by Austin Gee

Bell Hill, Dunedin, c.1860. Presbyterian Research Centre (Archives), Dunedin, P-A132.7-12.

This rustic early Dunedin scene shows cottages not in some quiet suburban side street but rather near the city centre in Moray Place, close to where the principal church would be built. Or rather, it was on top of where the church would be built, since Church Hill, more commonly known as Bell Hill, would first be excavated to about half its original height, a huge project that began in 1862. The neat garden surrounded by the picket fence was not a domestic veggie patch but one of the earliest commercial nurseries. George Matthews, who is possibly the man standing next the door of the cottage, ‘was a pioneer horticulturalist who helped the colonists expand the range of plants in their gardens and helped them make Otago more like “home”.’[1] He was born in 1812 in Stuartfield near Old Deer in Aberdeenshire, 10 miles (16 km) west of Peterhead. Matthews worked on the family farm until he was about 18, when he became an apprentice gardener for the Laird of Nethermuir, about 10 miles west. His training complete, he became foreman gardener at Fyvie Castle (a further 12 miles west), moving on after a year to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. After six years as foreman gardener nearby at Dryden (near Rosslyn Chapel), he married Eliza Pressly in 1840 and went to work in Ireland. First at Martinstown on the edge of the Curragh, and later in the western outskirts of Dublin at Knockmaroon, he ‘achieved considerable reputation as a plant-grower, his attention being specially directed to the hard-wooded sorts.’[2] He got to know a fellow gardener, James Gebbie from Riccarton near Kilmarnock, ‘and the two men discussed their families’ future options in the colonies.’[3]

They plumped for the new Otago Settlement, possibly because a gardener Matthews had once worked with, John Anderson from Old Deer, was already in Dunedin. He had arrived at the start of 1849, and in December Gebbie and family came too. The Matthews, with their three children and George’s youngest sister Jane, followed them in March 1850. The family eventually grew to four sons and two daughters. Jane Matthews married the Yorkshireman John Hartley Jenkinson the following year. The Gebbies and the Matthews stayed together in a suburban cottage made from tree fern trunks. Matthews then purchased the quarter-acre (1000 m²) section in Moray Place that can be seen in the photograph for £40.[4] It was on the site of what is now Bracken Court, facing the top of Burlington Street, and ran down to the Octagon roughly where the Athenӕum is now. The north-facing slope was ideal for a nursery, sheltered from the wind and with a ‘never-failing stream’[5] at its foot. With great foresight Matthews had brought a selection of seeds, trees and other plants with him from the United Kingdom. Dunedin, founded in 1848, was barely two years old and still just a large village, and though its residents were busy planting, it was not enough to support a gardener or seedsman’s business. Matthews ‘found that the prospect of doing much in the way of gardening was very poor, and he soon became convinced of the reality that a hard struggle was before him. In fact, he found it necessary to engage in manual labour of the severest kind, but he never felt discouraged. He went bravely to work, taking employment wherever he could obtain it… at certain seasons his services were in demand for breaking up ground with bullocks, and for thrashing grain with the flail … The first job he undertook was to assist in building a house. After his day’s work, his time was employed in clearing, breaking up, and fencing a quarter-acre of flax land’, his Moray Place nursery. ‘Here he laboured before and after his regular day’s work, and often late on moonlight nights. Nine months after his arrival he had a house of his own, which he built himself, and a little nursery, from which he occasionally sold a few apple-trees, hawthorn plants, or gooseberry bushes. For years, however, there was very little demand for nursery goods, and he continued at work, occasionally taking a contract to drain land, form a road, or clear a building site.’[6] For several years Matthews was farm manager and gardener to the future Superintendent of the Otago Province James Macandrew and his brother-in-law William Reynolds in the Glen, south of the town.[7]

The anthropologist Helen Leach has pointed out that ‘Gardening seems to have been a major interest of the Otago settlers: the Otago Witness had a garden column every month in the early 1850s, and the Otago Horticultural Society had been formed early in 1851.’[8] In due course the Church Hill Nursery began to prosper and was expanded towards Princes Street. By 1853 Matthews was able to buy a second property above the Town Belt in Mornington and developed a 10-acre (4-hectare) nursery there for shrubs and trees, which he called Hawthorn Hill. He later added a further 25 acres, but it was mostly poor, hard, clay soil which he had to drain and manure extensively. Thorn, holly and laurel hedges could only protect the nursery against the prevailing winds so far, but in any case ‘the trees grown in this exposed position are very hardy and remarkably healthy.’ The site of the nursery is today covered with the houses of Hawthorn Avenue. Matthews’ ‘love for rare and fine plants was an absorbing passion’. His own garden was ‘beautifully kept’ and contained some rare exotic trees, while the lawn was ‘literally as green and smooth as the cloth upon a billiard table’.[9]

