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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Businessman, philanthropist, and founder of the Cawthron Institute.

A new biography of Cawthron, Thomas appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Thomas Cawthron was born at Newington, Surrey, on 25 May 1833, the son of James Cawthron, of Camberwell Road, Newington. He received a good education at Hoxton School and was 15 years old when his parents and family set out for Nelson in 1849 in the ship Mary.

It is probable that this branch of the Cawthron family is descended from the Cawthrons or Cawthrones (both names appear in records of 1647) who lived in the township of Cawthrone, a suburb of Barnsley, Yorks. Thomas assisted his father in farming at Richmond but finding that the work was too heavy for his physical strength, he obtained clerical work with W. B. Rhodes in Wellington, who was a distant relative.

In 1852 the gold discoveries in Australia excited his interest and he decided to try his fortune on the goldfields. He worked for several years as a contractor for miscellaneous goods on the goldfields of Bendigo and Ballarat. In 1857, on receiving news that his father had met with a serious accident, Thomas returned to Nelson on a visit. He found conditions congenial and, with the wish to assist his parents, decided to remain in Nelson. No doubt his experience on the goldfields of Australia directed his attention to mining ventures in the vicinity of Nelson. He became a contractor for food and miscellaneous stores for the Jenkins Hill coal mine and for the copper-mining projects on the Mineral Belt country near the Dun Mountain. He was now a strong, physically fit man and he was able to cope with the hardships which were involved in delivery of supplies to miners in the rough Mineral Belt country, some 8 to 10 miles by a mountainous track from Nelson. In March 1859 he accepted the agency of the Panama Royal Mail Steamship Co. and also acted as agent for the U.S.S. Co. of New Zealand. For a period of 30 years he controlled practically the whole of the maritime shipping from the Port of Nelson, which at that time was a busy port. In addition to the work of the shipping agencies, he did a great deal of business on his own account. Everything that he touched seemed to turn to gold. Later on, the investment of his money became an increasing responsibility. He was a shrewd and successful business man who was favoured with good fortune in all his business transactions. By the time of his retirement from active business in the late eighties he had amassed a considerable fortune – the amount of which was known to no one but himself.

After his retirement he lived quietly in a very frugal manner at his home in Examiner Street with his sister Mrs M. Wright. Outwardly he seemed to have few interests other than the investment and care of his money. This, however, was not really the case for unknown to the general public he had been active in helping individual cases of hardship and distress in Nelson city. It was only in the latter years of his life that he was emboldened to come before the public as a generous benefactor of Nelson City. He discussed different projects for the advancement of the city with several intimate friends of whom J. H. Cock and F. G. Gibbs deserve special mention.

The following list shows his more important benefactions to Nelson during his lifetime:

(1) A site for the Anglican Sunday School in Toitoi Valley. (2) A sum of £15,000 towards the cost of a new general hospital – conditional on a Government subsidy of like amount – and a sum of £1,000 towards the cost of the new nurses' home. (3) A gift of 2,500 acres of mainly forested country adjacent to Wooded Peak in the headwaters of the Maitai River. This has been named Cawthron Park. (4) The Cawthron organ in the School of Music and a sum of £2,000 for paying off the debt on the building. (5) A gift of money to the Nelson Institute for the purchase of the Lukins collection of Maori artefacts and the sum of £800 for showcases and museum fittings. (6) The magnificent flight of granite steps and platforms, leading from Trafalgar Street to Nelson Cathedral. (7) The iron chains and pillars on the seafront at Wakefield Quay and Rocks Road as far as Tahunanui. (8) The purchase of Observatory Park on the Port Hills as the first step in the establishment of a solar observatory. Unfortunately the trust deed for this project was not signed before Cawthron's decease and the project had to be abandoned, the park falling into the hands of the trustees appointed under the terms of his will.

It can be seen from a study of these benefactions that they were all well-conceived and of great value to the city of Nelson. The religious instruction of children, amenities for the sick, the preservation of native bush, the provision of recreational facilities for trampers and those interested in the unique geological and botanical features of the “Mineral Belt” country, the beautification of the city, and the promotion of cultural amenities are all included in his benefactions. It can be said with truth that his money was wisely spent in enduring monuments to his generosity. Although great credit must be given to Thomas Cawthron in the decisions which he made for benefiting the city, great praise is due to his advisers, particularly to F. G. Gibbs who, as honorary secretary to Thomas Cawthron, carried a great burden of responsibility in working out the details of many benefactions.

There can be little doubt that, if Thomas Cawthron had survived another six months, a large sum of money would have been earmarked for the establishment of the solar observatory in which he was very interested. He planned to donate sums up to £60,000 if necessary for the erection and maintenance of the observatory. Despite the strenuous efforts of F. G. Gibbs to complete the details of the project, the death of Thomas Cawthron on 8 October 1915 intervened before his signature of the trust deed was effected. He left no recent will. It was a holograph will signed and attested in London in 1902 that became effective on his death. By the terms of this will he left practically the whole of his estate, valued at £240,000, for the establishment and maintenance of a technical school institute and museum, the whole to be known as the Cawthron Institute.

Contrary to the general belief, Cawthron was generous hearted in cases of acute distress and need, but his kindness in such cases was not generally known to the public. His benefactions showed a fine sense of true citizenship. They were well-conceived and the details fully arranged before any announcement of his proposed benefactions was made. His major benefaction, the establishment of the Cawthron Institute, is an enduring and magnificent monument to his memory. Its establishment was not only of great value to agriculture but it also stimulated scientific research throughout the whole of New Zealand.

by Theodore Rigg, K.B.E., M.A.(CANTAB.), M.SC.(N.Z.), F.R.I.C., F.R.S.N.Z., HON.D.SC.(W. AUST. AND N.Z.), formerly Director, Cawthron Institute, Nelson.

  • Cawthron Institute Records (MSS)
  • F. G. Gibbs (MSS), Cawthron Institute, Nelson.


Theodore Rigg, K.B.E., M.A.(CANTAB.), M.SC.(N.Z.), F.R.I.C., F.R.S.N.Z., HON.D.SC.(W. AUST. AND N.Z.), formerly Director, Cawthron Institute, Nelson.