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The Dark Secret Of Hanmer Springs’ Conical Hill Reserve

‘The spaces that shape us’ looks at the history that connects us to Hurunui’s reserves.

Few of us complete a visit to Hanmer Springs without a walk up the Conical Hill track, surrounded on all sides by cool, green plantations of radiata pine, Douglas fir and larch.

The deep shadows of the plantations, however, conceal a dark past.

Hurunui Council’s draft Reserves Management Plan, which is out for public consultation, describes the trees on Conical Hill Reserve- Te Tihi o Rauhea as “some of the New Zealand’s oldest exotic forests”. The reserve’s Māori name, meaning “plain of shinning tussock”, however, reflects an earlier history when the Hanmer plains stretched out under a covering of kānuka and tussock.

Mayor Marie Black, who is born and bred in Hurunui, says the zigzag path of the track to the summit has always been as much of a ‘must do’ for visitors over the decades as a visit to the thermal pools.

“We have this wonderful legacy left to us that we enjoy today,” says Mayor Black, “but it does come with a dark history.”

Hanmer Spring’s plantations were the result of an ambitious project to use prison labour for public works that saw over 1,000 hectares of exotic forest being planted around the town between 1903 and 1913 by prison labourers.

Hanmer Springs was one of about five tree-planting prison camps in New Zealand under the administration of Government Inspector of Prisons Colonel Arthur Hume. The Hanmer Springs afforestation programme included most of Conical Hill Reserve and the trees were planted to supply the Christchurch market.

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In 1904, there were 25 prisoners at the Hanmer Springs prison camp. Hume, quoted in the Press newspaper after he visited the camp in September 1904, told the reporter most of the men had asked to serve their sentence at Hanmer.

“Some were sent who had not asked to go, while some who had asked were not considered suitable,” Hume said.

Tree planting was deemed suitable for men prepared to work hard for a shorter term of imprisonment and who needed less supervision. They were often white-collar criminals.

Hume, who was known for his conservative penal policies, was quick to convey to readers the prison camp was no holiday camp.

“The men have not been treated any better at the Hanmer camp than they would have been had they been anywhere else,” Hume said. “The food is exactly the same as in a city prison, and the only difference is that the men get an additional four marks a week remission for industry, which comes to two days a month.”

In 1909, the prison camp was described in a Press article in rather glowing terms as “perhaps a little over two miles from the township… in the distance the white-painted camp shimmering in the sunlight nestles on the flat, with background of greeny-brown hills rising to set it off …”

The “men’s whares, or huts” were described as “models of cleanliness and neatness”, with the walls covered with pictures of “stage beauties, and boxing champions, racehorses and politicians…”. The reporter noted Saturday afternoons off for cricket matches and Sundays for church and resting — not a bad life for a prisoner.

However, prisoners’ accounts don’t agree with such a rosy picture, with heat in summer and cold in winter reportedly being a constant battle, and one prisoner being reported as dying of pneumonia.

When you next climb Conical Hill listen carefully to the wind as it blows over the plantations of exotic forests for the sobs of the prisoner who never returned home.

You can read the story of Conical Hill Reserve - Te Tihi o Rauhea in the West Ward (Hanmer Springs) reserves book by clicking on say/consultations Feedback closes on 23 May 2024.

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