Tens of thousands of timber, fruit, nut and specimen trees were grown at Hawthorn Hill, along with decorative shrubs such as rhododendrons, laurustinuses, hydrangeas and oleanders. The fruit included apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, grapes, currants, figs, blackberries, raspberries and gooseberries ‘by the thousand’.[10] By the late 1850s Matthews’ regular advertisements in the Otago Witness drew ‘the attention of Settlers to his one and two-year old Apple Trees, which are remarkable for bearing when very young. Also Pears — Plums — Peaches — Apricots — Cherries — Gooseberries — Black, Red, and White Currants — Raspberry Canes — Strawberry Plants — and a large stock of Rhubarb Roots. Forest Trees, consisting of Ash, Elm, Poplar, Locust, Laburnum, &c. Evergreen and Flowering Shrubs — Roses and Flower Roots — Lilies and other Flowering Bulbs, &c.’[11] He planned in 1858 to establish an ‘Agricultural & Horticultural Museum’ and invited ‘his numerous friends in the country’ to send him ‘specimens of Wheat, Oats, Barley, Rye, Peas, Beans, Vetches, Grasses, &c. Also, Potatoes, Turnips, Mangold Wurtzel, Carrots, Parsnips, Beet-root, Onions, Shallots, and various sorts of Fruit. Also, specimens of rare and useful Native Trees and Shrubs. Likewise, Minerals, &c.’[12] It is unclear if anything came of this scheme, which predated the foundation of Otago Museum by a decade.

Advertisements. ‘Fruit Trees on Sale’, Otago Witness, 16 May 1857, P4.

As land was turned over to crops and pasture there was a great need for hedging. Matthews sold gorse or whin seed and yellow broom for hedges, and by the mid-1860s was advertised half a million thorn quicks at 12–15 shillings a thousand. That many would produce nearly eight chains (160m) of hedgerow.[13] For the pasture itself, Matthews sold clover seed and cow grass ‘from one of the most celebrated Seedsmen in Edinburgh.’[14] Perennial and Italian rye grass, Yorkshire Fog, Timothy and cocksfoot were big sellers, and Matthews recommended ribgrass, a drought-tolerant plantain, for sheep runs as it ‘will grow well on rocky ground at a very high altitude.’[15] By 1863 he was importing clover seed by the ton. The following year, Matthews started selling Peruvian guano to establish permanent pasture in drought-prone areas or to grow crops on poor soil.[16] In 1870 he was entrusted with the levelling, harrowing and sowing of the new racecourse on the swampy, ‘almost useless’ site of Forbury Park.[17]

Advertisements, Otago Witness, 13 August 1859, P2

George Matthews was already doing so well by the time the Otago gold rush began in 1861 that ‘the attraction of the goldfields did not seduce him from his own proper calling’,[18] but he was in any case pushing 50 by then. His slightly younger friend James Gebbie was tempted to try his luck, however. Returning from a few months on the goldfields he bought some land for a new nursery in the bush on the east bank of the Water of Leith, a small stream prone to flash floods, adjoining what is now the site of Otago University and not far from the original public botanic garden. There he grew a wide variety of trees, shrubs and flowers, and found strawberries ‘extremely profitable’.[19] One of his few failures was a ginkgo tree brought from Sydney which, despite careful nurturing over 18 years, did not grow an inch.[20] After the Botanic Garden moved to its present site in 1869, Gebbie’s son James took over the management of the 11-acre (4.5 hectare) reserve. He planted many trees and laid out walks for the public, using some of the land as nursery beds for the family business.

