Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Margareta Gee, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 2, 1993.
Thomas Cawthron was born at Newington, London, England, and baptised on 7 August 1833. He was one of nine children of James Cawthron, an oil and paint dealer, and his first wife, Sarah Grummant. Sarah Cawthron died in 1845 and in 1847 James Cawthron married Mary Raymond.
Thomas is thought to have attended a blue-coat (charity) school, possibly at Hoxton, London. He came to New Zealand with his family at the age of 15, arriving at Nelson on the barque Mary on 24 February 1849. Finding the manual work available to him in Nelson beyond his physical strength he went to Wellington, where he found employment with businessman William Barnard Rhodes, who was a distant relative. In 1852 Cawthron left New Zealand for the Victorian goldfields, where he became a successful contractor. He returned to Nelson on a visit in 1854 or 1855 when his father became ill with tuberculosis, and decided to stay; his father died soon after in March 1855.
By 1856 Thomas Cawthron was involved in developing copper mining on Dun Mountain and coal mining at Enner Glynn, gaining a reputation for his expertise in putting in drives. He also developed his financial skills in these enterprises, lending money to his workmates: Nelson businessman J. H. Cock later described him as 'the personification of compound interest'. The growing port of Nelson drew Cawthron's attention, and about 1859 he began his long association with shipping as an agent, collector of wharfages and trader. He became secretary or agent of a number of shipping companies over the next 25 years, and in 1876, when the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand took over the New Zealand Steam Shipping Company, acquired a monopoly of shipping agencies in Nelson.
Cawthron had considerable business acumen as a trader, particularly in coal from Australia and in trade between Nelson and the West Coast. But it was through his wide-ranging investments from 1860 onwards, in urban and rural property, mortgages, shares and financial and other institutions, that he made his considerable fortune. On his retirement in 1884 he visited England for health reasons, and travelled extensively between 1901 and 1912 to England, the Pacific islands and Australia. He was accompanied on these trips by various nieces, and by his sister, Maria Wright, who for many years kept house for him in Nelson: Cawthron never married. He continued to take a great interest in his financial affairs, maintaining a close business and personal relationship with his solicitor, William Rout. His letters combined detailed instructions regarding investments and interest with news of travel and an abundance of kind messages.
Thomas Cawthron's record of philanthropy belies the reputation he acquired during his lifetime for being a miser. From 1865 he contributed to causes such as relief funds, church organisations and educational and recreational schemes. But it is his major benefactions from 1899 until his death in 1915 for which he is remembered. These include the Cathedral steps, the Rocks Road chains, Cawthron Park, large donations towards a public hospital and a nurses' home, and smaller donations towards the Nelson Institute and the Nelson School of Music. Possibly his extreme caution and attention to detail in his financial affairs were responsible for Nelson's not gaining the solar physics observatory he planned: the trust deed had not been signed when he died.
His greatest memorial is the Cawthron Institute, which was established after his death. Following a suggestion from J. H. Cock and on the advice of his friend and secretary, F. G. Gibbs, Cawthron, in a will drawn up in London in 1902, bequeathed £231,000 – practically the whole of his estate – for the development of an 'Industrial and Technical School, Institute and Museum to be called the Cawthron Institute'. This was officially opened in 1921 with Thomas Easterfield, emeritus professor of chemistry at Victoria University College, as its first director. The work of the Cawthron Institute has included major research in the areas of soils, agriculture and biochemistry, and it has played an important role in stimulating government scientific research.
Thomas Cawthron was a tall, broad-shouldered man, somewhat stooped and slow of speech. Retiring in nature, he was shocked at the 'blazoning forth in public print' in 1911 of his benefactions, but, he wrote to William Rout from Sydney, pleased that 'the clamour…will have died down before I return'. He detested begging letters but was generous to causes he believed in. He died at his Examiner Street home, Nelson, on 8 October 1915. He bequeathed £300 'to each of my 27 nieces and nephews', and an annuity to Minnie Palmer, the sister of William Rout and close friend of Cawthron's sister Maria, with the proviso that 'if the said Minnie Elizabeth Palmer gets married or has sexual intercourse with any man then this last payment shall absolutely cease for ever'.