On the road again. Hunting for Katesgrove’s William Nelson

William Nelson and his dog by Gillie and Marc

William Nelson and his dog by Gillie and Marc

Whitley Pump correspondent and Katesgrove resident Evelyn Williams sends a postcard from Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.

The trail started with researching the Tanners Arms (now Hook & Tackle) public house on Katesgrove Lane, which led to wanting to know more about Philbrick’s Tannery. In the course of these historical meanderings I stumbled across a reference to William Nelson (1843-1932), who had worked at the tannery for a few months in 1860. His mother, Sarah Philbrick (1798-1865), was the sister of Thomas, John and Charles Philbrick who bought the tannery in Katesgrove in 1832. Sarah Philbrick married George Nelson in 1830. George Nelson was a chemist and one of the founders of the gelatine firm of George Nelson Dale & Co. William Nelson was their youngest son.

William Nelson emigrated to New Zealand and acquired a reputation as ‘The Father of Hawke’s Bay,’ so it was worth finding out more about him. I discovered that a statue had been erected in his honour and I decided to seek it out as I was going visit Hawke’s Bay anyway.

Nobody said it was going to be easy

I assumed that Nelson Park in Napier, New Zealand would be the location of the statue of William Nelson. After a circuit of the park, which was mainly given over to a sports pitch, no statue was found.

Walking out of the impressive entrance gates onto Kennedy Road, a second hand bookshop on the opposite side of the road beckoned. It was getting towards late afternoon and it was possible that the shop had closed for the day. The lights inside hinted at “maybe”, the opening times on the window said “no.” But there were people inside, was it worth trying the door? A gentle push on the door did not encounter any resistance; it opened, and from behind the counter there was a “can I help you?”

“Well, yes, maybe with two things,” I said. “I thought that there was a statue of William Nelson in the park. Also I wondered if you had any local history books.”

“Local history books are there, in the cabinet,” the shopkeeper said. “I’ve also got this one.” She lifted a copy of What’s in a name – the Streets about Napier by Ian Mills from a pile of books on the counter.

Nelson Crescent

There was indeed a chapter on William Nelson. Napier has streets such as Nelson Crescent (pictured) named after him. Then the bookshop owner searched on the internet and established that the statue was actually in William Nelson Park in Hastings, 20 km down the road. She gave us directions to Hastings so we could pass through it the next day on the way to Wellington. Much to my delight, I then discovered a copy of ‘William Nelson of Tomoana’ by R.J. Paterson in the local history section.

Funny how time slips away

Having found the wrong Nelson Park on day one and with a deadline to catch the ferry from Wellington the following afternoon, a bit more research was required overnight. Things were still not entirely clear; the map of Hastings in the Lonely Planet guide to New Zealand, showed a Nelson Park on the northern outskirts of Hastings on the approach from Napier. The Hawke’s Bay Art Guide 2016 located the statue in William Nelson Park at the junction of Avenue Road West and King Street North. We decided to check out both locations.

We should have passed by Nelson Park by driving along Karamu Road to the centre of Hastings, but failed to see the park. We looped back through a commercial estate. Later we discovered that this was where Hasting’s original Nelson Park had been, the one in our out-of-date guide book. The park had been redeveloped at the beginning of this century.


I don’t know where I am today

We arrived at the site of the Farmer’s Market hopeful that this was Nelson Park. In fact it was the Hawke’s Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society’s Showgrounds; but it had a connection with William Nelson as it was formerly the Waikoko Estate where he lived at the end of his life. It  was purchased by the Hawke’s Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society in 1933. They already owned an adjacent piece of land that they purchased from Nelson Bros. Ltd in 1911.

The statue was not spotted at either of these locations so we continued back into the centre to the junction of Avenue Road West and King Street North where there was a small park, neither as grand as the park in Napier, nor as as big as the old Nelson Park in Hastings, but this was where the statue was situated.

William Nelson Park, Hastings, New Zealand

William Nelson Park, Hastings, New Zealand

William Nelson Park is a newly established park opened on 6 October 2013 that is almost in the centre of Hastings. Along with the statue, there is an information board about William Nelson and the establishment of the Tomoana meat plant.

Perhaps some more focussed research would have found the statue sooner, but the exploration on the ground had been rewarding.

Home is where you’re happy

William Nelson kept diaries from a young age and at the age of 16 while working at his uncles’ tannery in Katesgrove Lane, he wrote about his daily activities, giving an insight into the tasks at the tanyard [ref 1].

