By David Bradbury
Few people realise as they walk beneath the beautiful elms and oaks of Frimley Park that they are in what used to be the grounds of a mansion.
The 47 acre park is all that remains of the original 3000-acre station that used to be owned by James Nelson Williams, one of the original settlers of the Heretaunga block.
Williams acquired the land in the 1860s through his brother-in-law and cousin Archdeacon Samuel Williams, Te Aute, as part of the original lease arranged by Thomas Tanner.
The 1867 lease and purchase in 1870 was described by Mary Boyd in her book, A History of Hastings, as “the most notorious example of a new method of direct purchase by private individuals to overcome Maori resistance to land-selling.”
In 1872 the station had 9054 sheep on it. In the 1870s Mr Williams built the Frimley homestead. The large timber mansion was erected by local builders.
The grand-daughter of Mr Williams, Mrs Margot Lowry, remembers the mansions [mansion] in the 1920s as having a large drawing and living room that could be made into a ballroom by drawing back a folding wall.
The floor was oak parquet and there were Persian and Turkish carpets throughout the house.
Mrs Lowry said the mansion had a magnificent staircase, “the best stairs in the world to slide down.”
Mr Williams planted trees, lawn and flowerbeds around the mansion.
He had the station drained, planted in pasture and established long lines of shelter trees.
He named the station Frimley after a village in Surrey.
After a visit to North America and Europe in 1890, where Mr Williams gathered information from orchards in Buffalo, near the Niagara Falls, California, and near Bordeaux in France he returned to Hastings and planted 10 acres near the mansion in plums, Greengages and peaches.
In spite of inadequate pruning, and planting different varieties of trees, which made spraying difficult, the orchard cleared £400 a year.
In 1894 there were 200 acres in oats and barley, 90 acres in mangels and 40 acres in turnips.
In the 1890s the Liberal Government was breaking up large stations for closer settlement. Mr Williams offered about 1800 acres.
He decided to put 300 in fruit trees and vines, keep this under his management till they were bearing fruit, then hand the land over to the Government to be cut into small lots for selection.
Using money he received from the sale of 1134 acres in 1898 to the Lands Department for sub-division, he planted a new 140 acre orchard of his own.
The Frimley orchard consisted of 60,000 fruit trees, mostly peaches.
The peach trees were in 60 runs, each a mile long. There were also about 12 acres of plums and 17 acres of grapes.
Mr James Nelson, grandson of Mr Williams, said the orchard in full bloom attracted many people from outside the district.
Other areas of the station were sold off over the years.
When Mr Williams died in 1915 the estate was inherited by his daughter, Miss Elsie Williams.
She was renowned as a generous host. Friends were always welcome to stay and balls and picnics were common. Mrs Lowry said the Frimley mansion was a second home to Miss Williams’s relatives.
Miss Williams was instrumental in setting up the Girl Guides and was the ﬁrst president of the Hastings Plunket Society.
The mansion was burnt down in 1951. The ﬁre started at the back and was probably caused by an electrical fault.
Much of the furniture and other household goods were able to be saved from the front rooms by neighbours who came to help. The site was as “flat as a pancake,” according to James Nelson. Following the ﬁre Miss Williams and her brothers A B. and H. B. Williams donated the grounds to the city in memory of their pioneer parents.
They also gave $2000 for a memorial sun dial in a sunken garden on the house site.
Industrialist and farmer
James Williams was a pioneer industrialist as well as farmer. Keen to provide a new outlet for fruit which had glutted the Wellington market in 1902 and wanting to establish a new industry in Hawke’s Bay, Mr Williams set up the Frimley canning factory in January 1904.
An earlier attempt in 1898 failed when a share issue did not raise enough capital.
Buildings and machinery cost £1600 and about £12,000 was spent to open the factory. It had a small permanent staff and employed 120 men, women and children in the busy season.
In the first year of production 150,000 cans of peaches, pears, apricots, tomatoes and fruit pulp were manufactured.
Most was sold to Hawke’s Bay retailers and some fruit pulp was re-sold to Auckland jam manufacturers.
By 1909 there were 40 full-time staff and during the fruit season 250 were employed in the factory.
It was plagued by constant labour shortages. Children had to be over 14 to work in the factory but there was no age limit on work in the fields. In 1905 about 75 children, aged 10 to 14, picked seven acres of peas for six shillings a week, plus bonuses.
Mr Williams provided a social hall for the workers and in 1909 gave free tickets to a visiting theatre.
Severe frosts hit the orchard in October, 1911, resulting in losses of £10,000. No peaches were available for canning and the next season the factory canned only vegetables and made jam.
In 1913, as a result of labour shortages and bad management, the factory closed down. Its canning plant was sold to Kirkpatrick and Company, Nelson.
Mr Williams had grown old and was living with a married daughter in Havelock North. His sons were Gisborne sheep famers and not interested in the factory.
Park has lot of appeal
The director of the Hastings City Council Parks and Recreation Department, Mr John Mills, said Frimley Park has a lot of appeal to him personally.
“It has open spaces, mature attractive trees which create quiet intimate corners, the rose garden: it has a little bit of everything.”
Some of the trees in the park are English oaks, black poplars, Italian cypresses, liquid-ambers, copper beeches, English elms, pohutukawas, kowhai and New Zealand olives.
Mr Mills said the backbone of the park remains the trees that were planted in the 1880s.
One of the more notable trees is a necklace poplar, (populus deltoides ‘virginiana’) which is in excess of 44 metres and was planted in 1875 by J.N. Williams himself.
When young the tree was pruned to nine metres. It is the largest deciduous tree in New Zealand and one of the largest poplars in the world.
Another is the scarlet oak (quercus coccinea, ‘splendens’) which is in excess of 13 metres, with a spread of 35 metres.
It is outstanding for its brilliant autumn colouring.
Other trees planted in 1880 are a silver birch, (betula pendula) which is in excess of 14 metres high and has a spread of over 24 metres; two camphor trees, (cinnamomum camphora), planted close together which are in excess of 21 metres, and a eucalyptus, (eucalyptus sidecoxylon) which is over 24 metres, and one of the largest of several ironbarks in the district.
The council has progressively replaced trees as the older ones have been removed.
The rose garden was established in 1965 in a joint enterprise between the Hastings Rose Society and the council. The society donated about 1500 roses and about £100 in cash for the project.
The council has budgeted $24,000 to pay for the maintenance of the rose garden and surrounds this year.
Mr Mills said the sunken garden in the park is popular for people who want to get married outside.
Photo captions –
Two of J.N. Williams’ grandchildren, Mr James Nelson and Mrs Margot Lowry, at the sunken gardens in Frimley Park.
An aerial photo of the Frimley homestead in the 1930s with Omahu Rd in the background and suburban Hastings at the left. The original 3000 acres the runholding had in the 1880s had been sold off over the years till only about 50 acres were left around the mansion.
Frimley homestead at the turn of the century. Balls and social events were common and owner Miss Elsie Williams was well known as a generous host.
Driving up in style