The Hale family and the second Colonial landscape


The work of early nurserymen can be seen in Nelson and all over New Zealand. Their work marks significant milestones,  from the Queen’s Jubilee to the commemoration of the lives of public figures. It has also had major impacts on the New Zealand landscape.

The Hale Family
The Hale family was one early settler family that brought with them the skills to change the landscape of New Zealand and provide other settlers with fruit trees and other items from home. William Hale was the first to come to New Zealand, he was then followed by his younger brother, John Hale. John’s sons would later expand the family business from Masterton to Blenheim, with the ideas of free trade and private enterprise. John had a deep involvement within the local community and was one of the main forces behind the development of the Nelson Queen’s Gardens. The Hale Family has contributed significantly to the transformation of the New Zealand landscape through the use of English land management systems. They were also a significant part of horticulture groups within their regions and part of the New Zealand Nurserymen and Seedsmen’s Association.

Hale William Sr

Mr. Hale at his nursery. Nelson Provincial Museum Collection, Davis Studio collections REF No. 165310 or 1653/1

When the English and Scottish Nurserymen first landed in New Zealand, they tended to favour Nelson for the establishment of their businesses, probably because of the high sunshine hours of the region. The Hale family was no exception. William Hale (Snr) was the oldest son of his family and departed London on the ‘Bernicia’, which was under the command of Captain Arnold. Captain Arnold was the captain of the ‘Fifeshire’, which was the first immigrant ship to Nelson. William was described as “six feet in height, broad of shoulder and sturdy of limb. Although only 27 years of age, he had a full beard and a heavy, dark mustache.”1 William was given a large crown grant of around 23 - 64 acres, probably because he was a  nurseryman.  His trade was useful in helping to develop the new country.

When the ‘Bernicia’ arrived into Nelson Harbour on November 5th, 1848, William was fully equipped to start his nursery business, which he set up between Tory and Hardy Streets. William’s ideal form of business was to become a grower and exporter of trees and shrubs, so he did not want to move too far away from the port. There is little evidence of what William did during his life, unlike his younger brother John. This could be because William’s sons were early scholars at Nelson College and did not continue in the family line of business. Therefore, there was no one to carry on the family ideas and name. John, however, had three sons who expanded the family business and were well known in their towns and neighbourhoods.

John Hale (Snr) was described as an “indefatigable worker”2 and he was a strong believer in private  enterprise and free trade. This belief help to forward  horticulture within Nelson. He was the second of his family to journey to New Zealand. John followed William to Nelson in 1859, where he joined him in business. John, like his brother, was a skilled nurseryman before he reached New Zealand shores. He had completed an apprenticeship in Clapham and was from a long line of experienced nurserymen. Unlike today, when you can have many trades or professions within a family, it was very common for a trade to be passed down so that every son, and sometimes the daughters, had the same job. The Hale family was a prime example of this.

Hale John Sr

A portrait of Mr John Hale. Nelson Provincial Museum Collection, W.E. Brown Collection REF No. 12374. Taken in April 1875.

The exportation of fresh fruit and vegetables, and hence being a nurseryman, was a hard way to make money in the 1800’s because people grew what they needed to provide for their families.  However, in the 1860’s there was a gold rush on the west coast of New Zealand and the Hale family nursery thrived, with high demand for food to feed the men on the coast, and the family was able to expand their business. John broke away from his brother and bought a piece of land near the Nelson Hospital.  John and William may have gone their separate ways, not just because they had the money to do so. William and John had different skills. William was better within a garden-like nursery and John’s strength was growing things in glasshouses. In later years the brothers had an argument that was publicly displayed in the Nelson Evening Mail.

John named his new nursery, on Waimea Road and the corner of Tekuka Street,  ‘Lark Hall’, which was a reference to the place where he served his apprenticeship. John's business grew in popularity, and a newspaper article was written about the Lark Hall nursery in 1887, which help to highlight the scale that the nursery had grown to. ‘The Garden’3 was the name of the article and helped to portray a well-established nursery that had a broad range of plants and shrubs to offer. The article also displayed the scale of the nursery, as it talked about a tomato house that was 16 feet wide by 60 feet in length (4.88m wide and 18.29m). Nowadays this would be slightly bigger than a standard glasshouse that someone has in their backyard, though back then this would have been considered large, as glass was not something that would have been easily sourced. John Hale and the Lark Hall nursery had a significant impact on the local community, and the corner of Waimea Road and Tekuka Street is still known as Hales Corner, and is the location of the ‘Hale’s Corner Dairy.'

