Nelson Refinery and Tobacco


The Nelson Refinery, currently the ArtSpace, was once the home of the Nelson Tobacco Company.

New Zealand Tobacco Company

In 1910 Gerhard Husheer emigrated to New Zealand to attempt to establish a tobacco industry after experience in the industry in Germany. He settled in Hawke's Bay and after two years growing experimental tobacco crops with some success, he formed the New Zealand Tobacco Company in 1913. In 1915 a new processing factory was built in Napier, and New Zealand's first tobacco was marketed in 1916. Demand steadily increased and by 1918 the company was earning good dividends for its shareholders.


Tobacco farm c1921 Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collection

Two difficult years followed after anti Germanic sentiments saw him forced him out of his own company by other directors. In 1920 Husheer moved to Riverhead, near Auckland, and set up a syndicate to finance the growing and processing of tobacco. In 1921 he formed the National Tobacco Company, which almost immediately bought up the stock, buildings and machinery of the by-now virtually defunct New Zealand Tobacco Company. In the 1921–22 season tobacco was grown experimentally near Motueka. The leaf submitted to Husheer indicated that this was the area in New Zealand most suited to tobacco culture. The company ceased growing its own leaf by 1924 and became dependant on contract growers in the Nelson area and in Te Atatu, West Auckland. In 1926 a handsome new brick factory was completed, and in spite of heavy increases in excise duty imposed on domestically grown leaf, the company flourished.

The Tobacco Board

Commercial tobacco growing in New Zealand came under Government control in the 1930s with the passing of the Tobacco Growing Industry Act, 1935. Under this act the growing of tobacco was restricted to those to whom licences were issued by the Tobacco Board. The board had growers and manufacturers representatives appointed by the government.

motueka tobacco research station 1938

Motueka research station Alexander Turnbull Library, Lady Joyce Marsden Collection (PAColl-0091) PA1-o-135-44

The Tobacco Board’s initial members in 1936 included, as manufacturers' representatives, G. Husheer of National Tobacco Co and R.B Smith of W.D& H.O. Wills. KA Snedden of Consolidated Tobacco Company also an initial member was replaced in 1937 by A.F. Bell of Nelson Tobacco Company (1934-1948). All of these companies had large interests in the Nelson Region.

In New Zealand commercial tobacco growing was almost exclusively confined to the Waimea in Nelson, especially Motueka and Riwaka, where high sunshine, evenly spread rainfall throughout the year, heavy soils and little wind, produced fine yields. By the mid 1960s fifty percent of the total consumption of tobacco leaf in New Zealand was from locally grown crops.

Most of the tobacco grown in New Zealand was flue-cured, producing a yellow-leaf, known as Virginia Gold, which was used largely in the manufacture of cigarettes. The remainder was air-cured, and used in the manufacture of smoking mixtures and pipe tobacco. Crops in New Zealand were grown under contract to the manufacturers. Research into soil types, fertiliser programmes and the selection of tobacco varieties suited to local conditions, was carried out by the Cawthorn Institute in Nelson.

Additional scientific input was made by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which, with the backing of growers and manufacturers, ran a Tobacco Research Station. In 1987 the Tobacco Growing Industry Repeal Act was passed in Parliament, winding up the Tobacco Board and disposing of its assets.

Tobacco and Cigarette Making

During the war, the tobacco and cigarette making industry in New Zealand took over most of the local market from the pre-war overseas suppliers of manufactured tobacco and cigarettes. The number of cigarettes made in New Zealand more than doubled between 1938–39 and 1941–42. The industry was to continue to strengthen its position for the remaining war years and to hold the bulk of the market after the war.


Tying leaves onto sticks – a job done mainly by women, who became very adroit at the task. (c1920s) Motueka District Museum O'Shea tobacco collection

Whilst The National Tobacco Company and H & O Wills were the major companies taking the crop from Nelson and other areas, smaller companies such as the Nelson Tobacco company made products entirely sourced from locally grown leaf from a large tobacco growing complex in the Motueka Valley. 

Demand for tobacco was so high that farmers from the Waimeas, the Motueka Valley to Golden Bay and places in between were encouraged grow a few acres. Field officers visited the farms and help wherever they could from advising on soil type to irrigation to when to start picking and how to run the kilns that dried the leaf. At the factory where the growers brought their leaf to be sold, a complex array of machinery helped get the leaf into the condition required to store it for two years to mature before it was used in cigarettes.

