James William Matthews was born at Ahaura on the West Coast on 26 September 1895, the son of James Lindsay Matthews, a butcher, and his wife, Elizabeth Agatha Pothan. He was educated at Wairoa School, Hawke’s Bay. As a youth two of his main interests were gardening and reading and his ambition was to be a writer. In 1915 he joined the army and became a sergeant major. He trained for overseas service, but asthma, which was to trouble him throughout his life, kept him in New Zealand, where he served on the commandant’s staff at Featherston Military Camp until May 1917. In Wellington, on 11 August that year, while working as an accountant, he married Esme Elizabeth Hawke; they were to have a daughter.
After the war Matthews returned to the West Coast, seeking outdoor work to restore his health, and was employed carrying supplies by packhorse to the Southern Cross goldmine at the foot of the Southern Alps. When his health improved he moved to Wellington, working for a time in an advertising agency before joining the Dominion as a junior reporter. During his time there he pioneered the rural news service, was in charge of supplements to mark the paper’s 21st birthday in 1928, and became the first news editor, a position he held from 1934 to 1942. Known to many of his newspaper colleagues as ‘JW’, he was always well dressed, seldom without a pipe and noted for his enthusiasm for the job at hand.
Through his writing, and through lecturing and tree planting, Matthews took every opportunity to promote horticulture. He wrote a weekly newspaper column under the pseudonym ‘The Hoe’, was the first WEA lecturer on horticulture at Victoria University College, lectured to the New Zealand Library School on horticultural literature, and gave frequent lectures on gardening. As a foundation member of the Wellington Beautifying Society, he helped plant trees on the city’s barren hillsides.
In 1934 Barbara Winifred Silver joined the Dominion as a cadet reporter. Born on 9 July 1917 in Lower Hutt, she was the daughter of Winifred Louisa Brailsford and her husband, Lewis Mair Silver, an electrical engineer. Barbara grew up in the Wellington suburb of Seatoun and attended Wellington East Girls’ College. Writing was an absorbing interest from early years and she was a regular contributor to the Dominion ’s children’s page. As a teenager she was a friend of the novelist Ruth Park. On leaving school she began work on the Dominion , where she soon became editor of the children’s page and was later editor of the women’s section.
Jim Matthews was divorced in March 1938, and on 29 July he and Barbara were married in Wellington; there were two sons of the marriage. In 1942 the couple left the Dominion to take up free-lance writing on gardening and horticulture. Jim soon started a weekly column, ‘Garden with Matthews’, which appeared for a while in the Dominion , but then in the Evening Post. The column was also syndicated for two decades to major daily newspapers in most of the main centres. Barbara helped write ‘Garden with Matthews’, and when Jim’s eyesight failed in the late 1960s she wrote the column under his by-line until February 1987.
In 1944 Jim launched the monthly magazine New Zealand Gardener , which was published by A. H. & A. W. Reed. Because there was a war-time shortage of newsprint, a special act of Parliament was passed to authorise the supplies needed for printing the magazine. Parliament was persuaded that such a publication was essential to the war effort as it would encourage more people to grow vegetables. Barbara helped with the editing and writing and promoted the magazine by talking to horticultural groups throughout the country. The New Zealand Gardener was run as a family business for more than 20 years. When it was sold to Wilson and Horton in 1968, Barbara continued to write articles and their son Julian later became editor.
As well as meeting the weekly and monthly deadlines for their column and magazine, Barbara and Jim Matthews published numerous books. Jim’s titles included Soil fertility (1943), Garden treasures (1947) and Matthews on gardening (1960), and together they wrote The New Zealand garden dictionary , which appeared in seven editions between 1941 and 1968 and sold 50,000 copies. Barbara wrote Gardens of New Zealand with Conon Fraser (1975), Growing native plants (1979), and An illustrated garden dictionary with her son Lewis (1979).
The couple always worked from home, writing, editing, and gardening, at first in Stokes Valley, then in Paraparaumu, and finally in Waikanae from 1953. Breeding plants was a particular interest and they also supplied flowers to Wellington florists for many years. In 1964 they were made joint associates of honour of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture.
Barbara was a keen photographer of plants, landscapes and people; her work appeared in horticultural books and magazines, in the New Zealand’s Nature Heritage series and in local newspapers, where her subjects ranged from choir boys to garden scenes. In 1970 she led the first New Zealand garden tour to Britain.
Jim Matthews died at Kenepuru Hospital, Porirua, on 26 March 1982. After his death Barbara continued gardening and, for a time, writing. She died at Titahi Bay on 10 July 1997. As writers and passionate gardeners, Jim and Barbara Matthews had informed and inspired countless New Zealand gardeners.