Fairfield House and garden


The spirit of a gardener made early marks on the land at the top of Trafalgar Street, on Sections 1089 and 1089a. Settler Neil MacVicar, upon receipt of the land from the Crown in 1851, set about establishing a large garden around a four-room cottage which he built. The position of the land and the lines of quick-growing poplar trees created a Nelson landmark on the lower slopes of the Grampians and visible from the town centre. Neil MacVicar died in 1853 at age 45, having laid the outline of grounds that today contain many of his early plantings. His grave can be found in nearby Fairfield Park.

Fairfield Atkinson and FellThe 1881 wedding of Edith Atkinson and C.Y. Fell in front of the original cottage showing the 1872 East wing addition. The 1851 MacVicar cottage “contains four good rooms, and commands a beautiful prospect of the bay”. Nelson Provincial Museum
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Little is known about George McRae who purchased the land titles in 1855. It appears that for a time the house remained unoccupied. Engineer and tennant of Section 1089, John Blackett, purchased the title in 1868 and four years later sold to his friends Arthur Samuel and Jane ‘Maria’ Atkinson, nee Richmond. Then began a 50 year era of ‘Richmond-Atkinson’ residence that saw a major development of the buildings to the style and form we see today and, perhaps more significantly, they nurtured and established a lively spirit of community engagement.

In 1872 the Atkinson’s set about changing Fairfield from a ‘cottage’ to a ‘house and wing’, as described in Nelson’s rating rolls. The double-storied east wing, built in 1872, still stands. During 1883-1884 the original cottage was demolished to make way for the building of the large, double-storied house which is Fairfield House today.1 Also the observation tower was built from the second story on the north-western corner. Arthur found the tower shook too much to be useful for his star gazing so he set up his telescope on the "knoll" to the east of the house where he had viewed the Transit of Venus in 1882. This left the tower as a playground and grandstand for family photographs. Arthur's telescope was donated to the Nelson Astronomical Society after his death and is still in use at the Atkinson Cawthron Observatory.

Fairfield telescopeAtkinson and his telescope 1895. Nelson Provincial Museum.
During the College era the telescope tower made great fun for the students. Unfortunately this drew attention to its rot and it was dismantled. Rebuilding “Atkinson’s Folly” was finally achieved in 1998.
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The Atkinson family gave their home the name Fairfield. It is unclear where the name came from, perhaps they decided it was a perfect match for their land and personalities. The permanent residents of Fairfield, Arthur and Maria Atkinson and their children Edith, Ruth, Arthur and Alice, were part of a large, influential and close-knit colonial family: the Richmond-Atkinson mob. Alliances had been formed in Britain through mutual engineering interests, Unitarian and Liberal Ideals and cemented through marriages. Limited prospects for both families in the late 1840s England prompted them to emigrate to New Zealand in 1852. It was during the six-month voyage out that Arthur and Maria, a socially unlikely match for that era, in that Arthur was 9 years younger than Maria, declared their love and intention to marry. Initially settled in Taranaki, the pro-colonisation Richmond-Atkinson mob became influential in regional, social, political and land affairs. They moved to Nelson as a result of the Taranaki land wars. Arthur then studied law and eventually practised in partnership with Charles Yates Fell (his future son-in-law).

Fairfield 1913Womens Christian Temperance Union Garden Party celebrating 20 years since New Zealand women got the right to vote, March 1913. Nelson Provincial Museum
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The self-educated Arthur had wide interests in the natural world, from spiders and stars to woodlots and birds. Riding around Nelson on a 3-wheeled cycle, “Spider” Atkinson gained a delightfully eccentric reputation. Maria Atkinson was an equally passionate character as her husband, but with a different focus. She dreamed of equality for women in education and public life, which was controversial at that time. She began a school at Fairfield for her children and those of her brothers, James and William Richmond. Maria and Arthur took a strong interest in Nelson College, where son Arthur attended and they pressed for a similar institution for girls. Maria used her letter writing skills to advocate for her causes. When Nelson College for Girls opened in 1883, Fairfield became an open house for college staff. Maria and her daughters were active supporters of the sufferage movement through their association with the Women's Christian Temperance Union

Following Arthur’s death in 1902, at 69 years and Maria’s death in 1914 at 90 years (both are buried in Wakapuaka Cemetery) the two unmarried sisters, Alice ‘Mabel’ and Ruth, continued to live at Fairfield until the property was sold in 1922 to the Nelson College Council of Governors. It seems fitting that, given Maria’s striving for gender equality in education, the property was used for the next 57 years by both Nelson Colleges. By special arrangement with the Atkinson sisters, Nelson College for Girls was able to retain the Fairfield name. It became the home of the preparatory school, whose girls became known as ‘Fairfielders’. With the school growing considerably, new sleeping accommodation was built at the back of the house. The ‘Chicken Coop’, as it became known, housed 24 senior boarders and a Matron. Juniors (in the house) were forbidden to visit the seniors. Despite the wintery conditions of the open air sleeping arrangements, the girls had the privilege of being allowed to go for early morning walks up the Grampians. At times there were concerns for the girls’ safety, and shrubs were kept well trimmed along garden pathways to “reduce cover for lurkers”.

