James Marsden and his Isel Farm


At the age of 34 years, James Marsden inherited Isel estate, a 930-acre property laid out by his father, Thomas Marsden, who died in a carriage accident in 1876.  At the time James Marsden was already immersed in the farming activities around the estate and, despite the size of the property, did a great deal of the work round the place without staff.

Thomas Marsden, 1810-1876, was one of Nelson’s early settlers. He purchased his 930 acre block of land in Stoke from the New Zealand Company. Surrounding his home he planted hundreds of trees. The first specimens were three European Beeches and twelve Oaks, planted in 1845 even before commencing house-building. He gave land for the building of St Barnabas Church which was completed in 1866. 

James' grounding and learned nature had come about from his years at Nelson College. In his youth, he walked to the college every day, as his father said they could not afford to buy him a pony.1 

Isel-ATL-D-035-002.jpgBarraud, C.D. (1889) On the Waimea Road, Nelson, overlooking Stoke and Richmond [Isel can be seen in distance at left. Thought to be north boundary of Marsden’s farm]. Alexander Turnbull Library, D-035-002
Click image to enlarge

No doubt, prior to Thomas's death, James had worked very closely with his father, sharing the workload and the technological lessons found in some of the many books they read. Isel was renowned locally for its efficient and productive output - an astounding achievement given Thomas had come to Nelson with the skills of a jeweller, rather than a farmer.

As early as 1871, lectures on the management of farming, singling out Isel as an excellent example of good farming practice, were being published in the local newspaper.

"An excellent example of the efficiency of this [river bank protection] system can be observed at Stoke, near Nelson, on the property of Mr. Marsden, where a dangerous and troublesome stream has been carefully and judiciously planted in this manner with willows in the bed and European trees on the bank, and thus changed from a destructive torrent into a pleasant brook, which greatly adds to the beauty of the grounds."2 

The Marsden's knowledge was not kept at home however. In July 1872 the newspaper reported that, at the monthly meeting of the Stoke Farmers' Club, James Marsden presented a paper on the cost of planting forest trees. It was described as being a valuable and practical paper for the local farming community.

The quality of Isel's sheep and beef meat products were also heralded in the local newspaper, gaining consistent praise in reports over a period of 30 years.

"The sheep and lambs were a credit to Mr Marsden, of Stoke, who had reared and fattened them, as well as to the butcher who had killed, and by a few dexterous slashes of his knife, ornamented 'them in thoroughly artistic style."

"...Here we found two enormous sheep from Mr Marsden's paddocks at Stoke.  Thence to Mr Trask's, and here again we found Mr Marsden asserting himself as the producer of some of the finest mutton that ever met the eye, or made the mouth water."3  


iselprowphotoATL10093.jpgJones, F.N. [ca 1920] View of a wheat field on the Isel estate of James Marsden, Stoke, Nelson. Alexander Turnbull Library G- 11420-1/1. Click image to enlarge

At the Christmas meat fair in Nelson the Marsden's sheep were described as being  "...perfect marvels in the way of mutton, a mountain of fat about the size of a shilling cake rising over the tails of each. Such sheep have never been seen in Nelson before."4 

James's success with his sheep and beef can be attributed to his extensive knowledge and understanding of the geology and pastoral elements of his property. This is illustrated in a letter to the Editor of the Nelson Evening Mail in 1896:5 

To the Editor of " The Evening Mail".
Sir,- ln your issue of Saturday last I noticed a letter signed "'Nemo" asking if Chewing's Fescue was a grass adapted for poor land.

Nemo's question is a somewhat vague one, as there are so many different kinds of poor land, such as poor clays, poor sands, poor gravels, with many others; and he can hardly expect the one grass to be equally at home upon these widely different varieties of poor land.

Chewing's Fescue is, however, a grass of wide adaptability and thrives in most soils having a dry bottom; in wet clays or swampland it is of little use.
It is a true perennial pasture grass, deep rooted, drought resisting, very fine in the leaf, and well adapted for soils of a dry and rather gravelly character, such as much of the land about Hope, near Richmond.

It is no doubt a variety or sport of the Hard Fescue (festuca duriuscula) and was first grown in Southland, where it was called Chewing's Fescue because it was first grown for sale on an extensive scale by Mr Chewing, of Glenelg, Mossburn, Southland.
I believe I was the first to introduce and experiment with this grass in Nelson, and if "Nemo" would like to see it growing either separately, or as a mixture with other grasses, I shall be glad to show it him, and give him any further information he may require.
I am, etc., J. W. MARSDEN, Stoke, 16/4/96.

The success of the Marsden family's meat products ended in 1902 with the butchers, Fairey Bros, advertising the last beast sold by Mr J. W. Marsden, of Stoke, as being close to 8001bs, a ‘better beef one could not wish to see'.

Farming Isel was not without problems, however - for both the Marsdens and the public. In February of 1877 the Waimea Road Board sent notice to Thomas Marsden to clear the road leading to the new cemetery site at Stoke of gorse. The Board was not able to complete the works, as the gorse hedging along its edge covered more than one half of the road.

Stray sheep and cattle were an ongoing issue, and caused concern for the farm's wellbeing. In August 1878 James Marsden took George Cook to court for allowing some of Cook's diseased sheep to wander onto Isel's land. The sheep, recognized by a ‘C' brand were suffering from scab, and were locked in a stable at Isel until the Inspector of Sheep could pay a visit. Mr Cook admitted that he only knew of one sheep that had got away, and was fined £2 by the court.6

James also placed a notice in the newspaper in 1881 saying:

"A brown and white steer, about 3 years old, with back notch in near ear, and front notch in other, has been running in my paddocks for the last 13 months. If not claimed within one month from this date it will be sold to defray expenses".

