Henry John Matthews was born on 19 September 1859 at Dunedin, New Zealand, the fourth surviving son and youngest child of George Matthews, a nurseryman, and his wife, Elizabeth Pressly. His parents emigrated from Scotland to Ireland and thence to New Zealand. Henry spent his earliest years in a small wooden house in Moray Place adjoining his father's plant nursery and seed merchant's premises.
Gardening seems to have been a major interest of the Otago settlers: the Otago Witness had a garden column every month in the early 1850s, and the Otago Horticultural Society had been formed early in 1851. George Matthews's business flourished and in 1870 the family moved to a large property in Mornington called Hawthorn Hill. Their new 11-room brick house stood in grounds which were developed as a horticultural show-place. As a young man Henry worked alongside his father and older brothers George and David, learning all branches of the family business.
About 1880, several years before his death, George Matthews handed over management of the nursery to Henry. With the assistance of John McIntyre, the nursery foreman and an acknowledged authority on New Zealand flora, Henry developed the propagation and sale of native plants into an important part of the business, dispatching orders as far afield as Britain, the United States and Japan. Thanks largely to his pioneering efforts New Zealand species were gradually recognised overseas as valuable garden plants. In many cases the parent plants for propagation were grown from specimens collected by Matthews and John McIntyre in the mountains of west Otago. Although Matthews did not publish his observations of these trips, he is credited with discovering several new species and contributing valuable information to the study of plant distributions. In recognition of his discoveries and his generosity to botanists, Donald Petrie named at least two new species after him: Gentiana matthewsii and Senecio matthewsii.
On 14 October 1896, at Dunedin, Henry Matthews, then 'a short, stocky man' of 37 years, with a 'full dark beard and moustache', married Grace Annie Gordon, the niece of another pioneer Otago nurseryman, William Martin of Fairfield. As there were no children of the marriage, Grace was able to accompany Henry on the extensive travels which marked the next phase of his career. On 19 August 1896 Matthews was appointed chief forester, a new position created as a consequence of the Timber Conference of July 1896. The conference had emphasised to the government the speed at which indigenous timber stocks were being consumed. Reafforestation with exotic species was seen as the only possible solution. Henry Matthews was selected by John McKenzie, commissioner of forests in the Seddon ministry, as a man capable of handling the practical problems of selecting land for the government nurseries and plantations, staffing and equipping them, and choosing the appropriate species, methods of propagation and planting techniques.
In choosing nursery sites Matthews applied the principle that had guided his father's selection of Hawthorn Hill: nursery stock is more likely to survive when raised under tough conditions. He saw it as essential that trees intended for plantations at Naseby should be acclimatised to winter cold and summer drought. Within a month of his appointment, he selected a nursery site at Eweburn (Ranfurly) and engaged two former Hawthorn Hill employees to run it. By May 1897 he had set up another nursery at Tapanui which was to supply the Dusky Hill, Conical Hills and Hanmer Springs plantations. In the North Island he established the Rotorua nursery in March 1898, to provide trees for Whakarewarewa, and began experimental plantations on the Kaingaroa Plains in 1897. Although he thought some native species such as kowhai might be successful timber trees, he realised that exotic conifers would reach maturity much faster. Nevertheless, the government nurseries grew natives for ornamental planting.
Despite problems with pests and climatic extremes, these nurseries were able to supply over 60 million trees for state forests between 1896 and 1913. To encourage private afforestation, Henry Matthews was commissioned to write a practical handbook which was published in 1905 under the title Tree-culture in New Zealand. The handbook dealt with all types of planting, from timber plantations to hedges and street trees, and contained chapters on replanting with natives and sea coast planting. Grace Matthews, who was a proficient photographer, supplied many illustrations for this book and for Henry's official reports.
Henry Matthews also served on the Scenery Preservation Commission set up by an act of 1903, but disbanded in 1906. In its short term it recommended acquisition of many important forest remnants, scenic waterways and Maori sites, but only a small proportion of these were secured.
In early April 1909 Henry Matthews was taken ill while in Rotorua on forestry business. He travelled to Auckland for medical advice but died there of cancer of the colon on 28 April, aged 49 years. He was buried in Dunedin. His mother outlived him by about two years and his wife, Grace, returned to England where she died in 1967. Although Henry's working life was short, his promotion of native plants for garden use and his establishment of the first state exotic forests were achievements of long-term economic significance to New Zealand.