Albion Square, Nelson

  • Brick Magazine in Albion Square.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Imelda Bargas. Date: 22/11/2006.
  • Close-up of magazine.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Imelda Bargas. Date: 22/11/2006.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 5161 Date Entered 15th February 1990 Date of Effect 15th February 1990


City/District Council

Nelson City


Nelson Region

Location description

Located in the Albion Square Historic Area which is bounded on the north and south side by Hardy Street and Bridge Street, Nelson.


Historic photographs show that aside from the Provincial Buildings, the brick magazine was the earliest building on the site of Albion Square. Erected in approximately 1861 it was likely used by local militia when they had their barracks in nearby Harley Street.

Military in early New Zealand

In 1845 the government, prompted by clashes with Maori in the North and South of the country - in particular Hone Heke's rebellion in July 1844, issued its first Militia Ordinance. This allowed for militia units to be raised in emergencies and that for all able bodied men between 18-65 to be ready for service and for training of 28 days per year. Militia battalions were formed in Auckland, Wellington and Nelson where settlers had born witness to, or feared, Maori attacks. After some initial skirmishes in Auckland and Wellington there was little militia activity for many years. There was a small outbreak near Wanganui in 1847, dealt to by imperial forces, and a dispute between Maori over land near New Plymouth in 1854 prompted the founding of a force there in 1855.

In 1858 a Militia Act, similar to the Militia Ordinance, was passed by the New Zealand Parliament. This act allowed for the continuation of militia forces, allowing for militiamen to find substitutes, it also made provision for volunteer units. Volunteers were exempted from militia service but were required to serve anywhere in New Zealand. The country was divided into militia units and permanent training staff provided for each district. They were to train all militia and volunteer units in their district.

Almost every settlement formed its own volunteer corps, leading to the appointment of a Deputy Adjunct-General in 1859. The total force of volunteers in the 1860s was said to be approximately 6000 but very few of the volunteer corps ever took part in campaigns. Each officer and 'efficient volunteer' was paid an annual capitulation grant but with no prescribed training, many of the corps drilled only sporadically, often only leaving their drill halls for ceremonial parades. Recommendations to improve the efficiency of the corps were made but nothing was done for many years. Two scares of war between Britain and Russia in 1878 and 1885 (and again later in 1895), the 'Russian scares', and subsequent concern over the possibility of a Russian invasion in the colonies prompted the New Zealand government to look at the country's preparedness. An 1880 report from Colonel Scratchley on New Zealand's coastal defences recommended the construction of a system of coastal defences and the reorganisation of volunteer corps as small field forces around the port cities of Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Dunedin. These recommendations were implemented in 1882. In the late 1890s there were gradual improvements to efficiency, as the recommendations of a report by Commandant Lieutenant Colonel Fox on the volunteers corps were enacted. In 1899 some volunteer units served in the South African War.

These improvements and those made in the early 1900s were not deemed sufficient. On his retirement in 1906 General Officer Commanding Major General Babington commented that the colony did not take its defence seriously. As a result of his comments a Defence Council was formed in 1907. In their first report they commented that 'volunteering had had its last chance', with the only practical alternative being compulsory military training. Compulsory military training was introduced under the auspices of the Defence Act 1909 and the territorial army, which would replace the Volunteers, was formed in 1910-1911.

Military in early Nelson

The Nelson Battalion of Militia was formed in Nelson in August 1845, shortly after the first militia ordinance was issued. It formation stemmed from concern that Maori were going to attack, it was not a concern without foundation the settlement some two years earlier having born witness to the Wairau affair (see Appendix Six of the Albion Square Registration Report - survey test marks for further discussion). The militia saw no active service at this time. After this period little is known about the activities or structure of the militia in the area. It is known that voluntary training commenced in Nelson in 1860, and given the timeframe it was this that possibly prompted the building of the magazine in Albion Square. On the introduction of the Territorial Army in 1911 the existing infantry in Nelson was regrouped becoming the 12th Regiment in the Canterbury Military District.

Use of the magazine

The brick magazine that remains in Albion Square today was erected there in approximately 1861, possibly influenced, as outlined above, by the formation of volunteer corps in the area. It sits directly to the north of the Fire Engine House and, as indicated, it is built of stout materials, primarily brick. Prior to the erection of this magazine it is thought that a magazine on the Boulder Bank was in use. Although the brick magazine was built on Section 203 in approximately 1861 the land was not acquired by the Crown until 1866, and not handed over for public utility until 1871. By 1880 there were two magazines within Albion Square. The other magazine no longer remains but once sat directly to the south of the Fire Engine House. It is thought to have been a more temporary construction; recorded as a timber and iron building it is referred to as the timber magazine in this discussion.

