historic site: Belmont Coach Road

"Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted."

- Mary McCarthy, On the Contrary

[This is largely based on the New Zealand Historic Places Report "Registration Proposal Old Belmont to Pauatahanui Road" (May 2007)]

What is the Belmont Coach Road?

Also known as the Old Belmont to Pauatahanui Road, the road was a packtrack from the Hutt Valley to Pauatahanui, which was upgraded to a road. It originally left the Hutt from somewhere near the present Normandale bridge and ended at the intersection of SH58 and Belmont Road.

It is a fine and rare example of an early, horse-era road and is the first road built between the Hutt Valley and Wellington's west coast. For 20 years it remained the only route between the two settlements.

Where does the road go?

If you were travelling along the road south to north, you would begin at the end of the sealed section of the Normandale Road and travel through Belmont Regional Park. You would climb the hillside at an easy gradient, which is suitable for horses. During this you would pass through pine forests and regenerating bush to emerge in open farmland near the summit.

Then you would travel down a ridge to Hill Road where the road widens, marking the beginning of the former military area. As you travel west up the valley you would pass numerous storage magazine. After the road intersects a track heading south, you would head north along the ridge tops. At this point the road narrows to its original length, signalling the end of the former military area. Finally, you would then travel down the hill towards the sealed area of Belmont Road, where the Belmont Coach Road ends.

Why was road making so important to early European settlers?

Image of Frederick and Fanny Taylor, 1856.
Frederick and Fanny Taylor, 1856.
Frederick farmed land on Old Porirua Road
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref P.2.46.

With over eight million hectares of New Zealand's land mass in grassland today, it is hard to imagine what New Zealand was like before people began converting areas from forests to farmland. Similarly with 10,894.9 kilometres of State Highways alone, it is hard to imagine a time when it wasn't easy to get from place to place. For early European settlers in the 1840s road making was seen as vitally important to access areas to extract the timber to clear the land for farming. Before roads were made it was easier to sail around the country's perimeter from place to place then to travel on land.

What was the first road out of Wellington?

The first road out of the Wellington settlement was the Porirua Road, which was begun in 1843 and then widened and improved in 1846. For ten years it was the only route in and out apart from a packtrack over the Rimutakas which was built in the 1840s. A packtrack is a road of about 1.2 metres in width. In 1856 this road was also widened and completed. Around the same time roads were built up the Ngauranga Gorge and to Makara and Ohariu.

How did people living in the Hutt travel north?

For people living in the Hutt who wanted to travel north of the Wellington region this posed a problem. It was necessary to travel back along the Hutt Road and then up the Ngauranga Gorge and then onto Porirua Road. Or alternatively there were numerous Maori tracks across the hills to the north, for example those at Korokoro or Belmont. It is likely that the Belmont Coach Road grew out of one of these Maori tracks.

Why was it necessary to build the Belmont Coach Road?

Pressure for a road came from increased settlement of a place known as Normandale, (for the wife of Premier Richard Seddon whose maiden name was Norman). Between 1853 and 1857 15 sections were granted in the area. In the 1860s 32 Crown Grants of section were offered to retired British soldiers who extracted the timber and then resold the land for grazing. This pressure resulted in the Belmont Road Board being formed in 1870.

Who built the road?

The Board's chairman, William Ellerm, who was a baker by trade, built the road along with some local men. These men included Robert Burns (former soldier, 99th regiment), John Francis and his brother Jesse (settlers), William Gosling (labourer), Henry Hart (probably the son of George Hart a land agent), James Nairn (Wairarapa shepherd), John Scrimshaw (probably the son of George Scrimshaw a soldier 65th regiment) and John Scholes (settler). These men were not professional road builders indicating that at the time "building roads was probably considered a fairly straightforward, almost prosaic, activity; certainly for retired soldiers".

Cutting the line (removing trees and vegetation to allow construction to take place) begun at least as early as 1871 and it was completed in 1873. The road was 13.4 kilometres when complete and cost approximately £5865 to build. It seems the road was originally built as a packtrack, as its widening was recorded in 1876 to take wheeled vehicles.

How was the road constructed, and what were its main materials?

The road is predominantly made out of bench cuts (meaning it was cut into the side of a hill), constructed by hand using 'pick and shovel'. Bedrock quarried from alongside the road was used to metal it, but it is not certain if this was done during construction or during later road maintenance.

