Isel House and Park – legacy of the Marsden family


A historic park and house, named after Isel, a small village in Cumbria England, and a recreation ground form part of the legacy left by the Marsden family of Stoke.

Thomas Marsden, a watchmaker from Hensingham (part of Whitehaven) in Cumbria, England, arrived in Nelson with his wife Mary in December 1842. He built their first home on the corner of Sussex Street and Selwyn Place and set himself up as a watchmaker.1

MarsdenTMM.jpgThomas Marsden portrait, Kingsford Collection, The Nelson Provincial Museum, 127580/6
Click image to enlarge

In 1848 the family moved to 930 acres2 of the New Zealand Company's Suburban South land at Stoke, which ran through Poorman Valley (so named because a number of poorer families had made a temporary settlement there - later known as Marsden Valley) and down to the Main Road.3

Initial attempts to build a home up the valley on the site of the present-day cemetery, using stone from the stream, failed when an easterly storm flattened the house framing. Thomas instead built a four-room cottage where Isel House now stands.4

The Marsden’s Isel estate combined three suburban sections, making Thomas the largest landowner in Suburban South. To complement the prosperous farm which he developed, Thomas quickly planned a 12-acre5 (4.8ha) park and was responsible for planting the specimen trees that formed the basis of today’s Isel Park.6

Much of the Marsden wealth, thought to have come from well-invested English bequests, was put to good philanthropic use in Stoke and Nelson. Thomas was a member of the Nelson Provincial Council7 and the first school in the Stoke settlement, Brook Green, was on his property. Thomas offered land to the Nelson School Society in 1858, but it was transferred to the Anglican Church in 1864 as the site for a church. St Barnabas Church, built of stones from Poorman’s Creek, opened in 1866.The graveyard now contains the graves of the Marsden family.

Thomas Marsden died in 1876 aged 66, after being thrown from his carriage when his horse bolted in fright at a train engine on Jenkins Hill, Bishopdale. His son, James, took over farming Isel and tended the parkland his father had established.9

James reduced the size of the farm to 400 acres and, in 1883, the widowed matriarch of the family, Mary Marsden, had a stone front built onto the family home using hand-shaped boulders from the valley. The extension was designed by John Scotland, architect of Melrose House in Nelson, and built by Mr Andrew Brown.

The house was further extended between 1905 and 1913, with a large stone addition at the southwest corner giving it a total of 18 rooms.10 The extension was needed to accommodate furniture and other items inherited by James and his sister, Frances Charters Marsden, from the estate of Joseph Charters Brown in England. They gifted the purchase money for the Marsden Recreation Ground, adjacent to the Stoke Memorial Hall, in 1908.11

T1762896x812MarsdenIselhouseMM.jpgThe early Marsden house at Isel, The Nelson Provincial Museum. Tyree Studio Collection, 176289/3
Click image to enlarge

James, a reclusive man who married late in life and had no children, died in 1926 and bequeathed Isel House and 52 acres (21ha), including the park, to the Nelson Diocese.  The Cawthron Institute received a bequest of 65 acres for agricultural research. The financial depression of the 1930's forced both organisations to sell these properties, with Isel House and the park being purchased by the Nicholls family in 1938.12

In 1960 Nelson City Council bought the Nicholls' property for public use, which enabled the development of the Greenmeadows playing fields.13

The Nelson Historical Society moved its collection into Isel House in 1961 and then donated the material to the newly formed Nelson Provincial Museum Trust Board in 1965. Some of the original Marsden furniture and china was returned on loan and the Trust Board put this and other material on public display in the two front rooms of the house. The new Provincial Museum, which was built behind the house, opened in 1973. Isel House continued to display material related to the Marsden family, and it was also used for museum storage for some years. It was closed to the public in 1998 and, in 2001, its management was taken over by the Isel House Charitable Trust. Major repair and strengthening work was carried out and Isel House re-opened to the public in 2003.14

The easterly winds that thwarted Thomas Marsden’s first attempts to build a house return occasionally, blowing down Marsden Valley with destructive force. Over the years a number of the large specimen trees he had planted have been destroyed. Despite this, Isel Park continues to honour Thomas Marsden’s legacy.


