Thomas Horton: Curator 1924 – 1949

Thomas Horton was born on the 18th of October 1867, in Tysoe, Warwickshire, England. He came to New Zealand with his family in 1874 aboard the sailing ship the Crusader, during the voyage he celebrated his seventh Birthday. The family settled in Rangiora.

He married his first wife, Sarah in November 1888 and they had nine children, six boys and three girls. Unfortunately, Sarah died in 1917. He remarried at New Plymouth in 1931 his second wife May. They had one son, Warwick. Horton by then was in his mid-sixties.

He made his entrance into the nursery business at the age of 11 when he started a 7-year apprenticeship with W.E. Ivory (Currently Riverside Horticulture) nurseryman Rangiora. During his apprenticeship he attended night school conducted by Mr. Elderton an eminent English scholar, receiving his principal botanical and general education. As a young man he played the Cornet in the salvation Army brass band and was band master for a while.

When he was 21, for health reasons he accepted a position of foreman at John Goddard’s nursery Havelock North. Later, at the age of 27 he accepted a job as manager of Fernleigh Nurseries at Mangatainoka, near Pahiatua, where his job was to establish an orchard on newly felled bush. He needed to clear stumps, level the land and plant. Though hard work it was satisfying. But after three years he was given notice to cease operations, with the company still owing him several hundred pounds. Horton with a family of three children was struggling to make ends meet so ended up doing odd jobs, gardening and pruning etc.

Then he had some good luck, a friend offered to sell him 2 acres of newly felled bush, on easy terms. This was on the 40-mile bush at Pahiatua close to where a railway station was going to be built. Also close by was a railway yard full of thousands of Tōtara sleepers which had to be adzed and bored. Horton put in a price for doing this and spent many months working 8 hours a day doing this and then four hours each evening stumping his land. When his land was ready, he planted vegetable which he sold to the many railway workers. After two years he had paid for his land and bought a further five acres.

A chance encounter one day with Prime Minister, Richard Seddon while on his land stumping would prove very fortuitous. Seddon after seeing how industrious he was offered to help him in any way he could. Before embarking on a trip to Australia, Seddon gave Horton a letter of introduction which opened up many doors. Seddon insisted he see the premiers of the states he visited which proved very fruitful.

In 1898, when he set up “Premier Nurseries” Pahiatua, his family of children had grown to five. The nursery grew large quantities of hedge and shelter trees with 75,000 plants being advertised, but needed to expand to keep up with demand. In 1902 he was advertised 600,000 plants. Horton was a prolific advertiser, and in the six years from opening Premier Nurseries, he posted more than 3000 substantial newspaper advertisements.

By 1905 he had 24 acres, employed 28 men and in the same year he purchased 20 acres of the famous Frimley Estate near Hastings where he established Horton’s Frimley Nurseries whilst also maintaining his business at Pahiatua. By 1907 he had 85 acres, not only was his business and staff growing rapidly but also his global reputation. By 1910 he employed a permanent staff of 97 men, had seven travelers and had established agencies in various parts of New Zealand and abroad.

At Frimley his principal study was the growing and cultivation of pedigree fruit trees and he sent millions of these to fruit growing districts in not only New Zealand but also Australia, the Argentine and South Africa. Horton did a lot of pioneering work and catalogued no fewer than 700 varieties of apples alone.

Every year from 1899 to 1917 he visited Australia, exploring all the commercial orchards and fruit tree nurseries searching for new outstanding varieties.

In 1910 he accepted an invitation from the government of Paraguay to give advice on fruit culture and also travelled extensively in Argentina. He saw the trade possibilities that existed in South America and established a Buenos Aires agency through which he would distribute hundreds of thousands of fruit trees.

He revisited South America in 1914 and at Buenos Aires staged a comprehensive show of his various kinds of fruit. As a result he got many big orders for trees. Unfortunately, before the orders could be filled war broke out, and New Zealand ships that had previously called regularly into Buenos Aires and Montevideo were being diverted to other routes. To keep faith with his numerous South American clients he chartered a ship. The ship left Napier in 1915 flying Horton’s own house flag bearing the slogan “Horton’s Trees Grow”. However, the cost made it impossible to continue trading with South America and eventually trade was abandoned.

While at Frimley he also developed an orchard of 106 acres in Nelson, here concentrating on varieties of apples suitable for the export trade. In 1902 Thomas Horton was a foundation member of the Horticultural Trade Association of New Zealand.

In 1903 during the early days of the export apple industry Thomas Horton was appointed to the pomologist board to give advice on the best varieties of apple to plant in various parts of the country. The board decided to confine the number of varieties to twelve. Three years later he went to England and earned a Diploma at the Royal Horticultural Society and while there he won the championship of Great Britain judged by the Government pomologist, to be the best collection comprising 200 dishes of fresh fruit.

