Blog Posts

Phoenix palms: beginning a sociological inquiry

Mike Lloyd

Recently I spent a week’s summer holiday in Taranaki, and after driving back to Wellington found myself thinking ‘there are so many big Phoenix palms in the North Island’. I’d seen quite old palms in Oakura, Opunake, Eltham, Palmerston North, Levin, Otaki, and Paraparaumu.  Despite now being a sociologist, I was able to identify them1 from my earlier horticultural training.  That training was in Christchurch, where the palms are much rarer, which no doubt contributed to my noticing of so many specimens in the lower North Island.  Based on this observation, reinforced by my sociological and horticultural training, I resolved to begin a new investigation into Phoenix palms in New Zealand.  There is an academic context to draw upon as environmental sociology has been around for at least 50 years, and more recently there has been much interest in so-called ‘plant studies’2. However, the aim here is not to engage in theorising. Instead, I wish to describe the way my research has begun by searching for Phoenix palms using Google Maps, which also leads to a broader point to do with scale of inquiry.  There is a reasonable impression that sociology is an over-generalising discipline, so by presenting a case study I hope to show that a sociological approach to people-plant connections need not jump immediately to a generalising ‘wider’ scale.  It is worth asking, ‘what qualifies as a wider level inquiry, for example, could consideration of plants within a two-kilometre radius qualify?’  My answer is yes, and how I arrived at this is communicated via a strong grounding in visual material.  The case is about Foxton, which raises the first question ‘why Foxton?’

After discussing some preliminary research with a colleague, the idea arose that ‘Phoenix towns’ could be identified.  For example, Levin has several large ‘solo’ palms, a main road with a significant group planting, an area of historic significance with another cluster3, and other large groups of the palms.  These factors could qualify Levin as a ‘Phoenix town’.  My colleague, Michael Brown, suggested moving the search further north by considering Foxton, Fielding and so on.  I agreed this would be useful, but delayed a trip from Wellington, sticking with my initial procedure of using Google Maps: I opened Google Maps, located Foxton at a distant scale, and then began focusing down trying to locate any palms.  Previous experience of this technique had shown that parks were a good place to begin, which proved to be the case with Foxton, as I quickly made a ‘hit’ at the Foxton Reservoir Park, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. First Google search in Foxton

The plan view shows how easy it is to spot Phoenix palms from above.  The ‘street view’ function is an essential supplement though, as it both confirms they are Phoenix palms and shows variation not visible from above: in the second screensnip we see a mature female and male palm (about 50 years old), and a smaller female to the left of the larger palms. Of course, Google Maps does not provide information on planting history, but from this we have at least located a notable trio of the palms, prompting a search slightly wider in Foxton. The results of a continued search are seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Big palms by the windmill

The location in the plan view is 700 metres from the Reservoir Park.  We see next to the Foxton Pool the crown view of two palms, and then another pair in the tree border of Easton Park.  This location is very close to Foxton’s well-known tourist attraction, the Dutch windmill.  The street view shows that the large size of the palms gives them a visible presence in the skyline.  In terms of New Zealand’s arboreal heritage, another tree that equally dominates the skyline is the Norfolk Island Pine, and in many coastal sites the two are often planted together for a strong exotic effect (e.g., Pilot Bay Beach, Mount Maunganui).  A field visit to Foxton would fill out this observation about skyline presence. Nevertheless, by moving just slightly-wider on Google Maps, we can learn further interesting things.  Consider Figure 3.

Figure 3. Changes at Union Street

Sixty-nine Union Street is 700 metres eastwards from the previous location.  The Phoenix palms that were here were found on the map view (not shown), indicating large specimens.  However, once I switched to streetview, as seen in the two screensnips taken just over two years apart, I realised that the palms had recently been removed – they are what could be called ‘Google ghosts’, visible until the next update of Google Maps is made. As can be seen from the view when the palms did exist, they also had significant skyline presence, partly due to the group planting on a raised section.  Their removal emphasises a key point: the continued existence of any tree, despite what might seem to be obvious aesthetic appeal, is far from guaranteed. Cutting them down was a conscious choice, something about which Google Maps tells us nothing, clearly necessitating other types of research. In the meantime though we can learn something from one last look about in the close vicinity. 

Figure 4. A Phoenix fan

Figure 4 shows 39 Purcell Street, just 600 metres from 69 Union Street.  Here the plan view alerts us to the presence of a group of 10 Phoenix palms spread out on a larger property.  In contrast to the homeowner of 69 Union Street, we can infer that the homeowner here was very keen on the landscape effect of a group of Phoenix palms.  The bottom two screensnips cover a ten-year span, graphically showing the growth rate of the palm.  This suggests that even 20 years provides sufficient time to develop a significant landscape effect from Phoenix palms, particularly when planted in a group.

There are more Phoenix palms to be found in Foxton, but our move slightly wider from the first sighting is sufficient to establish some key points.  First, as the case of removal exemplifies, not everyone highly values Phoenix palms, despite their undoubted visual presence. Second, this suggests that abstractions like ‘Phoenix town’, whilst appealing, need careful thinking through.  By classifying Foxton – or any other town –  as such, we cannot thereby assume any individual plantings will be highly valued, safe from the threat of the chainsaw.4  Currently within New Zealand, particularly in the North Island, Phoenix palms are relatively common and many large specimens can be seen, but this does not assure their easy passage into middle age (at about 100 years old).  My future research aims to detail the complexities of this situation.  Google Maps is a great place to start, but other research techniques are needed to gain a good understanding of people-plant connections.  A key focus of the ongoing inquiry is the contrast and connection between valuing and disvaluing the palms: I want to provide detail on instances where Phoenix palms are highly regarded, contrasted with cases where assent is given to their removal.5  Sadly, the number of cases of removal is growing.  This is not fully surprising, for as Elkin powerfully states, ‘[Humans] plant trees to stimulate meaning, expression, and awareness, provoking poetry, art, and belief. We plant trees by necessity, to secure food, shelter, comfort, and fuel. But there is more to this. Humans also plant trees because we are very good at taking them down’.6  By travelling little more than a few kilometres, using the wonderful resource of Google Maps, we have glimpsed part of this ongoing process.


Many thanks to Michael Brown for fruitful conversations, and accompaniment on bike trips spotting Phoenix palms.


1  Phoenix canariensis is the botanical name. Identification is relatively easy, partly because there are very few other species of the Phoenix genus, including the true date palm – Phoenix dactlylifera – in the country.

2  See for example Ergas, C. & York, R. (2023) ‘A plant by any other name: … Foundations for materialist sociological plant studies’, Journal of Sociology, 59(1): 3-19.

3 Actually just south of Levin in the old ‘Kimberley Centre’.  See Lloyd, M. (2023) MWR/G1887 New Zealand Tree Register entry for Speldhurst Country Estate, available at:

4 This accords with Steve Braunias’ impression from Auckland in his recent article, ‘The rise and fall of the Phoenix palm’, New Zealand Herald, 15 April, 2023.

5  Beginning work from early 2023, I have built a record of removals of well-established Phoenix palms (pairs and larger clusters) which includes cases in: Matamata, Hamilton, Mount Maunganui township, Wairoa, Patea School, Taradale School, Dannevirke School, Hawera RSA, Waikanae, and Blenheim riverside. There are bound to be more examples, and readers are invited to contact me to help update my records (email:

6 Elkin, R.S. (2022) Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 1.

Hamilton History Talk: An Empire of Plants? Chinese plants, Asian/European trade, and Aotearoa New Zealand, 1790s-1880s

Associate Professor James Beattie, Victoria University of Wellington; Research Associate, Environmental Research Institute, University of Waikato/Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

Date: 14 June  

Time: 6.00 p.m.                       

Venue: Piwakawaka Room, Hamilton Gardens         

Entry: $5

 “Our King at Kew & the Emperor of China at Jehol solace themselves under the shade of the same trees & admire the elegance of many of the same flowers in their respective gardens.”

Joseph Banks to Sir George Staunton, Letter, January 1796[1]

Both the British Empire and the Chinese Empire were as much empires of plants as they were empires of conquest. For Joseph Banks, planting-hunting and empire-making were closely interlinked objectives which he eagerly promoted. In light of Banks’ activities and statement above about the availability of Chinese plants in Britain, this talk examines some of the manner in which imperial connections between China, India, Britain, Australia and New Zealand reveal lesser known histories of plant introductions from Asia—and particularly China—into New Zealand from the 1830s. I will focus on two groups of people who introduced Asian plants into New Zealand: the first, typified by former East India Company trader Thomas McDonnell, who settled in the Hokianga in 1830, and—the second group—comprising Cantonese migrants and gardeners, such as Dunedin flower-lover Wong Koo, who came to New Zealand from the mid-1860s.

Keywords: empire, botany, trade, Cantonese migrants, East India Company, imperialism, plant hunting

[1] Ray Desmond, Kew: The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens, London, 1995, p. 98.

Invercargill’s first Borough Gardener

by Lorna Price

Here’s a bit of background history into these early Invercargill public gardens. Once again, we can be thankful to the planners of the early cities and towns of New Zealand who had the forethought to set aside land for parks and reserves. As early as 1857 John Turnbull Thompson, the chief surveyor for Invercargill, laid out the new town and had the foresight to set aside 200 acres of land that would later become Invercargill’s parks and reserves. In fact, Turnbull’s original idea had been that there should be green belts set aside on each side of the town. Very quickly, the council of the time appropriated the west side green belt for railway purposes, then gas works, followed by tramway sheds and a power house. Part of the north and west belt was set aside for the provincial hospital. Part of the eastern belt was taken for the water works, and the original fire engine house and bell tower were also sited on parks and reserves land. When by November of 1874 part of the Queens Park reserve was appropriated in order to build a school, 110 ratepayers signed a petition to protest the taking of yet more parks and reserves land. It did no good and the school was still built. Evidently the council’s interpretation of what parks and reserves meant was confused with what plans for town amenities might mean, a common complaint to this day.

Invercargill Public Gardens and Otepuni Stream, c. 1916. Image courtesy of Invercargill City Council Archives A0637_S27880018.

In 1863, the area now known as Queens Park was still covered in indigenous podocarp swamp forest. A Mr Thomas Waugh had by 1872 been appointed as the first borough gardener of Invercargill. Some of the oldest trees in Queens Park date from this time and are thought to have been grown by Thomas Waugh from seed provided by the Wellington Botanic Gardens. Many of these trees where Pinus radiata (Monterey pine) and Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress, or as we call it in New Zealand – ‘Macrocarpa’). Apart from the shelterbelt to replace the native podocarp forest, there seems to have been little done to plant ornamental trees or to beautify the area until 1911. In fact, prior to this time the park was leased in 10 acre lots to graze cattle. What Māori thought of the settlers felling all the original trees and grazing their cattle on land that had been considered of spiritual significance and which they referred to as Taurakitewaru, I shudder to think.

