by Paul McDonald

Much time has passed since the birth and eventual demise of John Cooper’s Topiary Garden. Today, I wonder what influences may have motivated John Cooper to create such a garden. Did he take up topiary by chance or design, and who was John Cooper anyway?

I, and fifty or so Cooper descendants, have pieced together a picture of the man. As to what may have influenced and motivated John Cooper, I would like to say I have the definitive answer, but I don’t. I can only offer some speculation derived from researching the time frame in which he lived and laboured. So we begin.

John Cooper was born in 1863, the sixth child of nine to William and Eliza Cooper. John’s parents had emigrated from the Island of St Helena. His father, William Cooper, was a private in the 65th Irish regiment, and his mother Eliza Cooper nee Russell, born on St Helena, was the daughter of an African slave. When his regiment disbanded, the soldiers were given the choice of returning to England or take a passage to one of the English Colonies. William chose New Zealand. The family arrived in Wellington in or around the years 1856-1860. They initially took up residence at the Wellington Army Barracks, with William involved in the New Zealand Land wars as a Colour Sergeant. At the cessation of hostilities, he became a Sawyer, eventually farming on lessee land Makara South, Wellington.

Newman, two miles north of Eketahuna on State Highway 2, was one of several failed early Wairarapa settlements. By the late 1920s, only a few houses, a school and a hall were still standing. The surrounding area was farmland; upon it, the bones of a great primordial forest littered every hill and dale. Thousands of tree stumps and logs, bleached white by the sun, were a testament to man’s folly.

Here we find; John Cooper (1863-1942): Soldier; Sawyer; Mill hand; Farmer; Community Stalwart; Sunday School Teacher; School and Dairy board member; and Topiary Sculptor. John Cooper’s house overlooked State Highway 2 at the southern end of the ‘Hamua Straight’. The year was 1928 when Newman awoke to the creative sound of John’s hedge clippers. By 1930, the topiary was beginning to take shape and be noticed by passers-by.

Prior to this, sometime in the early 1890s, John Cooper found himself following several of his siblings into the Wairarapa district of Newman and Nireaha. It was in Newman where John bought some farmland. By day John was a Sawyer/Mill hand. At night John could be found with Charlotte (his future wife), who would be holding a lantern, while he cleared a section of the land, where in 1892 he would build their house.  A basic build, additions were added later on as his family grew. In 1893 he married Charlotte Dowsett, the daughter of the Newman Postmaster. It wasn’t long before he established himself as a dairy farmer and immersed himself into all aspects of community life, as was the ‘times’ want. He and Charlotte had six children, two girls and four boys. Charlotte died at the age of 60yrs in 1931. John died in 1942 at the age of 79yrs while a patient in the Pahiatua Hospital. His granddaughter, June Brown, born Cooper, described John as a “darling of a man”.

Early Days
What influences were at play in the creation of John Cooper’s Topiary Garden?

We must first look at John’s parents’ previous life on the island of St Helena. The island could be described as a ‘Plant Bank’ because botanists, aboard the many ships that visited, left behind plants of many species. They did this for two reasons; some were planted in gardens (The Botanical Garden in the capital Jamestown, Castle Gardens and Maldiva Garden) as an experiment to see how well they fared in a land, not of their own; others were planted to rejuvenate them after long sea voyages, to be then dug up to continue their voyage to England. Most of these plants ended their voyages at Kew Gardens.

Any soldier who had a charge proven against him was given a choice of a number of lashes, or a period of work in the gardens, so naturally, talk of plants and gardens would have evolved among the soldiers.

Formal English Gardens surrounded many an Englishman’s house on the island. Architectural Topiary from the Yew tree, low Boxwood (Buxus) Hedges and single small shrubs shaped in various geometric shapes would have been in use, and these would not have gone unnoticed by John’s parents, one would suspect. There may well have been many a family conversation about life on St Helena which could have included these gardens.

In the 18th century, Topiary was gone from stately home Gardens in England, except for Levens Hall, Kendal, Lake District, the world’s oldest Topiary garden. Cottagers’ gardens (a preponderance of many species of flowers) still featured Topiaries, although on a far smaller scale, in geometric form, a ball, cones, trees with separated layers clipped to perfection, some with a topiary peacock perched on top.

