Newspaper Article 1952 – Founder of Hawke’s Bay Freezing Industry




THIS article is the fifteenth of a new series about the pioneering efforts of EARLY NEW ZEALAND FAMILIES written expressly for the “New Zealand Free Lance” by the New Zealand author, Douglas Cresswell. All Rights Reserved.

Town of Warwick – winter 1855. William Nelson, aged 12, throws his school books on to the table and announces to Mamma that, as it is holiday time, he’s off to buy a coconut and some oranges. Mamma is a widow and lives in a two-storied house called “The Lawn.” There’s a conservatory, a billiard-room and a most attractive garden, the whole set in five or six acres of park land.

NEXT day being Saturday, William has out the Noah’s Ark. On Sunday he goes twice to church, then sits with his elders while they enjoy their ale. On Monday the pig is killed, on Tuesday he plays at “bandy” and reads to Mamma. Wednesday is a busy day: “Played Tip-cat,” he says in his youthful journal, “finished the second kettle-holder, read a book and wrote diary in little book.” On Thursday he goes to Leamington visiting and brings a friend home. After working at net-making the two of them scurry off to watch the militia drilling.

How many families, I wonder, are fortunate to have in their possession the diary of a schoolboy, written nearly a century ago? A schoolboy, moreover, who founded and deserves more credit, I feel, than any other person for the success of our famous freezing industry.

When I was invited to Havelock North the other day to meet George Nelson, a son of the boy who kept the diary, and a man now more than 80 years of age, I felt I already knew something. Nearly 70 years ago my grandfather, R.M. Cresswell, was retained by the Nelson Brothers, and had he not accepted the first managership of the Canterbury Meat Company’s Belfast works, he no doubt would have been in their employ – perhaps for the rest of his working life.

Brothers Depart

The perfume of roses and verbena filled the air as I approached the home of the George Nelsons sited on a spur of the Kohinurakau [Kahuranaki] Range. Mrs Nelson who, as Sister E. McB. Goldsmith, nursed our wounded in World War One, took me to her husband, and while we waited for morning-tea to arrive, I enjoyed what you might call the first instalment of the Nelson story.

“It was October, 1862.” began my host, “when Father, the youngest of a family of five boys, left Warwickshire for New Zealand with his brother Frederick in the sailing-ship Devonshire, running under charter to the Shaw Savill and Albion Company. Fred was then 23, William 19, and both were single men.”

“What experience had they,” I asked, “for the work of pioneers?”

“I can only speak for William,” replied my host. “He left school at the age of 15 and spent the intervening years in a tannery, a cement works and in the manufacture of gelatine – a first class training as it turned out.

“Well,” he continued, “their voyage took 106 days. It was February 4, 1863, when the Devonshire arrived at Auckland – the day H.M.S. Orpheus was wrecked on Manukau Bar with a loss of 203 lives. There was trouble brewing in the Waikato at the time, so the older brother enlisted in the militia and William set to work making rough furniture for their house-to-be.

“The brothers remained in the Auckland district for nearly six months, inspecting the country both to the north and to the south. It appears from Father’s diary that, following their arrival at Auckland, they sought out members of the Williams family, sons of the missionaries, Henry and William, to whom they brought introductions; and it was, I presume, their advice that finally brought the brothers to Hawke’s Bay. Having in the meantime visited Nelson and Canterbury, the brothers reached Napier in September, 1863, and put up at the Masonic Hotel. There they met J.N. Williams, then 26 years of age and owner of Kereru station, whither the trio repaired for three days later.

“At that time the road to Maraekakaho and Kereru lay via Clive. There you crossed the Ngaruroro River by ferry and following the high ground on the right bank past Havelock North, crossed the creek which has since borne the name of Louisa, wife of Henry Tiffen. Louisa, in the early days, took an involuntary plunge into its depths and the name stuck.

“The party continued to follow the general upstream direction of the river as far as Willow Pa. From the pa the men rode direct to Maraekakaho, and on to Aorangi, H.W.P. Smith’s property, where they came to the notice of Colonel J.L. Herrick.

“Herrick was busy drilling settlers, and promptly commandeered the young militiamen. From that encounter grew a friendship which even survived the occasion when one of the brother recruits, absent from drill on sick leave, was caught with a bag of grass-seed on his back!

“Soon the brothers were working for Williams on Kereru, for William Nelson’s diary records ‘shearing started this year on December 12’; and on January 14 the entry is: ‘Commenced shearing Herrick’s flock.’

“In January, 1864, the Nelsons bought from Joseph Powdrell a property adjoining Kereru and now known as Poporangi. Once established there, William, the younger, left for England on an important mission. He arrived there on his twenty-second birthday, met his sweetheart, Sarah Bicknell, married her, and the new land of opportunity, before long brought her back to there to found a family.

“It was March, 1865, when this return journey began and the party consisted of Rev. John Townsend and Mrs Townsend, the brothers Alfred and John Giblin, and William and his new wife, who were, of course, my father and mother. J.N. Williams, of Kereru, who also had been on a visit to England, returned by the same ship.