Isel-harvestingscene.jpgIsel Harvesting scene. Photo from Isel House.
Click image to enlarge

But it was not only wayward stock that caused James Marsden grief. In 1881 he had to place another notice in the newspaper warning off 'parties of lands and children (chiefly from Nelson)' who carried out ‘wanton chopping and destruction of native trees and shrubs'. He threatened anyone caught on the estate with prosecution for trespassing.7

The farming endeavours of James Marsden may also have contributed to the success of Marlborough's sheep industry in its earlier days. In March 1884, James shipped 11 Border Leicester rams to George Monro of Marlborough.  Mr Monro planned to cross the rams with merino ewes, with the aim of breeding sheep adapted for the frozen meat trade. 

The Nelson Evening Mail editor commented at the time; "The complete success of the freezing process will doubtless lead to extensive changes in the class of sheep bred on such runs as are capable of carrying the heavier kinds.8 

Twelve years later, James Marsden found himself on the committee to progress the development of a freezing works in the area, a plan begun in 1896 through the Nelson Agricultural & Pastoral Association.

The development of a freezing works at Stoke however was still no closer to being realised in 1900. Despite going to every farmer in the Stoke district, James found that no financial support could be gained.

The problem was that the Canterbury Freezing Works had built a large works in Picton, so the local farmers felt that this was adequate, without expending funds.  Farmers were also wary of new share investments as the Farmers' Co-operative Company had caused some financial loss, and made investors wary.

To help get the freezing works underway, James offered to take 100 shares towards establishing freezing works, hoping to entice other investors to join in.9  The Freezing Works at Stoke were finally opened in 1909, 13 years after the idea was first mooted.

James-Marsden.jpgJames Marsden, c. 1906. Cyclopedia of NZ. NZETC
Click image to enlarge

James continued to farm the property and he had stud flocks of several breeds of sheep, being a keen exhibitor at the annual show. He was President of the Nelson Agricultural and Pastoral Association in 1896.

From around 1902 James Marsden began selling off sections of the estate and purebred flocks of Shropshire Down, English Leicester and Romney Marsh sheep. At the time, these sheep were thought to be one of the oldest pedigrees in New Zealand, the original Shropshire Downs having been imported in 1862.10 

By 1904 Isel estate had shrunk to a manageable 400 acres. James leased out the remaining farm except for the homestead and front paddocks. The lease agreement specified that the land was to be kept clean and the fences in good order. Two windmills were also to be kept in good order and certain patches of trees were to be preserved.

In addition to his sheep, Mr. Marsden grazes fifty head of cattle. The land is nearly all ploughable, and it yields splendid crops of barley, wheat and turnips. Mr. Marsden's homestead is complete in every respect; and the outbuildings, stables, granary, sheep dip and yards are spacious and modern in style.11 

James Wilfred Marsden died in 1926, leaving a considerable estate. The estate was split into two sections. Nelson Diocese received the house and 52 acres of land, with a stipulation that the trees round the estate should be maintained with great care.

The Cawthron Institute received 65 acres of land for "the encouragement and advancement of agriculture and forestry, the experimental cultivation of useful trees and shrubs, of grain, grasses, and forage plants, roots, pulse and potatoes, and other subjects connected with agricultural farming and research."12 

Those who knew James Marsden remember him as a courtly old gentleman. He had a profound knowledge of New Zealand trees and birds, and with his encyclopedic mind, he could remember when all the fences and buildings on the place were erected.13

Although described as being reclusive by some, James was generous in sharing his knowledge and his estate for the betterment of the region's farming and agricultural industry.


Updated May 6, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Newport, J.N.W. (1967) Isel. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 2(2) p. 20 
  2. On the destruction of land by shingle bearing rivers (1871, December 15) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.7
  3. Christmas Fare (1873, December 24), The Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  4. Christmas meat (1876, December 23) The Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  5. Chewings fescue on poor land (1896, April 16) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 2
  6. Magistrates Court (1878, August 31) Colonist, p. 3
  7. Notice (1881, October 13) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 3
  8. Untitled. (1884, March 10) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 2
  9. The freezing works project (1900, January 15) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 2
  10. A fine section (1904, October 6) Nelson Evening Mail, p. 4
  11. Marsden, James Wilfred. Stoke section. In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts](1906) The Cyclopedia Company, Limited, 1906, Christchurch, p.122
  12. Will of James Wilfred Marsden, 1926, Public Trust.  Copy held by Isel House Charitable Trust
  13. Newport


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  • Sally has penned a graphic, interesting article on the significant history of Isel House that makes it vivid and imparts a sense to the reader of being present in the time and space. She conveys well the trait of generosity in James Marsden. Did Sally pursue the idea raised in October 2004 of linking Isel House to Stoke Cottage, the humble (now restored and still in family ownership) 1909 house at 437a Main Road, home of Lottie Kraig (Craig) who Craig family tradition said that she worked for the Marsdens as a cook on occasions when they had guests? It forms an interesting lifestyle contrast between the affluent and the battlers.

    Posted by Stephen Lipple, 13/06/2014 2:46pm (10 years ago)

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Further sources - James Marsden and his Isel Farm




  •  Will of James Wilfred Marsden, 1926, Public Trust.  Copy held by Isel House Charitable Trust

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