Rutherford’s birthplace

Last Monday, 30 August 2021, was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand-born atomic physicist. Rutherford was born at Spring Hill, near Nelson. Although Rutherford’s family left Spring Hill when he was only five, and subsequently lived in a number of other locations, his birthplace is home to a large memorial to him.

Aotearoa New Zealand has relatively few monuments to scholars and scientists, compared to those commemorating soldiers, statesmen and sporting heroes. The Rutherford birthplace memorial is also unusual in its size, its design and the fact that it includes an open-air display of information about Rutherford’s life.

Before the creation of the present memorial, the site was marked with a plaque mounted on a concrete slab, erected in the 1950s. The Waimea District Council purchased the site in the 1970s, and public meetings were held to decide what to do with the site. One meeting in 1981 voted in favour of a symbol of an atom on a tower, but this idea was subsequently rejected because it was feared the site might become the target of anti-nuclear protests.

(Rutherford had nothing to do with the development of the atomic bomb, though some of his students, and other New Zealanders, did contribute to work on the bomb. We can’t know what Rutherford would have thought of nuclear weapons if he’d lived to see their development, but we do know that in the 1930s he spoke at Cambridge University in favour of a ban on the use of aeroplanes in warfare.)

In the late 1980s, Rutherford’s biographer and convenor of the Rutherford Birthplace Project, John Campbell, proposed a memorial based on a display about Rutherford’s life. A number of organisations threw their weight behind the proposal, and the memorial was completed at a cost of some $400,000, opening in December 1991.

The memorial consists of a series of semi-circular terraces descending from a small mound in the middle. Display boards telling the story of Rutherford’s life are located in the terraces (there’s a list here of the topics covered). On the mound in the centre of the memorial is a statue of Rutherford as a child. He’s depicted as a young boy with an unusually large head, carrying an arithmetic primer.

My guess is that the shape of the memorial is intended to be reminiscent of Rutherford’s model of the atom, with the statue located in the atom’s nucleus. But the structure also suggests Rutherford’s ever-widening fame and engagement with the world. As the introductory panel explains, the site shows Rutherford’s progression from ‘humble beginnings in rural New Zealand’ to ‘world eminence’ as a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, ‘New Zealand’s most famous son’. The countries where Rutherford won his fame are represented by trees planted in the corners of the site: tōtara for New Zealand, maple for Canada and oak for England. According to the introductory panel, the memorial is meant not only to pay tribute to Rurtherford but also ‘to show New Zealand children that they too can aspire to great heights.’

By the end of his career, Rutherford had been made a British peer, Lord Rutherford of Nelson, and his coat of arms is reproduced on the wall of the memorial.

The Latin motto means ‘To seek the first principles of things’, and the shield is quartered by the growth and decay curves of radioactivity. The supporter on the left is Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary patron of alchemy, but I was most interested in the supporter on the right.

This ‘Māori warrior’ seems to function simply as a generic representation of New Zealandness, like the kiwi on the crest of the coat of arms. But it made me wonder what, if any, connection Rutherford and his career had with Māori.

Rutherford’s parents had both been born overseas (his father James in Scotland and his mother Martha in England), but came to New Zealand as children. Martha’s family settled in New Plymouth, but were evacuated to Nelson in 1860 as ‘Taranaki refugees‘, Pākehā who fled during the First Taranaki War. Martha was a school teacher, while James began his career as a mechanic, but moved into flax-milling. James’s flax-milling business took the family first to Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds, and then in 1888 to Pungarehu in Taranaki.

Leggatt, T T :[The Rutherford flax mill at Pungarehu] / T T Leggatt Feb 28th 1890
T.T. Legatt, picture of the Rutherford flax mill at Pungarehu, 28 February 1890, Ref: A-036-017. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22514790. The picture shows the flax mill operated by Rutherford’s father, James, and later by his brother, George. The mill buildings and soaking ponds are depicted, with a steamer at sea shown in the background.

By the time Rutherford’s family moved to Taranaki, Rutherford was boarding at Nelson College, but he spent school and then university holidays at Pungarehu, and helped lay out the levels for the mill ponds, which were used for soaking flax. Rutherford was digging potatoes at Pungarehu when he received news in 1895 that he had won a scholarship to study at Cambridge University in Britain, and reportedly responded by saying ‘That’s the last potato I will ever dig.’

The Rutherford’s home and mill at Pungarehu was located on Lower Parihaka Road, and Pungarehu is close to the Māori settlement of Parihaka. The resistance of the Parihaka community to the imposition of land confiscation had led to its invasion by government forces in 1881, only a few years before the Rutherfords moved to Taranaki. Some twenty years of conflict in the province had left Taranaki Māori stripped of the land and autonomy they had fought hard to maintain.

Māori had dominated the flax (harakeke) trade in the early colonial period, stripping flax by hand for use in rope-making. But the invention of the mechanical flax-stripper in the 1860s, together with the taking of Māori land and the accompanying loss of their economic base, left Māori in the role of labourers and providers of raw material for Pākehā mill owners. Mills were generally small, and located near flax swamps.

It seems reasonably likely that Rutherford would have come across Māori in and around the flax mills his father operated. James Rutherford did well from his flax-milling business, going on to open another two Taranaki mills at Ōpunake and Warea. The late Ian Matheson, a historian of the New Zealand flax industry and former Palmerston North City Archivist, commented in an article on flax in New Zealand Geographic:

Lord Rutherford’s father was a flaxmiller in Nelson and Taranaki during the 1880s and 1890s. Profits from his business helped give young Ernest a start in life. Just think, the humble flax plant indirectly contributed to the splitting of the atom!

Quoted in Gerard Hindmarsh, ‘Flax: The Enduring Fibre’, New Zealand Geographic, no. 42, 1999, p. 49.

It may be drawing a long bow to see a connection between James Rutherford’s flax mills and the splitting of the atom. But it is helpful to understand the colonial society from which Rutherford emerged, and the way in which, within that society, growing Pākehā prosperity came at the expense of marginalisation of Māori. Such an understanding is a useful counter-balance to celebratory narratives of the lone genius emerging from humble origins to take on the world.