Robert Mace: Custodian 1905 – 1907

Robert Hyde Mace was born in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal on 10 November 1851, the son of Francis Thomas Mace and Isabella Broughton. The Mace family arrived in New Plymouth on 2 December 1852, on the sailing ship St Michael, and settled at Omata.

In his “Pukekura Park, its Origin and Development. A brief History” (Taranaki Herald 4 August 1916), Robert Clinton Hughes had this to say of Robert Mace: “…. Robert Mace, a gardener who also had a good knowledge of native trees. He resigned due to deafness.”

Robert Mace first became an employee of the Recreation Grounds Board as assistant custodian. The Taranaki Herald 6 March 1897 in a report of a meeting of the Recreation Grounds Board the previous day included an item about an assistant to the custodian: “The chairman, Secretary, and Overseer were appointed a sub-committee to call for applications and appoint an assistant to the custodian at a wage of £1 per week.” In the Taranaki Herald on March 16 1897, the decision of the sub-committee and board was reported: “The Recreation Grounds Board has appointed Mr. R. H. Mace assistant caretaker of the grounds.” The need for an assistant came about because the committee that had overseen the development of the original sportsground had been dissolved in February 1897 and the ground had come back under the control of the Recreation Grounds Board, which obviously would have meant an increased workload for the Custodian.

The small nature of the New Plymouth area at this time, and people probably knowing each other or being aware of one another, may have helped Robert’s prospects. Robert Mace was the brother of Captain Francis Mace who owned a property named Wairau at Oakura, was obviously already friendly with members of the board and had offered plants for the grounds, as the Taranaki Herald on 12 May 1893 shows: “So many seedlings of all kinds have come up that Captain Mace kindly invited the Recreation Grounds Board to send out some of its members to select any they thought useful. Mr T. K. Skinner, the Chairman of the Board and another member went out on Thursday and arrangements have been made for sending out an express which will return laden with treasures of all sorts, including also hardy flowering shrubs and creepers from all parts of the world, with which the garden adjoining the plantation is well stocked.” The thanks of the board for the donated plants was reported in the Taranaki Herald on 11 July 1893.

Another extended family connection may also have possibly helped. On 23 April 1895 an advertisement was placed in the Taranaki Herald by Mr F. H. Arden, requesting plants for the park. Ficus macrophylla was amongst the plants requested. A few weeks later, working bees took place on the 9 and 16 May 1895 and it is likely that the Ficus had been received and planted on one or other of these dates. Arden had been employed by the board since April 1893 to plan and oversee plantings in the park. While the source of the Ficus macrophylla is uncertain, there is a possibility that it could have come from Arden’s brother-in-law Captain Mace, who had this species on his property at Oakura and may have had a spare. Captain Mace planted his Ficus macrophylla in 1865.

Robert Mace subsequently became custodian in 1905, following the resignation of Charles Edgecombe. At the August meeting of the board he was placed in the role temporarily and was confirmed as custodian at the next board meeting on Thursday 7 September, as reported in the Taranaki Herald on 8 September 1905: “Mr Mace has been appointed custodian of the grounds, and applications will be called for an assistant.” The board subsequently met again on Tuesday 12 September, at which meeting a new assistant was decided upon, as reported in the Taranaki Herald on 13 September 1905: “At a meeting of the Recreation Ground Board, held on Tuesday evening, Mr. W. Pycroft jun., was appointed assistant caretaker out of fourteen applications.”

During Robert Mace’s time as Custodian some of the main works were the completion of the redevelopment and enlargement of the sports ground between 1900 and 1908 (especially drainage, creation of the western terraces and seating), gorse and wattle control, two new bridges built over or near the waterfall (waterwheel site), the installation of a marble tablet with ‘Grounds Benefactors’ names inscribed, and the planning and commencement of the Main Lake’s serpentine project.

Mace was involved with significant planting programmes in both 1906 and 1907, which added to the range of plants to be seen in the park. In September 1906, Mace filed a report for the Grounds Board Chairman outlining that year’s plantings, which was reported in the Taranaki Herald on 28 September 1906: “The Custodian of the Recreation Grounds has reported to the Chairman the planting out of the following shrubs during the season just ended; Kahikatea 130, Totara 200, Ramarama 40, Rimu 30, Hinau 8, Maire 10, Kowhai 20, Manuka 50, Tawhiri 20, Tarata 15, Rata 6, Lacebark 10, Koromiko 15,Matipou 10, Miscellaneous native shrubs, 16 sorts, 151, Tree Ferns 40, Paratawhiti Fern 10, Mountain Toi 22, Tree flax 12, Flax various, 50, Ribbon Grass 15, Australian Gums 10, Arum Lily (clumps) 130; also 2200 young native trees planted in the nurseries.” While it is not clear where these were planted it is possible, considering some of the plants listed, that some of them may well have been on Monument Hillside and Totara Hillside, carrying on from the 1895 Arbor Day.

The following year, Robert Mace also furnished a report on the planting season. It was reported in the Taranaki Herald on 19 September 1907: “During the planting season just ended, Mr Mace the custodian of the Recreation Grounds and his assistant have set out in permanent positions a total of 540 trees and shrubs. These comprise 250 in connection with the new entrance from Gilbert Street, 50 at the John Street entrance, 130 in the newly designed belt along the Carrington Street frontage and 110 in other parts of the Grounds. As the result of Mr Edgecombe’s recent expedition to Raglan-Waitetuna country 390 trees, shrubs and other plants have been transferred to the Grounds, mostly in the nurseries. These comprise about twelve sorts of trees not met with in Taranaki, including some fine celery-topped pines. These trees number altogether about 340. There are 45 ferns of new sorts and 5 native tois or grasses.”

Robert Mace resigned towards the end of 1907. The annual report of the Recreation Grounds Board Trustees for the year ending 31 March 1908, published in the Taranaki Herald on 22 April 1908, in one part mentions the resignation of Mace as custodian: “Towards the end of the year Mr R. H. Mace, who had long been employed in the Park and had been custodian for three years, resigned his position owing to an infirmity, and the Board had placed on record its appreciation of his faithful and efficient services.”

Given the often short supply of money that the Recreation Grounds Board had for developing the park, it is without doubt that the first five Custodians/Curators who made a valuable contribution toward the board’s vision. The sheer amount of development in the first 30 or so years of Pukekura Park’s life is truly astounding. The legacy of fine bones created by the board and Custodians has lasted and aged well. Long live that legacy.

Ian Hutchinson