Fairfield NCGCollege students on the lawn, 1926. Nelson Provincial Museum Kingsford Collection 173075.
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In 1930, with the depression and falling roles, Fairfield was loaned to Nelson College for use by boarders whose accommodation had suffered damage in the 1929 Murchison Earthquake. Although initially a short-term arrangement, the boys stayed until 1964. The boarders at Fairfield became known as the Fell House boarders, part of the ‘house’ identities of Nelson College. The boys enjoyed the large ‘playground’ of the property and the adjacent hills. New accommodation was completed at Nelson College for the Fell House/Fairfield boarders in 1964; the proposed 2-year stint had lasted 34 years! The boys moved out. By this stage Fairfield House was run down, as little had been spent on maintenance over the years. The Chicken Coop burned down in 1971, a fire thought suspicious, but no charges were laid.

In August 1976 Fairfield was put on the market, described in the Nelson Mail as a forlorn ghost house, unfit for habitation, and awaiting a prescription of doom. Fairfield did not sell, a fate that in hindsight is viewed as positive, because a sale could have resulted in demolition. Partial demolition was underway, however, with Nelson College allowing people to remove features such as doors and internal fittings, including the staircase. Just as hope for the building was almost extinguished, in walked Alan Stanton. Alan and two friends thought the place had potential for their respective businesses, despite the rubbish, rot and decay. Alan felt overcome by the building. “It was as if I had found my grandmother abandoned on the side of the road”. He had to do something to save the “beautiful” building - with restoration costs estimated at around $500,000.3

Fairfield 1979The dilapidated house in 1979. Nelson Mail
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Late on Friday 8 June 1979, Alan Stanton moved into Fairfield and erected a sign “Fairfield Still Lives”. He placed an advertisement in the Nelson Mail for a Picnic on the Lawn on Sunday the 10th to canvas support for saving Fairfield; Friends of Old Fairfield (FOOF)2 was formed that day. The tides had turned. In a brilliant deal brokered by supportive neighbours with Nelson College Board of Governors, squatter Alan Stanton was granted Honorary Caretaker Status. This enabled him to stay. On 26 June Alan successfully pleaded with the Nelson City Council not to issue the impending demolition order. Three months later Alan was joined by Catherine Brosnahan and they began the steady process of Fairfield's transformation and custodianship. Once again Fairfield was a home with a heart.

FairfieldfrontLawnView.jpgFairfield House, 2009
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In March 1980, FOOF was granted a two year lease by The Commissioner of Crown Lands, to restore Fairfield as a Community Centre, this was the result of persistent lobbying. A dedicated community rebuilt Fairfield. Removed items were returned, working bees held and advocates tirelessly gathered political and community support.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, various Government-supported Work Schemes, supported by grants, fundraising events and generous contributions from volunteers, local business and tradespeople enabled ongoing major renovations and maintenance. Trees and Shrubs Unlimited spent hours with volunteers, re-establishing the overgrown grounds. Wwoofers and Corrections Community Workers are among the many who maintain the grounds as seen today. Rebuilding the tower in the late 1990s was the ‘icing on the house’. Using historic photographs, plans were drawn and the Tower was extended to the ground floor to function as a fire escape. This saw Atkinson’s Folly rising once again through the branches of a heritage Magnolia grandiflora tree.

Today, more than thirty years after the restoration, Fairfield is a thriving community centre holding a diverse range of events. The house and grounds continue to be managed and maintained by FOOF, a self-funding organisation that gains revenue from rental, fundraising, donations and grants. The Crown, through the Department of Conservation, owns the land, the house and outbuildings and all developments that FOOF have made. The House is now a Category Onr Historic Places Trust listed house.


Updated May, 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Fecit, C.V.(1990) Fairfield House. In Nelson: A City Of History. Nelson, NZ: Nelson City Council
  2. Fairfield House history: the land, the people the house: http://www.fairfieldnelson.org.nz/history#overview
  3. Government money has poured in to save Fairfield House (1984, June 28) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1

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Further sources - Fairfield House and garden



  • Farley, S. (1998) Fairfield House completed. New Zealand Historic Places 70, pp. 23-24
  • Government money has poured in to save Fairfield House (1984, June 28) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1
  • Life and loves of Fairfield House (2005, September) Mudcakes and Roses
  • Modest beginning for Fairfield (1996, July 13) Nelson Mail, p.12
  • Truman, G. (2011) Five year at Fairfield. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 7(3), p.35
  • Vine, C. (1991) Historic Fairfield saved. New Zealand Historic Places 35, pp. 26-28

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