Up until 1911 the Otepuni gardens were the principal town garden in Invercargill and all the horticultural beautification activities focused in this more central area. As such, Mr Waugh seems to have been required to focus on this area. That said, he was also very much involved with the efforts to stabilize the sand blowing in from Sandy Point causing problems with silting up of the river harbour. He conducted trials to see which grasses could help with stabilization of the sand dunes and it seems by utilizing marram grasses he did have some success. Judging by the many notices in Papers Past, it seems one of his principal activities at the Queens Gardens area was, apart from the planting of shelter belts, that of the Borough Pound Keeper, dealing with stray animals in the area!

Waugh passed away on the 11th April 1896. On this occasion an article in the local paper of the time gave the Borough Council a very back handed compliment for their helping his widow. The reason for this becomes clearer when reading what happened immediately following Mr Waugh’s funeral, which will be covered soon. If there is one thing digging for the historical truth has shown up, it has become apparent how important it is to use as many independent sources of information as possible.

Gardens, Invercargill, N.Z. and the Otepuni Stream, c. 1910. Image courtesy of Invercargill City Council Archives A0637_S27880014.

Mr Thomas Waugh was a true early settler, hardworking, community-minded, and a devout Presbyterian. Judging by the numbers of letters he wrote for “The Southland Times,” giving a full account of the works being done on the various reserves and parks under his stewardship, and in corresponding with a wide range of people in his quest to source plants for the parks and reserves he was in charge of, he must have been well informed, well-read, and much respected by many, including prominent botanists and curators of botanic gardens far and wide, and far from just a borough gardener

According to the New Zealand Botanical Society newsletter from March 1993 and the Southland Times for April 1896:

He came from a long-established farming family in Roxburghshire, Scotland born in 1832. At the age of 26 he married Emily Jane Salisbury at Lowick, Northumberland (One of many such areas affected by the industrial revolution in England and Scotland and suffering from the knock-on effects of the land Enclosure Acts of 1845-1860s). An article from The Southland Times reported; “Mr Waugh, was appointed to the office of curator.” The appointment lasted from 1872 to 1896 and Mr Waugh was variously called the Town Gardener, Borough Gardener, or Corporation Gardener. He “wonderfully improved the southern portion of the town” by straightening the Puni Creek, and he planted conifers for shelter, followed by eucalypts, his favourite genus. At the nursery grounds of the Corporation of Invercargill he built up a fine collection of native Veronicas (Hebe’s).

Thomas Waugh was in contact with Sir George Grey, asking for his advice, plus a number of plant collectors, including William Smith Hamilton, who had discovered the Gunnera hamiltonii, and Thomas Kirk, with whom Mr Waugh had accompanied on plant hunting expeditions in the Southland area. In fact, Mr Kirk wrote on one occasion “it affords me great pleasure to express my thanks to Mr Waugh, Curator of the public gardens Invercargill, for his kindness in forwarding fruiting specimens of several species found in the plantations under his care”.

Gardens and boys in a canoe on the Otepuni Stream, Invercargill, c. 1910. Photo by William Nees. Image courtesy of Invercargill City Council Archives A0637_S27880010.

More than any other source of information that has come to light is the Obituary of Mr Waugh which tells us something of his values and character:

Obituary of Thomas Waugh, 13 April 1896, Southland Times

We have to-day to record the decease of a townsman one of the best known and most generally esteemed among us. Thomas Waugh for a long series of years was the conservator of our public gardens and indeed the originator of the system of tree planting which has transformed the desolate looking flat country into a picture of beauty in the words of the architect of St Pauls “Si momentum requiris circumspice”, or, in English “for his monument look around.” There is no corner about the city in which the handy work of Mr Waugh is not in evidence. As a practical forester he was beyond compare the best in the colony. Mr Waugh, who had been born and breed to agricultural pursuits – his family having been Roxburghshire farmers for a century or two past – his family landed here in the year 1859. For some time, he and his young wife, engaged in pastural pursuits. They were indeed pioneers in the now well know Mavora, Lake country. Afterward Mr Waugh entered into business in the suburb now known as Richmond Grove, where for some years he made good progress. At this time the town of Invercargill became possessed of the proceeds of the sale of the Tay Street frontage from the BNZ eastwards to Nith Street, which had to be expended in the utilization and beautification of its recreational reserves. Mr Waugh, whose qualifications were well known, was at once appointed to the office of curator. This position he entered upon with enthusiasm. The first work undertaken was the straightening of Puni creek, which at that time followed a serpentine course through several of the blocks of the town. When completed this work wonderfully improved the southern portion of the town. Mr Waugh’s particular hobby – for so we may be permitted to call it – was the cultivation of the Eucalypti, he regarded that species as of first importance after the conifeæ, which he considered merely shelter trees. Our public gardens to-day are in evidence as to the wisdom of his method of forestry. Collaterally he took a strong interest in the indigenous plants of the colony. There is probably no finer collection of veronicas to be found in the world than that which he leaves in the nursery grounds of the Corporation of Invercargill.

Mr Waugh’s untimely decease is traceable to the excessive strain placed upon him during the early part of last year in connection with the unemployment difficulty. He took upon himself the work of two men, planning, directing, and supervising the work of several gangs [By this, it may mean prison gangs or unemployed men doing heavy unskilled work in return for a small allowance or a combination of both]. All this time his health was indifferent, but the natural energy of the man carried him through. The end came two or three weeks ago when he had to submit to the inevitable and take a rest. It is due to the Corperation to say that every consideration was accorded him, a resolution being passed to the effect that he be relieved from his duty during his illness without his position being affected. The last hours of the man, whose loss we deplore were soothed by every attention possible given by his friends, among them the Rev. George Lindsay, whose ministration were a source of comfort, not only to the departing one, but also to his family as well.

Yesterday, in the course of the forenoon service, Mr Lindsey referred very touchingly to the deceased. He said truly that he was a man of deep strong nature ; one who was not lavish of his friendship, and who’s best mental, moral and religious qualities were only disclosed to those who’s friendship had been of some standing and evident sincerity. He was a reserved man ; naturally self-suppressive and retiring, but full of strong desires for the welfare of his fellow man. In closing the service with Hymn 250, Mr Lindsey said he had selected it because it was one that Mr Waugh had a great liking for, and one which was indicative of his attitude towards God. The two last lines of the sixth verse were among the last— if not the very last— words he uttered :

” Now to lie thine, yea, thine alone, O Lamb of God, 1 come.”

If ever there was a gardeners hymn then this would have to be it and it tells us a little of the driving force behind the man.

Hymn Of Promise

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; there’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity; in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity. In our death, a resurrection; at the last a victory, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Post script

According to information pieced together from Papers Past, in the immediate aftermath of the funeral, Mrs Waugh was petitioning the council that she and/or her son of 23 be allowed to stay on in the council cottage provided for the Keeper of the pound for stray animals and continue to work as the keeper of the pound. Her alternative at that time, as it was for so many widows, would have been to immediately vacate the council cottage and with no funds due to her, just get on with it.  Three of the councilors appear to have favoured this cold attitude as a normal and acceptable outcome for a widow. Fortunately for Mrs Waugh, the vote on the matter was taken when one of the men was out of the room and thus the vote was carried and she was awarded a small widow’s allowance. But not the cottage; she was obliged to move out. It was small recompense for her, whose husband almost certainly had been worked to the point of collapse.

John Cooper’s Topiary Garden, Newman

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



The Soldiers and the Olive Trees

by Annette Bainbridge

The olive tree is now ubiquitous in many New Zealand home gardens. Its drought friendly nature and lack of towering height make it a useful tree for small suburban gardens and its delicate foliage means that it does not block out sunlight from other trees and shrubs planted near it. The olive first came to prominence for kiwi home gardeners in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was strongly linked with the fashionable American Modernist movement and the glamorous landscapes of overseas locations such as California and the Riviera. It continued to rise in popularity in the 1980s, as New Zealand cuisine was introduced to the use of olive oil as something other than a cure for ear wax (kids, ask your grandparents about that one).

But I think there is another story of the olive tree in New Zealand gardens and it has nothing to do with fashionable cultural movements or popular trends from overseas. Instead, it is a story about loss and remembrance and unspoken emotions. I think it was the quiet promotion of the planting and propagation of olive trees by many returning veterans and grieving families that is the key to its post-war popularity in the home garden.

As early as 1941, this championing of the olive had begun to audiences back home in New Zealand. A Gisborne soldier wrote from Greece to his local newspaper

 “It is a pity the olive tree is not grown in New Zealand. It makes good shade and good firewood as well as the fruit: it grows in cold areas, and also in the valleys and along the coast, and is very beautiful. Olive groves provide one of the sights of Greece”.[1]

Despite the fact that this man focuses on the more practical reasons why New Zealand gardeners might like to grow this fairly novel tree, there is an underlying sense of admiration and emotional connection in his letter to the very idea of olive trees. So this is the story of how the men of New Zealand went off to a war in Mediterranean countries. They came back damaged and traumatised, but they, and perhaps their families, articulated and channelled that trauma into something living and positive, through the means of the humble olive tree. This tree spoke of their experiences when they could not.

Let us start this story with another soldier. It is 1941. He is driving an army truck along one of the rough, vertiginous roads of Greece and he is panicking. He, and his fellow New Zealanders, are in full retreat from the German army through difficult mountainous terrain. The Germans have overwhelming air superiority. He knows this because there is a Stuka dive bomber following him as he drives; and swerve, accelerate as much as he dares on this narrow road he cannot shake him. His situation is made worse by the knowledge of the cargo in the back of his truck. For this soldier is a member of the 1st Ammunition Company and his truck contains boxes of grenades and bullets, all highly explosive. Finally just as he is beginning to lose hope, at the side of the road some flat land appears, covered with grove upon grove of olive trees. He immediately swings on the steering wheel and drives his truck into the shelter of the trees. The stuka dive bombs him, but the trees deflect the blast and, though he is thrown from his truck unconscious, the family who own the grove are able to find him and nurse him back to health in time to be evacuated with the rest of his mates to Crete.

