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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 2, June 1967


page 20


The purchase of Isel by the Nelson City Council has preserved for the City and Province a wonderful setting for our new Provincial Museum. Perhaps James Wilfred Marsden did a greater job than he realised when he created the atmosphere of an old English estate—irstly by building with stones from the Poorman's Valley Stream and secondly by planting the grounds in a great variety of trees.

James Marsden inherited the property from his father, Thomas Marsden, who was an early settler in Nelson. Accompanied by his wife Thomas arrived in Nelson on the ship Prince of Wales in 1842. Their home was built on the site now occupied by the Marsden Church House (Nelson Diocesan Office) and it was here that James Wilfred Marsden and his two sisters were born.

After living six years in the infant settlement of Nelson town the family moved out to the property which became known as Isel. The 1849 Census gives the name of Thomas Marsden in the list for Suburban South. According to the New Zealand Company records Section 50, Suburban South, was selected by Robert Monro Walkinshaw, Order of Choice No. 46. He must have been an absentee owner. Under the scheme of July, 1847, Section 50, together with sections 45 and 47, was awarded to Thomas Marsden for his rural choice.

On a transfer agreement for a small section of land sold in 1853 Thomas Marsden's address was given as Isel Cottage, Suburban South. Marsden came from Cumberland where the name of Isel can be found but there is no indication that there was a family connection. Thomas Marsden was born at Hensingham, Cumberland, in 1810, being the only son of James Marsden, of Hathersage, Derbyshire. (I noticed with some interest that the late Jonathan Brough made the following comment in his diary when he was visiting the north of England in 1897: "July 10, went to Red Main. July 11, went for long ramble about Isel Hall, through the old church yard and along the Derwent. What an ancient old place Isel Hall is.)

It is said that Marsden first started building his home in Poorman's Valley, near the present cemetery site. After a severe gale blew down the framework it was decided to build elsewhere and page 21this resulted in the selection of the present site. At that time Marsden owned all Poorman's Valley except for Doidge's Bush, taking in all the flat and rolling country but not the hills.

It was Thomas who planned the actual park and he was responsible for the earlier plantings, these trees being now well over a century old.

The first school at Stoke, then known as Brook Green, was built on the Marsden property to the north of the Poorman's Valley Stream, about opposite where the doctor's surgery now is. Possibly it had first been sited there without legal sanction as ownership was somewhat sketchy in 1848. About 1850 or 1851 Thomas Marsden allowed the school to be moved to a position south of the Poorman's Valley Stream, the site now occupied by the St. Barnabas' Anglican Church. At a public meeting early in 1858 Thomas Marsden offered to deed this land to the Nelson School Society but this offer could not have been accepted as in January, 1864, the land was conveyed to the Church authorities for the use as a site for church and burial ground. The witness to Marsden's signature was William Beatson, the architect. The church was built and was opened in 1866.

The school had been built partly of stone, with a slate roof and, when pulled down the stone was incorporated in the church building. No doubt a great deal more was required.

Thomas Marsden continued to farm the property until 1878 when in December of that year he died following an accident. While travelling over the Bishopdale Hill his horse took fright at the sudden whistle of the train and overturned the carriage. He stated that he was not hurt but soon afterwards he collapsed and died.

James Marsden would have been about 34 years old when his father died and he took over the property. He was born in Nelson in 1844, and had been one of the early pupils at Nelson College. An interesting sidelight on his early life is the fact that he used to walk to College every day as his father said they could not afford to buy him a pony.

It was after the death of his father that James Marsden had the stone front built on to the home, this possibly being done about 1880. A recent article in the "Nelson Evening Mail" stated that the work was carried out by Robert Tibbie and Robert Henry under the direction of Mr. Marsden and that these men walked out from Nelson each morning and walked home again at night for six days a week while working there. (Another informant stated that it was Peter Henry and not Robert Henry who worked there).

page 22

It was said that in his younger days James Marsden was a very hard worker and did a great deal of the work round the place himself. His trees were one of his great interests in life and to get them established he watered them in dry weather. James continued to farm the property and he had stud flocks of several breeds of sheep, being a keen exhibitor at the annual show. He was President of the Nelson Agricultural and Pastoral Association in 1896.

