Neighbours at War: Nichols Falls Edition

It was back to Leith Valley today to check out a spot that ranks just below the Organ Pipes and Tunnel Beach as an attraction recommended to Dunedin’s visitors. Nichols Falls is famous for its scenic beauty as well as for the glow worms that make their home in the damp hollows nearby, although we won’t see any on this sunlit morning.


So we set off once again down Leith Valley Road and parked up where we’d collected konini back in February. There were still a few of the juicy berries about, providing us with a tasty pre-walk snack. Then it was into the forest, following the wide trail through ferns and kotukutuku.

Track into the forest

A short way down the track there was a signposted turn off for the falls, which led us up a steep narrow track criss-crossed by twisted roots and scattered with rough stones. It led us along the wall of the valley before descending towards the falls.

Approaching the falls

Soon we reached the cool shady dell from which we could view the falls, spectacular in shades of green. This place was a popular tourist attraction in the late 1800s, when the family of landowner Michael Finnerty  would charge sixpence to guide visitors to the falls. This innocent means of earning some extra cash for his large family would kick off a decade-long feud involving sabotage, arson, and numerous court battles.

Peaceful today, these falls once pitted neighbours against each other

We decided to follow the track up the other side of the creek, so hopped across the stepping stones and scrambled up the steep gully wall.

Up the other side

Not far beyond we came across a mysterious flat area scattered with bricks. Odd to find such a thing in the middle of nowhere, but clearly something had once been built here.

The mysterious building site, so mysterious I can’t even take a decent photo of it

This may be what remains of the Finnerty house, once the home to 18 people. This included Michael Finnerty and his children, as well as his wife Susan Elizabeth and her children from a previous marriage (who had the last name Hunt).

All that remains of the crowded family dwelling

The land here was once owned by a Mr Robert Rossbotham, but it “slipped through his fingers…through some unfortunate circumstance” and was bought by Michael Finnerty. However Mr Rossbotham still owned the section at front, which bordered Leith Valley Rd and had to be crossed to access the Finnerty property. Luckily there was an unformed public access road for just this purpose, so no problem, right?

The first episode in the squabble occurred in 1891, when Michael Finnerty’s request to have the road line surveyed was declined by the local council. Soon after Mr Rossbotham was caught destroying a survey peg. This was followed by an “indignation meeting” of local ratepayers in 1893, incensed that their money was apparently being used to fund a survey for a whole new road line. There were grumbles that this was only being done to save Mr Rossbotham – who was a councillor – the trouble of moving his house, which he had built over the existing road way. Whoops. Interestingly, the surveyor the council had employed was one Mr Tanner, who we have met already.

Excerpt from the 1922 map of the area, with my guess as to the position of the Finnerty and Rossbotham houses. Map via Dunedin Public Library

I’m not sure if Rossbotham ended up having to move his house (it seems not, if my guess on the map above is to be believed) as I next picked up the saga in 1898 with the inquest into a very suspicious fire on Rossbotham’s property. It seems Rossbotham, getting heartily sick of the Finnerty family business of leading tourists across his land to see the falls, had threatened to post a man of his own at the building to collect fees on his behalf. Soon afterwards the place burned down. Three of the Hunt sons had been spotted in the area on the night in question, but there was not enough evidence to say for sure whether they’d started the fire.

Only a year later Rossbotham had two of the Finnerty daughters in court, accused of trespassing on his property. Apparently they had cut across his paddock while guiding visitors. However it turned out that Rossbotham had still refused to open the road line, and in fact had obstructed it, so that the girls had no choice but to do so. He was criticised for trying to take away “the paltry earnings of a poor family”, and for waiting until the girls’ parents were out of town before charging the children. The court found that he had no right to complain of trespassing until he removed the obstructions on the roadway.

I don’t know if the neighbours ever resolved their differences. Michael Finnerty died in 1929 and was buried with his wife, son and two stepchildren in the Northern Cemetery. I visited the plot later to see if the headstone could give me any insight into the family who popularised one of Dunedin’s icons, only to find that there was none.

Final resting place of Michael Finnerty

Back in the present day, we found our way to the mountain bike trail we had explored on a previous adventure and began the slippery descent to Leith Valley Rd.

A glimpse of our fair city through the trees

I suppose we should be glad that today we can access this beautiful little spot without having to pay a fee or deal with neighbourhood drama. Finnerty and Rossbotham are both gone, leaving Nichols Creek to the glow worms.

Update: Reader Glenda, the great-granddaughter of Michael and Susan Finnerty has kindly sent in some photographs of the family and given me permission to reproduce them. Thank you Glenda!

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The Finnerty family
Finnerty Family Nicols Falls 1890s
Michael and Susan with their family in front of the Falls
Finnerty house Leith Valley
Susan Finnerty standing in front of the house by the falls


10 thoughts on “Neighbours at War: Nichols Falls Edition

  1. Allan Steel

    Micahel Finnerty was living in Chrsitchurch and he died there in 1929.

    1. amanda

      Yes, although it’s interesting that the cemetery record says he only lived in NZ for 10 years. That’s obviously not correct.

  2. Glenda

    Michael & Susan Finnerty are my great grandparents. I have an amazing photo of all 18 siblings with Michael & Susan taken in the 1890s in front of Nicols Falls. Also a photo of the house they lived in up from the falls.

    1. amanda

      Hi Glenda, how fantastic that you have those wonderful photographs! If you don’t mind them being posted as an addendum to the story, feel free to send a scan to me at

  3. Megan Griffiths

    Great to see the photos. Thanks for posting.

  4. Sue Nunn

    Having the photos really enhances the story…Thanks Glenda and Amanda for sharing

  5. Jennifer Doudle

    Such an interesting story about the Finnerty family. Thanks Glenda for the photos.
    My name is Jennifer Doudle and Michael and Susan were my Great Grand Parents their daughter Mary being my grandmother. I have one of the photos.

  6. Vic Daniel

    Hi Amanda
    If you contact Graeme or Sylvia Donaldson
    ph no 034892494
    Graeme may have some stories to tell about Leith Valley

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