The striking neo-Gothic building in Nile Street East has been an outstanding feature of Nelson since 1923, but the history of the land goes back to the beginning of the Nelson settlement. Town Acre 438 had been purchased on 12 January 1843 by J.F.Wilson and Thomas Marsden. When Bishop Selwyn visited Nelson in December 1843 he made plans for a church school. The Nelson Examiner recorded the plan of a spacious brick building, one hundred feet long, which was submitted to the Bishop. His lordship purchased the half of an acre in the neighbourhood of Trafalgar Square, with the intention of erecting the spacious brick building.
This land, the southern (Nile Street) half of Town Acre 438, was bought from Dr. Joseph Foord Wilson for the sum of £50, three months being given for the removal of cowshed and fruit trees. On his next visit to Nelson in 1845 Bishop Selwyn noted the recent erection of ‘a handsome Brick School House’ and the Nelson Examiner considered it ‘a great adornment to the little town.’
The paper on another occasion described it as ‘the most truly architectural edifice in Nelson: it is well and substantially built, with brick walls, and, … with a bay window at the south-end, was really quite picturesque, and an excellent example of the old English style’.
The school was added to by Bishop Hobhouse and completely rebuilt by Bishop Suter in 1881 but was closed in 1895 after his death, and the building gradually deteriorated during the next seventy years. Besides the school over the next few years various buildings occupied the rest of section 438. At the north end a five year lease for £30 p.a. was promised to Mr. Yorke in July 1857.
On the west side the Church Warden leased to Mrs Taylor a house at £20 p.a. in November that year, on condition she spent £50 in repairs. Part of the remaining portion was used as a Parsonage garden and during the Rev. G.H. Johnstone’ s occupancy the land alongside the Parsonage was used as a paddock for his horse.
The house was sold in 1874 for £3.10 and removed and a new Parsonage built at a cost of £700 and dedicated in 1875.
In 1861 Mr. Lightfoot had leased for 21 years a portion of land on the north side of the school fence on which to build a dwelling house that would be, in the Bishop’s opinion, suitable for a schoolmaster. It would include the ground adjoining the north and east sides of the schoolroom. In1883 after the lease had expired, the cottage, known as Selwyn Cottage, had been left empty and badly in need of repairs to the back part of the building and verandah. The Bishop undertook to pay £15 p.a. so long as he occupied it; it was to provide accommodation for committee meetings, for the Diocesan Secretary and Diocesan purposes generally. It continued to do so for the next forty years.
On the portion of Section 438, which he had purchased in 1843, Thomas Marsden had built a cottage. Here his children James and Frances were born: James in 1844 and his sister in 1847. The family later moved to the substantial property at Stoke, known as Isel, but maintained their close involvement with the Anglican Church. The church of St. Barnabas began in 1864, and owed much to the generosity of James and Frances. The roof, organ and the memorial window were donated by James and by Frances, who taught in the Sunday School, played the organ and sang in the choir.
When Frances died on 12 March 1918 she bequeathed her estate to the Nelson Diocesan Trust Board. Bishop Sadlier, since coming from Melbourne in 1912, had felt the work of the Diocese much hampered by the deteriorating condition and cramped quarters of the Bishop’s Cottage. He had been pleading with his Diocesan Synod during the war years for more spacious accommodation for the Diocesan offices and was now quick to take advantage of Frances Marsden’s handsome bequest.
In his report to Synod in 1920 the Bishop said ‘One of the greatest draw backs to our work has been the inadequate office accommodation and very poor provision for such meetings as those of Synod or of members of the Church on important occasions. These defects are about to be remedied in the erection of Marsden Church House which will be a dignified building providing for all our requirements and a permanent asset to the Diocese’.
The following year the architects’ plans were ready for consideration by a sub-committee of the Synod Standing Committee; and on 22 March 1922, the contract for building Marsden Church House were signed between the Nelson Diocesan Trust Board and Robertson Brothers. The architects were W.Houlker and H. Rix Trott. The cost for the building was estimated to be £7553. The specifications were provided for Totara or Matai floor joists, the stage of Oregon pine, the eves of Matai, and all the joinery of Rimu, selected for colour and grain.
The window frames were to be heart Matai, the sills of Totara, and all the inside woodwork exposed. The hail, roof trusses, supports, beams and panelling to be stained with permanganate of potash, oiled and varnished. The diagonal roof and boarding to be stained and oiled, and the staircase railings French polished.
On the 31 May 1922 two foundation stones were laid for the new building. Mr. James Wilfred Marsden laid the stone on the site of his birth 76 years before. The Archbishop of New Zealand, the Most Rev. Churchill Julius, D.D., LiD, dedicated the stone, assisted by the Bishop of the Diocese, the Rt. Rev. W.C. Sadlier, D.D. Bro. R.W. Stiles, Provincial Grand Master of the Nelson and Marlborough District, also laid a stone for the Masonic Order. In his speech the Bishop referred to the fact that James and Frances Marsden had been born on the very spot, and paid tribute to Frances whose bequest of £6000 had made this new building possible.
A year later, on 16 May 1923, a large assembly took part in the formal opening ceremony. The Nelson Diocesan Gazette described the occasion. ‘The first portion of the ceremony was performed in the Upper Hall which was effectively set out for the Festival tea held in the evening.
During the opening hymn, the Bishops and Clergy proceeded to the platform at the end of the hall from where they carried out an appropriate service. Conducted by the Rt Rev. Bishop of Nelson, the Rt. Rev. Bishop of Goulburn, N. S.W. [Lewis Bostock Radford, b.18691, and the Rt. Rev. Bishop Mules [Bishop of Nelson, 1892-1912].