The composition of the road is not certain. If it is composed of traditional layers of material then it will be coarser at the bottom and finer on top.

How did the area change after the road was built?

Improved access meant that settlement of the area sped up. In 1874 there were 10 households living in Belmont and another 74 sections for sale. Most likely much of this increase is attributable to the arrival of the railway in 1874.

During the 1880s many of the small farms were bought to form larger holdings. Owners of these large holding included Charles Cottle (for whom Cottle Park Drive is named), the Galloways, Thomas Meagher and Sir William Fitzherbert. In 1891 Fitzherbert died and in 1903 the Liberal Government negotiated to buy the 1640 acre Belmont Farm that Fitzherbert had owned. They paid £15,419 for the property.

Why isn't the road still a main route today?

The most significant impact on the Belmont Coach Road was the completion of the first Haywards Road in 1890. The Haywards went through many changes and realignments over its history, particularly with the advent of the motorcar. As it improved, it became the preferred route between the Hutt and Pauatahanui.

By the end of World War I, the road was primarily used for farm traffic. Residents began complaining about the state of the road, but the Hutt City Council (who administered the road) did not view it as a priority.

How did World War II affect the road's use?

World War II brought about a change in the road's status. Fearing Japanese invasion a huge military construction programme was instigated by the government, including coastal defences, camps, bases and airfields. The Belmont Hills became a massive ammunition storage site, with privately owned farms housing storage magazines.

Some 244 magazines were planned for various locations in New Zealand and 52 were planned for the Belmont Hill on land owned by descendants of Charles Cottle. In the end 62 were built, at a total cost of £210,000. To facilitate access to the magazine sites the part of Belmont Coach Road that met Hill Road was widened and improved. The widened portion of the road is still evident today.

How did the army's use of the land affect local landowners?

Work on the widening of the road and installation of the magazines caused problems for the surrounding land owners. The road had to be shut and owners could no longer maintain access to their properties. The worst affected landowner were the Cottles who had had some of their land acquired for the magazines. They demanded compensation for their trouble.

In a post war letter to the Army, the Ministry of Works had this to say:

"Messers. Cottle made a great deal of the restrictions placed upon their property by the Army and the interference with their farming operations.

…This Department [MoW] was under the impression that your Department had not entered on any of the property excepting the land used for the construction of the magazine buildings and access roading; also that the only restrictions placed upon the use of the farm as a whole, apart from such entry, was the control of the traffic on the Belmont Hill Road."

Did the land revert back to its original use after the War?

No, even after the war the arguments over access were not over, as the Army wanted to continue using the magazines. In 1953 the Army took the land for defence purposes, blocking the public's desire to return to using the road. Roads passing through the area were closed to the general public. In 1961 the Ministry of Works described the situation as this:

"Gates are across the road, and apparently settlers known to the Army are given a key. I also understand that there is at least one sentry point, where the guard has difficulty in convincing motorists of Army viewpoint that they have no legal right to proceed further."

When did the public regain access to the road?

It's not entirely certain when the road was formally re-opened. In December 1967 the magazine area passed from the Army to the Ministry of Works. However, due to explosives being stored there, the public were still unable to use the road even after 1969.

What are the magazines used for now?

Today most of the magazines are open to the elements and are used mainly by stock for shelter. One has been incorporated into a natural gas complex.

Who owns the land now? How does that affect use of the road?

Since then the land between Pauatahanui and Normandale was acquired by various government bodies. Much of it was kept as farmland and became known as Waitangirua Farm Settlement. The Department of Conservation when formed in 1987 took the farm under the newly formed Landcorp. Belmont Regional Park was formed two years later and is managed by the Wellington Regional Council. During lambing season, users are kept of the road within the farm.

In 2007 the Waitangirua Farm Settlement was sold to Greater Wellington, meaning that the land surrounding the road is now largely under one common manager for the first time in decades. Friends of Belmont Regional Park have done a lot to raise the profile of the road.

Sources of information:

The above is largely based upon the "Registration Proposal for Old Belmont to Pauatahanui Road", Central Regional Office, New Zealand Historic Places Trust (May 2007). See this document and the references therein.

This publication lists a number of further sources of information on roads, including:

  • Hindley, G A, 1971, A History of Roads, Peter Davies: London
  • Kelly, M. 1999, Old Coach Road Conservation Plan, Wellington City Council, Wellington.

Continue to Francis Bradey's grave or return to Pauatahanui, Judgeford and Whitby.