Page 1: Biography
Elder, Norman Lascelles
Electrical engineer, teacher, botanist
This biography, written by Peter McKelvey, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Norman Lascelles Elder was born on 6 April 1896 in Wellington, the son of Henry Richardson Elder and his wife, Anne Wildman. He grew up in a frontier farming environment at Waikanae, where his father cleared the bush to establish Waimahoe station and the neighbouring forested foothills of the Tararua Range became his playground. Norman was educated at Huntley School in Marton, Napier Boys’ High School and, from 1910 to 1915, at Wanganui Collegiate School, where he did well scholastically.
He enlisted in the army in 1916 and fought in France and Belgium with the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps. He was wounded in the legs, and while convalescing in Britain studied botany for something to do; he became a dedicated botanist for the rest of his life. Invalided home in 1919, he returned to Britain the same year to study electrical engineering at King’s College, Cambridge University. He graduated MA in mechanical science, and then worked as an engineer in Britain for a few years.
On 8 October 1927 at Kingston, Surrey, he married his English cousin Kathleen Montresor Elder. They moved to New Zealand, where Norman joined the New Zealand Railways to work on electrification projects. While based in the Hutt Valley he and Kathleen tramped enthusiastically in the Tararua Range, joining the Tararua Tramping Club in 1928. It was an opportunity to botanise and, influenced by Leonard Cockayne, he and colleagues undertook a systematic botanical survey of the range. This culminated in an important paper in 1938 on the flora and vegetation of the Tararua mountains.
In 1931 he changed careers and became a teacher, joining the staff of the boys’ preparatory school Hereworth, at Havelock North, where he taught for the next 24 years. From this base he turned to the ranges which form the backdrop to Hawke’s Bay and beyond: Ruahine, Kaweka, Kaimanawa, and even the southern fall of the Urewera highlands. Elder explored and botanised, sometimes with Kathleen, who was also a competent botanist. Some of his mapping was later incorporated in Department of Lands and Survey maps, and he reported on the vegetation and historical factors which had modified the ranges. He was particularly interested in the impact of introduced deer and possums, and in local Maori history. Most importantly, in his view, he introduced several generations of schoolboys to tramping and nature study in the ranges.
In 1954 he retired from teaching and for the next eight years was employed part time by the New Zealand Forest Service, producing landmark papers on the ecology of the Kaweka, Kaimanawa and Ruahine ranges. Despite a troublesome leg he was still out in the ranges in his mid 60s as guide and mentor of forest survey parties, earning their respect for his hardihood and enthusiasm.
He played an important role in establishing the Heretaunga Tramping Club, was active in the district search and rescue organisation, and was heavily involved with the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand, becoming president for two years. For his exploration and mapping work he was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1938, and for his work on indigenous flora, which included collecting interesting species and growing them in gardens, he won the Loder Cup in 1954. In 1967 he was elected an honorary life member of the Hawke’s Bay branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and in 1971 he was made an honorary life member of the New Zealand Ecological Society.
After Kathleen died in 1963 Norman left Hawke’s Bay to live in York Bay, Wellington. Elder was a gentlemanly, kindly and principled person, who made a great contribution to knowledge of North Island forested steeplands as one of the last of the old botanical explorers. He died in Wellington on 10 August 1974, leaving a daughter and two sons.