That soldier was my grandfather, Driver Thomas G. Falconer, and since I first heard this story as a teenager I have been intrigued by the fact that my very existence as his granddaughter was dependent upon him reaching the safety of an olive grove, at that exact moment, on that day long ago. Further examination of historical resources shows that my grandfather was not alone in his experience. For many New Zealand soldiers who fought in Syria, Greece, Crete and Italy, the olive tree came to have a resounding emotional symbolism. Some soldiers, like my grandfather, found literal shelter and protection beneath the olive boughs. For some, the trees reminded them of the strength and bravery of the people of those olive-growing nations who helped them. Gnarled, battered by time and winds, often growing in poor, rocky terrain, they somehow reflected the people themselves, who remained unbroken, unbowed and yet amazingly generous in the face of extreme violence and cruelty. Other soldiers made connections between the landscapes that they were fighting in and the landscapes of home and found points of similarity that enabled them to cope. As one anonymous soldier commented on camping in a particularly picturesque spot in Syria, “Yes, we have olive trees, and it’s sunny enough but it isn’t as good as Nelson”.[2]

For many New Zealand soldiers who came from what was still, in the 1940s, a predominantly Christian nation, olive trees had far deeper overtones. The link between these trees, and the bible stories with which most soldiers would have been familiar (if only from the occasional bit of Sunday school rather than regular church attendance) was a clear one. It is difficult to imagine that the story of the olive garden of Gethsemane within which Jesus somehow finds the mental and spiritual strength to face a tomorrow that he knows will bring pain, torture and death did not strike an emotional chord with some soldiers. The memoirs of kiwi veterans regularly mention side trips to the monastery at Gethsemane and photographs of the olive trees there were often sent home to family and friends. Lieutenant Colin Martyn of Cambridge, Waikato, wrote a letter to his parents, which they shared with the local newspaper, in which he mentioned

“We passed through the old city…to the Garden and Church of Gethsemane. The Garden has a huge old olive tree against which Christ was supposed to have wept”.[3]

Nor would New Zealand soldiers have been unaware of the links between the olive tree and concepts of peace and victory from a classical past. In the heat of fierce battles on the island of Crete those concepts must have been viewed with a wry irony.

Figure 1: Olive tree in Garden of Gethsemane, from  National Library Collection PAColl-0324

Photographs of olive trees were not the only thing that soldiers sent back as souvenirs. The family of Jack Turner in Mt. Albert in Auckland received olive seeds in the post from his leave in Jerusalem. When Jack went missing and the family were left in limbo as to his fate, they planted the seeds on the northern slope of Mt. Albert in remembrance of him. Transported to Silesia in what is now Poland, Jack was one of the thousands of POWs who were forced at the end of the war to endure death marches across Germany in the depths of winter as the Russians advanced. The olive trees his family planted were still there in 2020, but were threatened by attempts of the Auckland City Council to remove all exotic trees from the slopes. The family were devastated at this news and hoped that telling Jack’s story would allow the trees to be saved.

Captain R.V. Milne of New Plymouth was another soldier who sent his wife, back home in Taranaki, “a tin of olive tree seeds”.  In 1945, it was reported in the Auckland Star that “although none have come up in her own garden, her mother, Mrs W. Taylor, has succeeded in growing two of the seeds in a very warm and sheltered piece of her property”.[4]

It was not just olive trees seen from trips on leave to the Holy Land that had a spiritual or cultural impact for New Zealanders. The images of olive trees would be particularly ingrained in the mind of those soldiers who fought in Crete. The trees were everywhere and official war histories give some notion of the peculiarly dream-like intensity of the landscape, heightened by the lack of regular food and sleep that dogged the kiwis’ progress. The trees took on an almost religious significance, “a tangle of olive branches” being as “beautiful and complicated as a rood screen”.[5] Behind it all, for those soldiers from middle class backgrounds who had been exposed to the classics at school, the impression of a

 “pattern of life…unchanged and unbroken … since Minos was a King in Crete and Theseus slew the Minotaur … We were awed by the amount of living that had been done in one narrow island … awed and comforted”.[6]

More prosaically the trees simply offered shelter and a place to sit and eat and rest between marches.

For the brief time between their evacuation from Greece and arrival on Crete and the start of the German invasion, the New Zealanders could enjoy the Mediterranean landscape. These were days that Peter Llewellyn’s history of the 1st Ammunition Company describes as “blue and gold”.[7] Haddon Donald, D.S.O, M.C, concurred in describing how strangely surreal the interlude of peace was after the frightening chaos of the Greek evacuation and before the invasion of Crete.

“We stepped ashore at Suda Bay lucky to be alive…The sun was shining…the locals were friendly, the olive trees provided welcome shade, the oranges were ripe and juicy, and the wine was good”.  [8]

The New Zealand high command even used the olive trees to help organise the disposition of their units on Crete.

“The men were allocated in groups to mighty olive trees, each bearing a number, beneath whose gnarled trunks they sank down to sleep, or to watch the friendly stars as they twinkled through the branches”.[9]

The New Zealanders found some psychological relief in the shelter of these ancient trees with one soldier commenting

 “We slept under the stars, swam in the lake at Aghya and were restored to health and spirits. Nerves that were stretched to breaking point in Greece soon mended and the men became very fit”.[10]

But all too soon the olive groves of Crete became the front line in a new, devastating form of aerial warfare – airborne invasion.

The olive trees played a crucial role in the development of the battle for Crete. Lance Corporal Allan Robinson of the 6th New Zealand Field Ambulance described the reality of being under fire.

 “There’s nothing worse than to sit in your slit trench and hear the [bullets] going through the olive trees. Hear the bits of bark and everything come down on top of you, and to see the clouds of dust around the top of your slit trench as the bullets go round. To say that I was scared would be an understatement”.

Despite this terrifying experience, Lance Corporal Robinson would, within hours, owe his survival to the olive trees of Crete. He and other medical orderlies were taken prisoner by the Germans and marched forward to the New Zealand lines to act as (he claimed) human shields for the German soldiers following them.

 “So there’s the 19th Battalion there, there’s us, and here’s the Germans behind us. We were in the middle, and they were sniping through us. They were quite a way away. They could see that we were there. And they started firing straight through us. I was lucky again because these olive trees came to my aid. That’s why I love olives. I got in behind a decent-sized olive tree, and I was sheltering”.

The situation became even more desperate, and Robinson recalled thinking about what for many men must have been the most difficult concept in warfare to grasp and make sense of – the sheer randomness of death in battle.

 “Poor old Jack, he was killed. They were firing through the olives. Lucky Robinson, I got the big olive tree. Bits of bark flying around. Dante’s inferno had nothing on it. It was scary. I think we were past the scary stage then. We were just accepting it”.

Lance Corporal Robinson survived that day because of the large trunk of an olive tree; those who were closer to smaller trees were not so lucky.

Robinson’s description is terrifying, but sometimes, as is weirdly the case with war, situations could become unintentionally humorous. Soldier Claude Wickstead recalled that

Several of us were hiding out in an olive grove and a Dornier came around, dropped all his personnel bombs without very much harm and spotted us behind this olive tree. He then proceeded to fly around us and of course, as he proceeded, we proceeded around the tree and he expended all his ammunition and of course in the end the pilot of the bomber had no alternative but to wave to us and the pilot flapped his wings and they flew away. And we thought this is one time when we’ve got the German air force whacked! [11]

Figure 2: Wounded soldiers hiding in a ditch, Crete, during World War II, from PAColl-6677-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/32049920

A description of the action in the Battle of Crete that led to the awarding of a Victoria Cross to Sergeant Clive Hulme, also demonstrates the centrality of the olive tree to the way in which the fighting unfolded. Part of his commendation recorded how he dived for shelter behind an olive tree, only to be forced into hand to hand combat with a German sniper who had been hiding in its branches.

Sergeant Hulme had a strong link with the symbolism of the olive tree for other reasons that became clearer a year later, when the New Zealand newspapers published a moving letter that Hulme had sent to the parents of a young man who had been killed in action on Crete. In this letter he described the way in which he and another sergeant tried to give this man appropriate funeral rites both physically and spiritually.

“Sergeant Trewby M.M. and I carried him to a deep slit trench in a beautiful place under a huge olive tree. We both recited the Lord’s Prayer over the grave and covered him with his blanket and greatcoat. Mac was buried with a branch of an olive tree in his hands…”[12]

What is notable about this description is the assumption on Hulme’s part that the connection with the olive tree will be a healing, comforting element for the young man’s parents to know. It should be mentioned that as Hulme and Trewby were performing this final service there were still warplanes flying and strafing overhead. It is tempting to wonder if the calming nature of the olive tree burial was helpful to the two men still alive to witness it. They must at some point have wondered if this would be their fate too in the next couple of days.

Figure 3: Private W J Brown, 2nd Lieutenant C W Taylor and Corporal A J Spence, Crete, from Ref: PAColl-6677-4. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23188278

The image of the olive tree was obviously an important component of grieving for many families and friends back in New Zealand who had lost loved ones on Crete. Driver Thomas Devlin’s family wrote in his memorial notice

“Where alien skies eternally are blue/ beneath an aged, shell-torn olive tree and trampled flowers/ Tom sleeps…”[13]

It is obvious that the olive tree was the part of the Cretan landscape that still resonated with the men long after the battle was over. In 1949, a soldier calling himself simply, Phil, put this ‘in memoriam’ notice in a Gisborne newspaper

“Sacred to the memory of Hugh [Marshall] killed in action at Galatos, Crete … Among the olive trees a hero’s grave/ On Galatos Hill where rest the brave”.[14]

These memorial notices to two dead soldiers are typical of many. The images of trees and groves was, perhaps for many older members of families, a kinder scene of loss than the muddy trenches of the previous war and for the men who knew the reality of just how bad it had been, the olive tree was a easy way of representing experiences that it was possible they could not put into words.

One thing clearly remembered by New Zealand soldiers, especially those who had to hide to avoid capture on Crete after the surrender, is the generosity of the local people. Staff sergeant T. Moir 4th Field Regiment gives an instance that worried him and his compatriots so much that they sneaked away rather than endanger the villagers any more

‘On one occasion, when they discovered us, sleeping off the effects of several liberal draughts of wine taken during the heat of the day, under a grove of olive trees not very far from a village, we were plied with so much food and wine that after three days we managed to continue on our way only by sneaking off during the dead of night during a lull in hospitality. We carefully avoided villages during the next three days until our supply of food ran out.’ [15]

Many New Zealand soldiers had similar memories of the local people and their kindness in both the Greek and Italian campaigns.

