The Bettjemans

Early settlers in the valley of abandoned dreams.

By Arthur P. Bates in: The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Quoted with permission.

    Bettjeman, Agnes Muir: 1885–1964 - Nurse, community leader.

    Bettjeman, Frederick Charles: 1884–1987 - Engineer, soldier, and farmer.

The Bettjemans were among the first settlers to take up land at the ill-fated soldiers' settlement in the Mangapurua valley in the Whanganui River hinterland. They were also among the last to leave.

Frederick Charles Bettjemann was born near Westport on 19 January 1884, the son of Johann Jürgen Heinrich Bettjemann, a miner, and his wife, Catrine Adeline Wilhelmine Wellbrock. Having early shown a practical bent, Fred Bettjeman (he dropped the final 'n') worked as an engineer on overseas ships for several years and then as an engine driver for the Westport Coal Company. In January 1915 he was posted as a private in the Canterbury Battalion. Later in the year he was wounded at Gallipoli and sent to the Military Convalescent Hospital at Epsom, Surrey. There he was nursed by Agnes Muir McNab. Always called Nancy, she was born at Port Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Scotland, on 4 July 1885, the daughter of Mary Mirk and her husband, James McNab, a ship carpenter. Nancy had trained as a seamstress before pursuing a nursing career. She qualified as a medico-psychological nurse in 1910 and as a midwife in 1914.

Fred and Nancy were married in London on 10 March 1916. Fred had lost the hearing in his left ear from a bomb blast at Gallipoli and was also infected with paratyphoid fever. He was admitted to various other hospitals between June and August 1916, when he was invalided back to New Zealand. Nancy remained in Britain where their first child, a daughter, was born in January 1917. After working for the Wellington Meat Export Company, Fred decided to take up farming.

Under the Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act 1915, the government was opening up land for development by returned servicemen. The Mangapurua valley settlement was launched in 1916. This remote valley, about 17 miles upriver from Pipiriki, was to be divided into 40 or so bush-covered blocks, ranging from around 300 to 1,800 acres. Fred applied for one of the sections. Realising that a road through the valley and a bridge across the Whanganui River to Taranaki were essential for full development, he visited the prime minister, William Massey, to get his personal assurance that these schemes would go ahead. Fred went to the valley in 1917 via the inland route, travelling by coach and packhorse. He had studied the plan carefully and wisely chosen a section in the middle of the valley. His first job was to cut down a tree to make room to erect his tent.

Nancy arrived in New Zealand with their daughter in 1919. It was agreed she would live with her brother in Oamaru until Fred finished the house he was building in his spare time at Mangapurua. At Oamaru Nancy became involved in nursing patients during the latter stages of the influenza epidemic. Eventually she went up the Whanganui River with her daughter by riverboat. After disembarking, she mounted a horse for the first time to ride up the narrow track to her new home. It was a harrowing trip, with one packhorse going over the bank, to the four-roomed house of pit-sawn timber, which stood in a sea of stumps.

Fred's dream was to establish a first-class farm in the valley. He fought passionately to develop the area and was an articulate advocate for everything effecting its progress. By 1920 he was writing to the returned servicemen's magazine suggesting that the authorities were not doing enough long-term planning for the area. He also spoke out about farming methods used by some of the less experienced settlers, and this did not always make him popular with other would-be farmers.

By 1937 the county council had stopped maintaining the last 10 miles of the access road at the river end and the settlers in the lower half of the valley had little option but to walk off their holdings. Only three properties, including the Bettjemans', were being farmed in January 1942 when an unprecedented downpour seriously damaged the rest of the road. In May the cabinet passed an order closing the road because of high maintenance costs, and the settlers were notified that they would have to abandon their properties. The road was reopened in November so that settlers could remove their stock. Nancy left the way she came in – on horseback. Fred did not want to leave; he had acquired some of the land abandoned by other settlers and felt he had an economically viable farm. However, his offer to take over the lease of the valley and maintain the road was not allowed and he was forced to go.

He later farmed successfully at Te Kuiti. After retiring, he and Nancy lived at Tauranga. Nancy died there on 4 September 1964. At Hamilton on 29 April 1966, Fred married Frances Winifred Chalklen (née Jacobs), a widow. She died in 1971. Fred spent the last few years of his life in a rest home at Te Kuiti, where he died on 5 January 1987, just two weeks before his 103rd birthday. He had written his reminiscences of life in the Mangapurua valley.

The development of the Whanganui National Park has focused attention on the Mangapurua settlement. Because of circumstances beyond the control of the enthusiastic settlers, it was a complete failure: a classic story of good intentions being overwhelmed by circumstances. A concrete bridge standing in isolation above the Mangapurua gorge has become a symbol of the settlement. Well known as the Bridge to Nowhere, its incongruity attracts more and more people to this valley of abandoned dreams, and to the story of settlers like the Bettjemans.

Read the history of the Bridge to Nowhere here.

Listen to the folk song about the Bridge to Nowhere  here.

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