The Stanley Bason Story
'Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Begin it now.' – Goethe
Stanley Bason had a dream....
'It is to be a botanic gardens not a park, largely for scientific purposes, catering for both utility and aesthetic interests, a place for study not just for pretty flowers.' So said Stanley Bason when he gifted his 25 hectare farm and homestead garden to Wanganui City in 1966.
What is the fascinating story behind this magnanimous gift?
Reuben Bason and his nephews Thomas and John, emigrated from England in the late 1840s and established a brickworks on the corner of China (now Bell) Street and London Street, in the flourishing port of Wanganui.
In 1900 John Bason and his wife Mary purchased a property at Rapanui just outside Wanganui, a small coastal area newly opened to farming. The Basons had no children and the following year they adopted Stanley, an illegitimate and unwanted baby. He, like many other children of that time, began to help with the farm work at an early age. Although he was only ever given 'pocket money' as he grew older he gradually took on the major part of the work load. He attended Westmere Primary School but was not allowed to go to secondary school – his labour was needed on the farm, which was not doing well.
Although his father told him the farm would eventually pass to him, it was discovered in 1934, when John Bason died, that the property had been willed to his cousins. Their claim however was relinquished when it was also revealed that the farm was bankrupt. The farm creditors held a meeting and resolved to sell but after much persuasion Stanley Bason succeeded in getting their permission to try to farm the property out of its debts.
Stanley could then marry his sweetheart Blanche Prideaux whom he had met in 1918 at a Methodist Dance in the town. He had not been in a position until then to offer marriage. It had been a long engagement. Though the terms of ownership were harsh and included penalty payments, Stanley and Blanche committed themselves to making the property their own.
They had no money and no cash income – that all went to the creditors, but they lived off the land, with a good vegetable garden, orchard and plenty of ducks, pheasants and pukeko, and watercress from the creek. They commenced a frugal lifestyle they were never to change.
Their sacrifices were rewarded. An era of guaranteed prices for milk and then the World War II years of rising prices allowed them to pay back their debts, settle the mortgage and eventually accumulate substantial savings.
The profitable operation of the farm allowed considerable improvements to be carried out, including a piped water supply. New fencing and farm buildings were erected. More importantly for Stanley and Blanche it was now possible to give fuller expression to their shared interest in the Homestead Garden, which they developed into almost an acre of an outstanding display of rare and beautiful plants. Their property plantings included over 140 named camellia specimen and 500 roses as well as a diverse range of plants from all over the world.
This garden became their chief recreation activity. Stanley found that gardening afforded him peace of mind and it became his principal activity. Self taught, his horticultural expertise was gained through 'experience, observation, fondness of nature and a little bit of reading'.
Stanley and Blanche's dream was to see the whole property develop as a botanical reserve
Stanley Bason's philosophy and vision.
Stanley Bason was a man who thought deeply about the future environment of planet Earth. Long before it was fashionable he had formed the view that we are all individually responsible. He kept a diary of his thoughts.
'I pledge myself as a human being', he once wrote, ' to assume my share of man's stewardship of our natural resources. I will use my share without greed or waste. I will respect the rights of others. I will support the sound management of the resources we use, the restoration of resources we have despoiled and the sage keeping of resources for posterity. I will never forget that life, beauty and progress depend on how wisely man uses these gifts, the soil, the water, the air, the minerals, the plants life and the wild life.'
On another occasion he mused, 'Through the trouble of this world there still runs a thin stream of serenity for those who seek it. The price of a beautiful sunrise is only an hour's sleep – your own store of wilderness needs only the investment of a few minutes drive from the busy city.
During his lifetime of 76 years he had seen the average city home section shrink from one acre to ½ acre and then those ½ acres settled with perhaps half a dozen housing units. