Matthew Campbell 1815-1883


Matthew Campbell is typical of many of the early Nelson immigrants. He flourished in the egalitarian colonial society he settled in, and was instrumental in laying the foundation of a national education system.

Matthew Campbell’s Schools

Matthew Campbell, a 27-year old foundry worker, left England on the Thomas Harrison  in March 1842 bound for Nelson. Despite having no formal education, he ran lessons on board for both children and adult passengers.

As Campbell sailed for Nelson, the first school in the infant colony, in a “rush-woven cottage on the banks of the Maitai”, was opened in March 1842 by a group calling themselves the United Christians. This small Sunday school moved to the group’s new Ebenezer Chapel in Tasman Street, near the eel pond 1 (now the site of the Queen’s Gardens2). At the end of October 1842 it expanded into a day school and Matthew Campbell, who had just arrived in Nelson, took on the management of the enterprise.

Portrait of Matthew CampbellPortrait of Matthew Campbell, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, 69466/3
Click image to enlarge

During 1843 Campbell worked with the United Christians and others in a group which was constituted as the Nelson School Society. The Society achieved a government grant of land for a school near the eel pond in Bridge Street, which opened on April 7, 1844.3 (The Suter Art Gallery incorporated the brick Matthew Campbell School building when it was built in 1899.4)

The Nelson School Society also set up schools in Wakefield, Spring Grove, Waimea East and West, Richmond, Riwaka, Hope, Appleby, Motupipi and Clifton Terrace,5 establishing an education system that grew with the developing colony.6

The schools adopted the principles of the British and Foreign Schools Society, having absorbed an earlier school which had followed this educational philosophy and had closed at the end of 1843. They provided an elementary education which was non-sectarian for a fee of two pence a week. 7

Tablet in Memory of Nelson School Society and Founder M. Campbell

Illuminated address commemorating the close of Nelson School Society in readiness for the establishment of the Bishop Suter Art Gallery. J. Topliss c. 1906. Suter Art Gallery, presented by Suter Art Society. 77.1

Matthew Campbell was so identified with education in the province that the Society’s schools became popularly known as “Campbell’s schools”. He was not only the superintendent of the Nelson school, but also acted as treasurer for the Society’s committee for many years. He often paid for the upkeep of the Nelson school himself, as the organisation struggled in its early years, and remained involved with the Society and local education until his death in 1883.8

Campbell’s schools were so successful that most of the denominational church schools set up received little support. They were eventually taken over by the Society and run as non-sectarian public schools.9 The two exceptions were the Anglican Bishop’s School in Nile Street, which ran from 1842 to 1895, and the Roman Catholic school, which opened in 184810 and continues today as St Joseph’s School in Manuka Street.

Matthew Campbell Sunday School 1896Matthew Campbell Sunday School 1896, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, 180186/3
Click image to enlarge

In 1856 the Nelson Provincial Government passed an Education Act that provided the province with a stable education system, administered by a central board of education. It proved so successful that it was virtually copied when the New Zealand Government decided education was a national responsibility. The Education Act, passed in 1877, established 12 education board districts11 and the Nelson School Society became redundant, apart from its Sunday schools.

In addition to his role in education, Matthew Campbell ran a flourmill in Hardy Street. The mill was powered by water taken from the Brook Stream via a race which ran down Alton Street. 12

Campbell also worked to improve conditions and opportunities for the working class and, as a temperate man, supported Ben Crisp and his Band of Hope which aimed to influence people’s drinking habits.13


Additional information about Matthew Campbell (provided by Sue Thomas)

Matthew Campbell married Ann Atkinson in England shortly before he left on his own to come to NZ.   Ann Campbell did eventually travel to Nelson 9 years after Matthew.  She arrived in Nelson on 7 November 1851 with Matthew's sister Sarah Ray and Sarah’s husband Roger Ray.  When Roger Ray died in May 1856 Matthew Campbell built Sarah Ray and her children a 4 room cottage in Alton Street near the intersection with Nile Street.  That cottage is still standing as part of Alton House.14

Updated: 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Dakin, J. (1982). The elementary schools of early Nelson 1842-1856: A case of community development. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(2), p.12-13.
  2. Nelson Education Board. (1956) Historical booklet 1856-1956. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Education Board, p.3.
  3. Dakin, p.14.
  4. Little, Paul (2007, May 1) Still Looking Ahead. Heritage New Zealand, 105, p. 32.
  5. Lash, Max (1992). Nelson notables 1840-1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society, p.38.
  6. Nelson Education Board, p.4.
  7. Dakin, p.15-16; McAloon, Jim (1997). Nelson: A regional history. Whatamango Bay, New Zealand: Cape Catley, p.58
  8. Street, Isabel (1931). The history of education in the Nelson Province 1842-1877, embracing the period from the early beginning to the establishment of a national system for New Zealand. Nelson, New Zealand: self-published. p.19.
  9. Nelson Education Board, p.4.
  10. Street, pp.48-56.
  11. Nelson Education Board, p.8.
  12. Street, p.20.
  13. Lash, p.38.
  14. 7 November 1851 for Barque Columbus, Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle Volume XV, 14 May 1856 page 2 and 1857 Nelson rating records at Isel Research facility

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  • The death date given in the article for Matthew Campbell is incorrect; he died on 3o May 1883 aged 68. Source is NEM death notice 31 May 1883. Ed. We will check sources...

    Posted by Sue Thomas, ()

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Further sources - Matthew Campbell 1815-1883




Unpublished resources


Held Nelson Provincial Museum:


  • Bishop's School. (1860-1894). Admission roll. qMS BIS 
  • Bishop's School. (1855-1911). Collection. AG 373 
  • McKay, James George. (1877-1958). Papers. AG 260, Box 7 
  • Nelson School Society. (1884-1897). Minute book. MS NEL. 
  • Nelson School Society. (1844-1855). Minute book. MS NEL. 
  • Nelson School Society. (1843-1897).Records. fMS NEL. 
  • Nelson School Society. (1843-1859) Treasurer's account book MS NEL 
  • (1844). Poster advertising laying of foundation stone at Nelson Sunday & Day School. UMS 282 
  • Taylor, J. (1884). Lines on the death of Mr Mathew Campbell . UMS 1202 

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