Isaac Jacobsen - colonial Nelson architect and builder


Isaac Jacobsen, a man described as one of Nelson's early unsung heroes, was the subject of a meeting of the Nelson Historical Society in August 2012.

Jane Baird of Takaka, a descendant of Jacobsen, told his story with photographs and experiences gained while on a genealogical tour of Germany.  Adding to her talk was Bruce Thomas who, with wife Pam, lives in and has restored a Collingwood Street cottage built by Isaac around 1857.

With ancestral seafaring ties to Norway, Johaan Siegmund Martin Jacobsen (known as Isaac) was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1823. As a boy he saved a rich man from drowning when the man lost control of his horse and was tipped into a river.  The man repaid Isaac by funding his education, which set him up in his vocational training.

Isaac Jacobsen surrounded by images of the fire that destroyed his Nelson College building. Photo courtesy Jane Baird. Click image to enlarge

At the age of 19 Isaac joined the German migrant ship St Pauli as a ship's carpenter and sailed to Nelson.  He met his wife, Clara Frank, on board, marrying her eight days before arriving in Nelson in 1843.  Although Isaac was a Lutheran, he developed strong ties to the Catholic Church through his marriage into the Catholic Frank family, and the couple had a Catholic service upon their arrival in the new colony.

However, despite his move away from his Lutheran faith, he was the first schoolteacher at Upper Moutere, teaching in both German and English.

Isaac's parents, Hans and Wilhelmina, and siblings arrived in Nelson in the early 1850s and settled in Shelbourne Street.  Unfortunately Wilhelmina died suddenly in 1853. Hans drowned at Westport when he and two other men rowed ashore in a dinghy to collect water and a freak wave capsized them, throwing the three men into the sea to struggle for their lives.

In the early years the colony suffered various hardships, including food shortages of staple items like flour.  The story goes that Isaac built a boat and sailed to Wellington to bring back supplies of flour for the colonists.

But he is best known in Nelson as a builder.  Jane said that as a contractor he built the house in Manuka Street that went on to become the first Nelson College building before the college moved to its existing location. (The house was later enlarged and was called Newstead.  Now known as Renwick House, it is part of Nelson Central School.1 ) Working in the same area, he also built the first St Mary's Catholic Church in Manuka Street.  Other building projects included the original wooden Nelson Boys College on Waimea Road which burnt down in 1904, Richmond House on The Cliffs, which was later owned by the conservationists Malcolm and Perrine Moncrieff, numerous shops in Trafalgar Street, various ships and a wharf at Port Nelson

Jacobsen Cottage at the time of the 2009 reunion. Photo courtesy Jane Baird
Click image to enlarge

Around 1857 he built what is now known as the Jacobsen Cottage at 190 Collingwood Street.  The cottage was built on the southeastern corner of town acre 482, adjacent to the Hallowell Cemetery and opposite St Mary's Church.  Its current owner, Bruce Thomas, said he and his wife Pam bought the house in 1975 and have been restoring it ever since. 

The two-storey white pine house has been lovingly and painstakingly restored from top to bottom and Bruce said it was a privilege to live in one of the few buildings left of the legacy Isaac left Nelson.

"He is one of Nelson's unsung heroes.  He had done so much and yet there was very little about him in the history books.  He has been incredibly important to the development of the inner city area and was doing the work of (Nelson's leading names) like the Beatsons, the Monros and the Richardsons."

The cottage was the Jacobsen family home until they moved to Christchurch in 1870.  There, Jane said Isaac was involved in designing the city's drainage scheme and helped to rebuild Lyttelton following a devastating fire in 1870.  He also firmly believed in an eight-hour working day and made sure his workers didn't work over this.  It has been suggested he was one of the first people in New Zealand to promote this as a right for workers.

Jane Baird in the Hamburg alley where Jacobsen lived (2009). Photo courtesy Jane Baird
Click image to enlarge

While searching for minerals inland from Ashburton, Isaac inadvertently sparked a diamond rush.  Mistaking quartz crystals for diamonds, people rushed to the area in the hope of striking it rich. It was only when real diamonds were procured from Cape Town and compared with the quartz crystals that the rush died down.

Back living in the Nelson region, Isaac settled in Takaka, where he designed and built the first Catholic Church, which opened in 1868. He also continued his interest in geology and mining, founding the Hidden Treasure Mining company2 in Anatoki, where he thought he had a found a source of gold, and prospecting for marble near Motueka.3

Isaac died aged 84 in 1906 and is buried at the Wakapuaka Cemetery along with Clara and some of their family.

A Jacobsen family reunion was held in Nelson in 2009 and those attending visited the Jacobsen Cottage and Takaka.  Later that year a number of family members went to Germany as part of a genealogical tour and Jane spoke of visiting Hamburg where Isaac was born.  She saw the large port where the St Pauli left from, visited St Michael's Church where he was baptised, and stood in the cobbled narrow alleyway behind the church by the area where he lived.


Updated May 6, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Stade, K. (2003)  Aim High, The Story of Nelson Central School, 125 years , 1878-2003, Nelson Central School, Nelson, p.47.
  2. Hidden Treasure Gold Mining Company (1904, February 15) Colonist, p. 4
  3. Motueka. Discovery of marble. (1888, July 30) Colonist, p. 3

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  • According to many family trees in, Issac is identified as a grandson of Hans Jacobsen and Maria Elisabeth Möller‏ DOB 27 MAY 1773 in Haverkamp, Osnabruck, Niedersachsen, Germany. If this is accurate, she is my 5th great aunt. Working with a researcher in Germany, I have been able to obtain a copy of her baptism record.

    "Maria Elisabeth MÖLLER, born in Haverkamp, christened on 27.05.1773 in Merzen @ St Lambertus Roman Catholic Church. Parents: ex Haverkamp Joan Möller et Maria Thedieck. Godparents: Maria Kopman uxor Tebben, Maria Spechts, Dirk Frohne modo Grafe)"

    Unfortunately I cannot locate any documentation supporting her marriage to Hans Jacobsen. Do you have any further information or documentation to support this relationship? Thanks, Kathleen

    Posted by Kathleen Luebbert, 08/08/2016 11:39am (7 years ago)

  • Thank you Ms Biard, I would love to visit Jacobsen Cottage". Isaac was my Great-great grandfather on my mother's side. My grandmother was Florence Josephine(Haines) Carr, daughter of Clara Fulgentia (Jacobsen) Haines, daughter of J.S.M. (Isaac) Jacobsen & Clara Josephine (Frank) Jacobsen. I find Isaac a marvellous man. Thank you for writing this piece.

    Kind regards

    Posted by Linda Byron, 18/09/2015 5:08pm (8 years ago)

  • Thanks for this great information. I have been doing my husbands Bamfield family and have discovered that his great great grandmother Emily Bamfield married Theodore Bernard Jacobsen in their senior years. He is JSM son and it's been interesting finding their story. Can you help me however, I see in a newspaper article that Theodore B Jacobsen was a widow, and another said that Emily was his third wife. I can only see that Emily was his second wife and the Theodore and his first wife Catherine (nee Phelan) had divorced in 1902 from newspaper accounts. Is this correct. Another newspaper article has Theodore commenting that his wife died in 1902, but don't see anything to support this. Thanks heaps for all your help.

    Posted by Rebecca Bamfield, 18/03/2015 12:45am (9 years ago)

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Further sources - Isaac Jacobsen - colonial Nelson architect and builder


  •  Stade, K. (2003) Aim High, The Story of Nelson Central School, 125 years , 1878-2003, Nelson Central School, Nelson




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