The Marlborough Drought of 1933

Anyone who has spent time in the peaceful town of Renwick in Marlborough can’t fail to be moved by the beauty of the place.

I spent quite a bit of time there in the years B.G. (Before Grapes) when the biggest show in town was the Woodbourne Air Force Base, and West Coast Road was a drag strip for ferry folk hooning south for skiing trips in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

In summer, the place bakes, and I well-remember mother nature’s ghostly hand reaching for the switch to turn the wind on every morning at 11 a.m. Yes indeed. You could virtually set your watch by it on those hazy summer days. 11 o’clock was time for the warm nor’wester to fire up, steadily increasing in strength as the day warmed, sucking moisture from crops and land as it blew.

For visitors like me it was a joy, but some locals got fed up with that nor’wester after a while. When it was feisty, it could fair blow, and more than one fire was sparked by it playing amongst power lines and causing them to clash and the sparks to set the tinder-dry grasses alight. Mine host experienced this first hand when clashing power lines set fire to dry grass in the nearby gully, and they had an anxious time as the Fire Service battled the flames which residents, reliant on pumps for water, could not put out during the consequent power outage.

The 11 a.m. kick-off was a sign to fire up the irrigation pumps for those lucky enough to have bores. In the early 1970s, before all of Renwick had a town supply, this was most people as water tanks rarely held enough of the gurgling elixir for permanent residents. The modern convenience of town water saw a drop-off in pump maintenance, but some canny locals made sure that their pumps continued to hum along keeping vege and flower gardens blooming during the dry months.

As summer progressed, the valley turned a crispy brown, and the distant hills from Renwick literally glowed golden in the dawn and evening sun. Very picture-skew.

Skewed the picture was, too. Picture postcard for loopies (visitors) like me, but a sign of trouble for farmers. And a call to attention for community-minded locals who would need to lend a hand to the volunteer fire brigade as it battled scrub and field fires.

The picture was far worse at the end of 1933 (almost 50 years B.G.) as Marlborough faced its worst drought in years. Farmers in the district watched aghast as their crops of wheat, oats, peas and lucerne struggled in the bone-dry conditions. Only 10 inches (254 mm) of rain had fallen in the Ward and Seddon districts during the 11 months to the beginning of December, and they were facing a long hot summer.

In southern Marlborough, the autumn drought carried right on through winter and into spring. Pasture growth had been at a standstill, and many farms had moved sheep to pastures nearer Nelson. Wheat and oat crops in Ward and Seddon were used for grazing and the yield from these cereal crops was expected to be low. Only in the lower Wairau Valley were the crops of wheat, oats and peas able to struggle on in the heavier soils.

The previous season, Marlborough had threshed 222,000 bushels of wheat and 80,000 bushels of oats, but only a fraction of that would be produced that year.

Old residents considered 1933 the driest season in their experience as the Marlborough province passed through one of the longest and worst droughts on record to that time. Relief from the drought was not far off in the form of a terrific storm which would disrupt the holiday plans of many New Zealanders, shredding campers’ tents, plonking snow on mountaintops, disrupting electricity supplies and bringing waterspouts ashore in Taranaki. But it would be too late for Marlborough farmers reliant on the 1933 crops.

[source: Alexander Turnbull Library, newspaper archive, Poverty Bay Herald, Friday 22nd December 1933 p 11. ]

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