Jan 1 1860. Chapel morning and evening. Went to tea at Katesgrove with Mont.
Jan 2. Tan yard. Tea’d at Katesgrove. Doing odd things all day. Mont went to work at Buckersbury first.
Jan 3. Currying. Ragging skins all day.
Jan 4. Currying. Finishing welts and ragging.

Currying is the process of stretching and finishing tanned leather [ref 2], and ‘ragging’ probably refers to trimming the animal skins and welts to make shoe welts.

Three years after his time in Katesgrove, William and his older brother Fred (1839-1908) went out to New Zealand.  The voyage from London on the sailing ship Devonshire took 3 months and they arrived in Auckland in February 1863.

This was during the time of the New Zealand Wars and both were soon in the militia. The conflict arose over sovereignty and land, and was fought between the government and some Maori tribes [ref 3]. William Nelson describes a day at this time in his diary [ref 4].

July 1 (1863). Breakfast at 6.20. Up to the Barracks by 7. Sworn into the Militia. Home at 9.10. Walked down to the town, then into the Barracks to see the Review of the 65th Regiment and all the Auckland Volunteers. After that we walked with T. and J. Williams to see the decorations in honour of the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra. Dined with Williams and spent the evening playing cards. The town was illuminated in all parts and bonfires in the country round. Fine.

Later in 1863, William left North Island to look at land in South Island.  He set up his first farm with his brother near Kereru, in the west of the Hawke’s Bay area. A relative, J. N. Williams, the son of Bishop William Williams, also farmed around there.

William did not lose contact with his family or roots in England and after two years farming in New Zealand he returned home for a year, during which he married his first wife Sarah Bicknell. After establishing a sheep farm in 1872 with his brother Fred at Mangateretere in Hawke’s Bay, he returned home again from 1872 to 1879 and worked in Warwick at the family gelatine firm.

I guess I’ve come to live here

When he returned to New Zealand in 1880, Nelson Bros and Williams Ltd established a meat processing plant at Tomoana. This initially produced tallow and canned meat, but was soon expanded into a meat freezing plant.

In 1884 the first shipment of frozen meat from Nelson Bros Ltd Tomoana factory took place. This shipment from Napier on the Turakina comprised 9,008 mutton carcasses [Ref 5]. The company owned cold stores in London at Cannon Street, Thames Street and Nelson’s Wharf in Lambeth. In the UK the business was controlled by Sir Montague Nelson, William’s older brother.

The freezing of meat for export was very important to the New Zealand economy of the time as it expanded the market for mutton. In 1921 the business was sold to Vesteys and renamed Nelsons (NZ) Ltd. The factory eventually closed in 1994 after over a century of operation.

Hawke's Bay A & P Showgrounds

Hawke’s Bay A & P showgrounds

The information board in William Nelson Park describes:

William Nelson’s lasting legacy is his generosity as a benefactor, and the creation of employment and wealth through the Tomoana Freezing Works, which helped build the economic prosperity of Hastings in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Upon his death in 1932 many acknowledged him as ‘The Father of Hawke’s Bay’ in recognition of his contribution to the whole province.


I would like to thank: Anthony Leahy  (whose website on Rediscovering Nelson’s Gelatine Factory, provided William Nelson‘s link with Philbrick’s tannery in Katesgrove) and Anne Emery at The Little Bookshop, Napier.

Note and References

  1. Extracts from diaries in, R.J. Paterson. William Nelson of Tomoana, His legacy to Hawke’s Bay. The original diaries are no longer available and were incomplete, but were transcribed. Mont was an older brother (Edward Montague) (1841-1919).
  2. S. Drummond. The ‘Art and Mysterie’ of the Currier.
  3. For the full story of the New Zealand Wars, see: Te Ara, Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  4. Extracts from diaries in, R.J. Paterson. William Nelson of Tomoana, His legacy to Hawke’s Bay. The original diaries are no longer available and were incomplete, but were transcribed. J. Williams is probably James Nelson Williams, son of Jane and William Williams. William Nelson formed a strong business relationship with his cousin who was one of the original partners in the Tomoana freezing works. After the death of his first wife William married James’ sister Emma Caroline.
  5. Report in the Hawke’s Bay Herald 15 February 1932 on William Nelson’s 89th birthday. Reproduced in William Nelson of Tomoana.


  1. Large retailers get nod at Megacentre
  2. Happy hordes roll up for park opening
  3. Hawke’s Bay Art Guide 2016
  4. Gillie and Marc
  5. Rediscovering Nelson’s Gelatine Factory and The Nelson’s of Warwick
  6. Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. William Nelson
  7. The ‘Art and Mysterie’ of the Currier
  8. Smells of Katesgrove – Philbrick’s Tannery