Rutherford and Pickering at Havelock School


In the last quarter of the 19th Century and the first quarter of the 20th Century, Havelock School was involved in the early education of two stellar minds, who were both involved in far-reaching scientific discoveries in their fields:  Ernest Rutherford and William Pickering.

Havelock School

Havelock School. The 1861 building, now the Rutherford Youth Hostel

Havelock was a goldrush town established as a service centre after the discovery of gold in the Wakamarina Valley in 1864. By the 1870s, thousands of metres of timber were being shipped out of the port, with 22 vessels reported laying off nearby Cullen Point in 1877.

During the years the young Ernest and William roamed the countryside and learned the basics at Havelock School, the settlement of Havelock was beginning to grow and even saw a visit from His Royal Highness, Prince Edward, Prince of Wales in 1920.1

Ernest Rutherford’s early school days
Ernest Rutherford was born at Spring Grove in rural Nelson on 30 August 1871. He was the fourth child of 12, born to James Rutherford and Martha, who had been the schoolteacher at Spring Grove.2


Collie, W :[Rutherford family group at Havelock], [1880-86?], Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-0091-2-001.: 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.

Earning enough to feed the large family was a struggle for James.  In 1882 when Ernest was 11, the family moved to Havelock where James ran a flaxmill at Ruapaka. In 1885, he turned to sawmilling, manufacturing railway sleepers for the Government.3 The young Ernest helped out at his father’s flax and saw mills.4

The close-knit family forged a good life with few amenities in the isolated and rugged landscape and Martha ensured that all her children were well prepared for school, with all receiving good educations.5

In the years Ernest attended Havelock School, there was one teacher, two ‘pupil teachers’ and 100 students.6  When awarded the Nobel Prize in 1908, Dr Rutherford wrote to his former principal Jacob Reynolds thanking him for initiating him ‘into the mysteries of Latin, algebra and Euclid in my youthful days at Havelock, of which I still have a very keen remembrance.”7

Ernest distinguished himself at school, coming top in his class in every subject in his final year. But as the family was not wealthy, a scholarship was one of the few options for him to continue his education.8

Nelson College 1887

A Nelson College school photograph from 1887 in front of the first school, later destroyed by fire. Scholarship pupil, Ernest Rutherford is pictured in this photograph, ninth from the left in the third from the front row. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

In 1886, when Ernest was 15, tragedy struck. Two of Ernest’s brothers, Herbert and Charles, drowned in the Marlborough Sounds on a fishing adventure. Apparently Ernest was supposed to be on the trip but was running an errand. This tragic accident overshadowed his winning a scholarship to attend Nelson College, which he achieved with high marks on his second attempt. 9

Ernest Rutherford left New Zealand in 1895 as a highly skilled 23-year-old, who held three degrees from the University of New Zealand and had a reputation as an outstanding researcher and innovator working at the forefront of electrical technology. In 1908, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances.


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

Baron Rutherford of Nelson, as he was eventually known, became the father of nuclear physics. He took up the role of director of Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1919. He was still at the Cavendish when he died of a strangulated hernia, aged 66 on October 20, 1937. His ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey in London.10

The late New Zealand physicist, Sir Paul Callaghan said Lord Rutherford’s work laid the foundation of modern understandings of chemistry and physics. “He is our greatest scientist and one of the greatest scientists who ever lived,” he said.1

William Pickering’s early school days
William Pickering’s grandfather showed some zest for exploring new frontiers.   In 1885, William Pickering, senior, made history by being the first person to take a four horse team between Blenheim and Nelson.12  

Pickering NASA photo

William Pickering. NASA

William Hayward Pickering was born in Wellington in 1910. His mother died when he was six and when his father, Albert, took up a Government post as a pharmacist in Samoa, Will was sent to live with his grandparents William and Kate in Havelock.13

He soon made an impression at  Havelock Primary School. Well-behaved, quick to learn, curious and equipped with a naturally retentive memory. He liked to pretend to be a teacher at home while his amused grandparents played his classmates.14

