Newspaper Article 1953 – Father of Hawke’s Bay Industry

The Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune Coronation and Hastings Borough Jubilee Number


The Life and Work of the Late Mr. William Nelson


JUST OVER THE FENCE from the Tomoana showgrounds, which used also to be a part of his private demesne of “Waikoko,” there used to dwell, until his death in 1932, the man who, of all the pioneers, did more than any other to lay the foundations and build the structure of prosperity for Hawke’s Bay. There William Nelson could look back upon a long life of exceptional mental and physical activity in which he played many parts.

Born in the Old Country, in Warwickshire, it was there that in his early youth, and subsequently, on revisiting his native land, he gained experience in industrial concerns and their organisation that stood well to him later on when he came to establish undertakings of a like character in this new land.

Engaged at first in big cement works and afterwards in a gelatine factory, he got some insight into the best methods of directing the energies of both men and machines and also into the practical application of science. Valuable as this experience must have been, it was to a natural talent for organisation, combined with unconquerable courage and an indomitable will to achieve, that his greatest successes must be attributed. Beyond this there was a keen and far-seeing eye for hidden possibilities in projects overlooked by others.

It was way back in the sixties that Mr. William Nelson and his brother, quite recent arrivals in the colony, took up land in Hawke’s Bay, then almost entirely in the rough of nature. It was characteristic of the man that he sought no piece of easy country but established himself in what was then the far way-back of Kereru, a broken tract that nobody else particularly wanted. Then followed farming ventures on more eligible areas, Arlington near Waipawa, Whenuahou, mostly bush land in the Takapau district, Titoki, out of Waipawa, Tuki Tuki, near Havelock North, and Mangateretere, near Hastings.

After the well-known company of Nelson Bros Ltd., was formed, he had virtual control of some 500 acres on the flats and 30,000 acres of hill country, including Hakowhai [Pakowhai], Dartmoor, Apley, Omatua, Esk Mount and Glengarry. Half a century back most of this country was in the making, and it was William Nelson who under-took the making of it when there were but few ready to take on the job. Now practically all has passed into other hands that are reaping benefit from his pioneering enterprise and capacity for hard work and hard thinking.

But Mr. Nelson’s industrial activities in the far-back days were not by any means confined to pastoral pursuits alone. He was only in his early twenties when he started the first flax mill of the district at Mangateretere. Then, later on, he took a hand in turning to account as a sawmiller some of the big forest area of the then province. It was due to his support, too, that well-known engineering house Niven and Co., secured its first footing and established itself at Port Ahuriri, whence it has branched out to several other centres and so become a concern of Dominion-wide importance.

It is, however, in connection with the meat works at Tomoana that the name Nelson is best known in Hawke’s Bay. Their beginning was the outcome of a sustained period of depression compared with which (as one writer a few years back had it) that we have just passed through with so much complaining might be called lush prosperity. Wool, then about the only exportable product of the sheep, was down to next to nothing, and the carcases were practically unsaleable. Legs of mutton were being hawked around at sixpence a piece. In some parts where flocks had outgrown available pasture, sheep were being driven over the cliffs into the sea to get rid of them. It was then, about 57 years ago, that Mr. Nelson, in association with the late J.N. Williams, bent on always making the best of a bad job, started the erection of a boiling-down and meat preserving works at Tomoana. These helped materially to relieve the distress, though giving no great promise of immediate reward.

Two or three years later came the dawn of a new era for New Zealand sheep-farmers, when a Dunedin shipment of frozen mutton was landed in London in satisfactory condition. Mr. Nelson was not slow to recognise what this meant, and forthwith he set about the institution of refrigerating works at Tomoana and a few years later at Gisborne also. For many years the Tomoana works, rapidly extended, had the Hawke’s Bay field pretty well to itself, serving the growers of mutton and beef well and liberally. But it is not to be thought from this turning of the corner all went easily and smoothly. Hard times recurred, with a country-wide financial panic, and even the sturdy shoulders bearing heavy burden of Tomoana’s responsibilities were very nearly borne to ground. Sheer grit and determination, aided by the well-earned goodwill of the farming community, pulled the concern and the district through the slough of despond, and the sun of prosperity, with only occasional cloudings, has henceforth shone upon them.

Then, it was in connection with the meat export trade that Mr. Nelson realised the need for further shipping facilities. The institution of the Tyser Line of cargo-carriers, with substantial reduction in freight charges, quickly followed. This eventually expanded into the well-known C. and D. Line, still rendering fine service to the primary producers of New Zealand.

No better instance can be found of the value of cordial relations between employer and employee than in the case of Mr. Nelson. It was all very simple. Those who worked willingly and well with and under him were just his friends. That was all there was to it. And no undertaking of its size suffered less from industrial troubles or got more faithful or cheerful service than did Tomoana under his control.

Then, again, it was largely due to Mr. Nelson’s initiative and financial backing that a big area of unsightly sea-soaked swamp was transformed into the site of what is now the smiling suburb of Napier South. Few, probably, of the youth of the present generation who so earnestly contend in their game upon Nelson Park, Napier, are even aware that it was the man whom it takes its name who was mainly instrumental in literally making their playground for them.

Mr. Nelson never sought prominence in public places, yet rendered many public services in local affairs. Among them may be mentioned the practical interest he took in plans for flood prevention on the Heretaunga Plains. In days that are long past, measures he conceived and in many cases saw carried out on the destructive rivers undoubtedly saved the settlers of this region many tens of thousands of pounds.

Education, too, commanded his close interest, and it was he who founded the Heretaunga School for boys at Hastings over fifty years ago. This institution still continues under the name of Hereworth at Havelock North, where also is to be found Woodford House, perhaps the best-known school for girls in the Dominion. Of this, too, he was one of the original promoters.


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