Newspaper Article 2001 – Book treasure trove of history

About 200 descendants of Hawke’s Bay freezing works pioneer William Nelson will hold a family reunion next weekend, which will coincide with the launch of the biography of the man known as the “father of Hawke’s Bay”. A cocktail party, picnic at Waikoko Gardens and a church service at Woodford House are planned for the three-day event, which starts on Friday.


William Nelson of Tomoana, his Legacy to Hawke’s Bay, by R J Paterson, published by Central Hawke’s Bay Print. Reviewed by Rose Harding.

This book, and its numerous photographs, is a valuable addition to the recorded history of Hawke’s Bay and a treasure for the extended – and extensive – Nelson family.

Author Dick Paterson has already written Hey Days and Dray Days, the story of Olrig Station, the farm of his wife’s family.

His wife Janet is also a great-granddaughter of William, being the granddaughter of his daughter Mildred, who married Charles Alexander Smith, of Olrig.

William Nelson was described at the time of his death on November 16, 1932, as the “father of Hawke’s Bay” and, as this book illustrates so fully, this was not an overstatement of his importance to the province.

William was born in Warwickshire, England, in February 1843, the youngest of five sons of George and Sarah Nelson.

George Nelson was head of the family firm which made gelatine and cement. Records show he was an enterprising inventor and manufacturer who contributed to the British industrial revolution.

William appears to have inherited that “gene” which made his father such a success.

It was William Nelson who, in 1880, opened the Tomoana freezing works, establishing Hawke’s Bay’s first big industry, harvesting the region’s main “crop” of sheep.

In 1884 he converted the works to refrigeration, just two years after the first shipment of frozen meat was taken back to Britain.

He was also the driving force behind the reclamation of Napier South for settlement. Napier’s Nelson Park now bears his name.

The land on which he built his home – Waikoko – became the home of the Hawke’s Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society. The annual spring show has been held there since 1925.

His former home was used for weddings, meetings and other social occasions until it was razed by fire in August 1976.

The Hawke’s Bay connection began when, at the age of 19, William emigrated to New Zealand after leaving school at 16 and worked in his uncle’s tannery and a cement works.

William and his brother Frederick arrived in Auckland in February 1863 after a sea journey extensively recorded in diaries.

After some months in Auckland William arrived in Hawke’s Bay in May 1863, leaving Fred in the militia.

William’s extensive diaries of that time give the reader clear insights into just how hard life was for early settlers in Hawke’s Bay in a time of poor roads and where transport depended on horse and foot.

In 1865 William returned to England to marry Sarah Bicknell, a young woman he had known before travelling to New Zealand. Sarah and William had nine children before Sarah died in November 1883, aged 39.

In 1884 William married his second cousin Emma Caroline Williams, sister of his good friend J N Williams. That marriage saw three more children before Emma died in 1921.

In 1922 William married Catherine [Katherine] Orford, who had been his housekeeper.

In 1872, after early farming and business failures, William returned to England where he stayed until 1879. He rejoined the family business, an experience which must have stood him in good stead because a year after his return he opened Hawke’s Bay’s first works at Tomoana, with the support of his brothers, Montague and Frederick.

By 1895 the Nelson Brothers were the largest operators in the frozen meat trade, with the largest storage freezers in London.

The effect of all that money pouring into Hawke’s Bay can only be imagined, especially after the operation expanded to include works at Waipukurau, Woodville and Gisborne.

William’s influence on Hawke’s Bay did not stop there. He had 12 children who needed an education; so he set about making sure they got one.

Heretaunga School, in Karamu Road, Hastings, where Nelson Park now stands, was founded by William.

Woodford House owes much to his early input and the Nelson House boarding house at the school is named for him.

In 1890 William turned his sights on to flood protection and river control. His suggestion was to straighten the Ngaruroro River and divert the mouth of the Tutaekuri River from the Napier inner harbour to Waitangi.

It was William’s money and support in 1900 that saw planning for the Napier South reclamation scheme. That scheme saw a smelly swamp turned into firm land using the Tutaekuri’s own silt deposits.

William’s son George was the chief engineer on the project.

The scheme meant Napier could expand and the constant risk of flooding to the Heretaunga Plains was reduced.

The book is an invaluable resource to anyone interested in the history of Hawke’s Bay.

Its value to the Nelson family with its extensive family trees, William’s diaries and recollections and records of his descendants, can only be guessed at.

Mr Paterson, on the title page, modestly describes himself as the “complier [compiler] and writer of a family scrapbook”.

The book is that and much more besides and Mr Paterson is to be congratulated on his foresight and dedication on bringing to life a man and a family so important to Hawke’s Bay.

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  • Rose Harding

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