Given the intensity of all these experiences then, it is not surprising that the olive was chosen as the official tree to represent the campaigns of Greece and Crete for the memorial to the 19th Battalion and Armoured Regiment Association which

“arranged with the City Council reserves department [in Christchurch] to have trees planted nearby to commemorate the places where the regiment served, including an Italian cypress, an olive and a Lebanon cedar”. [16]

Figure 4: German paratroops treated by New Zealanders, Crete: ‘The olive trees gave protection from the unchallenged and ever-active Luftwaffe’, from

The people of Crete themselves also chose it to be the way that they remembered the sacrifice of the New Zealanders for their freedom. The Whangarei RSA’s war memorial garden contains olive trees from Crete. Three olive trees outside the Montecillo Veterans Home in Dunedin are a poignant reminder of the struggles and sacrifices made by New Zealanders in Greece and Crete during World War 2.[17] Lower Hutt’s cretan olive tree was transplanted into a new ANZAC lawn in 2015. “The olive tree”, said the Greek Bishop of New Zealand at the new dedication ceremony, “is very holy to us”.[18] The olive tree was able to bear the weight of this symbolism because it already had such cultural resonance in Western civilisation, but I think for many veterans it was far more personal and visceral than that.

So this is the story so far, but I think this is a topic that deserves further exploration, even further publicity. For those of you who might have had fathers or grandparents who were war veterans, it would be interesting to hear from you. Do you know if there was a connection between these relatives and the arrival of the olive tree as a staple of New Zealand post-war gardening? Major-General Bill Gentry of the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade openly stated that when he arrived home in New Zealand he would plant an olive tree in his garden in order to remember.[19]  It would be fascinating to know if there is evidence that any veterans or their families also openly stated the same intention for the same reason.

Meanwhile, as ANZAC Day approaches, maybe the rest of us who have olive trees in our garden, or know a park where they grow, could go up those trees and give the branches or trunks a gentle pat to say … well done. It would be a way to remember those soldiers, the people of Greece, Crete and Italy who helped them, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, and the promise of peace that they all fought so hard for. For the olive tree, like the poppy, has become something more than just the sum of its parts, and its existence in our gardens, and in memorial parks, is one way of connecting New Zealand with a past that is fast moving beyond living memory.

Figure 5: “Orchard of olive (Olea europaea) trees in Crete”, photo taken by A. Poulos, published on Flickr (CC)


[1] Gisborne Herald, 26 June, 1941

[2] Nelson Evening Mail, 24 Aug 1942, p.3

[3] Waikato Independent, 17 March 1944, p.5

[4] Auckland Star, 18 April 1945, p.4

[5] Peter Llewellyn, Journey Towards Christmas: 1st Ammunition Company, 2nd NZEF (Wellington: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1949) p.108

[6] ibid, p. 107

[7] ibid, p. 106

[8] Haddon Donald, In Peace and War: A Civilian Soldier’s Story (Masterton: Fraser Books, 2005) p. 28


[10] P. Winter, Expendable, (New Zealand: Moana Press, 1989)


[12] Nelson Evening Mail, 16 June 1942, p. 4

[13] Evening Star, 21st May 1945, p. 4

[14] Gisborne Herald, 24 May 1949, p. 1




[18] marks-crete-and-kiwi-bonds

[19] Sally Mathieson, ed., Bill Gentry’s War (Palmerston North: The Dunmore Printing Company, 1996)

The Daffodils of Hagley Park

By Alan Jolliffe

James A McPherson, A.H.R.I.H., N.D.H., was the first New Zealander appointed as Curator of the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. He served from 1933 to 1945.

The Rose Garden, Rock Garden, original Cockayne Garden, the Azalea and Magnolia collections were all designed and planted under his direction. However, perhaps the most important feature for which he was responsible is the planting of hundreds of thousands of daff­odils in the Woodlands.

This is one of the most spectacular springtime attractions in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens and one that is featured on calendars and in travel brochures and the like.

The Woodlands covers an area of two hectares between the Avon River and Christchurch Hospital. Tall oak and ash trees dominate the area providing shelter and diffuse the spring sunlight. The pasture­ like grassland provides ideal conditions for the naturalization of daffodils and other bulbs.

Band Rotunda in the Daffodil Woodland, Hagley Park, in Spring. Photograph by Alan Jolliffe, 24 September 2004.

Planting began in the autumn of 1933 and the 1933/34 Annual Report stated that the flowering of 16,000 bulbs was successful providing encouragement to continue planting.

In the 1934/35 Annual Report, McPherson wrote “when 66,000 Narcissi bloomed in the Band Rotunda Woodland last spring it gave some indic­ation of what can be achieved by the public in their co-operation in supplying surplus bulbs for planting. At the end of the year under review, the total number planted reached the encouraging figure of 108,000. It is anticipated that these will make a striking, picture during the coming spring.”

This is the first mention of public co-operation in the project. The figures suggest 50,000 bulbs were donated and planted in 1934 to flower in September of that year. By 31 March 1935, a further 42,000 bulbs were planted.

Obviously, the people of Christchurch were completely behind the project. No wonder McPherson was enthusiastic about the anticipated flowering in spring.

McPherson’s Annual Report of the next year (1935-36) reports on the “…continued generosity of many citizens.” A further 24,200 bulbs were donated making the three year total 132,440. He suggests a further 100,000 will complete the planting and that more narcissi planting will be in Little Hagley Park and along the banks on the Avon facing Park Terrace. This was an ambitious and colourful plan.

In 1936/37 15,000 bulbs were added to the planting bringing the total to 160,000. On Sunday 21 September, approximately 8000 people visited the area. Obviously at this time, four years after the first planting, McPherson’s dream and vision had been realised.

Writing in his 1937/38 Annual Report, McPherson wrote “…This area is becoming increasingly popular as evidenced by the fact that on Sunday 26 September (1933), fully 5000 persons visited the daffodils in bloom. The additional planting of bulbs during the year now brings the total in this area to 220,000. We have now reached a stage when it may be advisable to institute a “Daffodil Sunday” on similar lines to institutions overseas. If properly carried out it would certainly benefit the revenue of the City’s Tramways Department.”

Again, we see the foresight of McPherson in action. Not only had he added a further 60,000 bulbs in one year, he was looking into the future in promotion this feature he had created. Further, he saw the prospect of other City Departments (Tramways) playing an important part in the promotion of the daffodils as well as a method of transport for people who could not otherwise get there.

The inaugural “Daffodil Sunday” was held on 25 September 1938 and from all accounts, was an outstanding success. It was estimated that 10,000 people visited the area on that day. McPherson called the daffodils “…one of the City’s chief springtime attractions.” During that year, he planted a further 46,000 daffodils, all donated.

Daffodil Sunday the following year attracted some 5,000 people and a further 6,000 people visited the daffodils the next Sunday. In that year, a further 34,000 bulbs were added to the woodland.

By March 1941, a total of 340,000 bulbs had been planted in six years. The majority, if not all of these, had been donated by members of the public. Daffodil Sunday of 22 September 1940 again proved very popular with over 8,000 people visiting the Woodland. An add­itional feature was a collection that was taken up. A total of 171 pounds 16 shillings and 9 pence was added to the Board’s funds. The purpose for the funds use was not given.

The next year, only 6,800 daffodils were added but 3,600 Grape hyacinths were also planted. This is the first mention of the planting of bulbs different from daffodils. The collection on Daffodil Sunday of that year raised the sum of 41 pounds which was earmarked to provide playing apparatus for the Children’s’ Playground.

During the next year, an additional 58,788 daffodils were added to the Woodland. This brought the total over 8 years to 405,588 bulbs. McPherson, in his Annual Report (1942/43) stated “…with the natural increase it can safely be said that the Woodland contains half a million bulbs. The original scheme is now completed and the Gardens have a magnificent daffodil woodland, spring feature a definite and very popular spring feature.”

On Daffodil Sunday, 27 September 1942, over 18,000 people visited the area.

The collection on that day was 250 pounds and it was given to the Patriotic Fund.

In McPherson’s Annual Report of 1943/44 he says that an additional 3,830 Narcissii and 4,000 Grape Hyacinth bulbs were planted. This brought the total to 409,418 Narcissii and 14,000 Grape hyacinths.

He goes onto state “…allowing for natural increases the woodland produces over a million blooms in springtime. Daffodil Sunday is now a noted feature of the city. This woodland is an example of what can be achieved by community effort. All bulbs, with the exception of 40 pound worth have been donated to the scheme by the people of Christ­church and surrounding districts.”

In later years, under the supervision of succeeding Directors and Curators, additional plantings of Narcissii have been made. Other bulbs such as snowdrops and bluebells have also been planted to extend the flowering season.

James A. McPherson created many features in his 12 years of assoc­iation with the Botanic Gardens. Nothing compares however, with the Daffodil Woodlands. This magnificent feature hit at the hearts of people who gladly donated 400,000 bulbs to the City.

The Woodlands is perhaps the most well known feature of Christchurch’s landscape. It features in travel brochures, publications, films, videos and in hundreds of thousands if not millions of holiday snapshots.

If it had not been for the dream and vision of one man, James A. McPherson, and the help of the people of Christchurch and Canterbury, this spectacle of spring would not have been created. We owe a great deal of thanks to McPherson and all those people who donated bulbs. Without their support our spring would be a lot less exciting.

The History of Garden Gnomes in New Zealand: An interview on Radio New Zealand

Garden History Research Foundation Trustee Ian Duggan was interviewed by Jesse Mulligan on his ‘Afternoons’ show on Radio New Zealand (Tuesday 21 March, 2023) about the history of garden gnomes in New Zealand.

Listen to the interview via Radio New Zealand at the link, below:

Upcoming talk (Hamilton Gardens): From Paradise to Pompeii: Near Eastern origins of the ancient Roman garden

Peristyle garden, House of the Vettii, Pompeii. reconstruction. Wikimedia commons.

Annette Giesecke will present “From Paradise to Pompeii: Near Eastern origins of the ancient Roman garden” at Hamilton Gardens, at 6 – 7:30 pm on the 27th April (Piwakawaka Room).

$5 door charge and raffle.


Mention of ancient Roman gardens conjures images of lavish suburban estates outfitted with sprawling gardens containing specimen plantings from around the world, aviaries and fishponds, pergolas for outdoor dining, and sculpture-lined swimming pools such as those described by statesman Pliny the Younger in his letters or evidenced by the remains of the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Such gardens would influence Byzantine, Islamic, and monastic gardens as well as gardens of Renaissance Europe; they would resonate in gardens from the seventeenth century onwards, their underlying presence felt to the present day. But the Roman world had not always been a garden showcase.

This lushly illustrated lecture traces the origins of the Roman domestic garden ‘movement’ from the mid second century BCE, when conquests in the Near East—the former Persian Empire including Egypt—exposed Romans to garden traditions already thousands of years old. On the model of Near Eastern kings and potentates with their ‘paradise’ gardens, wealthy Romans created gardens that were Roman empires in miniature, gathering in the monuments of the larger world in replica. Romans of lesser means soon followed suit, replacing kitchen gardens with paradises situated at the very heart of their homes.