In the 1850s, the grounds of Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire opened to public viewing, creating a sensation through its enclosed garden ‘rooms’ and Gothic style. Within a few years, architectural Topiary was again back in fashion and springing up throughout the country, followed by sculptural Topiary in the 1870s. Popular gardening writer James Shirley Hibberd helped re-kindle England’s enthusiasm for Topiary during the 1870s by describing a plant sculpture as an expression of our ingenuity. English cottage-style gardens continued to be popular in the late 19th century, with the revival of Topiaries among roses and mixed herbaceous borders. Great Dixter house in Sussex is regarded as the epitome of English plantsmanship, sporting this stylised mix of Topiary and ‘cottagey’ plantings. By 1930, Silchester Topiary Garden in Hereford was also well known1.

Another possible influence may have been John’s son, Cecil Cooper. Cecil fought in WWI and lost a leg. Wounded, he was probably shipped to the New Zealand Hospital at Brockenhurst outside London. However, he probably spent some time at the Queen Mary Hospital Roehampton to have a prosthetic leg fitted and to convalesce. Before the war, this Hospital was a Stately Home and did have a small Formal Garden, but more importantly, there were many parks and gardens nearby, including Kew Gardens. Day trips were embarked upon to bolster the spirits of the convalescing soldiers, and these trips could have included any of these parks and gardens, from either hospital. Soldiers were not apt to talk about the hardship of war, and for Cecil, it would have been far easier to tell of his convalescence and his sightseeing on the day trips.

All pioneering families and their children owned large, healthy vegetable gardens as a matter of survival. As time passed, the love of flower gardens gained a large sway throughout the towns and cities. Home gardens were planned and grown with great pride. This was evident in the Agricultural and Pastoral provincial shows, as well as small local district shows, where competitions were held, for the best home-grown produce. Many types of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and assorted by-products were displayed and competed against. Charlotte’s mother, an avid gardener, who lived 1.5 kilometres away from John and Charlotte, had seeds sent from all over the world which she planted in her garden. Charlotte’s father had a glasshouse in which he grew tomatoes, and he also cultivated grapes on his property. It would be fair to say the people in the district had an extensive knowledge of plants and shrubs. Talk of Topiary was more than possible, particularly among new immigrants from England. The Eketahuna library held 4000 or more books. It could have housed the popular English book Topiary: Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box by Nathaniel Lloyd (1867–1933), or someone in the district may have had a copy. 

An article posted in the Wairarapa Daily Times on the 7th of October 1930, could not of had escaped John Cooper’s attention. He could have easily read the article or heard about it.

To talk of Topiary, I must mention Pareidolia, a human predisposition to ‘seeing shapes in random things’. The enormous Macrocarpa Hedge on both sides of John’s homestead was trimmed using hand-held clippers; likewise, any shrubs growing in the garden. When a person has a job that is tedious and seemingly never-ending, then a person’s mind and imagination tend to wander in many directions. Perhaps tedium fostered imagined Topiary, which was then acted upon to turn a mundane job into a thing of purpose.

I have read that John Cooper retired in 1920, which would have made him 57 years old. The retirement age for superannuation at that day was 65 years old, which for John would have been in 1928, and I believe that was when he retired. I can not see that he would forgo any income for eight years. A prudent person would wait until they are eligible for superannuation. I know of no health reason, apart from the odd attack of sciatica, for him to retire early. My proof resides in two photographs; one photo taken in the late 1920s and the other in 1930. The late 1920s photograph shows no Topiary evidence, while in the 1930 photograph, there is emerging Topiary. So, after 1928, John had the time to begin his garden.

If we examine the early garden with no Topiary, it becomes apparent that a symmetry existed within it. Why has he utilised Mirror Symmetry? This symmetry (in the main) he adhered to well into the years of his creative period. Topiary is a challenge at the best of times, but here we see a greater challenge, mirrored Topiary. It would appear John needed this new task to be as difficult as possible to retain his interest in the Topiary endeavour.

No Topiary apparent, sometime mid-1920s. Note the symmetry.

Early Days
Gladys Cooper beside a young topiary couch.