The Marsden Collection
The Marsden Collection is a rare and beautiful collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century antique furniture, plate and glassware - including Sevres, Dresden and Worcester. The collection was inherited by James and Frances Marsden in 1904.  In 2001 the Cawthron Institute donated their part of the Marsden Collection to the Museum, and the Anglican Diocese of Nelson agreed to the acquisition of their part of the Marsden Collection by the Museum. The Marsden Paintings and Book Collection is also held at the Museum. The unique Book Collection dates from 1773 to the early 1920s and relates to natural history, discovery and exploration of the Pacific and provides the nucleus of the research library collection.

Isel's Root Cellar
The Root Cellar building, which is located in the original kitchen garden, is original to Isel estate and dates back to the late 1800's. In 2013 it was brought back to Isel and restored by Nelson City Council, having been removed in the late 1960's for use in other areas of the Council’s Nursery and Parks departments.

The cellar was used for storing produce and was essential on a such a large property, even long after refrigerators became part of every household. This was due to the volume of produce grown here. The Nicholls family, Archibald, Mabel and their eight children, continued to use the cellar to house their store of preserves and meat, right up until they sold the property in 1960.

The cellar’s ten steps lead down to a storage area. This ‘below – earth’ depth provided a cool and dark storage space for the estate’s farm produce. Preserves were stored on a shelf that ran around the side of the walls. Sheep carcasses were hung in the rafters. The ‘hanging’ roof was especially designed to promote airflow and to keep the temperature inside the structure cool. Mesh covering the windows and vents also served to promote airflow while also keeping insects out. Most of the windows have since been changed to glass panes.

Why The Name Isel?

Isel is a small village in Cumbria, England, with a few houses, a church and an imposing, stone-towered residence known as Isel Hall. Thomas Marsden came from
Cumbria. Perhaps when starting to build he recalled the square, stone tower of Isel Hall and in admiration decided on this name for his own home.

A Stoke Boyhood

Les Jellyman recalled, as a Stoke boy, swimming in the rock-dammed creek near the house if they knew Mr. Marsden was not around. Such was Marsden’s known intolerance of trespassers that one day when they were in the creek and he came along, the boys cleared out without their clothes. Nearby residents would often awake to the sound of gunshot - it was James shooting blackbirds away from his seedlings, from his bedroom window.

2009 (updated December 2020)

Sources used in this story

  1. Lash, M. (1992). Nelson Notables 1840-1940, A Dictionary of Regional Biography, Nelson: NZ., Nelson Historical Society, p.104.
  2. Neale, J.E. (1082). Pioneer Passengers, To Nelson By Sailing Ship, March 1842-June 1843, Nelson: NZ., Anchor Press, p.93.
  3. Holcroft, D.E (1964, March). Notes on Early History of Stoke. Journal of Nelson Historical Society, 1(2), p.7.
  4. Isel House in About Nelson. Nelson City Council website: ; Holcroft, p.7.
  5. Lash, p.104.; Neale, p.93.
  6. Newport, J.N.W. (1967, June). Isel. Nelson Historical Society Journal,2(2) p.21
  7. Holcroft, p.7. ; Neale, p.93.
  8. Ault,H.F (1958). The Nelson Narrative, The Story of the Church of England in the Diocese of Nelson, New Zealand, 1852-1958. Nelson: NZ.: Standing Committee of the Diocese of Nelson, p.60. ; Newport, p.21.
  9. Neale, p.93 ; Newport, pp.21-22.
  10. Newport, p.21, 22 ; Neale, p.93.
  11. Marsden Recreation Ground and Hall (X1729), National Register of Archives and Manuscripts, held by Nelson Provincial Museum AG109 Newport, p.23. ; What’s Up at Isel House? brochure, Isel House Charitable Trust, available at Isel House.
  12. Isel House, Stoke brochure, Isel House Charitable Trust, available at Isel House.
  13. Smith, D. Nelson Historical Society, the First 50 Years, 1954-2004, Nelson: NZ., Nelson Historical Society, pp.17, 19-20 ; Isel House (NCC)
  14. Isel House in About Nelson.