Will excelled at school, particularly in science and arithmetic. His scholastic ability was such that he learned algebra and Latin as well as the regular curriculum of English, composition, history and geography. He won a scholarship to Wellington College where he excelled in maths and science and discovered an intense interest in the (then) new techniques of amateur radio communication.15

In 1929, William arrived at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where he studied electrical engineering. By the 1930s, there was an impressive array of scientific talent at Caltech, which was visited by Albert Einstein three times in the first half of that decade.16

Pickering Kennedy Receives Mariner 2 Model

Dr. William H. Pickering, (center) JPL Director, presenting Mariner spacecraft model to President John F. Kennedy, (right). NASA Administrator James Webb is standing directly behind the Mariner model.

A seminal figure of the Space Age, William Pickering was internationally known for his significant contributions to the founding of the age, and for the first robotic explorations of the Moon, Venus and Mars.17  He met U.S president Lyndon Johnson in 196418 and was pictured on the cover of Time magazine in 1963.19

While unable to attend the centennial of his old primary school in 1986, William wrote: “I have very fond memories of my school days in Havelock. In this busy world in which I find myself today, the relaxed life in a little country town in New Zealand seems an impossible distance in the past…..I also remember that in school we learned the discipline of intellectual work.” 20

Sir William returned to Havelock  in 2003 to unveil the memorial in honour of himself and fellow Havelock School alumni, Lord Ernest Rutherford. In that year, he was awarded New Zealand’s highest civic honor, the Order of New Zealand.21

When he died in March 2004, aged 93, a NASA spokesman said: ”He brought a vision and a passion to space exploration that was remarkable. His pioneering work is the very foundation we have built upon to explore our solar system and beyond.” 22


Updated May, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Stephens, J. (2014) Havelock on the Prow
  2. Campbell, J.  'Rutherford, Ernest', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,  (accessed 14 February 2017):
  3. Ernest Rutherford. Retrieved from the Global Life of New Zealanders, NZEdge.com 
  4. Rutherford's nuclear world. Retrieved Feb 14, 2017:
  5. Ernest Rutherford
  6. Rutherford's nuclear world
  7. Stephens, J.
  8. Ernest Rutherford
  9. Limmer, M. (2009) Ernest Rutherford's early life on the Prow
  10. Campbell, J.
  11. Priestley, R. (2008, November 15) Lord of the atoms. Listener, 216(3575), p.28-32
  12. Havelock. In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts] (1906) Christchurch: The Cyclopedia Company, Limited.
  13. Mudgeway, Douglas J (2007) William H. Pickering: America's Deep Space Pioneer. Books Express Publishing,  pp 6 &22
  14. Sir William Hayward Pickering
  15. Priestley, 'R. Physics, chemistry and mathematics - New Zealand physicists overseas', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (accessed 14 February 2017)
  16. William Pickering July 23, 1965. Time Magazine covers:,16641,19650723,00.html
  17. Pickering, W. H. Letter to Mr. I. J. Horton, “Havelock school Centennial Celebration, 25 August 1961.” Marlborough Historical society, March 2003.
  18. Mudgeway, p 225
  19. Sir William Hayward Pickering.

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Further sources - Rutherford and Pickering at Havelock School




  • Duffield, F. (2017, April 15-21) The importance of being Ernest. New Zealand Listener, 258(4011) p.26-29
  • 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), PP61-68
  • Yarwood, V. (2005, November) The importance of being Ernest. New Zealand Geographic. 76, p.98-112


  • Space Exploration: Voyage to the Morning Star. (1963, March 03)  Time
  • Space Exploration: Portrait of a Planet. (1965, July 23)  Time
  • William H Pickering of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (2002, March/April) . magazine, 3 (2), p.11
  • Fenton, M & Fenton, C. D. (2004) Space pioneer William Pickering - rocket man. NZ Science Teacher, 105, p.3-5
  • Head, M. ( 2003, 5 April) Star man. New Zealand. Listener 188 (3282), p.26-29


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