HISTORY : The Land, The People, The House
Fairfield as we know it today, was built by the Atkinson family from 1872-1883. Arthur Samuel Atkinson was a prominent lawyer, active in business and politics. Jane Maria (nee Richmond) was active in the suffragette movement and promoted education for girls. As Unitarians they were progressive thinkers and involved in the cutting edge of early New Zealand politics. Their home was an important centre for the community.
The distinctive tower at the west end of the building was originally built to mount a large telescope to cater for Arthur's hobby of astronomy. The house was lived in by the Atkinson family until 1922 when the property was passed to the fledgling Nelson Girl's College who used it as a prep school and boarding house. From 1930, Nelson Boys College used Fairfield House as a boarding house. Generations of New Zealand youngsters knew it as their home away from home. By 1976 the students had gone to new hostels, a fire had destroyed the accommodation block and the house became derelict. A demolition order was about to be issued by the local city council in 1979.
Fairfield House was saved from certain demolition by the actions of Alan Stanton and Friends of Old Fairfield (FOOF). At the eleventh hour, Alan's drastic and bold actions raised regional attention to the plight of Fairfield and a group formed which was dedicated to the restoration and development of Fairfield as a community asset. Today after thirty years of restoration, Fairfield House is once again
the pride of Nelson. Community energy continues to develop a centre for
the city that is a loved and living venue for corporate, private and
History of Ownership
1851 - Neil MacVicar (Original Crown Grant)
? - John Blackett
1872 - Arthur Samuel Atkinson
1902 - Jane Maria Atkinson
1914 - Alice Mabel Atkinson
1922 - Nelson College
1979 - Department of Education
1979 - Department of Lands and Survey
1987 - Department of Conservation
1990 - Gazetted Local Purpose Reserve
of town : Section owners c. 1850s -
Showing the land that became Fairfield.
Section 1089, 7 acres and 2 roods (3.1 hectares)
Fairfield c.1880 showing cottage between Trafalgar
two-storied wings. Several of the poplars Section 1089 fenced and already part of the landscape
in this photo survive.
Fairfield has a seven acre woodland around the house. This woodland was
initially planted by the Atkinson family in the 1870s. In addition to
saving the house, FOOF has dedicated its energy to maintaining the 7
acre woodland. Old trees have been pruned and heritage trees have been
registered. New trees have been planted, and a system of walking
tracks has been made through the reserve. This is open to and is enjoyed
by the public.
1872 - 1922 Atkinson, Richmond and Fell families.
1922 Nelson College for Girls Prep department
1926 Girl boarders housed in 'Chicken Coop' boarding block built behind house.
1930 - 1964 Boys College take over as Fell House
1979 - 2009 Friends Of Old Fairfield (FOOF) established to save and run Fairfield as Community asset
generations of Atkinsons, Richmonds The Fell family at Totaranui
and Fells at Fairfield c. 1889
Portrait of Jane Maria Atkinson Fell-Atkinson
Arthur Atkinson migrated to NZ with his brother Harry and friends, the
Richmond family, in 1852. Arthur married Jane Maria Richmond in 1854. He
settled and farmed at Hurworth, Taranaki, with the other members of the
Richmond /Atkinson family. He became a Maori translator for the
Government and was owner and editor of the Taranaki Herald. He was also active in the Taranaki
moved to Nelson in 1868 and studied
law. He went into partnership with Charles Y Fell (Nelson Mayor
who married Atkinson's daughter Edith. Arthur was a keen amateur
astronomer. He was also an arachnologist because of which he was
locally nicknamed 'Spider' Atkinson.
Atkinson family injected a spiritual and forward thinking energy into
the house as early as the 1880s. They were free thinkers who championed
a number of social causes - the suffragette movement, education for
women, and the development of astronomy. All the family were highly politically motivated and active in
local and national politics.
and Maria and daughters Ruth, Jane
Maria was always a prolific letter writer
Edith and Mabel relax on upstairs veranda and advocate for women's education and rights.
Family home to Prep School (extract taken from 'The School on the Hill' by Karen Price)
By 1920 increases in the school roll meant that Nelson College for Girls had outgrown the existing buildings which had been designated in 1883 for a maximum of 150 pupils. The Nelson College Governors were forced to evaluate options available including the possibility of moving the school to a completely new site. One solution they felt would be to move the boarding department to an adjacent area and in 1920 they inspected the property, owned by the Misses Atkinson at the end of Trafalgar Street, known as "Fairfield."
In 1922 the property was purchased and the "preps" took possession initially. Known as Fairfielders they "enjoyed a warm little family life as well as having all the excitements of trees to climb, chestnuts to gather and roast and dozens of new games to play.
In 1923 when the minister of education assessed the need for additional classrooms at the girls' college as very urgent, a plan was formulated to move the boarding department in entirety to the Fairfield site, so that the vacated dormitory rooms at the school could be used as classrooms.
Following lengthy negotiations and planning, the first block of cubicles was built on the terrace above Fairfield house in 1926. The initial cubicle block was an open-air affair which housed 24 girls and a mistress. The cubicles each held two beds and were separated from each other by a partition. All the cubicles opened onto a wide verandah which was enclosed with wire netting - the wire netting eventually leading to the cubicles being known as the "chicken coops' by the girls.
Junior Class at Fairfield, 1922
- Photo credit: The Nelson College for Girls Collection
Nelson Colleges Boarding House 1926 - 1964 "The Chicken coop"
The original FOOF Caretakers, 25 years on (2005)
Prior to 1871 - A two dormer cottage was built.
1872 - Two story wings built on either end of cottage by Atkinsons
1883/4 - Cottage and west wing removed and replaced by present two story
with veranda and observatory tower. Designed by Nelson
architect A.T. Somerville.
1985 - Registered under Historic Places Act. Now a 'Category 1 Historic Place'.
wedding 1881 - in front of original cottage. The wing to the left (1872) is the oldest remaining part.
1913 - present configuration. The tower was built by Arthur as an astronomical observatory in 1883.
In 1979 Alan Stanton took the initiative and squatted in the old
house to prevent further damage to the property. This action galvanised
support from the Nelson community that led to the forming of Friends of
Old Fairfield Inc (FOOF). In August 1979, FOOF took up the challenge to
restore the old house with the vision of making it a community
dilapidated Fairfield c. 1979, after it had been abandoned by Nelson College
This was an enormous task, with fundraising, voluntary
working bees, community work schemes and training courses all
contributing to the effort. Over 500 people have worked on the place
over the years and many new skills were taught and learnt in the
process. As early as possible Fairfield House began to return gifts to Nelson
by hosting functions and events.
Stanton and the Friends The
commitment wins community support and
make a stand to save the House, June 1979 important chattels and fittings are returned
All this work bore fruit: In 1990 the Department of Conservation
gazetted Fairfield House and the 7 acres of surrounding woodland as a
Local Purpose Reserve and appointed FOOF to control and manage it. From
the imminent demolition and Historic Places Trust classification D, it
now has the highest rating "National Heritage Classification 1".
Sanctuary was built on the foundations of Atkinson's stables
The Sanctuary 2009
Today, Friends of Old Fairfield continues to maintain and upkeep
Fairfield House through self generated funds, community grants and
voluntary work. If you'd like to support us in this ongoing work, click here.
Friends of Fairfield 2009