Charles Edgecombe: Custodian 1896 – 1905

Charles Edgecombe was born in New Plymouth in 1843 and was the son of William and Mary Edgecombe, who had arrived in New Plymouth aboard the William Bryan on 30 March 1841.

In his “Pukekura Park, its Origin and Development. A brief History” (Taranaki Herald 4 August 1916), Robert Clinton Hughes had this to say of Charles Edgecombe: “… Mr. Charles Edgecombe, a gardener had a good knowledge of native trees. He served the board for some years.”

Following Claffey’s dismissal the board advertised the vacant position of Custodian. The Taranaki Herald on 7 March 1896 reported: “There were fifteen applications for the position of custodian of the Recreation Grounds. The names of Messrs C. Edgecombe and H. Tiplady were selected from the list, and the former was finally given the appointment. The salary is £1 5s a week with cottage, ground and firewood.” Edgecombe commenced duties on the 4th of April 1896.

During Charles Edgecombe’s time as Custodian some of the main works were the development/establishment and maintenance of plant nurseries in the park, building of the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee drinking fountain in 1897, the creation and development of Manhattan Island in 1899, the formation of the Vogeltown Walk (Scanlan Walk) in 1901, the redevelopment and enlargement of the sports ground between 1900 and 1908, the establishment of fish ponds (Hatchery Lawn) by the Acclimatisation Society for raising trout in 1902 (the Acclimatisation Society paid Edgecome and assistant custodian Robert Mace to feed the fry), the building of the Wiggins Memorial on Monument Hillside in 1903 and the path to the southern boundary of the park (Rhododendron Dell), and construction of the original Tea House in 1905.

Edgecombe went on a number of plant collecting trips on behalf of the Recreation Grounds Board, as reported in the newspapers (Taranaki Herald, 6 July 1896): “The custodian reported on the work during the month, which consisted principally of planting out. The Board decided to give effect to the suggestion of the custodian to work a couple of days at Ratanui for the collection of native trees and shrubs. An express will be employed to bring the collection to the Grounds. Mr N. King was thanked for his donation of native shrubs from Brooklands.” (Taranaki Herald, 7 September 1896): “The Custodian’s report was read and discussed. The report stated that during the month some 300 native plants had been set in the nursery bed – 200 from the Meeting of the Waters and the balance from Brooklands. The overseer was glad to say that all these are looking well, owing to the puddling treatment, not one of them having turned a hair. About 50 trees of a larger growth were planted out during the month.” (Taranaki Herald, 1 September 1899): “The custodian of the recreation Grounds has just returned from a visit to Tarata, where he has been collecting ferns and shrubs for the further beautification of the grounds. He speaks in appreciative terms of the assistance rendered him by Messrs Clifford and Hine.” (Taranaki Herald, 15 October 1900): “North Egmont Forest Board – Permission was granted the Recreation Grounds Board to take from the Forest reserve two loads of plants.” (Taranaki Herald, 19 August 1901): “In his report to the Recreation Grounds Board the custodian referring to his recent visit to Raglan stated: – ‘I brought back with me a quantity of Mangeo, Tanekaha, and Wharangi plants; also some specimens of native heath and the umbrella fern together with a quantity of Kowhai and Manuka seed’.”

Charles also made another plant collecting trip for the board to Raglan, even after having ceased being the custodian, as reported in the Taranaki Herald on 16 September 1907: “Messrs Edgecombe and Betteridge, who have been to the Raglan district for the purpose of collecting trees and shrubs, the former for the Recreation Grounds and the latter for Mr Newton King … a very nice lot of plants have been brought back.”

Edgecombe’s most notable planting would be on Manhattan Island at the south end of the Main Lake, which was reported in the Taranaki Herald on 3 June 1899 Recreation Grounds Board – “The Custodian’s report was read. He stated that he had completed the large island (known to some as Manhattan Island); the borders have been planted with native specimens from the grounds nursery stock, and the central part – a diameter of forty feet – has been sown in grass, a well-grown maire standing in the centre. The men are now engaged laying out and planting a piece of ground near the work just completed. Under Mr Skinner’s supervision a plot of grass, about eighty feet in diameter, has been pegged off for use as a picnic ground; surrounding this will be a narrow border of shrubs. The Custodian was instructed to spend a few days in the Ngatimaru County for the purpose of collecting native trees and shrubs.” (Tarata area.) It is possible, maybe even likely, that some of the larger trees existing today on Manhattan Island – such as kahikatea, matai and rimu – date from Edgecombe’s plantings.

The horticulture skills of Charles Edgecombe were also recognised in the wider community with his involvement with the Scenery Preservation Society. The Taranaki Herald on 11 August 1900 reported about the most recent meeting of the Recreation Grounds Board: “The custodian reported that a good deal of planting had been carried out during the month, 200 native trees being put down around the site of the old maze, and another 100, supplied by the Scenery Preservation Society, had been planted on the seaward face of Marsland Hill.” A few weeks later the Taranaki Herald (on 24 August 1900) published the annual report of the Scenery Preservation Society. Within the annual report was an item about the recent Arbor Day: “The society’s efforts were confined to the planting out of Marsland Hill. A valuable gift of native shrubs and trees was received from the Recreation Grounds Board who allowed us the services of their custodian (Mr C. Edgecombe) for the planting out of same.”

Ian Hutchinson