The Nelson Refinery

The building was commissioned by The Premier Tobacco Company in 1932. It became the home of the Nelson Tobacco Company founded in 1934. Business flourished in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. In 1948 a fire swept through the factory destroying the highly combustible products. The company did not recover from this disaster and went into receivership. Council acquired their buildings, to use as its Reserves Depot until the early ‘80s. It later became the Refinery ArtSpace.

The Refinery ArtSpace
refinery artspace

Refinery Artspace. Photo courtesty Trip Advisor

The Refinery ArtSpace had its beginnings under the umbrella of the Kahurangi Employment Trust (KET: 1997-2014), which was established as a Charitable Trust in April 1997.1 The Trust was initiated by both Nelson City and Tasman District Councils to create employment opportunities by accessing Taskforce Green Subsidies available at that time through Work & Income New Zealand. They aimed to “provide an environment that supports people who are disadvantaged in the Labour Market into sustainable Employment”.

In 2003 Kahurangi Employment Trust manager Andy Budd set up an arts centre2 with a cluster of artists working and exhibiting under one roof, for a number of reasons. There was a pile of recycled materials at the Richmond Recycling centre which KET also ran, there was space at the old Tobacco Refinery Building at 3 Halifax Street, where the Trust was based, and there were a lot of Nelson artists looking for space to work in.

The downstairs space of the Refinery building was divided to create a gallery space closest to the road, with workshop spaces for artists behind, and was operational by the end of 2003. The building was renovated using as many recycled materials as possible. At this time the distinctive front entrance way was created with stylish door surround, wall sculpture and signage.  Artists Eme Kilkenny, Barbara Cozens, Hannah Richards, Tejas Arn and Murray Sparrow were among the first artists involved in the project. Artists enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other and found working collectively was financially manageable. They felt Gallery visitors and buyers would be attracted by the diverse range of works a group of artists could create.

Project technician Tipene Makere Ryan-Smith said the Gallery project was well received by the community, with 27 people interested in renting spaces when they first became available. Sally Fleming, Gallery director in 2005, said the Refinery was an art space for people who were disadvantaged in the employment sector for various reasons. The gallery gave those interested in creating art a chance to see if they have talent or not, and the public an opportunity to watch artists at work. The proviso that artists worked in recycled materials continued with resident artists. The gallery grew to be an increasingly important place for exhibitions, especially for an ever widening group of emerging artists.

refinery artspace2

Refinery Artspace sculpture garden. Photo courtesty Trip Advisor

Important major exhibitions for the city started here, including the Centre for Fine Woodworking annual exhibition featuring top craftsmen training in Nelson; and the Changing Threads Contemporary Fibre Arts Awards which attracts both local and international interest. The Arts Council Impressions Art Awards held in the Refinery became a springboard for many fine painters since 2006 when the initiative commenced.

Gallery Director Deb Hunter added a new dimension to the Gallery with the addition of a sculpture garden. The idea took a few years to realise and local landscape designer Lyndsay Dixon finally helped it to take shape.  Funds were raised from KET, Nelson City Council, New Zealand Lotteries Board and local philanthropist Adrian Faulkner. Volunteers donated time and labour and the garden opened in October 2008. Duncan Leask’s distinctive gates became a permanent artwork to mark the entrance to the garden.

Arts Council logo

Arts Council Nelson logo

The Arts Council Nelson, who had shared office space in the Refinery for six years adopted the running of the Refinery space in 2014 with the aim of increasing community access through a greater diversity of events at the facility.3 Nelson’s first Fringe Festival was held there in May 2015, proving that the space works well for performing as well as visual arts. In addition to the main areas the Refinery offers four studios to working artists and an accessible teaching workshop area.



Updated March 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Nelson City Council records [formation of Kahurangi Employment Trust]
  2. Cull, B. (2003, May 22) Recycling becomes art form. Nelson Evening Mail. p.3
  3. Interview Lloyd Harwood, 2015

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Further sources - Nelson Refinery and Tobacco



  • National Archives notes on Tobacco Board
  • Nelson City Council building consent archives

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