“Now, during William’s absence in England, Fred had bought the Arlington property of 14,000 acres near Waipukurau, and there my parents aimed to set up house. Mother and the servants spent a week at Te Aute while the men went forward to arrange for their reception.

Settled In

“In time young Mrs. Nelson settled in at Arlington and was welcomed by the notables of the district – Mr. And Mrs. Henry Russell, Miss Russell and her courtier, W.H. Gaisford, Mr. and Mrs. J.D. Ormond, Master Ormond, Miss Ormond and others whose names are less known.

“ ‘Jacob came to light 10.49 p.m.’ announced the arrival of the first born, W.H. Nelson, whose birth was foreshadowed by the visit of Dr. English weeks before the event. Mrs. Samuel Williams, of Te Aute, spent three weeks with the young mother and supervised the arrival of her first child.

“Early in 1869, Fred and William Nelson purchased the Mangateretere East block of 2047 acres some miles north of Arlington and close to Hastings. There Fred built on what was then the Main Road. His house, woolshed and yards were on the same site as James Wattie’s today. William, however, settled on part of the block that lay to the south-east of the ‘Big Bush,’ and named his place after his Warwickshire home ‘The Lawn.’

“The building of the house at ‘The Lawn’ in the winter of 1869 has a history. A neighbour, Joseph Powdrell, called on him, stood and watched him at work, shook his head and remarked: ‘Young man, if I was you, I wouldn’t build my house there.’ William, with all the assurance of youth and ignorance, responded with: ‘That’s all right.’

“Telling me the story in after years,” continued his son, “he said: ‘I soon found it wasn’t right. The first flood came in at the front door and went out at the back! I then had the house cut up, loaded on to bullock-drays, taken to Mangateretere and there re-erected. That, my lad, is the history of the original house at “The Lawn,” where your brother Montague and yourself were born.

“Now, on the property was a flax swamp into which the ever-active William soon put a mill. The ‘Hawke’s Bay Herald’ says: ‘The flaxmill of Messrs. Nelson is now in working order and likely soon to originate a new export.’ Next month we read: ‘We are happy to announce the first arrival in Napier of flax manufactured in the district – the dawn of a new and brighter era.’ These sanguine expectations, however, were not realised. The price slumped; the industry failed.

“This story of the flax may be regarded as the family’s crowning misfortune. A plague of grasshoppers and the depressed state of the wool-market had already forced them to surrender the Arlington property to the claims of the mortgagee. The property at Kereru suffered, I think, the same fate. The flax was the last straw!

“With depleted resources, Fred the elder brother, continued to work the Mangateretere farm and rear stud Lincolns, while Father and Mother, and the four children whom they had by this time gathered about them, set sail for England in the Queen Bee. On arrival Father went back to his original work. He engaged with his brothers in the gelatine business at Warwick.

Father’s Aim

“Until 1875 we lived between Warwick and Leamington where Ernest and Mildred were born. Then we moved to ‘Moorlands’ at Kenilworth, where Eva, Oswald and Gertrude were born. In 1878 we moved back to Warwick, and in July, 1880, after a farewell picnic at Kenilworth Castle, Father, Mother, Harry and Mildred left for New Zealand via Australia.

“Father’s aim this time was to provide a wider market for the surplus fat stock from Hawke’s Bay runs. To this end, the company, ‘Nelson Brothers and Williams Ltd’ was formed, and the erection of works at Tomoana was started in October, 1880. These works were equipped for canning, boiling down and the treatment of wool and pelts.

“But the freezing process was beginning to take on. Following the success of Australian experiments, Sir Thomas Bryden, of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company, arranged for a trial shipment from Dunedin in 1882. This shipment was a success and soon afterward a company known as ‘Nelson Brothers Ltd’ was formed in London to take over the assets of the canning works at Hastings and build a freezing works near them. The change-over was quickly made and the first shipment of frozen meat left Napier in December, 1883.

“Now let us go back to the rest of the family left in England. Seven of us there were in charge of Uncle Fred Nelson and Aunt Sue Scruby when, in 1881, we embarked in the sailing-ship Waimate, bound for Lyttelton.

(Continued in page 37)

[remainder of article missing]

Photo captions –

Sarah Bicknell met and married William Nelson when he arrived back in England on his twenty-second birthday. They travelled to New Zealand in 1865.

William Nelson was 19 years old when he arrived at Auckland in 1863 in the Devonshire after a voyage occupying 106 days. He purchased Kereru in 1864.

George Nelson, son of William Nelson, and his wife photographed outside a cottage on their property at Havelock North.

William Nelson photographed late in life in the grounds of Waikoko, where to-day there is a rose pergola erected in his memory.

Original digital file


Date published

2 July 1952

Format of the original

Newspaper article

Creator / Author

  • Douglas Cresswell


New Zealand Free Lance

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