Hale Lark Hill Nursery

Ebenezer Hale and one of this younger sister, Grace, at Lark Hall. Photo from Sowman. R. & Sowman P.E, (2008), Blue-Eyed, Fair and Stocky – A Sowman Family History, Redwood: Christchurch

Three of John Hale’s (Snr) sons followed in the family line of business and became  nurserymen. John Hale (Jnr) was the first to leave Nelson and expand the Hale enterprise, setting up a business in the new suburb of Springlands in Blenheim in 1884. He probably picked Marlborough because all the trees that had been planted in the Marlborough district, from 1848 to 1884, were grown mostly in Nelson and probably came from his father’s and uncle's nurseries. John (Jnr) and his father chose a section of land in the belief that one day it would be next to the main road of the new town -  the road that was already established led to the flax and concrete mills. Today that road is known as High Street, though it is not the main road it is still a significant road for people travelling into and out of  town. When John (Jnr) decided on this piece of land, the suburb was so new that there were no houses in the neighbourhood, and the land was covered in ten-foot high flax, which he and his father had to clear by hand. John went on to set up a general nursery, which he ran until his death in 1908 aged 48. His three sons then took over the running of the business which they later named ‘John Hale and Sons’. It is significant to the Hale family because this was the last nursery left under their ownership. The nursery probably closed down because of  competition from other companies, such as Berrylands and other nurseries. After the land had been sold a pub was built on the site of the old nursery, which is ironic because John Hale (Jnr) was a teetotaler. 

Ebenezer was another son who left the Nelson region and established a nursery in 1894 -  in Te Ore Ore Road, Lansdowne. Ebenezer was widely known for his involvement within the community, and he would often judge at shows and do talks at local institutes and clubs. He was closely identified with the Wairarapa Horticultural Society and was a foundation member of the New Zealand Nurserymen’s Association.  The Nelson nursery sent plants and shrubs to be sold in Masterton. Though a few sources have said that he was ‘a leading nurseryman’ this may not have been entirely accurate. Ebenezer in his later life handed over the business to his two sons, Archer, and Nelson. The Masterton nursery is still active today, though it is no longer under the ownership of the Hale family.

Hale John Jr age 21

A portrait of Mr J Hale, Nelson Provincial Museum Collection, W.E. Brown Collection REF No. 14735. Taken in October 1881. (This may or may be John Hale (JNR) though it is most likely due to the time and the age of the man in the photo. John was a very common name within the family)

The Hale Family were very involved within their communities and were well known for donating plants to their local regions. The donations from local nurserymen help to mark
significant and historical milestones in the area's history. One of John Hale (Snr)’s more notable donations to the Nelson district was a Sequoia Sequoiadendron Giganteum, whichwas gifted in memory of Captain Arthur Wakefield. This tree is still standing today, though it is known as ‘Songer’s Tree,' after the man who planted it instead of the man in who’s memory it was planted in. In 1897 John Hale (Snr) donated a tree that was described as “a somewhat rare indigenous tree.”4 Some newspapers even reported that it was a Metrosideros Fulgens, which is a native New Zealand tree that is so rare that it can only be found in Collingwood, though these reports were never confirmed.

The Sequoia Sequoiadendron Giganteum seemed to be the Hale's family tree; each nursery appeared to have one planted in it, and they were often given as gifts or donated by the family. A prime example of this was  William Hale (Snr)'s gift of five Sequoia Sequoiadendron Giganteum to the Nelson Provincial Buildings in Albion Square in 1857.  Lime Trees were often donated by the Hales to mark Royal milestones, civic  occasions, and urban improvements.

Heritage tree Songer

Songer's Tree. Nelson City Council

Queen's Gardens
The Nelson Queen’s Gardens are a monument to the early pioneer nurserymen. In particular, John Hale (Snr), who donated a significant portion of the garden’s plants and had a pivotal role in planning and planting out the gardens. The Gardens were opened to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee of 20 years on the throne in 1842. A ‘Jubilee Tree’, a Sequoia Sequoiadendron Giganteum, donated by John Hale (Snr), was planted at the time. Unfortunately, the tree has seen been removed, along with its bronze plate which is now being kept off-site, for safe keeping. In 1892, John Hale was employed by Councillor Jesse Piper to plant out the whole garden. In August 1892 John Hale (Snr), two of his employees and Piper started the planting. The trees did not have plaques placed with them, instead, bottles were buried within their root system. This however probably means that we will never know key information about these trees, because it is highly unlikely that the bottles will still be intact as the root system will have grown through them. We will only ever know what has been documented about them in newspapers and city documents. Councillor Piper's comments indicate that John Hale (Snr) was given free reign to plant and place plants where ever he liked, though other sources say that he could have followed two plans. A simple plan created by Mr Somerville or a more detailed plan created by Mr Jickell, who was the city surveyor at the time. Even after John (Snr) had finished planting the garden he continued to donate his time, give advice and oversee the development of the Nelson Queen’s Gardens.