Want to find out more about the Isel House and Park – legacy of the Marsden family ? View Further Sources here.

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  • The recently published book "the story of Nelson aviation" by Waugh & McConnell has some wonderful photos, and the story, of Shorty Fowler's first Nelson plane landing at Marsden

    Posted by Nicola, 22/02/2014 9:03am (10 years ago)

  • great history lesson about Isel House. Fantasic place to visit

    Posted by Peter, ()

  • Thomas Marsden was born 1 March 1810 and worked as a watchmaker in Hensingham, Cumbria - not Isel (according to UK 1841 Census and 1834 Pigot's Directory)

    Posted by Jean, ()

  • thank you for sucha great place.

    Posted by mandy, ()

  • i love this website so much

    Posted by bob, ()

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Further sources - Isel House and Park – legacy of the Marsden family


  • Ault, H.F. (1958). The Nelson narrative: The story of the Church of England in the Diocese of Nelson, New Zealand, 1858-1958. Nelson, New Zealand: The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Nelson.
  • Bell, C.W. (1978). Unfinished business: The second fifty years of the Nelson City Council. Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson City Council.
  • Gregory, Kenneth (1976). Land of streams: Life in the Waimea County Province of Nelson 1876-1976. Nelson, N.Z.: Waimea County Council.
  • Horrocks, S. (1971) Historic Nelson. Wellington, N.Z.: A.H. & A.W. Reed, pp.10-12.
  • Jordan, C.B. Rev., History of Methodism in Stoke, Nelson, NZ, centennial brochure (1949). Nelson, NZ: Stoke Methodist Church Trustees.
  • Lash, Max (1992). Nelson notables 1840-1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society, p.38.
  • Neale, J.E. (1082). Pioneer Passengers, To Nelson By Sailing Ship, March 1842-June 1843, Nelson: NZ., Anchor Press
  • Parrot, Arthur W. (1971). St Barnabas Church, the First Hundred Years, 1866-1966, Nelson, NZ.: St Barnabas Church. [Available at St Barnabas Church.]
  • St Barnabas Churchyard, Memorial Inscriptions, including the Marsden family [n.d.] Nelson, NZ.: St Barnabas Church. [Available at St Barnabas Church.]
  • Smith, Dawn (2005). Nelson Historical Society, The First 50 Years, 1954-2004. Nelson, N.Z.:  Nelson Historical Society.
  • Stevens, Bob.(1985) Flying Home: A History of Nelson Aviation.(1985) Nelson N.Z. : Nelson City Council : Nelson Mail Promotions


  • Collett, G. (2008, August 9). A living legacy uprooted. Nelson Mail, pp.15-16.
  • Collett, G. (2001, March 23). Council seeking tenants for historic house. Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Council backing quality of Isel work (2006, March 25). Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Douglas, B. (1990). Isel Park: a woodland garden. Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, 1(1), 29-32.
  • Dusting off Isel’s heritage (2005, April 6), Nelson Mail, p.4.
  • First new roof in donkey’s years’ (2002, October 30). Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Five year facelift for historic house (2003, September 10). The Press, p.A4.
  • Gillies, Jude. (2006, March 24) Garden state. Nelson Mail, p.17.
  • Gillies, Jude(2006, March 18) Isel in gloom not bloom, say neighbours Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Historic house open to public (2001, July 27). Nelson Mail, p.4.
  • Historic idea for Isel House (2000, April 23). Nelson Mail, p.4.
  • Holcroft, D.E (1964, March). Notes on Early History of Stoke. Journal of Nelson Historical Society, 1(2), p.7.
  • Isel in Bloom shines through the gloom’ (2008, Oct 6). Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Isel’s historic trees fall victim to storms’ (2004, October 8). Nelson Mail, p.15.
  • Isel House use debated. (1998, March 28). Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Isel Park began 150 years ago (1996, October 19) Nelson Mail.
  • Manning, David (2001, July 21). Making the museum a ‘must-see. Nelson Mail, p.15.
  • Memories of Isel House (1996, October 16) The Nelson Mail, p.14
  • Newport, J.N.W. (1967) Isel. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society, 2(2), 20-24.
  • Speedy, Sonia (2001, July 10). Tenants propose big revamp Nelson Mail, p.3.
  • Strong winds topple old tree at Isel Park’ (1998, December 24). Nelson Mail, p.3.


