Page 1: Biography
Civil engineer, roading contractor, businessman, horticulturist, philanthropist
This biography, written by Mary Donald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Born in New Plymouth on 19 July 1896, Russell Matthews was the 10th and youngest child of Grace Marshall and her husband, Robert James Matthews, a banker. He was raised in an environment in which business and entrepreneurial skills were admired and encouraged. Educated at New Plymouth Boys' High School, he began his working life as an assistant engineer for the New Plymouth Borough Council.
In 1913 Matthews gained the council's permission to lay a new surface on Currie Street, New Plymouth. He researched the use of bitumen sealing, devised a heating system and spray unit, then mounted them on a horse-drawn wagon, fitted with special pins to ensure quick release should it catch fire. With bitumen imported from California, he began sealing the road. However, he was not familiar with the required heat and the bitumen came out 'looking like worms' rather than as a liquid spray. This, the first stretch of tar-sealing in New Zealand, received approximately three times the required bitumen and lasted more than 15 years.
Initially turned down for service during the First World War, Matthews was accepted in 1917 and served overseas for 10 months. He was in England when the war ended, and stayed for three years to study road construction at a London polytechnic. Arriving back in New Zealand in 1922, he met Henry Isherwood and Bertie Bellam, who were laying bitumen roads in Auckland. After working for them for a short time, Matthews became a partner and then managing director of Isherwood Bellam and Company, which was soon the country's largest roading firm.
On 7 March 1932, in New Plymouth, Russell Matthews married Elizabeth Mary Brodie. They purchased eight acres of undeveloped land along the Waiwhakaiho River, on the outskirts of the town, where they lived in a corrugated-iron shed for 18 months while their new Tudor-style home, designed by James Chapman-Taylor, was being built. Later they were to raise a family of two sons and two daughters.
In 1936 Matthews and a partner formed their own roading company, Matthews and Kirkby Limited. Six years later he began operating on his own account, under the name Russell Matthews and Company. This firm grew to become New Zealand's largest roading contractor, sealing more than 1,800 miles of road from Whangarei to Invercargill. From 1959 it concentrated on bitumen supplies. In addition to managing his own business, Matthews was a founding director of the New Plymouth chemical company Ivon Watkins Limited, serving on its board from 1944 to 1962. Over the following years he was director of a wide range of roading and engineering companies, including Kaikariki Sand and Gravel, Fitzroy Engineering and Fitzroy Quarries.
Outside of business management and roading, Matthews had a lifelong interest in horticulture. Inspired by the stately gardens of England, in the early 1930s Russell and Mary set about creating an attractive garden, which they named Tupare (garland of flowers). It became renowned for its specimen trees and was regularly opened to the public, the proceeds being distributed to charity.
As Matthews's passion for horticulture grew, he became a fellow of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture and a member of the New Zealand Rhododendron Association. A founding member of the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust in 1951, he was one of the driving forces in the development of its unique gardens on Carrington Road, near New Plymouth, where a wide range of rhododendrons flourish in a native bush setting. Besides being a benefactor, and patron of the trust from 1973 to 1987, Russell and his family spent most weekends at Pukeiti, working on the gardens. He also travelled the country showing films of rhododendrons, advertising and promoting Pukeiti, and expanding the trust's membership.
A resourceful, charismatic and generous man, Russell Matthews was single-minded and persuasive, qualities that did not always make him popular but which helped him to achieve success in a range of business and philanthropic pursuits. Rarely content with being a mere figurehead, he was a life member of the Outward Bound Trust of New Zealand, the Tatum Park Trust, the St John Ambulance Association and the New Zealand Society for the Intellectually Handicapped, and patron of the New Plymouth Repertory Society.
Matthews was made an OBE in 1971 for his services to industry, horticulture and philanthropy, and became a knight bachelor 11 years later. Tupare was purchased by the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust in 1984 and opened daily to the public. Russell Matthews died in New Plymouth on 25 November 1987, aged 91, survived by his wife and children.