Annette Giesecke is a specialist in the history and meaning of ancient Mediterranean gardens. Her work extends to the many cultural uses of plants in antiquity, including symbolic, religious, culinary, medicinal, ornamental, and technological. Her books include A Cultural History of PlantsClassical Mythology A to ZThe Mythology of Plants, The Good Gardener? Nature, Humanity, and the Garden, and Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia, and the Garden.

Annette is currently affiliated with the Centre for Science in Society, Victoria University of Wellington and serves as a Trustee of the Garden History Research Foundation.

‘Natural Lifeboats’: Reports of Giant Water Lilies in New Zealand

Ian Duggan

Giant water lilies have appeared in the news recently with the description last year of a new species, Victoria boliviana – the Bolivian waterlily – recognised by Guinness World Records for possessing the world’s largest waterlily leaf, with a diameter of a little over three metres.

The genus Victoria was coined in 1837 by John Lindley, professor of natural history at the University of London and a secretary of the Horticultural Society of London, in a description based on specimens of the giant Amazon waterlily collected in British Guiana (now Guyana) by German-born explorer Robert Schomburgk. The genus was named after the new Queen of the British Empire, Victoria, with the description published in the year of her accession to the throne. It was accordingly given the name of ‘Victoria regia’.

To put a slight spanner in the works, however, an earlier description of the species had already been made, in 1832 by German botanist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig, where it was placed within the genus Euryale, under the name Euryale amazonica. It was first included in this genus due to its perceived similarity to Euryale ferox, the ‘prickly waterlily’, a water lily found in southern and eastern Asia. While it was correctly appreciated by Lindley that the species should be classified in a new genus, and not within the Euryale, nomenclatural rules dictated the species should be correctly named Victoria amazonica, using the original species designation, and using the new genus name. Nevertheless, the name Victoria regia remained entrenched within the literature for many years.

Postcard. Victoria regia, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Date and Photographer unknown. Duggan collection.

How aware of Victoria were New Zealanders?

The first mentions of giant water lilies in New Zealand newspapers came in the early 1850s, regarding English specimens[i]. “The Victoria Regia water-lily continues flowering beautifully in the open pond at Messrs Week’s nursery, King’s Road, Chelsea. The whole plant has a gigantic appearance, having twenty leaves, each leaf twenty feet in circumference, and the foot stalks thirteen feet in length.”[ii]

A few years later, reports began arriving from closer to home, in Australia.

Firstly, “An amateur florist in Ballarat”, reported the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle via the Tribune in 1862, “has succeeded in raising three plants of the Victoria Regia from seed. As soon as the house they are in is finished, and the plants large enough, it is the intention of the grower to exhibit them.”[iii] Nothing more was reported from Ballarat, however. From 1868 through to 1893, a theme emerged of the progress of the plants at Adelaide Botanic Gardens. In October 1868 it was reported that “Among the sights to be seen in the Botanical Gardens at Adelaide, is a gigantic Victoria Regia water-lily. The Advertiser states that it was planted on the 23rd July last, and from a small root, throwing out a single leaf six inches in diameter, it has spread over almost the whole extent of the aquarium, about 40 feet by 30 [9 by 12 metres]. The leaves are round, and some of them four feet [or 1.2 m] in diameter. The stalks are very lengthy, and the leaves do not crowd upon each other, but each floats on the surface of the water, with a clear space separating it from any other leave”.[iv] A few days later it was noted it was just coming into bloom.”[v] In November, “The Victoria Regia has proved a great attraction to the Botanic Gardens, and over 30,000 persons have visited it since it came into bloom.”[vi] For those following the news of the Adelaide Victoria, disappointment – and perhaps some confusion – would have been felt in August 1870, when it was reported that “Serious depredations have taken place from the Victoria Regia house, at the Botanical Gardens. The house will, consequently, have to be closed to the public, except on certain days”.[vii] Whatever happened, the lilies were still to be seen. A correspondent in September 1871 described the scene, with “a large hot-house full of beautiful tropical plants, with a Victoria regia floating in the centre, the leaves of which were as round as a dinner plate and fully four times as large”[viii] Disaster struck in late 1874, however, when a single line was reported in at least five separate New Zealand newspapers, stating in truly Australian style: “The Victoria Regia in the Botanic Gardens has been destroyed by larrikins.”[ix] All was not lost for Adelaide, however, as in 1893 it was noted that “several magnificent blooms of the Victoria Regia have been on view to visitors of late. One of the staff had the idea of testing the carrying capacity of one of the large floating leaves, and a little girl of nine years of age was placed upon the miniature raft in a sitting position. A photograph was taken of the interesting incident”.[x]

This report leads us to the second theme from overseas reports, the buoyancy of the leaves, and a fascination with the number of people they could support. Preceding this Australian report, in 1870, “Mr. Wm. Sowerby, of the Botanic Gardens, Regent’s Park [England], gives… a very curious and instructive account of what is termed a natural lifeboat — that is, the leaf of the gigantic Victoria regia, which he says he was able to load — and is still floated — to the great weight of 426 lbs [= 193 kg]. He believes that, with care, it could be made to float a number of persons”.[xi] In 1896 William’s son James Bryant Sowerby was in the news for similar reasons; “A curious personal experience has been that of Mr J. B. Sowerby, the assistant secretary of the Royal Botanical Society, London. Recently he sat on one of the floating leaves of the Victoria Regia water lily for a considerable time, without causing it to sink appreciably, ‘thus supporting a weight of 150lb’ [68 kg]”[xii] Elsewhere, in 1876, it was reported that “The leaves of the gigantic waterlily, known as the Victoria Regia, in the Botanic-garden at Ghent [Belgium], having attained a remarkably large size, Mr Van Hulle, the chief gardener, recently undertook to determine their buoyant power. One leaf easily supported a child, and did not sink under a man. Mr Van Hulle then heaped bricks over its entire area, and found that before the leaf became submerged a weight of 761 lb [345 kg] was floated.”[xiii]

Another theme was that of the association of Victoria with the freshwater jellyfish, Craspedacusta sowerbii, which was named in honour of J.B. Sowerby. In 1880 it was noted that “A new freshwater jellyfish (Medusa) has been discovered in England by Mr. Sowerby, Secretary of the Botanical Society. It is very abundant in the lily-house in Regent’s Park, London, in the warm water tank devoted to the cultivation of the Victoria regia. The largest specimens are nearly half an inch in transverse diameter.”[xiv] A few years later, it appeared in association with the plant again in another set of gardens: “much interest was aroused by the discovery of a fresh-water Medusa, or jelly fish, in the water tank devoted to the ‘Victoria regia’ lily in the Botanic Gardens, London. No one knew whence the interesting little stranger came, and after a short time it disappeared. For three years nothing has been seen of it; but suddenly it has reappeared, not in London, but at the Botanic Gardens, Sheffield, in a tank containing the ‘Victoria regia’. Certain water plants had been sent from London to the Sheffield Gardens in April 1892, and again a year later, so that the ‘infection’ from one tank to the other is fully accounted for.”[xv] Fast forward to 1929, when they were recorded again in their initial site of English discovery; “They were first observed in 1880 and their appearance was a mystery. For three years they inhabited the tank, and then, in 1883, they disappeared as suddenly as they had come. It was though at first that the draining of the tank for six months in the year explained the mystery, for no jellyfish like being out of water. Now, after an absence of forty-five years, the jelly fish are once more swimming in the tank in which they were first found”[xvi]. Seemingly unaware of the Sheffield report, it was noted: “This family of jelly fish has never been found at any other place except Regent’s Park.”[xvii] This jellyfish was first recorded in New Zealand in 1956, firstly from Lake Taupo, and then later that year in Lake Tarawera. While now widely distributed in New Zealand, it has seemingly not been recorded in association with giant water lilies.

Craspedacusta sowerbii, a global invader originating from China (Barry O’Brien, The University of Waikato, photo)

But what about Victoria in New Zealand?

The first hint of the introduction of giant water lilies into New Zealand was in 1867, with a curious denial by a supposed importer: H.C. Field, Esq., of Wanganui, stated that “it was a mistake about him having imported the Victoria Regia, but that he had made several unsuccessful attempts to import the English water lily.”[xviii] The first likely introduction was reported a few years later, in the New Zealand Herald in 1872: “Those who have seen that magnificent water plant the Victoria Regia Lily in the full bloom of health and beauty, will be glad to learn that the seed has been imported into New Zealand. A Hawkes Bay contemporary says: We learn that a packet of seeds of the Victoria Regia was brought down by Mr. Bryant in the Star of the South. These seeds are to be sent to Taupo, to be planted in the most favourable pools. The seeds were obtained by the Agent General from Kew gardens. We sincerely hope that this effort at acclimatization may be successful. The introduction of the plant will not be of any practical benefit, but as perhaps the most magnificent of the water lilies it is well worth the trouble of introducing it if only for ornamental purposes”. The Auckland newspaper continued, “Might not our society endeavour to procure seeds and make a trial with them in some of our neighbouring freshwater lakes?”.[xix]

Nothing seemed to come from the Taupo introduction, and the possibility of further importations were not reported until around 60 years later. The Timaru Herald in 1931 noted an offer of the water lily to Timaru Botanic Gardens: “The curator reported as follows:—’I am attaching letters from Mr H. H. Brown in connection with seeds of Victoria regia, and will be pleased to know what I am to do in connection with the matter. — My own opinion is that to accommodate such plants in Timaru at the present time would be very expensive, and rather ahead of the times.’— It was resolved to recommend that the offer be not accepted, but that the seeds be offered to other towns with hothouse and tank accommodation.”[xx]

In 1934 it was hoped that Christchurch Botanic Gardens would receive seeds from Germany: That year they received a large consignment of seeds of hardy trees and shrubs from the Arnold Arboretum [at Harvard University], in the USA, most not yet in cultivation in the country, forwarded on request and in exchange seeds of New Zealand plants would be sent. It was the intention of the curator of the gardens Mr McPherson, to build up the policy of such exchanges over the following twelve months. McPherson was hoping for specimens of the New Zealand sundew, which he hoped members of mountaineering clubs might be able to help procure; “The seeds are wanted to carry out an exchange with the German Botanic Gardens. It is the intention of the German authorities to send specimens of the hardy variety of the giant waterlily, Victoria Regia which has its home in the Amazon River, South America. The leaves are large enough to bear the weight of a small child.”[xxi] Nothing apparently came of this hope.

