Thomas Cawthron 1833-1915


A self-made man who used his considerable fortune to make many gifts to his adopted city, Nelson. Thomas Cawthron has left many enduring legacies, including the Church steps and the Cawthron Institute.

A Man of "Bountiful Generosity" - Thomas Cawthron
Portrait of Thomas CawthronPortrait of Thomas Cawthron,  The Nelson Provincial Museum,  FN Jones collection, 6x8-8
Click image to enlarge

A nose for business and a thrifty nature saw Thomas Cawthron build a fortune, which he put to good use in Nelson. People sometimes mistook his thriftiness for stinginess; he hated begging letters and often turned down direct requests for money. He was known for helping anyone in genuine distress, however, paying the medical bills of poor families and willingly supporting disaster relief funds. In 1866 Cawthron gave generously to an appeal in aid of miners in the Wakamarina whose fluming was wrecked by floods while they were helping search for the victims of the Maungatapu murders. He also supported worthy educational, religious and recreational projects. 1

Cawthron arrived in Nelson from England in 1849 and undertook clerical work in Wellington before moving to the Australian goldfields. Returning to Nelson, and making his home at 25 Examiner St, he won a contract in 1856 to dig the test drives to prove the presence of copper deposits on Dun Mountain. He gradually built up his contracting business and lent money "at appropriate interest" to less thrifty workmates.2 As his savings grew, Cawthron began investing in property, shares, local bodies, war loans and mortgages.3

He set up an office in the beached hulk of the Albion at Port Nelson, where he conducted his business as a general merchant. For thirty years he was connected with the Nelson shipping industry as a shipping agent, Custom House Agent and local manager of the Royal Mail Company.4

Cawthron was always one to make the most of new business opportunities: when steam ships brought an increased demand for coal, he became involved in the development of the Enner Glynn Coal Mine, and when gold was discovered in Golden Bay, he shipped miners' stores and equipment to the area.5

When he retired, in 1872, Cawthron's friends persuaded him to become even more philanthropic. In 1900 he lent 700 pounds to the Nelson Institute Library and Museum and, when it burned down, he gifted 500 pounds towards its rebuilding. He also bought and gifted the Lukin Collection of Māori artefacts to the Institute 6 and supported efforts to establish the Nelson School of Music, gifting and lending money and donating a pipe organ.7

The Church StepsThe Church Steps, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection, 1/2 117
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Cawthron financed the construction of the Church Steps in 1912-1913, paid for a section of the chains and posts along Rocks Road, and financed extensions to Nelson Hospital and the building of a nurses' home. In 1913 he bought and donated 1000ha near Dun Mountain to the city, to be known as Cawthron Park.8

Thomas Cawthron was, his biographer David Miller observed, Nelson's "most philanthropic citizen whose bountiful generosity had done so much for the welfare of its people".9

Cawthron died in 1915, and his will set out the terms for the "purchase of land and the construction and maintenance of an industrial and technical school, institute and museum, to be called the "Cawthron Institute", which opened in 1921.10


For more.....Read the story of Thomas Cawthron by Karamea Fossett, Nelson College for Girls, 2010

Updated: April 01, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Miller, David. (1963). Thomas Cawthron and the Cawthron Institute. Nelson, New Zealand: The Cawthron Institute Trust Board. p.38-39.

  2. Lash, Max D. (1992), Nelson Notables 1840-1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: The Nelson Historical Society, p.39.

  3. Miller, p.32.

  4. Miller, p.20, 24-29

  5. Lash, p.39

  6. Brereton, C.B. (1948). History of the Nelson Institute. Wellington, New Zealand: A.H. & A.W. Reed, p.55, 62-63 and Miller, p.48-50.
  7. Tunnicliffe, Shirley (1994). Response to a vision. Nelson, New Zealand: The Nelson School of Music, p.67 and Miller, pp.51-53.

  8. Miller, p.41, 53-57, 60-66.

  9. Miller, p.14.

  10. Miller, pp.78-88.

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  • Very informative pieces on T Cawthron and his Institute
    This was almost my first venture into Prow; reached it whilst googling to see if there's a Cawthron Institute,Wellington,having heard this name on RNZ National.

    Posted by Keith Davidson, 27/09/2016 9:57am (8 years ago)

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Further sources - Thomas Cawthron 1833-1915



  • Easterfield, T (1920) The aims and ideals of the Cawthron Institute. In Cawthron Lectures, vol. 1. 1916-1919, pp. 9-16. Nelson, New Zealand: Cawthron Institute of Scientific Research.
  • Hobbs, William (1991, Dec). Rich legacy to Nelson. New Zealand Historic Places, n.35: p.20-22. [PDF]
  • Moore, Christopher (1990, June 6). Benefactor's science body perseveres: Press, p. 19


Unpublished material available from The Nelson Provincial Museum:

  • Cawthron, Thomas.  (17.2.1914). Bank of New Zealand cheque to Nelson Hospital and Charitable Aid Board for 15,000 pounds. UMS 1473
  • Cawthron, Thomas.  (15.12.1902). Last will and testament of Thomas Cawthron. UMS 1350
  • Gibbs, Frederick Giles. (1866-1953). Papers. AG 85

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