Newspaper Article 1976 – Flames robbed HB of link with pioneer past

The Daily Telegraph, Saturday, August 7, 1976    THREE

Flames robbed HB of link with pioneer past

IN FOCUS With Terry Tacon

The flames which destroyed Waikoko House in the early hours of Monday morning robbed Hawke’s Bay not only of a fine example of colonial architecture but a unique link with one of the province’s notable pioneers.

The Tomoana freezing works, which Mr. William Nelson helped found, are a tangible memorial to the foresight and acumen of this pioneer. But Waikoko House was more than that – it was a personal link as the home for nearly 50 years of this remarkable man.

William Nelson did not build Waikoko House and, in fact, he never owned it. But he must rank as its most distinguished resident.

The house was built in 1870 by Mr Robert Wellwood as a modest – for those times – home of five bedrooms.

Mr Wellwood was distinguished early Hawke’s Bay settler, coming to New Zealand in the early 1800s from Ireland.

He was a well-known farmer, moving to Wellwood Road (named after him) when he left Waikoko. But his principal contribution to the district’s early history was as the first Mayor of Hastings, holding the position in the 1886-1887 period.


Descendants of the Wellwood family still retain memories of Robert Wellwood’s link with Waikoko and Mrs Noeline Percy, Hastings, told of her grandfather, Mr Arthur Wellwood, staying in the historic homestead with his brother when he first arrived in Hastings from Ireland.

But if Waikoko is to be remembered for one particular role it is as the home of William Nelson, the father of the freezing industry of New Zealand.

He took up residence in 1884, when the house was bought by Nelson Brothers, the company which had been formed to operate the Tomoana works.

Mr Nelson, as manager of that company, moved into the house after making major extensions. He added such things as the long veranda, more bedrooms to accommodate his family of nine children, a billiard room, dining room, bathroom-dressing room and a smoking room.

From such additions it is not hard to judge that Mr Nelson was what could best be described as an English gentleman and that is how a grand-daughter, Mrs Constance Horne, Napier, remembers him.

Commenting on the dozens of trees which her grandfather planted near the house forming much of what are today known as Waikoko gardens, Mrs Horne comments:
“Grandfather was very English. He planted many of the trees, which he loved dearly, to remind him of his native Warwick.

“He used to walk to the works from his home along an avenue of plane trees (many of which survive today) and it was said when they were in full leaf he was able to do so without getting wet when it rained.”


Mr Nelson is also credited with having planted a wisteria vine which decorated the front veranda of Waikaka [Waikoko] House and became almost as well known as the house itself.

However, inquiries reveal there is a possibility that the placing of the wisteria was a resiting, as members of the Wellwood family can recall earlier generation members saying it had been brought out from Ireland by their forebears.

Whatever the true history, descendants of both families will be delighted to know the plant has not been lost.

Nurseryman John Anderson, who inspected the wisteria at the request of the Hawke’s Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society, of which he is a committee member, revealed: “The plant will live. It has been burnt, but it will bloom again, probably not this year but possibly next year.”

If William Nelson did not actually plant that wisteria, he certainly loved it as if it was his own.

Mr R. Gutterson, Napier, whose father was head gardener at Waikoko for 17 years from 1906, recalled his father telling him of Mr Nelson’s particular pride in the profusion of blooms on the vine each year.

To realise the significance of the loss of Waikoko House, one has to know something of the nature and background of William Nelson.

He is revealed to the researcher as a man of incredible foresight, bringing ideas ahead of his time to almost everything he was associated with.

He was born in Warwick in 1843 and educated at Warwick College. As a young man he worked in his father’s gelatine works and also in a cement works.


He came to New Zealand as a 20-year-old in the Devonshire. After a short time in the militia he joined his brother Frederick farming at Kereru.

It was there his flair for invention and experimentation first became obvious and he quickly became known as something of a visionary as far as farming was concerned.

Mrs Horne recalls: “His saying was that if land would grow Scotch thistles it was good enough for him.”


He went out on his own and his philosophy quickly saw him established in his own right. He would buy parcels of unproductive land and by judicious application of fertiliser, a practice which made him a forerunner in this field, turned rough country into prime farm units.

Mrs Horne remembers: “Some people think grandfather was always wealthy, but that is not so.

“When he was farming at Arlington, Waipukurau (from 1866 to 1869) he was hit by a plague of locusts, the like of which is mentioned in the Bible.

“They piled up along the fence and others walked over them to get to the food. Grandfather had to walk off that land.”

But William Nelson was no quitter. The following year saw him operating a flaxmill at Mangateretere. Two years later he was in England paving the way for the breakthrough which was to lead to the start of the export meat trade as we know it today.