“Victoria regia, The Giant Water-Lily of the Amazon. Their leaves can support the weight of a child, being upward of ten feet in diameter”. Star (Christchurch), 19 January 1929, P 21 (Supplement)

Around 100 years after the first reports in New Zealand newspapers, and a number of false starts, the Giant Water lily was finally grown in New Zealand. In 1950 it was reported that “Victoria Regia, a giant Amazon water lily, is being grown in Auckland from seed brought from Kew Gardens, London. The seed of Victoria Regia has germinated before in New Zealand, but has never reached maturity. This seed, brought out by the new assistant director of the city, parks department, Mr. George Dean, is being carefully nursed in a heated tank in one of the propagating houses. The leaves reach a diameter of 7ft. [= 2 m], with edges which turn up 4in. to 6in. [10-15 cm]”. The report was sure to add, “They are strong enough to bear the weight of a small child”.[xxii]

As might be expected, the plants proved popular. In January 1951, a “crowd estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 filed into the Auckland Domain tropical house to see the giant water lily Victoria regina flower at the week-end. The lily, which is the first of its kind to be successfully germinated in New Zealand, started to open at 6.30 p.m. on Saturday and continued to develop throughout the night and Sunday. It was estimated by one of the attendants that an average of 150 people entered the house every five minutes between 1.30 p.m. and 7.30 p.m. on Sunday and between 4.30 p.m. and dusk on Saturday.”[xxiii] It is interesting to note the incorrect spelling here, with the plant noted as “Victoria regina” rather than “Victoria regia”, a mistake that has not been uncommon through time.

More of the country got to experience the plant in 1953. “A leaf of the Victoria Regia lily which is growing in the tropical house of the Auckland Domain has been sent to Wellington as an exhibit at the national flower show. It was six feet [1.8 m] across, and was sent by air freight. Special packing was required to ensure that the leaf arrived in good condition. It was covered with a sheet of burlap and damp moss, and then rolled in thick building paper. This container, which had a diameter of about 14 inches [=36 cm], was reinforced with battens. The parcel weighed 56 lb [25.4 kg]. The Victoria Regia lily in the domain is the only plant of its kind in the Dominion. A leaf had not previously been sent by the Auckland City Parks Department to another city”.[xxiv]

Postcard: “Domain Tropical House, Winter Gardens, Auckland”. “On the pond in the picture is the rare giant Amazonian lily, Victoria Regia”. G.B. Scott Publications, Auckland. Date unknown. Duggan collection.

Auckland Domain continued to grow the plants. In 1954, the process of moving the plant from the Domain nursey to the Winter Garden glass houses was detailed: “The biggest water lily in New Zealand, the Auckland City Council’s Victoria Regia, has been transplanted. About 12 months old, it was carried in a wheelbarrow from the Domain nursery to the tropical house in the winter gardens. Five gardeners, supervised by the council’s horticultural adviser (Mr G. F. Fillmore), were needed for the job. A native of the Amazon river area, the lily will be grown in water heated to between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit [24-29 C). It was wrapped in to keep it warm on the short journey from the nursery to the tropical house. The plant is the fourth to be grown in Auckland. It now has four leaves each about 15 inches across. Last year’s lily grew 18 flowers and 43 leaves. The flowers are pure white when they open in the evening and change to a beautiful pink the next day. They last for a day”.[xxv] They were sure to note, of course, that “By Christmas the leaves should be more than six feet in diameter and strong enough to support a small child”.

Year by year, the water lily continued to provide an attraction. In January 1955, “Nearly 4000 visitors watched the season’s first flower of the giant South American Victoria regia water lily passing through the last stages of its two-day life cycle in the Domain winter gardens yesterday. They were still coming after nightfall, and the tropical house, lit for the occasion, was kept open until late. The bloom went through a remarkable transformation in colour and shape. It was pure white when it opened at 6.15 p.m. on Sunday, and the outer petals remained cupped during the night. Yesterday the petals dropped down to water level. At 3 p.m. a faint pink tinge began to appear at the base of the flower and slowly seeped through the petals, deepening all the while. At 6.10 p.m. the inner cone of small petals began to open. At 7 o’clock the drooping petals were old rose, and the cone at the top a duller red.

This morning the flower dropped down under the water, where the seed will ripen before floating to the surface.

A second bud bobbed to the surface of the pond yesterday. It appears to be a poorer specimen, and the gardeners may decide to remove it. Last year’s plant produced a flower about once every four days. Two dozen persons were waiting for the tropical house to open at 8 a.m. yesterday. Throughout the day there was an average of 60 grouped round the lily pond.”[xxvi]

For a number of years, blooms were a regular event, with some exceptions. In 1960, it was noted that: “It became an annual attraction until two years ago, when continuous alterations to the tropical house made its care too difficult”. However, “If all goes well, the giant South American waterlily Victoria regia will bloom again in the Auckland Domain winter gardens this season. Seed now on its way to Auckland from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, will be sown in the tropical nursery at the Domain as soon as it arrives. A plant may be ready for shifting to the central pond about mid October.”[xxvii] Flowering was apparently unsuccessful, however.

In 1961, it was noted – finally using the species’ correct name – that “A seedling of the giant Amazon lily (Victoria amazonica) has been raised in the Auckland Domain nursery. It will be planted in the pond at the tropical house next month, and if it does well its short-lived but spectacular flowering cycle should take place at the end of December or in January.”[xxviii] This attempt was successful, with reports from February 1962 noting that “the giant Amazon water lily (Victoria regina amazonica) flowered on Sunday night for the first season since 1955… The creamy white petals of the first bud unfolded shortly before 7 p.m. As the flowering cycle of the nocturnal flower lasts only two days—the petals turn a deep pink on the second day—the garden was kept open until 9 pm to allow visitors to see the lily”. Interestingly, it was also noted that “This year’s plant is the first to be grown from seed raised in New Zealand”.[xxix]



[i] The Exhibition of 1851. New Zealander, 2 April 1851, P 2

[ii] Lyttleton Times, 14 February 1852, P 5

[iii] Victoria. Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 29 January 1862, P 3

[iv] Otago Daily Times, 5 October 1868, P 5

[v] Australian Telegrams. New Zealand Herald, 13 October, P 7

[vi] Australian Telegrams. Daily Southern Cross, 14 November 1868, P 6

[vii] Latest Australian News, West Coast Times, 13 August 1870, P 2

[viii] Notes by the Way. Lyttleton Times, 25 September 1871, P 3

[ix] Intercolonial News. New Zealand Times, 3 November 1874, P 3

[x] Colonist, 27 May 1893, P 4

[xi] General News. Tuapeka Times, 12 February 1870, P 3

[xii] Otago Witness, 5 March 1896, P 63

[xiii] Southland Times, 10 May 1876, P 3

[xiv] New Zealand Herald, 18 December 1880, P 3

[xv] Science Notes. Otago Witness, 10 May 1894, P 48

[xvi] Science Notes. Western Star, 5 March 1929, P 3

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Acclimitization Society. Press, 27 April 1867, P 3

[xix] New Zealand Herald, 24 July 1872, P 2

[xx] Timaru Herald, 10 November 1931, P 8

[xxi] Botanic Gardens. Star (Christchurch), 12 January 1934, P 10

[xxii] Gisborne Herald, 26 August 1950, P 6

[xxiii] Press, 23 January 1951, P 6

[xxiv] Press, 11 February 1953, P 8

[xxv] Five Men Move Water Lily. Press, 23 October 1954, P 9

[xxvi] 4000 Visitors Watch Giant Water Lily Turn Red. Press, January 1955, P 8

[xxvii] South American Waterlily. Press, 8 July 1960, P 18

[xxviii] Press, 8 September 1961, P 12

[xxix] Water Lily in Flower. Press, 8 February 1962, P 10

Hamilton’s Lake Rotoroa – “One of the Town’s Finest Assets” 

by Ruth Wackrow

Eventide. Hamilton Lake. Cartwright photo, date unknown. © 2018 University of Waikato Library. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Lake Rotoroa (Long Lake)[1] – unimaginatively referred to as ‘Hamilton Lake’ by many local residents – is a natural lake in the heart of Hamilton City, formed when the Waikato River changed course around 20,000 years ago[2]. It is a well-used recreational haven that’s popularity stretches back well over one hundred years. Today many people utilise its large destination playgrounds, sports fields, rose garden, retired steam train, and Verandah Café. People can also walk around the entirety of the lake, which includes large boardwalks on the south-western side[3].  

Prior to European colonisation of New Zealand, Māori used Lake Rotoroa for harvesting kai, where they collected kaakahi (freshwater mussels) and kooura (freshwater crayfish)[4].  

While little is recorded of the pre-European history of the lake, its development as a public amenity from the late 19th Century was widely reported in the newspapers. Initiating this, on the 17th of April 1886, it was published in the New Zealand Herald that “The Hamilton Lake, 141 acres, which lies on the borders of the borough, has just been vested, by notification in the New Zealand Gazette, as the property of the borough”, and the area became a public reserve[5]

The lake and surrounding domain were immediately put to use as a recreational area and during the late 19th Century there were various types of swimming, boating, and athletic activities held there. One of the first public events was held in January 1888, when a merry-go-round, shooting gallery, and Russian swing to launch people into the water were in action[6].  

In August 1888 one of the first tree planting events took place at the domain, which approximately 250 people attended. The first tree to be planted was a large oak, and then around 1500 pre-prepared holes were filled with a variety of different trees[7]

The Hamilton Swimming Club hosted the Waikato Anniversary Swimming Races in 1888[8] and 1889[9], which proved to be very popular. The 1888 event was attended by between 400 and 500 people. During both years, in addition to the swimming races, there were refreshment stalls, tents, a merry-go-round, flags, and boats and canoes on the water.  

A regatta held on the 30th of January 1889 was highly successful with more than 1300 people present. Rowing clubs travelled from the North Shore, Auckland, and Ngaaruawaahia. It was published in the Waikato Argus that the lake was “one of the finest waters for rowing on imaginable, and the picturesque grounds at the back provide a natural grandstand for viewing the contests” and “no place could be more suited for such a gathering”. The Hamilton Brass band played, and there was a publican booth and refreshment booths. There were also swimming races, dingy races, canoe hurdle races, and waka racing, which the public enjoyed[10].  

The Lake, Hamilton, NZ. Photo by Gaze and Co. Date unknown. FT Series Postcard. IC Duggan collection

Various other swimming and rowing competitions were held at Lake Rotoroa over the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were hosted by the Hamilton Swimming Club and the Hamilton Rowing Club[11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19].  It was reported that these events were well attended and appreciated by Hamilton’s residents.  