John Cooper was probably like most men of his era; he worked long hard hours to support his family, and in so doing, allowed a strong work ethic to invade his psyche. Now with his sons working on their combined farms, John Cooper needed something to do. In 1931 his wife Charlotte died. Around this time, Len Cooper (John’s youngest son and family) moved into his home. John now had more time to himself. The Topiary became more important to him, judging by the number and quality of the sculptures. His Topiary sculpting was by no means perfect because, on the whole, he was employing conifers as his medium, and not the accepted Boxwood shrubs, nor, Yew trees found in England. John did have a rudimentary understanding of form, which allowed him to create bulky sculptures that were not restricted too much by the conifers. One wonders what he might have achieved given the right trees and shrubs. Some artistic talent of John’s was showcased in the human and animal faces he carved out of pumice to highlight and complete particular pieces of Topiary

As time passed, John’s Topiary Garden attracted passers-by. People stopped their cars to look and wonder at the sight, and not before long people were invited in to walk around the garden to chat with John. The garden became so popular, it was decided to allow the hedge out the front to grow higher to restrict the view from the road. Then a small entry fee was charged, and a kiosk was built to serve tea and scones. Lesley Cooper (a grandchild of John’s), who lived next door to the garden, ran the kiosk at the weekends. A convenience was also built on the section next door to the right, accessed through a tunnel in the hedge.

It would appear there were stock photographs of the garden sold to members of the public and family. Most relatives have at least one of these photographs. Milton Ranger (adopted into John’s brother’s family) appears to have been responsible for many of these photographs. There were also many other photographs taken of the visitors, either sitting on topiary chairs upon a sheet of plywood, or feeding a topiary hen. One particular photograph in the garden had as its subject, John Cooper accompanied by Lady Bledisloe, wife of the Governor-General.

In 1938 it was decided to move the Topiary to Malfroy Rd, Rotorua. It was reasoned; while they were hosting a steady stream of interested visitors to the Topiary in the Wairarapa backwater, they were likely to gain many more visitors if they shifted everything to the tourism centre of Rotorua. So the Topiary was dug up, with roots and earth, bound in large sacks, and sent to Rotorua via truck, then rail. 

The journey did not go smoothly. There was a hold-up for many days at the Palmerston North Railway Station, and all the Topiary died from lack of water. Undeterred, John and his son Len, who had accompanied him to Rotorua, bought some fast-growing Japanese plants (Retinispora) and wire netting, to then sculpt many pieces. It wasn’t long before the Second World War broke out, however. Realising that tourist numbers would diminish because of the war, coupled with the fact that Len Cooper needed to get back to running the farm, they packed up and returned to Newman. The only Topiary left at Newman was the right-hand set of topiary chairs and couch, plus a sculpted juicer. No new Topiary was created. John Cooper passed away while he was in the Pahiatua Hospital in 1942 at the age of 79. Len Cooper and his family took over the farm, he also maintained what little topiary was left in the garden. The house and farm were sold in 1960. If there is a legacy to be realised here, well then it has to be the invasion of the Coopers into all of Eketahuna’s pioneer families over the years, and the Pahiatua districts as a whole.

Rotorua Topiary

John Cooper was a remarkable person among remarkable people in the Eketahuna district of the time. He added a little more spice to the district than the others did. I imagine he would have been surprised by the attention his Topiary garnered. John’s Topiary Garden was the only one of its size in New Zealand at the time.

In John Cooper’s early life, there is nothing to indicate his later life would revolve around Topiary. He may have been influenced by any of the reasons I have listed earlier in this article, and it is safe to assume he knew about Topiary. What motivated him is more of a problem. Here, speculation, while helpful, is very easy to get lost within. So I shall keep it simple for fear of being wrong.

John owned a horse, described as a Hack, named Tommy Dodd (cockney rhyming slang for ‘odd’). The horse won some competitions at an Eketahuna Horticultural and Industrial Show in 1904. This may have been the horse that John liked and crafted a memorial to in his garden, after it died around 1928 (horses can live up to and beyond 36 years).


At that time in his garden, either side of the path, was a flower bed containing what appears to be a type of ground cover. Maybe the shape of it reminded John of a resting horse (Pareidolia as discussed above). By 1930 the shape of the horse was distinct, the head having been raised as well, and with its mirror image on the other side of the path. Here is where I believe John Cooper’s Topiary motivation began. Then, coupled with the tedium of edge trimming, some Pareidolia, and a need to be busy and active in his winter years, the Topiary began, and indeed it took off.

All I can do is applaud John Cooper’s creation and tell him that all his descendants are proud he is part of our family.


June Brown, Tony Cooper, Cooper’s FaceBook Group, Digital NZ, Ian Duggan



One thought on “John Cooper’s Topiary Garden, Newman

  1. Hi Interesting little family story – I come from nearby and have never heard about this story of the early days.

    Regards Alison Hannah (nee Clark), originally from Nikau, south of Pahiatua.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s