Besides his trips to England, South America and Australia he also made three world tours collecting new and rare plants he thought might be useful in New Zealand.

Although Horton had been extremely successful, because of circumstances beyond his control he found himself in financial difficulties and in August 1922 he begrudgingly handed over his affairs to the Official Assignee declaring himself bankrupt. He wrote a letter to a meeting of creditors explaining his downfall,  and an extract from that letter shows clearly how unfortunate Horton was.

“In 1909 I was worth £20,000. In 1911 I bought my Tasman Estate for which I paid cash. I immediately started improvements and cleared the land and 90 acres in orchard, whilst the balance of 16 acres was sown in grass for horse paddocks. Believing there was a great future for the export apple industry, I spared no expense to bring this orchard to perfection and to make it a successful commercial concern. In 1914 the unfortunate war started and tree planting practically stopped. Two of my sons and thirty-eight men of our staff went to war, thus our staff of practical men was seriously depleted. I was at this time urged by the Horticultural department to continue and even increase the propagation of fruit trees, as the policy of the Government would be to put many of our returned men on to the orchards. Believing that large numbers of trees would be required we propagated extensively and with such a depleted staff we had to pay high wages for experts to do the work. After producing large stocks of trees planting orchards for returned men was abandoned by the Government and not a single tree was purchased by them.

Prior to the war I had established an excellent business connection with South America and our income from there was fairly considerable. Very valuable orders continued to come to us from there during the early years of the war but as all of our shipping was diverted from South American ports, we were unable to execute these orders. We were thus compelled to destroy about 1,500,000. Our losses from these causes were estimated to be at least £75.000 and under the circumstances we could not pay dividends and so the whole of my capital invested in the firm has not earned me one penny since 1914. To keep my orchard going at Tasman I had to run up an overdraft at the bank. Periodically I sold portions of my estate so as to reduce my overdraft and in 1920 I sold my home and grounds for this purpose. I made an effort before this to dispose of my Tasman Estate but did not succeed.

During 1917 I had a good deal of sickness in my family and my wife was for some time in a private hospital and after a very painful operation and much suffering she died. Soon after my wife’s death I had to go into hospital for an operation and was laid aside from active business for some time. In addition to this expense I was bringing up and educating a family of six sons and three daughters. In 1919 I made a very desperate effort to get back a great deal of lost trade and launched a great advertising campaign and sent out travelers amongst all our old clients, excellent business resulted, but just as we were in the middle of our delivery season the railway strike took place and it was impossible to deliver our good in time for that planting season. In 1920 I booked up record business in Australia and was about to make an extensive sale of our surplus trees to the Government of NSW for planting on returned soldiers’ settlements, when an “Order in Council” was issued by the Commonwealth Government absolutely prohibiting the importation of any tree, plant or fruit into Australia from New Zealand.” 

To make matters worse New Zealand suffered a mini depression in 1922. Following his bankruptcy Horton was left with his car and £50 worth of furniture and little else.

After a short spell of travelling he found himself in New Plymouth starting at Pukekura Park in August 1924. His intention was to stay at the park only one year but ended up remaining twenty-five years during which time he made his mark.

One of his first notable actions was the planting of Kauri, Tōtara and Rimu up the pathway now named “Horton walk”. Between 1926 and 1928 he faced the challenge of creating the fernery. Due to the massive amounts of earth dug out of the banks of the hillside to form the Fernery he had the foresight to simultaneously create Stainton Dell and Fred Parker lawn. During this construction the Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George V1 and Queen mother visited which must have caused some disruption.

Horton was a keen bowler and soon after the Fernery opened, he left on a lengthy bowling tour and holiday which took him around Australia, Sri Lanka, Europe, the UK, North America and Canada. He made effective use of this trip visiting many Botanical gardens and nurseries and arranging to have many new plant species sent to the park.

Between 1935 and 1939 he was responsible for the planting of the “Fillis Street Native Botanical Reserve” which was some four acres planted with approximately 1200 trees of over 200 varieties. Controversially many Pinus Radiata were felled during the development stage of this area between 1931 to 1935. During the period 1936 to 1938, not long after the addition of Brooklands to the Park, he promoted and successfully completed the planting of the Kauri Grove. This work transformed 10 acres of land in Brooklands that had be left to gorse etc. He planted some 3815 trees of 25 different varieties including 500 Kauri. He was also responsible in 1942 for the planting of the Kaimata Street shelter belt.

In 1938 Horton was made an Honorary Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Horticulture.

During WWII work in the park slowed down significantly with men having gone off to war, and Horton by this time being in his seventies.

Thomas Horton finally retired in 1949 at the age of 81. His retirement however was not to be a long one, as he died in New Plymouth on the first of May 1958.