In his later years he leased out the farm except for the homestead and front paddocks. The agreement laid down clearly that the land was to be kept clean and the fences in good order. Two windmills were to be kept in good order and certain patches of trees were to be preserved.

Early in the present century James Marsden and his sister, Frances Charters Marsden, inherited a substantial estate upon the death in England, of Joseph Charters Brown. About 1905 Mr. Marsden had a large new addition built in stone on the south western corner of his home and, when later the valuable collection of chinaware, paintings and furniture arrived from England, room had already been provided. The new extension to the building was erected by Robertson Brothers of Nelson.

One lady who had been a frequent visitor at Isel stated that Mr. Marsden always had guns about the home and she mentioned that it was not unusual to be awakened very early in the morning by the noise of a gun blast. It was Mr Marsden shooting at the blackbirds in his garden from his bedroom window.

James Marsden married late in life, his wife being Miss Mary Rosemary Rees, matron of the Wairau Hospital, Blenheim. They had no family.

In December, 1908, there were celebrations when the Marsden Recreational Ground at Stoke was opened, but certainly no one then could have visualised that half a century later an area of Mr. Marsden's property would become the Greenmeadows Park, now in constant use by sports bodies.

Mr. Marsden always used an English dogcart and bob-tailed horse. He had no use for mechanical inventions but, upon the death of his sister in 1918, he inherited her motor car and driver. It was said that he never looked comfortable as he sat up stiff and erect as he was driven along.

page 23

Those who knew Mr. Marsden well in his later life remember him as a courtly old gentleman. He had a profound knowledge of New Zealand trees and birds, and with his encyclopediac mind, he could remember when all the fences and buildings on the place were erected.

His two loves were his trees and his library. In his older years he lived the life of a country gentleman. He was well read and was an authority on many subjects. Living rather a secluded life he was almost regarded as a recluse by many of the local residents.

Unfortunately there are now no people who remember James Marsden in his more able years. Some only remember him as an aged man who was very jealous of his property rights and who chased out the boys who trespassed along the creek through his property.

Imagine the consternation of these same lads when in 1921 the first aeroplane to arrive in Nelson settled on Mr. Marsden's paddock. Why, the pilot and even some of the onlookers climbed over Mr. Marsden's paling fence—it was an unheard of offence. To make the picture even more realistic Mr. Marsden's gardener arrived with a message to say that the plane was to leave immediately.

James Wilfred Marsden died in 1926, leaving a substantial estate. So far as the property was concerned the Nelson Diocese received the residence and 52 acres of land with a stipulation that the trees round the estate should be treated with solicitious care. The Cawthron Institute received 65 acres of land for "the encouragement and advancement of agriculture and forestry, the experimental cultivation of useful trees and shrubs, of grain, grasses, and forage plants, roots, pulse and potatoes, and other subjects connected with agricultural farming and research …'" and so on. He also stipulated that certain trees were to be preserved.

Unfortunately slump conditions some few years later created a situation where both the Diocesan authorities and the Cawthron Trust Board found it expedient to dispose of the property.

It is extremely fortunate that the Nelson City Council has now redeemed at least some mistakes of the past and preserved the homestead area. The three large Canary Island Pines at the Marsden Road entrance to Isel, which Mr. Marsden always referred to as the Three Graces, were felled when that area was cleared for building sections.

page 24

Isel Park contains the oldest mixed stand of conifers in New Zealand and at least seven of them are known to be the biggest of their species in the Dominion. Isel Park is especially attractive because there are no lines of trees and Mr. Marsden when he planted them was not concerned about grouping them. Planted about the property without relation to pattern the absence of any attempt at planning adds to the attraction of the stand.

The Nelson City Council Reserves Department now maintains displays of roses, irises and bedding plants and the park is one which might easily be the envy of other cities.