directing many companies successfully.

James Alexander Bonar was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1840. In 1854, his family immigrated to Australia and it appears that Bonar began to learn the merchant trade at the young age of 14. In the company of his merchant father Archibald, and after some time in Invercargill, the pair arrived in Westland in 1865 and became sailing agents. By 1869, Bonar ran his own custom house and became a trustee in the Hokitika Savings Bank. When his father died in 1872, Bonar took over his job as the bank’s manager! This is just a sample of his very colourful life!
Bonar died on 7th November 1901 in Wellington after a sudden illness. Being a universally loved and respected character, his funeral was well attended and a tribute was given by Prime Minister and fellow Westlander Richard ‘King Dick’ Seddon. He left behind his widow Ella and 5 sons!

*photo taken by Annette Bulovic*

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