James Akersten


Landscape and studio photographer, James Akersten spent many years living and working around Havelock and Nelson and many of his photographs are in collections at the Nelson Provincial Museum and the Marlborough Museum.


James Raglan Akersten. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

James was born in London on 8 August 1855. His family travelled steerage on the Water Nymph, arriving in Nelson on 16 December, 1865 to join his uncle William.

Around 1869, James began working as an assistant to William Davis, a Nelson photographer. Photography was very new in the 1860s but evolving rapidly. James owned his own photography studio in Nelson for a short time in the early 1880s and then went to work for William Tyree.  Here he received excellent training, particularly in outdoor and scenic photography.  In 1898 Tyree set up a moveable studio in Havelock and James became its local manager.  However he was fired in May 1890.

With his wife Catherine and four children, James decided to try his luck in Wanganui, where it seems he got a job with a local photographer. The family moved to Auckland and then back to Blenheim where James and Catherine broke up and eventually divorced in 1908.1 Catherine said James had had a serious alcohol problem for many years, going on long drinking binges. 

Akersten studio

Akersten's studio in Havelock. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

His problems with the demon drink continued: 

Magistrate's Court. Vagrancy. Fred de Lisle and James Raglan Akersten each pleaded guilty to charges of being vagrants and were each sentenced to a month in Picton gaol, with hard labour.2

J. R. Akersten was charged with procuring liquor during the currency of a prohibition order. He pleaded guilty, and was convicted and discharged, and on his own application was ordered to be committed' to the Inebriates' Home at Rotoroa for twelve months.3

Akersten Havelock 1912

An Akersten photo of Havelock, 1912. Marlborough Historical Society - Marlborough Museum Archives

While he had ongoing problems with alcohol, James’ career progressed well. He was based in Blenheim from 1900 to 1912 and then moved to Havelock permanently where he was manager of the ‘Macey Photographic Studio’.  He was to undertake a commission to photograph Brownlee’s Carluke sawmill, with about 30 of those photographs surviving and still in the Marlborough Museum. In 1913 he won the Auckland Weekly News competition for the best collection of ‘New Zealand views’.  His work also featured in books and calendars which were published as printing technology developed.

James died on Christmas Day 1928 and was laid to rest in the Havelock Cemetery.   It is thought that two or three thousand of James’s photographs may still exist and about 400 of them can be found online.

This story comes from material written by Harry Dutton in 2011. For the full story, see: http://www.familytree.john-attfield.com/James_Raglan_Akersten_Story_FINAL.pdf

2011 (edited 2015)

Updated May, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Auckland Supreme Court (1908, June 20) New Zealand Herald, p. 7
  2. Magistrates Court (1911, April 8) Marlborough Express, p.2
  3. Havelock (1916, April 14) Marlborough Express, p. 6

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