Impact on the New Zealand Landscape
When the first settlers arrived in New Zealand, they brought with them many seeds, trees and shrubs to plant in the new country. This, however, has had a significant long-term effect on the New Zealand landscape. The arrival of European settlers, from 1842 onwards, started a “steady biophysical transformation of the New Zealand ecosystem.”5 There was also substantial removal of native plants and trees, to create room for houses and farms. Europeans also brought with them a new land management system. The European Land Management introduced things that we see in our landscape today that we just take for granted, such as plantations and orchards. The landscape started to change more significantly between 1860 and 1900 as local nurserymen all over New Zealand donated trees and shrubs to their local councils to mark the opening of new public buildings and the laying of foundations. The introduction of new plants to the New Zealand landscape has had a significant lasting impact because 70% of all plants that are classed as ‘weeds’ today, were once viewed as  garden plants.6 A key example of this is wild conifer. Conifers are taking over the New Zealand landscape and are suffocating the native trees. Currently, wilding conifers cover more than 1.8 million hectares of the New Zealand landscape, a figure which has increased by about 5 percent every year.7

The Professional Association
The Nursery and Garden Industry New Zealand (NGINZ), was set up in 1904 to support the Nurseryman and Seedman of New Zealand. Ebenezer Hale was a foundation member of the Association, and the Hale family has had significant involvement within the union. Meeting Minutes from 1917 show that a large portion of the Hale family was represented at one of the Association's earliest meetings. The Association today is still important within the horticultural community. They have around 375 members. Even though the Hale family no longer has a significant involvement within the horticultural community, Ebenezer has left a lasting impact on the industry.

The Hale legacy
A large number of early Nelson plantings have been lost through neglect, weather events and vandalism. Many others were removed prematurely because of changing horticultural fashion, subdivision and urban development. The trees of Nelson are a visual history of some of the earliest milestones in the district. The Hale Family provided a connection to home for the early settlers through the use of plants from all over the world, which they grew in their nurseries and donated for public planting. They contributed to the significant changes in the landscape that we see today and have left a lasting legacy for the horticultural community.

2016 - Runner up for the 2016 Jeff Newport Memorial Prize. Submitted by Nelson College for Girls.

Updated 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Hale, A. (1955), Pioneer nurserymen of New Zealand. Wellington, N.Z.: Reed for the New Zealand Horticultural Trades Association
  2. Hale
  3. Grigor, (29th January 1887), ''The Garden', The Colonist
  4. Beaumont. L., 'Landscape Conservation Plan Queen's Gardens Nelson', Nelson City Council. Date assessed 19/05/15  
  5. Unknown, 'Nelson Tree History', Unknown. Date assessed 19/05/16
  6. Department of Conservation, ‘Controlling weeds in our communities’, Department of Conservation – Te Papa Atawhai. Date assessed 01/07/16
  7. Department of Conservation

Want to find out more about the The Hale family and the second Colonial landscape ? View Further Sources here.

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  • This was great information thank you. I am the great, great granddaughter of John Hale Snr. My grandmother was John Hale jnr's youngest daughter ( of 13 children ) Florence.

    Posted by Amanda Ewing, 25/08/2023 3:16am (10 months ago)

  • That photo is indeed John Hale Jr..... we have the same photo. He was my great grandfather. My grandmother was Katherine Alice Hale, one of his 13 children.

    Posted by Adrienne Wilson , 09/02/2020 7:13pm (4 years ago)

  • An interesting account of some of my family history. I am the grand-daughter of Alan Hale (the author of Pioneer Nurserymen of NZ) and have fond memories of the "packing shed" in Blenheim.

    Posted by Adrienne Windsor, 29/08/2018 8:03pm (6 years ago)

  • Hi Gillian. My Father Lewis Hale (Grandson of William Hale jr) would love to find out more about the Hale family in Nelson. My email is We live in the Waikato. Would be great to hear from you.

    Posted by Steve Hale, 27/08/2018 3:28pm (6 years ago)

  • Hi Aunty Gill. Fascinating read and a pleasant surprise to see your comment :-) If you are the great great granddaughter, then am I the great great great great grand niece?? Hehe. Rik-Elle Xo

    Posted by Rik-Elle , 20/07/2018 10:55pm (6 years ago)

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Further sources - The Hale family and the second Colonial landscape




  • Webb, I. Hale’s Nurseries and Hale’s Corner. Nelson Provincial Museum: NPM998.25.3 / AG367, Item 13.
  • Meeting Minutes from The Nursery and Garden Industry Association of New Zealand on their 10th Annual Conference dated January 24th – 25th 1917

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