History of the Nelson Historical Society
The Nelson Historical Society was established in 1954 following concerns about the potential loss of irreplaceable historical Nelson material through lack of appropriate accommodation in the region. At the time, it was proposed that the extensive collection of Dr Francis Bett would go to Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library.
The new society aimed to collect and preserve local records and ultimately to achieve a good-quality storage facility in Nelson. Its members got underway immediately with ambitious collection and storage plans. Fortunately the society was offered the rent-free use of three rooms at the back of the ANZ Bank in Hardy Street to store the material collected.
The society's formation came just in time for one of the most important regional historical records - the Tyree Photographic Collection. Rose Frank bought the Tyree Studio in Trafalgar Street in 1914 having worked for the Tyrees since 1885. In 1948 the Alexander Turnbull Library bought 1,100 Tyree plate glass negatives that Rose had stored in a strong-room at the back of the studio. With the formation of the Nelson Historical Society in 1954 she gifted the remaining negatives - between 1,100 and 1,200 - to the society, just before her death in October that year. The collection was not just of Tyree negatives but also those from other local photographers including Brown and Bloch.
The idea for a regional repository to house records from government departments and local bodies, in addition to the material the society was set up to collect, was mooted at the time of the society's formation. It was suggested such a repository be part of the Nelson Institute. But by 1956 it was decided that the long-term responsibility for such material was beyond the resources of a voluntary organisation, whether it be the institute or the historical society. As well, the need for suitable accommodation for the Bett Collection was still to be resolved and further impetus for something to be done came with donation to the city of the Tomlinson Collection of antique silverware. The collection was to be administered by trustees until the society had suitable premises for it.
The historical society's management committee began researching museum governance and decided to work towards the establishment of a trust board with representation from local authorities in the Nelson region. In the meantime, the society urged the Nelson City Council to acquire Isel House, which might be made suitable if the Bett trustees approved its use. Approval was given in principle in 1959 for the establishment of the Nelson Provincial Historical Trust Board. The council acquired Isel House in 1960 and the Nelson Historical Society moved much of its collections into it and opened to the public, though the Tyree, Bett and Tomlinson Collections were kept separately while discussion about permanent, purpose built accommodation continued.
It wasn't until the middle of 1963 that the Nelson Provincial Museum Trust Board was established. Plans were to construct a museum in stages on an area of land in Isel Park. Meanwhile, the society implemented an earlier resolution to transfer ownership of its assets to the trust board on 31st March 1965. This coincided with the board's take-over of the Nelson Institute Museum. At the same time the Nelson City Council took over responsibility for the Nelson Institute Library - the forerunner of today's Nelson public library.
The new Nelson Provincial Museum was opened behind Isel House in 1973. The Nelson Historical Society's collections were absorbed with those of the Nelson Institute to form the basis of the museum's collections and archives. Finally, the Tyree glass plate negative collection, the Bett Collection and the Tomlinson silver were all moved into the new museum.
IN 2005 the Nelson Provincial Museum's exhibition hall moved back into the central city to a redeveloped building on Town Acre 445, where the original Nelson Institute building and museum was. The Isel Park facility remains the home of its collections and archive library.
Over the years the society has also been active in supporting the retention and protection of historic buildings and sites in the province, including the Tophouse Hotel and the Hallowell Cemetery in Shelbourne Street. The Nelson Historical Society was instrumental in the establishment of a Nelson branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1954. In a case of coming full circle, the disestablishment of regional committees of the NZHPT in 2012 saw the merger of the local branch committee with the Nelson Historical Society.
However, it was the threat to the Nelson Provincial Government Buildings in Bridge Street that gave the society a new impetus. The proposal to demolish the 1861 building led to a bid by the society and the Nelson committee of the NZHPT to save it. Much time was spent by the society lobbying the Government and making representations to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Internal Affairs and the city's Member of Parliament. It also asked the city council to accept a Government offer of the building and $60,000 on its behalf, and a proposal was made to form a civic trust to raise further funds. However, the council refused the offer and the building was demolished in August 1969. Its demolition remains one of the worst examples of wanton destruction of the region's heritage. The society subsequently adopted the Nelson Provincial Council building as its logo.
The society's role in supporting the research and publication of local history has not been forgotten and as well publishing an annual historical journal, it has supported the research and publication of numerous books and booklets, including the society's own history, The First 50 Years (by Dawn Smith, from which this brief history is derived). It also runs the annual Jeff Newport Memorial Prize, a secondary schools history essay competition.
Monthly meetings held at the Masonic Lodge in Nile Street see guest speakers share their knowledge with members of a range of historical topics local to the top of the South Island share. Every two years the society holds the James Jenkins Memorial Lecture, at which a historian of note gives a public lecture. The society continues to actively support the work of the Nelson Provincial Museum and their ongoing relationship was formalised with the signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2015.