The Man Behind The Money
When Thomas Cawthron was born in Newington, Surrey, on May 25th 1833, Britain was in the midst of an economic slump. This could have been the determining factor in his father, James Cawthron’s, decision, in 1849, after the death of his first wife Sarah, to move his six children and new bride to Nelson, New Zealand.
Although his father had worked hard to send him and his siblings to a good school in England, because of his age (15) when he arrived in New Zealand, he was required to start work immediately. Thomas began his life in Nelson as a farm worker, but soon found that he was not cut out for the physical labour required in this job. Thomas was not one to give up easily, however, because of the strong work ethic that had been embedded in him from a young age.
Thomas Cawthron on the newly donated Church Steps, September 1913. F.N. Jones photo courtesy Ken Wright Postcard Collection.
After the copper mines on Dun Mountain and the coal mine in Enner Glynn opened in 1856, Thomas Cawthron began contracting work with the miners. He was a clever economist and soon began building his fortune by loaning “sums of money (at appropriate rates of interest) to his less thrifty workmates”.
By 1859, Cawthron had begun a new, long-standing career in shipping at Port Nelson. He was in charge of a number of shipping companies over the next 25 years, and in 1876, when the Union Steam Ship Company bought out the company he was working for, he “acquired a monopoly of shipping agencies in Nelson”. He also controlled overseas interests, most prominently the shipping of coal between the West Coast of New Zealand and Australia. These business successes were not, however, the root of his substantial fortune, rather this came through wellplaced investments in property, shares, mortgages and other institutions from 1860 onwards.
A Lasting Legacy: His Gifts to Nelson
It was not until his retirement, in 1884, that Cawthron began thinking seriously about the ways in which he could use his money to benefit his community. He had a great deal of money and relied upon his close friends, F. G. Gibbs and J. H. Cock, to suggest various ways of spending his money to aid the whole of Nelson.
Thomas Cawthron was known around Nelson as being a recluse, but because Gibbs and Cock were so prominent in the community, they were able to encourage him to invest his money in projects for the benefit of many future generations of Nelsonians. These projects included the financing of the Church Steps in 1912-1913, costing £1800; the gift of an £1800 organ to the Nelson School of Music in 1913 and the 1913 purchase of over 2000 acres near Dun Mountain for a nature park, to be named Cawthron Park. He was also very willing to help people in need, but did not appreciate begging letters and often put conditions on his gifts. For example, in his will Cawthron provided a monthly sum for a young woman for life, provided that she did not marry, at which time the “last payment shall cease forever”.
Thomas Cawthron died in his home at the age of 83 on October 8, 1915. In his will, he left the city of Nelson over £200,000 for the “purchase of land and the page 46 construction and maintenance of an industrial and technical school, institute and museum, to be called the Cawthron Institute”. Since opening in 1921, the Cawthron Institute has gained an international reputation for the work they do to benefit not only our local community, but also the rest of the world.
It will never truly be known exactly how much Thomas Cawthron contributed to Nelson’s economy, community and lifestyle. There are many people of Nelson who appreciate his various contributions every day, but do not know that Cawthron was responsible for them. He was a driven, but responsible and caring individual, whose philanthropic nature created a legacy that will last a long time into the future.
Books and Magazines
Hobbs, W., (1991). Rich Legacy to Nelson, in New Zealand Historic Places, issue 35, December, pp. 20-22.
Lash, M. D., (1992). Nelson Notables 1840-1940. Nelson Historical Society, Nelson.
McAloon, J., (1997). Nelson-A Regional History. Cape Catley Ltd.: Queen Charlotte Sound.
Mann, S., (no date of publication), F. G. Gibbs – His influence on the social history of Nelson, 1890-1950. Nelson Historical Society, Nelson.
Miller, D., (1963). Thomas Cawthron and the Cawthron Institute. The Cawthron Institute Trust Board, Nelson.
Brown, B.. Letter to the Editor. The Nelson Evening Mail, 22 December 2009, p. 9.
Hunt, T.. Observatory starring at a new venue. The Nelson Evening Mail, 12 April 2008, p. 3.
Reporter name not available. Cawthron Institute - Silver Jubilee Celebrations Next Week. The Nelson Evening Mail, 27 October 1945.
Reporter name not available. Cawthron Move Welcome News. The Nelson Evening Mail, 17 January 2007, p. 13.
Reporter name not available. Many generous Bequests - Thomas Cawthron did much for Nelson. The Nelson Evening Mail, 17 October 1945.
Reporter name not available. Obituary: Mr Cawthron - “Grand Old Man”. The Nelson Evening Mail, 9 October 1915.page 47
Reporter name not available. Rust won’t sleep for Chain Gain. The Nelson Evening Mail, 30 April 2008, p. 7.
Asher, Rod, personal interview , the Cawthron Institute, 10/06/2010.
Kaspar, Henry, personal interview, the Cawthron Institute, 9/06/2010.
King, Nick, personal interview, the Cawthron Institute, 11/06/2010.
Mackay, Deirdre, personal interview, 27/06/2010.
Mackenzie, Lincoln, personal interview, the Cawthron Institute, 12/06/2010.
The last Will and Testament of Mr Thomas Cawthron. The Cawthron Institute, via Lincoln Mackenzie.
Thomas Cawthron Trust Acts Consolidated 1924-1993. The Cawthron Institute, via Lincoln Mackenzie.
Gee, M.. Thomas Cawthron 1833-1915: Businessman, philanthropist. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, www.dnzb.govt.nz/, accessed 29/06/2010.
Reich, J.. In Memory of Thomas Cawthron. Epic, www.web.ebhost.com/, accessed 27/06/2010.
Stade, K.. Thomas Cawthron 1833-1915. The Prow, www.theprow.org.nz/thomascawthron/, accessed 27/06/2010.
Stade, K.. The Philanthropist and the Cawthron Institute. The Prow, www.theprow. org.nz/thomas-cawthron/, accessed 27/06/2010.
Friends of Cawthron newsletter. The Cawthron Institute, www.cawthron.org.nz, accessed 29/06/2010.
Overview of the Cawthron Institute. The Cawthron Institute, www.cawthron.org.nz, accessed 27/06/2010.
Thomas Cawthron 1833-1915 Founder of the Cawthron Institute. The Cawthron Institute, www.cawthron.org.nz, accessed 27/06/2010.