Nelson's Botanical Reserve


The Botanical Reserve was set aside by the New Zealand Company in 1858 for public use. The area comprises two distinct parts, the playing field on the corner of Milton and Hardy Streets and Botanical Hill with its forested area behind and Branford Park, stretching alongside the Mahitahi/Maitai River. The total area is approximately 12 hectares.

Botanical Reserve Jubilee Celebrations 1877. Nelson Provincial Museum Tyree Studio Collection 181976

Botanical Reserve Queen Victoria's Jubilee Celebrations 1887. Nelson Provincial Museum Tyree Studio Collection 181976

Botanics garden party and band contest 1921. FN Jones Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum

Botanics garden party and band contest 1921. FN Jones Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum

Botanical Hill 1887. Kingsford Collection Nelson Provincial Museum

View from Botanical Hill 1887. Kingsford Collection Nelson Provincial Museum

The Reserve's playing field was originally used for a variety of activities including cricket, rugby, public dances, fetes and band performances. The Reserve was the site of the first Rugby match played in New Zealand on the 14th May 1870 between Nelson College and Nelson Rugby Football Club.

The top of Botanical Hill is reached by a moderately easy track, commonly referred to as the "zigzag", winding up the southwest face. The monument at the top is meant to designate that Botanical Hill is the geographical centre of New Zealand.

In the early days of European settlement in New Zealand, independent surveyors made isolated surveys that were not connected up. In the 1870s, it was decided to connect these up by a geodetic survey (one that takes into account the curvature of the earth) and John Spence Browning, the Chief Surveyor for Nelson was the only surveyor with the practical experience to do the job. Because he was located in Nelson he was instructed to begin the job there and to extend the survey south to the West Coast.

Spence Brown used the top of the hill as a central survey point for doing this first geodetic survey of New Zealand, combining the earlier isolated surveys. Later it was connected up to surveys from Canterbury. Using the triangulation method to make the survey, Browning took the easily accessible Zig Zag track to the summit of the Botanical Hill and made this the starting point for the apex of his first set of triangles. The base line for the triangle was laid out in what is now Rutherford Street, between Examiner St and Haven Road. Botanical Hill was from that time on known as the Centre of New Zealand, because these first surveys radiated out from the first survey point in the South Island, located at the top of the Hill.

In 1962 a survey located the centre of New Zealand at 41deg. 30min S., 172deg. 50min E., which is a point in the Spooners Range in the Golden Downs Forest, 55km southwest of the "Centre of New Zealand". The survey did not include the Chathams.

The hill was originally devoid of large trees and has gone through a succession of plantings. Pine trees, probably Pinus Radiata, were the most prominent species. In 1977 a large number of these trees were felled to encourage the regeneration of native vegetation. The area around the playing field was planted with a variety of species including plane trees (Platanus orientalis), Lombardy poplars (Populus nigra italica) and lime trees (Tilia europea).

In 2012 two hardwood memorial totems from the old Arahura rail bridge near Hokitika, built in 1875, were placed at the start of the paths leading up to the Centre of New Zealand, in memory of Kim Merry, who instigated the Masked Parade and developed the Lantern Celebration, both once annual pre-Christmas events. Kim died in 2009.  

Text prepared for a Nelson City Council Heritage Panel located at the Botanic Reserve 2010 (updated 2021)

Sources used in this story

  • Nelson City Council Heritage Panel

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