Ernest Rutherford's early life


Ernest, known as Ern within the family, was born at Spring Grove, near Brightwater in rural Nelson, on 30 August 1871. He was the fourth of twelve children by his parents, Martha and James. Martha, who arrived in Nelson as a Taranaki Refugee, was a teacher at the local Fox Hill School and James was a wheelwright from Scotland. They lived on a 35-acre farm at Fox Hill, directly across the road from the church and near the school.

Rutherford Memorial, BrightwaterRutherford Memorial, Brightwater. Tasman District Council.
Click image to enlarge

Having such an amazing environment to grow up in for an actively minded Ernest was definitely a telling factor in his success as a scientist. This was evident when, during a thunder and lightning storm, Ernest's father James awoke and went out onto the veranda to check his stock and found Ernest standing in his pyjamas talking to himself quietly. When James asked what he was doing, Ernest replied "counting".  Just as another rumble shook the house, Ernest explained "if you count the seconds between the flash and the thunderclap and allow 1200 feet for each second for the sound to travel, you can tell how close you are to the storm centre."

James and Martha RutherfordJames and Martha Rutherford, [ca 1880s], Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-6407-01 [Photographer unidentified].
Click image to enlarge

Ernest's parents, along with his school teachers, were Ernest's biggest influences when he was growing up. Mr H. Ladley was the headmaster at Fox Hill School. He noticed that Ernest was very interested in mathematics, so Mr Ladley took it upon himself to give Ernest further homework and also issued him with a science book. This science book seemed to be the match that lit the fire for Ernest. He began by experimenting with the household clock. His father was very worried when he took it all apart, as the parts were all over the kitchen table. However, he then put it all back together himself.

Ernest also made his own cameras and other gadgets, which he used around the farm.

When Ernest was 11 years old, his father realised that the money coming in from the Fox Hill property was not enough to sustain a family of fourteen, so he moved to Havelock to take up the job of flax milling (which was prosperous at the time). His father and uncle set up a flax mill, operating by the Ruapaka Stream. Even though Ruapaka Stream was near enough to Havelock, Ernest's father did not come home during the week, only returning to Havelock on Saturday night to be with the family, see the Saturday night entertainment in town and go to church on the Sunday.

Rutherford family, 1880-6Collie, W :[Rutherford family group at Havelock], [1880-86?], Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-0091-2-001. l-r: Alice, Mary Thompson (cousin), Arthur (in front), Ernest (behind), Eve(in front in white), James (in chair) Nell (standing), Ethel (in front in white), Flo (in chair), George (immediately behind), Herbert (at rear), Martha (standing side on), Charles & Jim.
Click image to enlarge

Although the move to Havelock gave the family a lot more money to live off, there were some huge setbacks during the time at Havelock. Three of the children passed away, Percy being the first.  He died of whooping cough aged one year and two days. The next to follow were three years later, Charles and Herbert aged ten (nearly eleven) and twelve years respectively. Their lives were cut short when they drowned during a fishing mission with other boys of their age. The astounding thing was that Ernest was supposed to accompany his younger brothers and friends on the fatal trip, but he was sent to the flax mill to deliver something, so he was not able to join them. Ernest was the person who delivered the terrible news to his mother when she was playing the piano to a group of girls who were all around for tea. Martha, Ernest's mother, never played the piano again, and Ernest and his brother Jim were made to have swimming lessons until they were fully able in the water.

Rutherford flax millLeggatt, T T :[The Rutherford flax mill at Pungarehu, run by James and later George Rutherford] / T T Leggatt Feb 28th 1890, Alexander Turnbull Library,  A-036-017
Click image to enlarge

This tragic accident overshadowed Ernest's achievement of getting the Marlborough Scholarship to attend Nelson College. He achieved it on his second attempt, gaining 580 marks out of a possible 600. This was a huge credit to his mother and influential teacher Mr. Reynolds at Havelock School.

Ernest attended Nelson College from 1887 to 1889. It was a happy time for him. In fact, in 1888 Ernest came top in all of his subjects: classics, English, mathematics and French. The headmaster summed up Ernest's achievements by commenting "Satisfactory in every way..." 

In 1889 Ernest returned as head boy and played in the first XV rugby and first Xl cricket teams.

Sir Ernest RutherfordSir Ernest Rutherford [Herbert photograph studios], Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-050243-F detail/?id=7208
Click image to enlarge

It was obvious that Ernest was going to achieve very highly in life. It wasn't a case of if he would it was when he would.

Ernest showed his academic flair once again by winning the Canterbury College scholarship, so he could further his studies. After gaining three degrees he was accepted to work at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, England, with Professor J.J. Thomson. He then accomplished a feat no scientist had done yet:  split the atom. For his efforts in the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1908. This was a massive accomplishment for a boy from Fox Hill School, Nelson, New Zealand.

Michael Limmer, Nelson College, 2009

Updated: April 2020

Do you have a story about this subject? Find out how to add one here.

Comment on this story

Post your comment


  • As Patricia McIntyre I attended Brightwater School from 1948 to 1951 under the great RC Bryant. 4 boys got PhD in Phyics from Cambridge and I got a D. Phil. In Philosophy from Oxford and became the first female full professor in an Economics Faculty in Australia. We were all inspired by Rutherford.

    Posted by Patricia Mary Springborg, 30/12/2023 1:29pm (7 months ago)

  • My great grandfather attended Nelson College at the same time as Rutherford.

    Posted by John McHardy, 02/06/2023 8:19pm (1 year ago)

  • It helped me do a science project
    Thanks I needed an easy A+

    Posted by Grace , 06/05/2016 11:09am (8 years ago)

  • Helped me do my report!

    Posted by Wild Hatchet, 23/03/2016 5:08am (8 years ago)

  • That was very helpful. This type of written articles can inspire many students as well as teachers in various ways. Thanks

    Posted by Zubair Hossain, 12/02/2016 6:16pm (8 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments

Further sources - Ernest Rutherford's early life



  • Campbell, J. (2001, June). The Atomic Physics maestro.World & I.16(6), p140-148. Retrieved ANZRC Ebsco database 16 January, 2010  
  • Campbell, J. (2015) WWI: Rutherford's war. Nelson historical society journal. 8(1), pp.61-68
  • Duffield, F. (2017, April 15-21) The importance of being Ernest. New Zealand Listener, 258(4011) p.26-29
  • A link with Nelson's famous son (1996, September 13) Nelson Mail property weekly, p.11. [the home of Ernest's uncle, George Rutherford, in Brightwater].
  • Newman, T. (2021, August 28) Ernest Rutherford: From humble beginnings to New Zealand's greatest scientist. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
  • Priestley, R. (2008 , November) Lord of the atoms. New Zealand Listener. 216 (3575), p.28-32
  • Rutherford of Nelson: New Zealand's great scientist an entertaining biography [PDF] (1939, August 15) N.Z. National Review, pp. 63-65
  • Short, C. (2008, November) Lord Rutherford's Legacy. Wild Tomato. 28, p.44-49
  • Yarwood, V. (2005, November) The importance of being Ernest. New Zealand Geographic. 76, p.98-112


Web Resources