Volunteers from the Hamilton community cleared and burned off scrub in 1901 to make more room for recreational activities[20]

In December 1902, Mr. George Parr acquired a consignment of trout that came via train from the Waimakariri, which he released into Lake Rotoroa. It was thought that if the trout were able to reproduce, trout fishing would be a good addition to activities on the lake. However, some were doubtful that it would succeed because it had been tried unsuccessfully around 15 years prior[21]. Mr. Parr acquired more trout in 1903, this time releasing 1500 fry into the lake[22]. Nevertheless, both releases proved unsuccessful and trout were not established in Lake Rotoroa.  

Realising that trout might never be successful, in 1904 bookseller and publisher Mr. W.H. Paul decided to instead try releasing perch for the purpose of game fishing[23]. After releasing more perch in 1905[24] [25] this endeavor was found to be successful, with the fish observed to be “doing well” in 1906[26], and one was caught in 1908 of a good two-pound size[27].  In 1916 one angler caught five perch in one day, proving that the fish were well established[28]. By 1935 the stock of perch in the lake was so great that 100 were caught and given to the Auckland Acclimatisation Society[29].  

During the 1900s the Lake Domain continued to be well used during the warm months by the public, and school and community groups. The Hamilton West School picnic was held in 1904[30], and on the 8th of February 1905 the Grand Aquatic Carnival and Sports evening was held at the domain. A “brilliant and illuminated procession” marched from the railway station in Frankton to the lake where foot races, boat races, and races for children were enjoyed[31]

In 1910 one Frankton resident wrote to the Argus about their recent outing to the Lake Domain where they watched an excellent band performance. They were, however, very disappointed that the grounds had not been kept to a good standard. The gates were also locked meaning that children’s prams and go-carts needed to be lifted over the fence, and horses and buggies needed to be parked along the street, which was believed to be unnecessary as there was ample room within the domain[32]

Fireworks displays were also a favourite attraction for the public[33]. In 1910 one major display included a “realistic representation of a waterfall”, a moving butterfly, a peacock with multi-coloured feathers, and a sparkling fountain. There was also “humorous moving pictures” on a screen and the fire club swinging act of Flamos[34]

In order to “add to the attractions” at Lake Rotoroa a number of black swans[35] [36], white swans, and mallard ducks[37] were introduced, and in April 1911 a warrant under the Animals Protection Act 1908 was published in the New Zealand Gazette declaring the lake a sanctuary for both native and imported game, meaning that people were not allowed to hunt them. Signs were placed around the lake to inform the public[38]

The Lake. Hamilton, NZ. Date and photographer unknown. Ian Duggan collection.

A Boxing Day carnival was held at the lake in 1916 to fundraise for the Hamilton Beautifying Society, which had been formed in 1912. Mr. George Parr was appointed director of the carnival. He told the Beautifying Society that he wanted it to be a large event, and that he would try to arrange transport for people from Ngaaruawaahia, Horotiu and Huntly through the Waikato Shipping Company. The carnival had various attractions such as maypole dancing, swimming races, greasy boom, greasy pole, swings, skittle alley, tug-o’-war, launch trips, boating, archery, sack races, potato races, motor rides, guessing competitions, water shoot, rowing races, seesaws, a Christmas tree, refreshments, and an athletic programme[38].  

At the Hamilton Domain Board’s meeting on the 8th of November 1917, Mr. Arthur Swarbrick – the Boards first chairman, who became instrumental in the development of the lake as a community resource – spoke about how the board had “big things in view”[40].  

Born in Derby, England, Swarbrick moved to the outskirts of Hamilton, New Zealand, at the age of 25, where he began a career in farming. In 1893 he took over Mr. Hay’s legal practice and built up his own firm – Swarbrick and Swarbrick. He served the Waikato community as the first chairman of the Domain Board, first president of the Hamilton Law Society, first chancellor of St Peter’s Cathedral, choir master at St Peters Church, president of the Operatic Society, foundation member of the Hamilton Club and the Waikato Rowing Club, a master of Lodge Beta of Freemasons, and was involved with the Waikato A&P Association and the Racing Club[41] [42].  

Swarbrick believed that there were “Glorious opportunities” that would be a shame not to develop, and he intended to form a drive around the lake, and to “get things in order” within the Domain grounds. The matter of how to finance the work was also discussed at the Hamilton Domain Boards meetings, as was the fact that the Auckland Domain Board had received thousands of pounds of city funds for work in their domains, but Hamilton did not have this same source of funding. It was decided that the Board would try to bring politicians to the lake during their upcoming trip to Hamilton to discuss the matter[43]

The increasing popularity of swimming in the lake meant that the changing rooms were becoming inadequate by December 1918[44]. There were complaints that the changing sheds were “unsanitary”[45], and although the lake was lovely to swim in, the muddy floors – particularly in the women’s dressing area – were deemed unacceptable as the women’s and girl’s long dresses would drag in the mud[46]

The lake continued to attract large numbers of people, and a raft that had been purchased by the Domain Board was being so well used in 1921 that they decided to get another one[47]

The level of the water in Lake Rotoroa notably fluctuated over time[48] [49] [50], and in April 1921 the low level was becoming a real concern. Mr. Swarbrick commented that the Domain Board had received concerns about this topic in the past and that they always gave it their full attention. He said that the Railway Department used water from the lake for its engines, and that he had instructed them to build a dam in order to keep the lake at a proper level, and this had been effective. The lake level always naturally dropped in the summer and then refilled again in the winter. However, in the previous year the board elections had not taken place, a legal entity had not formed, and so they had no power to act upon people carrying out certain works which drew water from the lake and therefore seriously lowered the water level. Mr. Swarbrick and other Board members intended to visit the lake drainage area to see what might be done, and to hire surveyors to map out the lake boundary. He said that draining the lake and turning it to mud flats would be a “serious disaster to the town”[51].  

On the 3rd of August 1921 Mr. Swarbrick stated that the water from the lake was being “systematically drained off and the surface of the Lake lowered”. The Board said that there was a peat formation that next to the lake served “to retain water in the lake so long as it is not artificially drained to draw water off of the Lake”. The owners of the land in this area intended to section it off for housing and drains had been cut to dry the surface off, with more possible in the future. The combination of this private work and the Railway Departments water use was having the effect of draining the lake[52].  

At the Chamber of Commerce meeting on the 8th of August 1921, it was decided that the Hamilton Chamber would support the idea of protecting Lake Rotoroa from being drained. Mr. George Parr, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce, said older residents of Hamilton remembered the lake being many feet deeper and that they should not let private enterprise ruin the lake because it was a well-used asset especially in the summertime. The lake water was not as cold as the river, and it was safe and pleasant. Mr. A Chitty, another Chamber of Commerce member, said that in Hukanui, to the south of Hamilton, there previously was a lake where people could sail a boat, but it was drained until only a small amount of water was surrounded by a large amount of mud, which meant that the water became unapproachable. The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce decided to assist the council and the Domain Board in the matter[53]. It was decided that in order to protect the lake the Hamilton Domain Board would try to purchase the land from the private owners who were carrying out the drainage works.  

A new tea kiosk was opened on October 14th 1922[54], which proved to be very popular. A “small fleet of well-built and thoroughly safe pleasure boats” was purchased and steps at the end of the jetty were also made. Wooden grates were added to the women’s changing room floors, but it was agreed that the rooms would need to be further upgraded and enlarged for the following year because of the increasing popularity of the area. People often travelled long distances to get to the lake, including from Auckland [55]

During 1923 the gardens were enhanced, with around 700 trees planted [56] and the Lake Domain proved to be a wonderful setting for the Girl Scouts fortnight long camp in January 1923[57],the Boy Scouts Rally in October 1923[58]and the South Auckland Caledonian Societies events [59] [60] [61]

An agreement still could not be reached by 1923 between the Domain Board and the private owners of the land adjacent to the lake in order to stop the lake being drained, so the Board requested that the Government step in. The Government obliged and the land was taken under the Public Works Act[62]. A compensation claim was later made by the previous landowners, Hanna, Paterson, and Deluen of Auckland. It was found that the men were offered 1000 pounds for the land by the Board, which they rejected, and the land was then seized. The court awarded the men 1,960 pounds[63]

Although the problem of draining the lake was averted, another serious problem was taking hold within Lake Rotoroa. Weeds and rushes were beginning to take over. Mr. Swarbrick commented that the rushes were growing so rapidly because of the decrease in the water level which began years prior[64]. By 1925 the problem was so serious that safe swimming areas were marked out and notices were issued advising people where to swim[65].  The Domain Board said that the weed died down over winter and then regrew rapidly over the warmer months, and that it was not possible to cut it back unless the water was calm which hadn’t occurred for months prior[66].   

At the beginning of 1926 Mr. Swarbrick completed trials for appliances to clear the lake of weeds. He had found one to be effective enough to clear a safe swimming area. However, it required four men and a horse to operate it and was very slow. If the board was able to get hold of a motor to run the machine it would speed things up considerably. However, a lack of funding meant this was not possible[67].  

On the 28th of November 1927 Mr. Swarbrick passed away at the age of 76.  He was survived by three sons and a daughter. His wife, Adriana passed away 18 months prior to Arthur’s death[68].  

Entrance to Lake. Hamilton. NZ. Cartwright Photo. Date unknown. Ian Duggan collection.

To honour the late Mr. Swarbrick, the Domain Board decided to erect memorial gates in December 1927, due to having “closely associated with Hamilton affairs for 40 years” and had “given a great deal of his hard-earned leisure to work connected with the preservation, administration and development of Hamilton’s domain lands”. A committee was appointed to raise funds and arrange details[69], and on the 3rd of January 1930 the Swarbrick memorial archway was officially opened in front of a large crowd. The South Auckland Pipe Band performed a guard of honor and then played two songs[70]. Over the last few months of his life, Mr. Swarbrick had spent a lot of time thinking about what an appropriate entrance to the Lake Domain could be. The stone archway was said to be fitting because it was not a barrier to the Lake Domain, but rather an open door to welcome people. Two marble slabs were placed in the archway. One reads, “this entrance is dedicated to the memory of the late Arthur Swarbrick”, and the other “Chairman, Hamilton Domain Board 1913-1921, 1925-1927. If you seek a further monument, look within”[71]. The Swarbrick memorial archway is still a great feature at the entrance to the Hamilton Lake Domain today, though no longer used for vehicular traffic as it once was.  

Swarbrick Memorial Archway, Photo by Ruth Wackrow 

The lake weed was still a major problem in July 1929, so the Domain Board decided to lease a weed cutter from the Government. A marine saw that they had used earlier was deemed not effective[72]. In February 1929, Lake and drainage expert Mr. B M Finlay visited Lake Rotoroa and gave his opinion that the lake weed could not be controlled effectively by cutting it; the roots must be pulled out[73]. Despite this, in October 1929 the Domain Board purchased a weed cutting launch for 350 pounds[74].  

