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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2001

Development of the Rutherford Memorial

page 34

Development of the Rutherford Memorial

Towards the end of 1987 the memorial marking the site of the birthplace of Baron Rutherford, on the outskirts of Brightwater, was declared 'a national disgrace'. There was a concrete slab 'chipped off at one corner, with river boulders all over the place' and a plaque bearing the inscription:

Ernest Rutherford

Order of Merit, President of the Royal Society
and Nobel Laureate
was born in a small house near this site
on 30 August 1871
He rose to world eminence as a scientist
and for his research work in radio activity
and on the structure of the atom
was created Baron Rutherford of Nelson in 1931
He died at Cambridge, England on 19 October 1937
and his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey

A plan to incorporate the symbol of an atom on a tower had been selected at a public meeting in October 1981 attended by 30 people, but it was subsequently considered inappropriate, as it could have become the venue for anti-nuclear protests.

The Waimea County Council had allocated $12,000 for gathering rocks for garden walls and landscaping work at the site. Twenty IHC workers were employed in gathering rocks for the wall, and six were to help with the wall building and landscaping. Work was delayed because a six metre strip of the land on which the work was to be done did not belong to the Council. The owner was prepared to transfer the land to public ownership, but this was delayed by a dispute. The Council procrastinated over the sort of memorial to build and sought funding assistance, believing that the project should be national rather than regional.

A meeting held at the Waimea County Council office on 22 February 1988 decided to end the wrangle on how to mark the birthplace of New Zealand's most famous scientist. The invited representatives included the two Nelson MPs, the Tourist and Publicity Department, the Ministry of Science, the Royal Society, the Rutherford family and the Historic Places Trust. They decided to accept the idea put forward by Dr John Campbell page 35of the Canterbury University Physics Department for a display depicting Lord Rutherford's life and achievements and his links with Nelson.

It had been Dr Campbell, who was writing a biography of Ernest Rutherford, who had called the site 'a national disgrace'. The Nelson Evening Mail reported him on 23 February 1988 as saying:

'Rutherford does not need a memorial himself because he lives through his work. He was internationally recognised as one of the world's greatest scientists. But Nelson and New Zealand do need a memorial to illustrate that this man was of international stature. It is unlikely there will ever be a scientist of his stature'.

The plan was a three phase one:

1.To raise the money needed to build and care for the project.
2.To get local and national support.
3.To approach government departments and overseas sources for money.

The meeting had decided to approach the Visual Production Unit of the Conservation Department for a study and costing of the plan, Waimea County Council owned a quarter of an acre of land at the Rutherford birthplace site, but the six metres of disputed land still had to be obtained.

On 11 January 1989, under the head-line Rutherford Memorial Approved, the Nelson Evening Mail reported the project convenor, Dr John Campbell, as saying he had heard that the Minister of Conservation, Ms Helen Clark, had approved the new plan just before Christmas.

The plan, drawn by Nelson landscape designer Sissons and Conway, was based on a mound surrounded by terraces, with plants and trees from Canada, England and New Zealand to represent the places in which Lord Rutherford had worked. Each terrace would represent a different stage of the physicist's life. Designing of the information panels was done by Eric Collinson and Bary Jacobsen of Baric Design Associates. The statue of Ernest Rutherford as a boy, which is the centre-piece of the memorial, was created by Monaco sculptor, Paul Walshe.

Design costs were paid by the Department of Conservation. Early donations by local firms were $1000 from the Nelson Building Society and $6000 towards the installation of lighting from Tasman Energy.

page 36

A Rutherford Foundation, based on the Royal Society of New Zealand, was set up. The list of Seeding Patrons in a newsletter from the Rutherford Birthsite Project on 31 July 1991 included the Nelson College Old Boys' Association, the Nelson Historical Society, the McKee Trust, the University Grants Committee, Trinity College (Cambridge), the British Council and the Canadian High Commission. The list of Principal Patrons included the New Zealand Tourist and Publicity Department, The Royal Society (London), McGill University (Canada), Nelson Pine Industries, Honda New Zealand Ltd, Massey University, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Lottery Grants Board.

The $400,000 memorial was opened by the Governor-General, Dame Catherine Tizard, on 6 December 1991. The string of prestigious guests included Rutherford's grandson, Professor Peter Fowler, his three other grandchildren and their children and the British and Canadian High Commissioners. Those gathered sought shelter from the rain in the Brightwater Public Hall, where speakers were introduced by Dr John Campbell, the Convenor of the project. Physicist Sir Mark Oliphant FRS, who had been his student and friend, spoke of Ernest Rutherford's life and achievements.

Unfortunately there were no media representatives present for the historical ceremony. Reporters from the Nelson Evening Mail were on strike and, due to an oversight, TVNZ had not been alerted to the celebrations.

A group of local organisations were declared the Guardians of the Rutherford Birthsite:

  • The Mayor, Tasman District Council.
  • The Chairman, The Rutherford Foundation.
  • The President, Royal Society of New Zealand.
  • The President, Nelson Historical Society.
  • The Principal, Brightwater School.
  • The Manager, New Zealand Tourism Department.
  • Dr J Campbell, University of Canterbury.

Another organisation, The Friends of the Memorial, was also established. The Memorial, on the western-side of Lord Rutherford Memorial Drive, is on a reserve under the administration of the Tasman District Council.