Sarah and John Danforth Greenwood


Sarah Greenwood (1809-1889)

John Danforth Greenwood had been a successful physician in Mitcham, Surrey, England, but was forced to retire due to ill health in about 1838. The family lived briefly in Paris returning to the UK in 1842 where they raised money to purchase land in the regions of Wellington, Nelson, and Motueka in New Zealand. They embarked on the Phoebe at Gravesend on the 16th of November 1842, where Dr. John Danforth Greenwood had secured the position of Surgeon Superintendent and Justice of the Peace, receiving free passage for himself and his family in return. The family sailed into Nelson, New Zealand on the 29th of March 1843 with nine1 children – Alfred having been born in December of 1842 at sea in the Bay of Biscay.

Sarah GreenwoodSarah Greenwood The Nelson Provincial Museum, Davis Collection 1102/1
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Sarah was a keen artist and letter writer and, on arrival on 3 April 1843, she described the Nelson climate as ‘delicious': "We have now been lying at anchor for some days in this lovely haven surrounded on three sides by picturesque mountain scenery, and shut in by a natural breakwater that renders the harbour perfectly secure."

For four months, while John and the older boys began to build their house at Motueka, Sarah lived in a tent with eight children, supervising lessons and indulging in her passion for sketching. Within a year, the Greenwoods had moved into their spacious home, Woodlands. They had chickens, rabbits and pigs, vegetables and fruit trees and Sarah sold a little milk and butter.

She took to the new job of housekeeping with gusto: " I am now quite expert in household work, which I like well enough, and in cooking which I really enjoy. I only wish you could taste my stewed pigeons, my pea soup, and my light plain puddings; and then Danforth is such a good admirer, he finds all so well done. In truth....I never was happier or better in my life." (August 1843).

By the 1850s, the Greenwoods had become involved in political and academic interests in Nelson and Wellington. Sarah ran a successful school in Bridge Street between 1865 and 1868 with six of their daughters.

John and Sarah retired to Motueka in 1877 and lived with their son Fred at The Grange. Sarah's obituary in the Nelson Evening Mail, December 1889 noted: "Hard work never frightened or wearied her and in the midst of it she gave all of her children a good education. A woman of indomitable energy, cheerful spirit and a warm heart."

Greenwood Group, Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 178869. Click image to enlarge
John GreenwoodJohn Greenwood The Nelson Provincial Museum, Davis Collection 1132/1
Click image to enlarge

John Danforth Greenwood (1802-1890)

Soon after arriving in Nelson in April 1843, Danforth Greenwood wrote: "The fact is that this Colony Nelson was founded in delusion." He went on to say: "several parties, who if they could have had land in a district they liked....would have settled down long since, and made valuable colonists, are now here lounging about the town, seeing no chance of doing well on the land which chance has allotted them," (June 1843).

While their Town Acre  was swampy and unusable, the Greenwoods were fortunate with their Motueka land and delighted with Nelson in general. " As to the Colony itself of Nelson, I think very highly of it. The climate is delightful...the water abounds with fish of excellent quality, and the land with birds, pigeons, wild ducks and parrots, " June 1843.

By 1845, Danforth was working as a doctor, farmer, magistrate, Captain (of the Nelson Militia), Clergyman and Flax Agent." In 1846, he wrote that Government policy mistakes resulting in the ‘complete subjugation of the Natives' would mean that British rule would not be obtained without "great expenditure and some severe struggle."

Danforth was fast becoming a public figure and his views about the New Zealand Company eventually gained ground. A proposal he drafted requiring the Company to provide £60,000 in public funds from land sales, was unanimously agreed upon by the settlers. In 1855, he was elected to the board of the Nelson Trustees, which administered these funds.

Danforth was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1849 and in the 1850s, he and Sarah moved into Nelson, leaving their son Fred to manage the farm.

An Inspector of Schools, Danforth was deeply immersed in the design of a scheme of free public education which became the framework for the whole Colony. He was Principal of Nelson College for three years from 1863 and at the end of 1865, he was appointed Sergeant of Arms to the House of Representatives in Wellington.

John died six months after his beloved Sarah. At his funeral, he was described thus: "a more genial friend and companion it would have been impossible to meet.

This article is paraphrased from a series of columns written by Joy Stephens and published in the Nelson Mail in 2007


 Updated: April 08, 2020



Sources used in this story


Primary sources for the article:

  • Greenwood letters, Bett Collection, The Nelson Provincial Museum  Neale, June E. (1984)
  • The Greenwoods: a pioneer family of New Zealand. Nelson, N.Z. :General Printing Services

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  • I’m wondering if perhaps information in the first paragraph could perhaps be amended (ed. this has been done to reflect information supplied about the number of children and nature of the failed business venture).

    Posted by Briar Mogan, 21/06/2016 11:55am (8 years ago)

  • One slight correction to the narrative on this item. In fact Sarah remained in Nelson with her daughters in a rented frame house while Danforth and three of their young sons moved to Motueka and lived in a tent for six months while clearing the swamp and building "Woodlands" Sarah apparently became impatient with the separation and she and the girls joined the menfolk in the tent before the house was habitable. It is interesting to note the difference in the quality of accommodation at this time when compared with The Chataeu near Paris in which they lived before emigrating to NZ. "The Grange" in Motueka has been preserved in its original 1850s condition and is available for viewing by arrangement

    Posted by Martin Whittaker, ()

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Further sources - Sarah and John Danforth Greenwood



  • Cook, J. (2019) Granny played for the silent movies - Emmie Adolphine Keoghan. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 8(5), pp.55-66
  • Wright-St Clair, R. E. (1955) Medical men in early New Zealand politics New Zealand medical journal, 54 (303) p.551-555


 Unpublished sources - held Nelson Provincial Museum 


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