New Weed- Cutting Machine Employed on The Hamilton Lake. New Zealand Herald, 10 May 1930, p8

By January 1931 a large amount of work had been completed at the Domain. New first class changing sheds had been erected and the area around them had been tarred and sanded, miniature golf links had been formed, lawns extended, additions to the boat sheds made, weeping willows were planted, and the troublesome lake weed was well under control. The beautiful spot was extremely popular for recreation for people from all over the district. The Lake Domain was “undoubtedly one of the town’s finest assets”[75].  

More work was undertaken in December 1931. Old trees were cleared, new trees were planted, the road was improved and fences were built. Flowers were also planted including red begonias, lobelia and blue ageratums[76].  

By 1933 the lake had reached its maximum level and overflowed its banks on the western side[77]

In early July 1935 bulbs that had been planted on the Swarbrick memorial began to bloom, and the 30,000 bulbs that had been planted around the lake followed soon after[78]. A nursery that had been formed on the Domain grounds held 1300 native trees, 500 hydrangeas, 100 lawsonia shrubs, and six Norfolk Pines 79].  

In October 1936 another prominent member of the Domain Board passed away, Mr. W. H. Paul. Mr. Paul had been president of the Hamilton Beautifying Society for 15 years and also served as Chairman of the Domain Board. It was said that there was “no man who has done as much as Mr. Paul to make Hamilton more beautiful”[80]. A Norfolk Pine was planted in his memory in order to “keep the memorial of Mr. Paul evergreen”[81]

Despite increasing financial commitments, the Hamilton Domain Board continued improving the Lake Domain throughout 1937 and beyond. Improvements to the golf links and kiosk were made, additional seats and benches were provided, the changing area was improved, around 500 native and imported trees and shrubs were planted, and the lake was “freer of weeds than it has been for the past 15 years”[82].  

Despite best efforts for many decades to continue clearing the lake weed, it was a persistent problem and in 1959 11,000 liters of a sodium arsenite formulation was used as a herbicide in Lake Rotoroa, meaning that 5,500kg of arsenic was supplied to the lake. Copper, lead, cadmium and zinc also currently enter the lake via stormwater runoff. The report “Significance of Arsenic in Sediments of Lake Rotoroa (Hamilton Lake)” 2011, showed that Under the Resource Management Amendment Act (2005), the level of arsenic in the sediments of the Lake Rotoroa lakebed does meet the criteria of being “contaminated land”. However, the risk to the health of recreational users and workers on the lake is deemed to be low due to the “infrequent nature and short durations of typical exposures”[83].  

High bacteria levels in the water have unfortunately made the lake unsafe to swim in since 1984[84]. Although swimming in Lake Rotoroa is not currently safe, a number of other recreational activities do take place on the water including dragon boating, waka ama, yachting and boat racing[85].  

The Hamilton Lake Domain now also has two large playgrounds, one on the eastern side and one at Innes Common on the western side. The eastern side of the Lake Domain has a large ‘destination playground’, which includes water play, a toddlers play area, Verandah Café, a retired steam train suitable for climbing on, and the beautiful rose gardens that were formed in 1952 and still bloom very well today[86]. To the west, Innes Common has the Gallagher Hockey Centre, cricket fields, a parkour training area, half basketball court, barbeques and swings[87]. To the entire lake domain remains an extremely popular recreational destination especially during summer.  

Rose Garden, Hamilton Lake Domain. Photo by Ruth Wackrow 

[1] [2] Lowe, D.J. 2014. How the lake [Lake Rotoroa] was formed: influence of the ancestral Waikato River. In:Taylor, J. Hamilton Lake – City Playground. Published by Jeff Taylor, Hamilton, pp. 6-13.

[3] Hamilton Lake Domain Destination Playground. Hamilton City Council  

[4] Lake Rotoroa: an Ancient Lake Makes a Comeback. Elton Rikihana Smallman. 10 February 2016. Stuff. 

[5] Waikato District News. New Zealand Herald, 17 April 1886, Page 7  

[6] Page 3 Advertisements Column 2. Waikato Times, 28 January 1888, Page 3

[7] Tree Planting at The Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 18 August 1888, Page 2

[8] Aquatic Sports on The Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 31 January 1888, Page 2 

[9] Waikato Times, 31 January 1889, Page 2

[10] Hamilton Regatta. Waikato Argus, 1 January 1898, Page 3 

[11] Athletic Sports. New Zealand Herald, 22 February 1890, Page 6 

[12] Untitled. Auckland Star, 21 February 1891, Page 4 

[13] Page 3 Advertisements Column 3. Waikato Times, 9 January 1892, Page 3 

[14] Page 3 Advertisements Column 3. Waikato Times, 26 January 1893, Page 3 

[15] Hamilton Rowing Club. Waikato Times, 10 November 1904, Page 2 

[16] Untitled. Waikato Argus, 14 December 1904, Page 2 

[17] Hamilton Regatta. Waikato Times, 30 January 1904, Page 3 

[18] The Waikato Argus, 23 March 1905, Page 2 

[19] Hamilton Rowing Club. Waikato Times, 27 November 1905, Page 2 

[20] Waikato Argus, 29 October 1901, Page 2 

[21] Waikato Argus, Volume XIII, Issue 1438, 20 December 1902, Page 2 

[22] Local and General. Waikato Times, Volume LV, Issue 6260, 27 October 1903, Page 2

[23] Perch for The Hamilton Lake. Waikato Argus, 14 May 1904, Page 2 

[24] Waikato Argus, 16 September 1905, Page 2 

[25] Auckland Acclimatisation Society. New Zealand Herald, 11 October 1905, Page 7 

[26] Angling in The Waikato. Waikato Argus, 20 October 1906, Page 2 

[27] Waikato Anglers’ Club. Waikato Argus, 19 August 1908, Page 2 

[28] Local and General. Waikato Times, 14 January 1916, Page 4

[29] News of The Day. Auckland Star, 11 April 1935, Page 6

[30] Local and General. Waikato Times, 17 December 1904, Page 2 

[31] Local and General. Waikato Times, 7 February 1905, Page 2 

[32] Hamilton Lake Reserve. Waikato Argus, 17 January 1910, Page 2 

[33] Waikato Argus, 21 December 1911, Page 2

[34] Fireworks Display. Waikato Argus, 3 February 1910, Page 2

[35] Waikato Argus, 11 August 1911, Page 2  

[36] Hamilton Borough Council. Waikato Argus, 10 December 1910, Page 2 

[37] Hamilton Reserves. New Zealand Herald, 8 January 1924, Page 9

[38] Hamilton Borough Council. Waikato Argus, 28 April 1911, Page 2

[39] Boxing Day Carnival. Waikato Times, 5 December 1916, Page 4 

[40] Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 9 November 1917, Page 4

[41] Veteran Lawyer. Sun (Auckland), 29 November 1927, Page 11

[42] The Dead Tell Tales: Arthur Swarbrick. Lyn Williams. Apr 14, 2015 

[43] Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 9 November 1917, Page 4 

[44] Local and General. Waikato Times, 28 December 1918, Page 4

[45] Insanitary Bathing Shed. Waikato Times, 5 January 1922, Page 6 

[46] Public Opinion. Waikato Times, 7 October 1922, Page 2

[47] Local and General. Waikato Times, 7 December 1921, Page 4

[48] Untitled. Waikato Independent, 25 February 1908, Page 4 

[49] Local and General News. Waikato Times, 6 November 1918, Page 4

[50] Lowering of The Lake. Waikato Times, 16 March 1921, Page 7

[51] Crashing the Lake. Waikato Times, 6 April 1921, Page 5

[52] Hamilton Domain Board. Waikato Times, 3 August 1921, Page 6

[53] Protect the Lake. Waikato Times, 9 August 1921, Page 4 

[54] Local and General. Waikato Times, 4 October 1922, Page 4

[55] Improving Hamilton. Waikato Times, 7 February 1923, Page 6

[56] Weeds in a Lake. New Zealand Herald, 7 February 1924, Page 11

[57] Girl Scouts in Camp. Auckland Star, 4 January 1923, Page 4

[58] Boy Scouts’ Rally. New Zealand Herald, 23 October 1923, Page 8

[59] Caledonian Sports. New Zealand Herald, 4 January 1928, Page 12

[60] Caledonian Sports. Auckland Star, 4 January 1929, Page 12

[61] Local and General. Waikato Times, 25 November 1929, Page 4

[62] Hamilton Lake. Auckland Star, 1 December 1923, Page 13 

[63] A Compensation Claim. Thames Star, 29 March 1926, Page 4

[64] Rushes in The Lake. Waikato Times, 7 March 1923, Page 4

[65] Page 6 Advertisements Column 3. Waikato Times, 21 November 1925, Page 6

[66] Hamilton Lake. Waikato Times, 21 November 1925, Page 8

[67] Weeds at The Lake. Waikato Times, 20 January 1926, Page 2

[68] The Dead Tell Tales: Arthur Swarbrick. Lyn Williams. Apr 14, 2015 

[69] Late Mr. A. Swarbrick. New Zealand Herald, 8 December 1927, Page 12

[70] Late Mr. A. Swarbrick. New Zealand Herald,3 January 1930, Page 10 

[71] Hamilton Domain. Sun (Auckland), 3 January 1930, Page 6 

[72] Weeds on Hamilton Lake. New Zealand Herald, 4 July 1929, Page 13 

[73] How Is the Lake Fed? Waikato Times, 9 February 1929, Page 7

[74] Hamilton Domain Board. New Zealand Herald, 3 October 1929, Page 11

 [75] A Fine Asset. Waikato Times, 27 January 1931, Page 6 

[76] Hamilton Domains. Waikato Times, 24 December 1931, Page 8

[77] Hamilton Lake Level. New Zealand Herald, 6 July 1933, Page 13 

[78] Local and General. Waikato Times, 4 July 1935, Page 6

[79] Local and General. Waikato Times, 9 October 1935, Page 6

[80] Tree as Tribute. New Zealand Herald, 15 August 1936, Page 15

[81] Enduring Memorial. Waikato Times, 14 August 1936, Page 9 

[82] Hamilton Lake. New Zealand Herald, 31 December 1937, Page 13

[83] [84] Significance of Arsenic in Sediments of Lake Rotoroa (Hamilton Lake) 

[85] Hamilton Lake 

[86] Rose Garden at Hamilton Lake 

[87] Innes Common Playground. Hamilton City Council.