Sir Russell Matthews OBE
(1896 - 1987)
For service to Civil Engineering & Roading
Russell Matthews & Company
Russell Matthews was born in New Plymouth, the 10th and youngest child of Grace Marshall and her banker husband, Robert James Matthews. Educated at New Plymouth Boys' High School. He began his working life as an assistant engineer for the New Plymouth Borough Council.
In 1913 the council gave Matthews permission to lay a new surface in Currie Street. Russell had researched the use of bitumen sealing, devised a heating system and spray unit and mounted it on a horse-drawn wagon fitted with special pins to ensure quick release should the contraption catch fire. He used bitumen imported from California and began sealing the road. He did not, however, understand that the bitumen need to be heated to 400 degrees F and so heated it to just half that temperature. Consequently the bitumen came out “looking like worms” rather than as a liquid spray. But with the application of three times more bitumen than should have been required, the road surface lasted more than 15 years.
Matthew served overseas in the closing months of World War 1 and then stayed on in England for three years to study road construction. On his return in 1922 he teamed up with two Auckland-based bitumen laying contractors - Henry Isherwood and Bertie Bellam. He soon became a partner and then the managing director of Isherwood Bellam and Company which became New Zealand's largest roading firm.
Russell married Elizabeth Mary Brodie in New Plymouth 1932 where they bought 8 acres of undeveloped land along the Waiwhakaiho River, on the outskirts of the town. It was here that they built a Chapman-Taylor designed Tudor-style home and raised a family of two sons and two daughters.
Four years later Matthews and a partner formed their own roading company, Matthews and Kirkby, and six years later Russell began operating on his own account under the name Russell Matthews & Company. This firm grew to become New Zealand's largest roading contractor, sealing more than 3000 kilometres of road from Whangarei to Invercargill. Matthews was a tireless business and engineering entrepreneur. In addition to managing his own business, Matthews was a founding director of the New Plymouth-based chemicalcompany, Ivon Watkins Limited, serving on its board from 1944 to 1962. He became a director of a wide range of roading and engineering companies, including Kaikariki Sand and Gravel, Fitzroy Engineering and Fitzroy Quarries.
Matthews was also a dedicated horticulturist, inspired by England's stately homes. Russell and Mary created an outstanding garden on their 8 acres which they named Tupare – garland of flowers. It was renowned for its specimen trees and was regularly opened to the public, the proceeds being distributed to charity.
His passion for and knowledge about horticulture resulted in him becoming a Fellow of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture and as a founding member of the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust in 1951, Russell was a driving force behind the development of New Plymouth's famous Pukeiti Gardens where a range of rhododendrons flourish in a native bush setting. In addition to being a benefactor and Patron of the Trust from 1973 to 1987, Russell and his family spent most weekends working on the gardens at Pukeiti.
A resourceful, charismatic and generous man, Russell Matthews was, by all accounts, single-minded and persuasive, qualities that did not always make him popular but which helped him achieve success in a range of business and philanthropic pursuits. He was a life member of the Outward Bound Trust, the Tatum Park Trust, St John Ambulance Association and the New Zealand Society for the Intellectually Handicapped and Patron of the New Plymouth Repertory Society.
He was made an OBE in 1971 for his services to industry, horticulture and philanthropy and became a knight bachelor in 1982 for services to horticulture and the community. Tupare was purchased by the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust in 1984 and opened daily to the public. Russell Matthews died in New Plymouth on November 25, 1987 aged 91.