Advertisements, Otago Witness, 17 June 1871, P22

The Matthews family meanwhile moved to a newly built 11-room single-storey brick house on the hillcrest above the city in 1870, though they continued to operate the Moray Place nursery about 1.4 miles (2.6 km) away for many years. The original wooden cottage survived until 1872 when it was replaced by a large stone and brick building designed by the locally celebrated architect Robert Lawson housing a shop, office, seed store, living accommodation and conservatory. It faced the neoclassical portico of the Masonic Hall and was considered ‘more in keeping with its improved and improving surroundings’[21] than the pioneer cottage had been. Its pediment proclaimed the building the ‘Otago Seed Warehouse’. Eventually the site of the old nursery was swallowed up by the demand for business premises in the central city and the land was sold by the Matthews family in 1911.[22] Though he became an elder of First Church, the principal Presbyterian church, in 1860, Matthews ‘took no very active part… in public matters’, though ‘at the same time he had decided opinions, and did not fail to express them when occasion required’.[23] Illness restricted his involvement in the business in his later years, and he died at the age of 72 in 1884, after a working life helping transform the countryside of Otago, both farms and domestic gardens. His son Henry managed the business during his father’s illness and continued it after his death with his foreman John Wood McIntyre, ‘an acknowledged authority on New Zealand flora’. It was largely due to them that ‘New Zealand species were gradually recognised overseas as valuable garden plants’,[24] being exported to Europe and North America, and even to Japan. In 1896 Henry was appointed the country’s first Chief Forester, in charge of government nurseries and plantations, and he helped establish the first state forests. In the meantime, one of James Gebbie’s sons had become Curator of the Oamaru Public Gardens..


[1]    ‘George Matthews’, Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin, See also Ruth Gow, ‘George Matthews’, in The Advance Guard: Series One, ed. George Griffiths (Dunedin: Otago Daily Times, 1973), 97–110.

[2]    See George Matthews’ obituary in the Otago Daily Times (Dunedin), 10 October 1884, supplement, 1.

[3]    ‘George Matthews’, Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin,

[4]    ‘Hawthorn Hill Nurseries, Mornington, Dunedin’, Otago Witness (Dunedin), 16 February 1878, 21.

[5]    Obituary for George Matthews, Otago Daily Times, 10 October 1884, supplement, 1.

[6]    ‘Hawthorn Hill Nurseries, Mornington, Dunedin’, Otago Witness, 16 February 1878, 21.

[7]    ‘Biographical Sketches of the Colonists of the First Decade’, Otago Witness, 17 March 1898, 27.

[8]    Helen Leach, ‘Matthews, Henry John’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, in ‘Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand’,

[9]    ‘Hawthorn Hill Nurseries, Mornington, Dunedin’, Otago Witness, 16 February 1878, 21.

[10]  ‘Hawthorn Hill Nurseries, Mornington, Dunedin’, Otago Witness, 16 February 1878, 21.

[11]  ‘Fruit Trees on Sale’, Otago Witness, 16 May 1857, 4.

[12]  ‘Agricultural & Horticultural Museum’, Otago Witness, 20 March 1858, 3.

[13]  ‘Wanted to Sell, Hawthorn Quicks’ (advertisement), Otago Daily Times, 29 June 1868, 1.

[14]  ‘Just Landing per Avondale, Clover Seeds and Cow Grass, Otago Witness, 13 August 1859, 2.

[15]  ‘Rib Grass for Sheep Runs’ (advertisement), Otago Witness, 8 June 1861, 4.

[16]  ‘Peruvian Guano for sale’, Otago Daily Times, 15 October 1864, 1.

[17]  ‘Forbury Park’, Otago Daily Times, 15 August 1870, 2.

[18]  Obituary for George Matthews, Otago Daily Times, 10 October 1884, supplement, 1.

[19]  Obituary for James Gebbie, Otago Daily Times, 26 September 1900, 7.

[20]  ‘Horticulture in Otago’, Otago Daily Times, 10 March 1870, 2.

[21]  Otago Daily Times, 18 November 1872, 2.

[22]  The shop was then replaced by Jamieson’s Buildings, now renamed Bracken Court.

[23]  Obituary for George Matthews, Otago Daily Times, 10 October 1884, supplement, 1.

[24]  Helen Leach, ‘Matthews, Henry John’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, in ‘Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand’,

One thought on “Putting down roots in a new settlement

  1. Great article about my great-grandfather George Matthews. Much appreciated. My grandfather Arthur Nugent Matthews was a brother of Henry Matthews the forester and son of George Matthews. Arthur married Anna Elsie Fearnside also from Old Deer Aberdeenshire and they had a farm and orchard outside Palmerston North with front garden with flower beds, rimu trees, silky oaks and yew trees.
    I spent holidays there as a child.


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