Photo credit: Thomas Cawthron. Nelson Provincial Museum, F N Jones Collection: 309831.
In 1902 Thomas Cawthron, a 69 year old bachelor, kept an appointment with lawyers in London to make his final Will and Testament. It was a timely move as he had unpredictable health and neither his father nor brothers had survived beyond the age of 55.
Thomas Cawthron was an astute and clever businessman who had given much thought to his will over several years. It was the most far-reaching document he would ever sign as it not only determined the future of his considerable wealth (amassed through trade, shipping & investment activity since arriving in NZ as a 15 year old), but also set the stage for the future of scientific and industrial research in New Zealand for decades to come. Just before leaving on his last trip to England, Cawthron is reported to have asked his very good friend Joseph H. Cock,
If you had a large sum of money to expend for the benefit and advancement of Nelson, how would you spend it?”
Cock suggested three alternatives, favouring a research institute, but aside from that, no further discussion took place.
By the time of Cawthron’s death on 8th October 1915, Nelson had long been a recipient of his philanthropy.
He began sharing his wealth in the 1880’s and, from 1899, his gifts to the public increased in substance, frequency and range reflecting the breadth of his interests. This included donations to help set up the Nelson School of Music, Nelson’s new public hospital, and first Nurses’ home. He funded an extension to the chain links on Rocks Road and the granite steps and landings to Nelson’s Cathedral at the top of Trafalgar St. In 1913, recognising the importance of conservation, he donated 2,500 acres of land on the edge of Nelson, to the City for the purposes of establishing a sanctuary for native flora and fauna. He also commissioned investigations into establishing an astronomical observatory – one of several public projects contemplated at the time of his death.
Cawthron’s will specified that, while numerous gifts were to be left to individuals, the balance was to be kept in trust to establish and maintain an industrial and technical institute and museum in Nelson, to be called the Cawthron Institute. Known to dislike the limelight, and with an aversion to publicity, the request to have an institute named after him was unlikely to have arisen from vanity but rather from a desire to keep the Cawthron name alive in Nelson. It took several years of planning and the Institute was officially opened in 1921.
In 2015, the Cawthron Institute is an outstanding legacy to a generous yet humble man.