A century since death of Nelson’s ‘grand old man’


One of Nelson’s most prolific figures is being remembered for his contributions to the city this week, 100 years on from his death.

Once described as “Nelson’s grand old man,” philanthropist Thomas Cawthron is now local household name, and without him some of the city’s most iconic landmarks and institutions would not be here today.

Born 1833 in England, Thomas moved to New Zealand at the age of 15 and worked various jobs in Nelson and Wellington before moving to the Australian gold fields where he contracted to carry supplies to the miners. He returned to Nelson, where he stayed and built his fortune. He started contracting on the Dun Mountain and began lending money, at ‘appropriate interest rates,’ to his ‘less thrifty’ workmates. He also began a thriving business at Port Nelson as a shipping agent.

As his investments grew, so did his profits – and he was always one to make the most of new business opportunities. When the arrival of steam ships brought an increased demand for coal, he became involved in the development of the Enner Glynn Coal Mine, and when gold was discovered in Golden Bay, he supplied miners equipment to the area.

It was not until his retirement in 1884 that he looked for ways to use his fortune to benefit the Nelson community.

He lent 700 pounds to the Nelson Institute Library and Museum for alterations and additions to its Hardy Street building, and when the old building burned down in 1906, he gifted 500 pounds in 1911 to complete its replacement. He also helped to finance extensions and additions to Nelson hospital, and fund a new nurse’s home.

In 1912 he donated 5000 pounds to the Nelson School of Music, and a loan of 2000 pounds. He also bought and installed the pipe organ that is still used there today.

In the same year he paid for the continuation of the posts and chains on Rocks Rd, and gifted 1,000ha near Dun Mountain to the Nelson City Council as a public scenic and recreation reserve, known as Cawthron Park. The Nelson cathedral steps – correctly called the Cawthron Steps – were also financed entirely by Cawthron.

The best-known memorial to Cawthron is the Cawthron Institute, which his will provided for. It opened in 1921 and remains a world-class science research centre.

Trust Board Secretary at the Cawthron Institute, Judene Edgar, says that he made the greatest philanthropic contribution to Nelson city. “In his day, he was known as a shrewd businessman and people didn’t understand his generosity,” she says. “There are lots of heartwarming things he did, and there were so many other sides to him.”

For example, the reason he installed the chains and posts on Rocks Rd wasn’t because it looked good – it was for safety.

“He did it because a man fell and was seriously injured, and he financially helped his wife, too,” says Judene. “That’s the part of Thomas we often don’t get to hear.”

He was also known for helping anyone in genuine distress – paying the medical bills of poor families, and supporting disaster relief funds. “He saw the future and understood the potential of the Nelson province,” says Judene. “There was no commercial gain for him – he was protecting the environmental aspect of our region.”