General news

Thomas Cawthron, Nelson Provincial Museum FN Jones collection
11 October 2017

Celebrating a generous Nelsonian – Thomas Cawthron

Science is alive and well in Nelson – and thanks are due to Thomas Cawthron, who died just over 100 years ago – on 8 October 1915.

Through life Thomas Cawthron had excelled at making money; death provided an opportunity to gift it. He left instructions that the residue of his estate – equivalent to around $115m today – be used to erect and maintain an institute devoted to science and technology. This was duly done and Cawthron Institute has grown from five scientists in 1919 to around 220 today.

To mark his death around 50 Cawthron Institute staff and trustees took the opportunity to walk, cycle or run to Thomas Cawthron’s gravestone at Wakapuaka cemetery.

Cawthron staff on their way to Thomas Cawthron's gravestone

Cawthron Institute Trust Board Chair Bob Dickinson says that, “Thomas Cawthron’s legacy to Nelson goes much wider than the Institute. Thomas Cawthron had amassed a substantial fortune through interests in mining, shipping and well-placed investments during the second half of the nineteenth century. After retiring in 1884, he began thinking about ways to use this money for good.”

Quietly, Cawthron helped many individuals suffering hardship, and contributed to relief funds, church organisations and educational endeavours. He also made more public donations. Cawthron's appreciation of culture is reflected in gifts of money towards a library, museum, the Nelson School of Music, and its organ, and the impressive granite steps leading to Nelson Cathedral.

Cawthron showed his care for others through gifts to Nelson's Public Hospital, the Nurses Home, and extending the chain-links on Rocks Road (to enhance safety). Finally, his environmental interest was reflected in gifting the 1000ha Cawthron Park in the head of the Maitai and Roding catchments. These earlier gifts to the city were worth around $12m in today's terms.

The Cawthron observatory telescope is part of Thomas Cawthron's wider legacy

The walk to Cawthron’s gravestone coincided with the start of the Institute’s “RACE” season; RACE stands for Rewarding Active Cawthron Employees. Cawthron Institute has an active workplace wellness programme, which supports staff to achieve healthy, happy, and productive lives.

Cawthron Institute’s Health and Safety Advisor, Jessica Trott, says “Cawthron’s biggest resource is its people. It’s important to us that we provide a workplace that encourages and sustains positive physical and mental health.”

Interestingly, one important way to wellbeing is to give: your time, words and presence, as well as money. Thomas Cawthron is an outstanding example of someone who gave generously of all these things.

You may choose to follow his leadership and create your own legacy. You can support science and the environment through the Cawthron Foundation, or contribute to another charity that is dear to your heart.