Colonial furniture makers in Nelson


Furniture for a colonial life

The colonial settlement of Nelson was among the first in New Zealand to establish a furniture making industry and examples of colonial furniture from the region form a small nationally important collection held by The Nelson Provincial Museum.

Totara corner cabinetTotara Corner Cabinet, The Nelson Provincial Museum General collection:  NPM2009.41.1
Click image to enlarge

Nelson’s early immigrants were encouraged to bring furniture with them to New Zealand and it was not unusual for wealthier families to be accompanied by tables, chairs, dressing tables, sideboards, sofas and even pianos.

In his book, Furniture of the New Zealand Colonial Era, An Illustrated History 1830-1900, William Cottrell says as the settler population grew, so did the availability of goods available for purchase in the colony and by the late 1860s emigrants were advised not to bring much as they could buy what they needed here.  However, until a cabinet making industry could be established, a lot of what was available locally was imported and expensive.

Assisted emigrants were in a different position, barely able to pay their fares, let alone bring furniture.  They had to make do with locally made items.  A chair in the museum made from timber from the immigrant ship, the Fifeshire, which was wrecked on Arrow Rock in 1842, shows the use of recycled materials. 

One of the province’s first cabinetmakers was Josephus Hargreaves, who established a business immediately upon arriving in Nelson in February 1842.  Few examples of his work survive, however the museum has a chiffonier and a reclining chair.  William Cottrell says Hargreaves is one of the earliest furniture makers in New Zealand whose work can be identified.  A large collection of his furniture, bequeathed to the Dominion Museum by Hargreaves’ granddaughter in 1956 and stored in the Harley’s Brewery malthouse in Nile Street East, was destroyed in 1958 when the upper storey of the malthouse collapsed under the weight of 1130kg of barley and crashed onto the furniture below. 

In 2008, the museum obtained a totara chiffonier made around 1865 by another Nelson cabinetmaker, Samuel Johnson.  The chiffonier and the two Hargreaves pieces form part of a small collection of early colonial furniture in New Zealand that can be attributed to specific cabinetmakers. William Cottrell says Nelson is most fortunate to have such important early regional pieces held by its museum.

Unfortunately very few pieces of early colonial New Zealand furniture remain anywhere in the country, usually because they were made out of necessity, were rough and unsophisticated, and were readily discarded when their owners could afford better quality.

A cabinet with particular resonance to Nelson’s German settlers has recently arrived back in Nelson.  The handmade totara corner cabinet has been bought by the museum from an Auckland collector.  Its construction ties in with the second period of German settlement in Nelson and pages of The Colonist newspaper dated September 15, 1882, help date the cabinet to this period. They are hidden behind a lining of original wallpaper, which in itself is a rare find for a piece of furniture this age. 

 “It’s quite crudely done,” William Cottrell says.  “The maker had some woodworking skills but if he had formal training he wouldn’t have made it this way. He made the cabinet for himself.  These homemade pieces are quite important because you will never get one of these corner cabinets like this again. It’s unique.

“Nelson is one of the few areas where there is strong cultural influence other than English, Scots or Irish, and enough of them (German immigrants) that you can see their own culture in surviving pieces of furniture, like this.  These German styles were still fresh in their minds. And though they might not have been cabinetmakers, they were building things they were familiar to them, before Englishness overpowered them.”

Mr Vosper SeniorMr Vosper Senior. The Nelson Provincial Museum, W E Brown Collection, 15896/2Click image to enlarge

English regional style can be seen in the work of the Vosper family, which made chairs from the time Thomas Vosper arrived in Nelson in 1875 from Cornwall. He, his son Thomas jnr and grandson Stephen made chairs until the early 1930s and the museum has  acquired a spindle back chair produced by Stephen in the last phase of production. It is unusual in that it has a rare label attached to its underside, identifying it as having been made by the Vosper’s ‘Universal Woodworking and Turning Company’ in Vanguard Street.  The Vospers were the most prolific of around eight early chair makers whose work can be identified and William Cottrell says their chairs are an example of how Nelson fostered a tradition of regional skills brought from England which was lost in other provinces to mass production. 

This story was originally published in Wild Tomato, 2009, with the support of the Nelson Provincial Museum.


Edited January 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Cottrell, William. (2006) Furniture of the New Zealand colonial era : an illustrated history, 1830-1900, Auckland, N.Z.: Reed
  2. Artefacts and documents from the Nelson Provincial Museum

Want to find out more about the Colonial furniture makers in Nelson ? View Further Sources here.

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  • Hello, I am trying to locate a copy (new or second-hand) of William Cottrel's book 'Furniture of the Colonial Furniture Era - An illustrated History, 1830-1900 for my husband's birthday. (He is a cabinetmaker). Apparently it is no longer in print and I was wondering if you would have any contacts for or know of where I could get hold of one please? Thank you.
    Regards, Kathy. Ed a suggestion has been emailed to you.

    Posted by Kathy Sanders, ()

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Further sources - Colonial furniture makers in Nelson



  • Crean, Mike. (2006, October 14). Pride in colonial skills. The Press, p.D2. 
  • Dekker, Diana. (2006, November 18). To sit, to eat, to live, to love. The Dominion Post, p.ID4

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