Working at the gelatine plant of his father, Mr George Nelson, he helped perfect processes for the preservation of meat and for the preparation of tallow.

In 1880, these processes were installed at the Tomoana works, which he had established in company with another distinguished Hawke’s Bay settler, Mr James Nelson Williams.

Mr Williams, who was the son of the noted missionary Bishop William Williams, was a farmer who moved to Hawke’s Bay in the 1850s and founded Frimley Station.

The firm of Nelson Brothers was formed in 1882 by William and Frederick Nelson with their brother Montague sending his money from England for the enterprise.

Two years later, Nelson Brothers sent three consignments of meat to England and the meat export business, which is still such a vital part of New Zealand’s economy, was on its way.

In 1885, the company opened stores in Thames Street, London, to market the meat cargoes. Ten years later these were taken over by Colonial Consignment and Distribution Company of which Sir Montague Nelson – he was knighted for his work in connection with the meat trade – was chairman.

William Nelson was New Zealand manager of the company, which operated smaller meat works in a number of areas besides Tomoana, including Waipukurau and Woodville.

The company purchased land near Tomoana in 1884 and Mr Nelson moved into Waikoko House on November 29 of that year.

There he raised his large family of nine children. They were Harry, Ida, Eva, Ernest, Montague, Gertrude and Mildred from his first marriage and Lionel and Hilda from his second. William Nelson was married three times.

As well as his farming and meat industry interests and his family, he took a major role in local body affairs and education.

He founded the Heretaunga Boys’ School, helped found Woodford House, Havelock North, and was chairman of the Clive River Board, among other public roles.


He lived in Waikoko House until his death on November 16, 1932, less than three months before his 90th birthday.

Despite his success in business, William Nelson will be remembered as a man who never lost the common touch. Waikoko was host to a continuous stream of relatives and visitors.

He was also extremely popular with those who worked for him at Tomoana and a typical comment from those who remember him was that by Fred Wharton, who worked there for 46 years until he retired in 1966.

“He was a perfect gentleman,” Mr Wharton recalls.

“He would still come over to the works occasionally, even very late in his life. We always knew he was coming because he had a little white fox terrier which would run ahead of him.”

Mrs Horne remembers that foxy too.

“Yes that was ‘Tiddles’. He was grandfather’s favourite. He used to have his own private chair in grandfather’s bedroom which had to be made up as a bed each night.”

A poignant but indicative note on the significance Waikoko House represented for those who knew William Nelson was struck when Mrs Horne commented:

“One of the first things I thought when I heard Waikoko had been destroyed was it was fortunate Tiddles was dead. If he and grandfather had still been alive and Tiddles had been lost in the fire the grief grandfather would have felt would have been too much for him to bear.”


The grounds, surrounding Waikoko House, were bought from Nelson Brothers in 1911 for use as a showgrounds. The  £5319 was raised by public subscription.

Nelson Brothers was taken over by the English firm Vesty’s in 1920, but Waikoko House remained in the keeping of the Nelson family.

After Mr William Nelson’s death it was offered for sale and Mr John Lane, a son-in-law of William Nelson, planned to purchase it.

However, when Mr Lane, who was a committee man of the A and P Society heard the society was interested he forwent his option in order the society could buy it for  £5500.

Mr Lane also made available money “at very generous terms” according to the society’s minutes, to enable the purchase to be made. This was in November 1933.

Not only did it provide the venue for meetings of society members, but the house and gardens provided a feature attraction for visitors to the showgrounds and revenue from the many functions, such as wedding celebrations, held there.

Now Waikoko House has gone, but there are indications a new building will rise on its site.

For those who know the history and have had the pleasure of sitting in the cool, shady interior on a warm summer’s day, looking out at the gardens past the bunches of purple wisteria blooms, there could be little more fitting reminder than for such a new structure to bear the name of William Nelson – the man who gave Waikoko much of its identity.

Mrs P. [E] C. Horne, the eldest surviving grandchild of Mr. William Nelson has donated $500 to the Waikoko House re-building fund.

Photo captions –

HISTORIC WAIKOKO HOUSE with its familiar wisteria creeping along the veranda, is pictured (above) before Monday’s fire which reduced it to ashes. ABOVE RIGHT: The charred remains of the wisteria, which the society hopes to preserve.

HAWKE’S BAY pioneer industrialist Mr William Nelson (fifth from left, back row) is pictured with his family and descendants on the front porch of Waikoko, the family home and headquarters until sold in 1931. William Nelson died in 1932, aged 89. The famed wisteria, along the veranda, planted by Mr Nelson, was there in its infancy.

Robert Wellwood, first Mayor of Hastings and builder of Waikoko.

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Newspaper article

Date published

7 August 1976

Creator / Author

  • Terry Tacon


The Daily Telegraph


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today

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