Early Nelson College


Fire, earthquake and a Nobel laureate

Nelson College was established in 1856 with high hopes that Nelson would become  the ‘Eton of the South’.

Nelson college lithograph

Nelson College. Principal's Residence on the left. Copy of a sketch of Nelson College by Alfred Domett in 1861. Nelson Historical Society Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Collection

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. The early settlers were angry and frustrated that due to a lack of land sales and funds,  the New Zealand Company did not provide  the promised £15,000 for the construction of a college as promised.1

“But all this has proved a dream. Nine years have slipped away nine years of momentous account to youthful minds deprived of that training and instruction upon which their after characters as men so much depend."2

Finally the British Government assumed responsibility for the Company’s affairs and £28,000 was allocated for the establishment of a college.The Rev John Charles Bagshaw was appointed to enrol pupils and organise a school,  and the first school opened  in a house in Manuka Street on Monday April 7, 1856.4

“Our head master, Mr. Bagshaw, has had a very arduous task to perform.  He has had a most heterogeneous mass of materials to operate upon lads varying in age from eight or nine to more than twice that age, and differing as widely in their attainments and previous training.”5

Nelson College 1887

A Nelson College school photograph from 1887 in front of the first school, later destroyed by fire. Scholarship pupil, Ernest Rutherford is pictured in this photograph, ninth from the left in the third from the front row. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

Architect William Beatson was engaged to design a college building which reminded the school’s governors of ‘dear old England’.6  The successful tender for about £24,000 was won by Nelson building firm, Robertson Brothers.7

Nelson College. 1887 rutherford

Ernest Rutherford - in the 1887 school photo

“Scattered around, his Excellency would behold a material (timber) which they were accustomed to despise, constituting it as frail and perishable, when compared with brick and stone, but in this country it was practically superior, the liability to earthquakes forbidding the use of materials which, although more durable, were yet so easily disjointed by shocks of those dire visitations, and in their downfall so dangerous to life, Beatson told Governor General Gore-Browne at the laying of the Foundation Stone on 7 December 1859.8

In October 1861, 49 pupils moved to the new building on the Waimea Road site  where the College is still located.  There were eight boarders- a necessity with the scattered population through Nelson and the Waimea.By 1900 there were 138 boys on the roll, 54 of whom were boarders.10

“The Nelson College, situate about a mile from the centre of the town, on the Waimea road, is decidedly the most extensive institution of the kind in the colony. The building is in the pure Elizabethan style of architecture….and well ventilated school rooms, Masters' and Matrons' apartments, Class Rooms, &c, occupy the ground floor. In the upper story are situated the pupils' bed rooms and those of the officials of the institution,” wrote a traveller in 1862.11

Nelson College began life as a private school, but some scholarships were available: “…. where the attainment of a boy is of a superior character, as a further encouragement to learning, there is a chance of obtaining one of the four scholarships of £25 per annum that have been offered by the Trustees.”12 Ernest Rutherford entered as an Education Board scholar from Havelock In 1887.13   

Nelson College In the gym

Boys in the school gymnasium around 1900. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

In 1901, Richard Seddon’s Labour Government vowed to make secondary education more attainable to the general population. The Nelson College Council didn’t take kindly to the suggested changes but, by December 1902, the College accepted state funding and became a state school.13

Nelson College fire

A painter’s blow lamp started a fire which burnt down the wooden school in 1904. A lack of readily available water was always a problem in early New Zealand and the school burnt to the ground. Nelson Historical Society Collection/Nelson Provincial Museum Collection

On 7 December 1904, the 45th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of Beatson’s wooden building, a painter using a blow lamp started a fire which burnt down the school. Many remembered the architect’s comments 45 years earlier that the college had but one enemy to fear - fire.

The next day, school reopened in the School of Music and the Bishop’s School and classes were held in various halls around the town for the next two years.  New plans for a brick building were drawn up and the college reassembled in its new home at the beginning of Term 1 1907.13

Nelson College sports day 1920

School sports day 1920: parents watched from the front of the second college building. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

More than 300 Old Boys celebrated the college’s jubilee in December 1906 combined with the opening of the new building. The  Hon. Robert McNab (Minister of Lands) spoke of the success of the college. “Its pupils were to be found in literature, law, and medicine; in agricultural, commercial, and industrial undertakings, while some such as Professor Rutherford were distinguished in science.”14

Nelson College earthquake .

The 1929 Murchison earthquake brought down the clock tower with the horrified school watching as a boy ran just ahead of a great tumbling block of the tower. When he jumped sideways off the steps onto the field, a great cheer went up from the crowd. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

The fine new building constructed from brick and stone was very similar in style to the original wooden building.  On 17 June 1929, Nelson experienced the severest earthquake in its history.  The boys raced outdoors as chimneys and windows crashed down.  The College’s clock stopped at 10.20am. When the rocking and shaking was at its height, the clock tower broke apart and the front of the tower collapsed blocking the main entrance through which boys had poured a few seconds before. No lives were lost, the wooden outbuildings remained intact but the grand building was destroyed.15

Nelson College had to face rebuilding for a third time.  Temporary classrooms were erected in the grounds.  An expanded layout including two new boarding houses: Barnicoat and Rutherford were planned.  The new school, costing £43,000  was built to withstand earthquake and fire. Opened on 12 October, 1942, this College building continues to provide good service to Nelson College to the present day.16


Nelson College’s purpose-built Scriptorium has papers, books, artworks  and memorabilia relating to the school’s long history and its pupils. You can visit the Scriptorium by contacting:

  • David Robertson: Museum/ Scriptorium Manager/ Archivist: 027 775-7872
  • Gina Fletcher: Nelson College Old Boys Association Liaison, 03 548-3099 ext825


Sources used in this story

  1. Nelson [From the Nelson Examiner, November 23.] (1850, November 30) New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian, p.2
  2. Nelson
  3. Local intelligence (1856, December 24) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.2
  4. The Nelson College old boys' register, 1856-2006 : comprising a list of all pupils and teachers who joined the College during its one hundred and fifty years. Nelson: Nelson Old Boys' Association, p 547
  5. McKay, G (1955, Nov ) The lands of Nelson College. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society. 1(1):p.10-12
    Local intelligence (1856, December 24) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p.2
  6. The Nelson College old boys' register, p 552
  7. The Nelson College old boys' register, p 559 
  8. Laying the foundation stone of Nelson College (1859, December 10) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, p. 3
  9. The Nelson College old boys' register, p550
  10. The Nelson College old boys' register, p 557
  11. Pencillings by the way, from Dunedin to Auckland (1862, May 6) Hawke's Bay Herald, p.5
  12. Correspondence. Nelson Collegiate School (1857, October 31), Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle. p.3
  13. The Nelson College old boys' register, p 556-559
  14. Nelson College Jubilee, Nelson, December 27 (1907, January 2) Otago
  15. Dunstan, M. (2006) Nelson College : images of an era. Nelson [N.Z.] : Nelson College Old Boys Association, p67
  16. The Nelson College old boys' register, p 569-574

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