Unpublished sources

  • Isel House, Stoke brochure, including information on the Marsden Family. [Available at Isel House. ]
  • What’s Up at Isel House? [brochure, including information about the Marsden family and the Isel estate, and restoration work on the house. Available at Isel House.]

Held at Nelson Provincial Museum:

  • Isel: a short history. (1969). Nelson, N.Z.: Nelson Provincial Museum Trust Board.
  • Isel House. NZHPT file
  • Marsden Recreation Ground Committee report book (1934-1949) AG 466. 
  • Marsden Recreation Ground and Hall (X1729) [held by Nelson Provincial Museum AG109]

Visit Isel House and Isel Park -

Visit St Barnabas Church -

    • Stained glass window – ‘Faith and Hope’. James Marsden presented this window to St Barnabas Church in 1912 in memory of his mother Mary Marsden who died in 1905 and his sister Mary Marjoribanks, who died in 1898. Thomas Marsden is also remembered with a window in the church. (St Barnabas Churchyard Memorial Inscriptions, pp.10-11).

    • Church organ - Frances Marsden was a church organist, Sunday School teacher and choir member. She presented St Barnabas with an organ in 1912 that had been made in the United Kingdom around 1890. (St. Barnabas Churchyard Memorial Inscriptions, p.10).

    • Church burial ground – The Marsden family are all buried in the St Barnabas churchyard with prominent memorial headstones. Frances Marsden endowed the church with £100 for the upkeep of the churchyard. A memorial headstone was erected by the Diocesan Trust Board, the Cawthron Institute Board and the Salvation Army in memory of James and his wife Mary Rose Marsden, and dedicated by the Bishop in 1933. (St Barnabas Churchyard Memorial Inscriptions, pp.10-11.)

    • Plan and elevations of St Barnabas Church, Stoke, by architect William Beatson, 1861-1863.

Visit other sites associated with the Marsden Family

    • Bail Street, Stoke - This tiny dead-end street is home to the Stoke Police Station and forms a small triangle with Songer Street and Main Road Stoke. It used to be called Old Gorse Road and ran across the Marsden property to the Wakatu hill road. In exchange for land for Arapiki Road, Thomas Marsden got Old Gorse Road closed, leaving the tail end of it as it is today.
    • Greenacres Playing Fields - Site of the first aeroplane to land in Nelson: The first aeroplane to arrive in Nelson made an emergency landing in a paddock on James Marsden’s property (now part of the Greenmeadows playing fields) in November 1921 when it ran short of fuel on a flight from Wellington to Brightwater (Stevens, p.7). James was less than impressed with the uninvited stopover and sent his gardener to tell the pilot to leave immediately (Newport, p.23).
    • A commemorative plaque marks the landing site and was unveiled by the pilot, Captain P.K. (Shorty) Fowler, in 1957 (Stevens, p.8). It can be found on Main Road Stoke by the footpath beside the tennis courts that leads to the Greenmeadows playing fields.
    • Marsden House, Nile Street - Frances Marsden died in 1918 and left £53,000 to the Anglican Church, some of which was used to build Marsden House, the home of the diocese offices on the corner of Nile and Shelbourne Streets, which James Marsden opened in 1923. Funds also contributed to the cathedral spire and cathedral building funds (from Ault, pp.130-131, 139). The building is now Marsden House Funeral Services and is located on the same acre of land as the original Marsden family home.

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