Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

05 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 13. Isel House, Nelson

I wrote and illustrated ‘New Zealand House and Cottage’. It was published in 1997. It’s a snapshot of some historic New Zealand homes - both grand and modest - as they were preserved at the end of the 20th century.
I have decided to share some of the entries from the book from time to time on this blog.


The day I visited Isel Park was one out of the box: a light breeze rustled the spring leaves of the grand old trees and a bevy of young mothers - all very beautiful, of course, with equally beautiful children - was picnicking on the lawn. In the background was Isel House, once the private preserve of a very private man who disliked visitors, now owned by the Nelson City Council and open, with its adjacent museum, for everybody.

I wouldn’t describe Isel House as handsome but it does have the merit of being architecturally unusual. It is invariably shown from the front as I have drawn it, but that’s a misleading aspect especially when it’s described as being ‘Thomas Marsden’s house of 1848′.

In actual fact, if Thomas Marsden were to be resurrected it is unlikely he would even recognize the place since it was not he, but his son James who designed the brick and stone front and had it built four years after his father’s death.

Behind the masonry lies the original farm house, built by Thomas who arrived in Nelson from Cumberland with his wife, Mary, on 31 December 1842. After a few false starts they settled at Stoke, in Poorman’s Valley (named after emigrants who first settled the area but couldn’t make a go of it: it’s now called Marsden Valley) eventually acquiring 960 acres (390 ha) which surrounded his ‘Isel Cottage’. Marsden lived near Isel Castle in England and adopted its name as a reminder of home. It was said that he inherited most of his wealth, and over almost three decades he was able to devote himself to his gardens, much of them planted with trees raised from seeds brought to him by travellers from all over the world.

Thomas died in 1876 after his carriage overturned when its horse was frightened by a train. Isel House then passed to his son, James, who, by all accounts, became more eccentric over the years, living as a feudal lord in the big house, attended by numerous servants, and given to taking pot-shots at blackbirds to stop them disturbing his seedlings.

To add the façade, built of brick and dressed stone from Poorman’s Valley, he employed two Nelson builders, Robert Tibble and Peter Henry, who used to walk to Stoke every day to do their work. James died in 1926 and his wife, Mary Rose, in 1930: they were childless. The property, after having been owned by Archibald Nicholls, passed to the City Council in 1959.

I’ve no idea how old the bell-push is, but it has a very attractive art nouveau brass plate which I covet. That’s a good enough reason to include it here.



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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.