A historic park and house, named after Isel, a small village in Cumbria England, and a recreation ground form part of the legacy left by the Marsden family of Stoke.
Thomas Marsden, a watchmaker from Hensingham (part of Whitehaven) in Cumbria, England, arrived in Nelson with his wife Mary in December 1842. He built their first home on the corner of Sussex Street and Selwyn Place and set himself up as a watchmaker.
In 1848 the family moved to 930 acres of suburban land at Stoke, which ran through Poorman’s Valley (later to be known as Marsden Valley) and down to the Main Road.
Initial attempts to build a home in Poorman’s Valley, using stone from the stream, failed when an easterly storm flattened the house framing. Thomas instead built a four-room cottage where Isel House now stands.
The Marsden’s Isel estate combined three suburban sections, making Thomas the largest landowner in Suburban South. To complement the prosperous farm which he developed, Thomas quickly planned a 12-acre (4.8ha) park and was responsible for planting the specimen trees that formed the basis of today’s Isel Park.
Much of the Marsden wealth, thought to have come from well-invested English bequests, was put to good philanthropic use in Stoke and Nelson. Thomas was a member of the Nelson Provincial Council7 and the first school in the Stoke settlement, Brook Green, was on his property. Thomas offered land to the Nelson School Society in 1858, but it was transferred to the Anglican Church in 1864 as the site for a church. St Barnabas Church, built of stones from Poorman’s Creek, opened in 1866.
Thomas Marsden died in 1876, after being thrown from his carriage when his horse bolted in fright at a train engine on Jenkins Hill, Bishopdale. His son, James, took over farming Isel and tended the parkland his father had established.
James reduced the size of the farm to 400 acres and, in 1883, the widowed matriach of the family, Mary Marsen, had a stone front built onto the family home using hand-shaped boulders from the valley. The extension was designed by John Scotland, architect of Melrose House in Nelson, and bult by Mr Andrew Brown.
The house was further extended between 1905 and 1913, with a large stone addition at the southwest corner giving it a total of 18 rooms.10 The extension was needed to accommodate furniture and other items inherited by James and his sister, Frances Charters Marsden, from the estate of Joseph Charters Brown in England. They gifted the purchase money for the Marsden Recreation Ground, adjacent to the Stoke Memorial Hall, in 1908.
The extension was needed to accommodate furniture and other items inherited by James and his sister, Frances Charters Marsden, from the estate of Joseph Charters Brown in England. They gifted the purchase money for the Marsden Recreation Ground, adjacent to the Stoke Memorial Hall, in 1908.11
James, a reclusive man who married late in life and had no children, died in 1926 and bequeathed Isel House and 52 acres (21ha), including the park, to the Nelson Diocese. The Cawthron Institute received a bequest of 65 acres for agricultural research. The financial depression of the 1930s forced both organisations to sell these properties, with Isel House and the park being purchased by the Nicholls family in 1938.
In 1960 Nelson City Council bought the Nicholls property for public use, which enabled the development of the Greenmeadows playing fields.13
The Nelson Historical Society moved its collection into Isel House in 1961 and then donated the material to the newly formed Nelson Provincial Museum Trust Board in 1965. Some of the original Marsden furniture and china was returned on loan and the Trust Board put this and other material on public display in the two front rooms of the house. The new Provincial Museum, which was built behind the house, opened in 1973. Isel House continued to display material related to the Marsden family, and it was also used for museum storage for some years. It was closed to the public in 1998 and, in 2001, its management was taken over by the Isel House Charitable Trust. Major repair and strengthening work was carried out and Isel House re-opened to the public in 2003.
The easterly winds that thwarted Thomas Marsden’s first attempts to build a house return occasionally, blowing down Marsden Valley with destructive force. Over the years a number of the large specimen trees he had planted have been destroyed. Despite this, Isel Park continues to honour Thomas Marsden’s legacy.
The Marsden Collection
The Marsden Collection is a rare and beautiful collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century antique furniture, plate and glassware – including Sevres, Dresden and Worcester. The collection was inherited by James and Frances Marsden in 1904. In 2001 the Cawthron Institute donated their part of the Marsden Collection to the Museum, and the Anglican Diocese of Nelson agreed to the acquisition of their part of the Marsden Collection by the Museum. The Marsden Paintings and Book Collection is also held at the Museum. The unique Book Collection dates from 1773 to the early 1920s and relates to natural history, discovery and exploration of the Pacific and provides the nucleus of the research library collection.
Isel’s Root Cellar
The Root Cellar building, which is located in the original kitchen garden, is original to Isel estate and dates back to the late 1800s. In 2013 it was brought back to Isel and restored by Nelson City Council, having been removed in the late 1960s for use in other areas of the Council’s Nursery and Parks departments.
The cellar was used for storing produce and was essential on a such a large property, even long after refrigerators became part of every household. This was due to the volume of produce grown here. The Nicholls family, Archibald, Mabel and their eight children, continued to use the cellar to house their store of preserves and meat, right up until they sold the property in 1960.
The cellar’s ten steps lead down to a storage area. This ‘below – earth’ depth provided a cool and dark storage space for the estate’s farm produce. Preserves were stored on a shelf that ran around the side of the walls. Sheep carcasses were hung in the rafters. The ‘hanging’ roof was especially designed to promote airflow and to keep the temperature inside the structure cool. Mesh covering the windows and vents also served to promote airflow while also keeping insects out. Most of the windows have since been changed to glass panes.