George and Louisa Snelson are remembered as the father and mother of Palmerston North. Together, they were associated with founding or initiating most of the institutions and civic projects in the town during the 1870s and 1880s. George Mathew Snelson was born in Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire, England, on 22 November 1837. He was the son of Mary Halford and her husband, James Snelson, a coach manufacturer. On leaving grammar school at the age of 15 George was apprenticed to an ironmonger and hardware merchant in Melton Mowbray, then at 19 he went to work for a general agent in Bedford. Several years later he emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in Wellington on 21 February 1863 aboard the Earl of Windsor. In Wellington George was employed as a clerk by E. W. Mills, an ironmonger and general merchant.
Louisa Matilda Buck was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 29 January 1844, the daughter of Elizabeth Frances Harvey and her husband, Henry Gregory Buck, a blacksmith. In March 1842 her parents and siblings had arrived at Wellington aboard the Birman. George Snelson and Louisa Buck were married in Wellington on 6 July 1865. They were to have two children: Frances Mary Halford in 1866 and George James Halford in 1868; both died as infants.
In 1870 the government began to make arrangements for the emigration of Scandinavians to Manawatu. Mills agreed that George Snelson, who was by then his partner, should go to Palmerston (Palmerston North) to open a general store and ironmongery. George travelled there alone in December 1870. Louisa arrived at Foxton aboard the Go-ahead in April 1871, and then undertook the arduous inland journey to Palmerston accompanied by her ward, 16-year-old Matilda Montgomery.
George Snelson's store was open by the middle of 1871, and the Wellington Almanac of 1873 lists him as 'Postmaster and Registrar' and 'ironmonger, general storekeeper, and land agent, Palmerston North, Manawatu'. The early Scandinavian settlers of Palmerston North were poor and understood little English. George gave them credit on purchases at his store while Louisa provided a letter-writing service at 6d. a letter. Known affectionately as Aunt Lou, she also took in boarders and cared for children in her home.
As the community expanded, George Snelson's name was linked with almost every civic undertaking. He was initially elected to the Manawatu County Council in 1876 and then became the first mayor of Palmerston North in August 1877. He served four periods as mayor between 1877 and 1901, and was a borough councillor for most of the 1880s. During the 1870s and 1880s he served on the Manawatu Highway Board (later the Manawatu Road Board) and the Wanganui Education Board, was registrar of births, deaths and marriages and a justice of the peace. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1879 and 1893.
Louisa Snelson's name was as closely associated as George's with social and religious initiatives in Palmerston North. Anglican church services were held at their home and store from October 1872, and on 29 September 1875 Louisa laid the foundation stone for All Saints', the first Anglican church in the town. Louisa was Sunday school teacher there from 1877 and George was at various times vicar's warden and a lay reader during the first years of the church's existence. Louisa also maintained close contact with Christian Maori at Awapuni.
The Snelsons campaigned vigorously to have land set aside for a school in Palmerston North. George was first chairman of the Palmerston school committee in 1872 and a committee member for some years afterwards. The couple (more particularly Louisa) led the intensive fund-raising for a public hospital, which opened on 21 November 1893. George served on the Palmerston North Hospital and Charitable Aid Board from 1892 and was chairman for at least two terms.
Many social and community organisations in the town were actively supported by George Snelson. He was a founder member of the Ancient Order of Foresters and a Freemason, captain of the Palmerston North Rifle Volunteers for 3½ years, and in 1883 was a founder of the Palmerston North Volunteer Fire Brigade. He was also for a time president of the town's musical union. His interest in horticulture led him to be a founder member of the Manawatu and West Coast Agricultural and Pastoral Association, vice president of the local acclimatisation society in 1877, chairman of the domain board in 1880 and a keen promoter of the establishment of the Palmerston North esplanade, a riverside park.
Louisa took a particular interest in the welfare and education of local Maori, and was said to be a fluent speaker of the language. In 1907 she was asked to share in the unveiling of the monument to Rangitane chief Te Peeti Te Aweawe, which stands in The Square in Palmerston North. She had commenced a campaign for the statue in 1890.
In the 1890s the general economic depression and periods of ill health left George Snelson in financial difficulties. He sold his businesses and land around The Square and moved to Hokowhitu. He was obliged to rely on income from his local government appointments as coroner, borough valuer, and secretary to the cemetery board, but the remuneration from these posts was not always sufficient. In August 1898 he was forced to seek relief from his rates bill and was twice accused (although never charged) with the mishandling of public funds.
Nevertheless, George Snelson was again elected mayor in May 1901. It was said that he owed his victory to the 'indomitable grit' of Louisa in organising women voters during the campaign. George presided over only eight Council meetings before his death on 31 October 1901. His funeral on 4 November was a major municipal event: all the shops were closed, special transport brought mourners from Feilding, and flags were flown at half-mast.
Louisa was left in a parlous financial position. A collection was taken to assist her, but she soon had to sell her home and in October 1903 she moved to Sydney, Australia. Little is known of her time there. She returned to Palmerston North several years later and was again involved with fund-raising for various community causes. Because of her personal circumstances she was compelled to earn money by selling flower paintings and giving private art lessons. During her last years she lived in private hotels and with friends. She died on 15 December 1919 while visiting Wanganui. Her funeral, too, was a notable local event.
In the Snelsons' various community activities Louisa appears to have been the initiator and organiser, George the spokesman and public figure. But nothing tangible endures as a monument to their work. Only Snelson Street (officially designated in 1897) reminds Palmerstonians of two fine pioneers.