The Missing Orchids

Henry Wright
and tropical plants!

The Henry Wright story

P C Tomlinson April 2014

Henry Wright born 1844, died 1936 aged 92. He built a grand villa with its formal gardens to house his family in the late 1880s in Newtown, Wellington. He was secretary of the Wellington Meat Export Company and had family interests in Coromandel gold mining (which is why the inner-city suburb of Newtown has a Coromandel Street as well as a Wright Street). He was also a money lender and debt-collector, a photographer who documented early Wellington, a book lover and a gardener. Collections of his photographs and books are among the historical treasures stored at the Alexander Turnbull Library and his orchid and tropical plant collection was donated to the Wellington Botanic Garden. However no plants that can be identified from this collection remain in the Garden today, and also no record of this donation appears to exist amongst the garden or Council records.

Wright is probably best remembered for his famous 1905 poster aimed at giving the brush off to "electioneering women", penned by an affronted Wellington citizen and nailed to his front door. Printed copies soon appeared on front doors all over Wellington. "Eelectioneering women are requested not to call here," the poster said "They are recommended to go home, look after their children, cook their husband's dinner, empty the slops, and generally attend to the domestic affairs for which nature designed them". Good old Henry Wright's Notice to Epicene Women might have had short sharp-shock value at the time but it didn't work terribly well in the long run.   He'd be turning in his grave to see how far those pushy women have got in New Zealand politics today.

Henry Wright and son in vegetable garden
Henry Wright's  Newtown home showing part of garden
 and glasshouse attached to home in background

A Henry Wright photograph in his glasshouse of orchid
Phalaenopsis schilleriana and foliage plants

Walter Cook, in his section on the Garden History, notes that “in 1923, Henry Wright offered his "collection of rare plants and orchids, many quite unprocurable in Australasia to the city”, but this was also unsuccessful in the cause of building a winter garden, which had been proposed. Nothing more was heard about this gift until 1928 when in March that year Council minutes note that Mr Henry Wright's collection of hothouse plants would be accepted and installed "when accommodationn can be provided for them”. The position on this mater is made clearer by an article from the "Evening Post" published in December 1928. The main propagating house had been provided with a new boiler contained in a roofed, brick-lined pit, and pipes carrying hot water for heating were installed. It had also been extended "more than doubling its length and making possible a much more effective arrangement of begonias and companion plants. " This freed the old "Lower Glasshouse", previously used for begonias, to be used for the collection of Mr Henry Wright "one of Wellington's keenest specialist gardeners". The collection is described as being of tropical plants, "a gift too good to be refused. " At the time of the report the collection was awaited but had not yet arrived.

 Jack Robertson, who worked at the Botanic Garden nursery in 1928, remembered that this collection was installed, but there appears to be no written record of it. Its fate is mysterious for when Bill Lannie began work at the Garden Nursery in 1935 he can remember no outstanding collection of tropical plants housed there, and no stories of there ever having been one.

This appears to be the second case of 'disappearing orchids' in the Garden. In 1922 the Hon. C H Izard offered a collection of orchids. Initially the small glasshouse did not provide sufficient space for this collection, although the glasshouse was extended that year, so the collection may have been accepted. No other information is available, but resumably both collections suffered the same mysterious fate.

One of the great mysteries of the Garden!! If anyone can add anything to this story we would be interested to hear from you.


Sources
:

Winsome Shepherd and Walter Cook; The Botanic Garden, Wellington A New Zealand History 1840 – 1987

Pillman, Eve The Last Laugh   NZ  Life and Leisure Magazine  Vol 13 May/June 2007

Illustrations from Wright's photographic collections held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Peter Tijsen WBG

From the Register of Memorials and Plaques,   see the Henry Wright page