As discussed little is known about the early military in the area and less still about their use of the magazines during the Provincial Government era. Butterworth, in her book on the Suter Art Gallery, notes that 'local tradition says [the brick magazine] was used as a temporary cell to hold the 'Maungatapu murderers' upon their arrest'. No records have been found to support this, though interestingly folklore also suggests that the bodies of those murdered were displayed in the nearby Fire Engine House (see Appendix Six of the Albion Square Registration Report - Fire Engine House for discussion of the Maungatapu murders). Records relating to the use of the magazines tell only of their use in the early to mid 1900s. Of interest among this material are records relating to the problems associated with the timber magazine to the south of the Fire Engine House and the probable disuse of the brick magazine as a magazine.

Correspondence indicates that during 1904 the wooden floor of one of the magazines, referred to as the small arms magazine, gave way when soldiers were placing ammunition in it. Subsequent correspondence indicates that this was the timber magazine to the south of the Fire Engine House. The floor of the timber magazine was subsequently repaired and it appears to have been reused with correspondence from 1905 expressing concern that the timber magazine may catch on fire because of sparks from the forge at the nearby Technical School. A brick surround was subsequently erected around the base. The timber magazine appears to have been demolished prior to 1936 to make way for the Ministry of Works paint shop erected in the late 1930s to early 1940s.

Correspondence regarding the brick magazine to the north of the Fire Engine House is more limited. The Director of Artillery after visiting the brick magazine wrote, in August 1907, a report critical of the storage of ammunition in the magazine, in particular the storage of dynamite and field gun ammunition stored together, which he saw as against regulations and dangerous. He was particularly concerned because of the structure's close proximity to the Central city. He noted:

"The building is practically in the centre of the city, and I believe if the City Council were aware of the contents of the building they would prohibit its use entirely as a magazine...Personally, I am of the opinion that it unnecessary to keep a large reserve of FG [field gun] ammunition in Nelson as I do not think there would ever be use for a Field Battery in that District, but that its services would be required at one of the defended ports in time of war, therefore the reserve ammunition for this Battery should be kept at Wellington. All that is required is to keep about 200 rounds in the District, Viz:- the annual allowance for practice".

He suggested that it would be wiser to store the ammunition at a greater distance, for example at Boulder Bank. Enquiries were made into a suitable site outside of the city boundary and with Boulder Bank appearing the most suitable and least expensive. It is unknown if this brick magazine was used for the storage of ammunition after this time.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

This assessment was prepared on 30 June 2007 with reference to the criteria of the Historic Places Act 1993.

The brick magazine is one of few sites in Nelson, along with the Boer War monument in Queens Gardens for example, that can tell the story of the early militia and volunteers in the area who had demised by 1909. The nearby Harley Street barracks were destroyed by fire in 1918. It is also one of the few remaining magazines associated with this period in New Zealand, and may be the earliest remaining magazine, with the others on the NZHPT register dating from 1873-1880.

This assessment was prepared on 30 June 2007 with reference to the criteria of the Historic Places Act 1993.

This magazine is also significant because its construction using permanent material is unusual among the buildings that were built during the Provincial Government era in Albion Square.


Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description

Physical description

The brick magazine is a small rectangular brick building. The base of the structure is constructed of random rubble dado with bluestone, the walls are red brick and there is a pitched roof constructed of corrugated steel. Buttresses support the two long facades at either end and at the centre. There are two entrances to the structure. The doors to the entrances are burgundy and constructed of metal and each have bolts at top and bottom. The building has two main rooms, each with an anteroom. The north room and both ante rooms have gravel floors, the south room has a timber floor. On the north elevation of the structure two wooden posts protrude, and pieces of wire and rusted nails are visible. It is not known what purpose they served. There is some graffiti on the east elevation of the structure. There are four grates on east and west elevations, with two on each elevation damaged. Bricks encircle a small area below the south elevation. Historical photographs show this once served as a garden. Historic photographs also indicate that the brick magazine was originally surrounded by a small picket fence.

Comparative information

The brick magazine is one of the earliest buildings remaining in the Provincial Buildings. It may also be the oldest remaining magazine in New Zealand. Other magazines on the Register include:

-Magazine (former), Taupo (Register No.942) Category II: Erected c1873-74 and used by the Taupo armed constabulary. Likely disused as a magazine after 1885.

-Magazine and Concrete Sea Wall, Lyttleton magazine (Register No 7234) Category I: Erected 1874. The magazine was built during the Provincial government era and was a vital facility for the district, located on foreshore in small bay.

-The Explosives Magazine, Arrowtown (Register No 2108) Category II - Erected 1877.

-Kaiwharawhara Powder Magazine, Wellington (Register No. 7215) Category I - Erected 1880, fulfilled civilian role between 1885-1886 when, following the erection of the first defensive forts in Wellington it filled a dual civilian/ military role.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1861 -

Completion Date

30th June 2007

Report Written By

Imelda Bargas

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report on Albion Square Historic Area is available from the NZHPT Central Region Office.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.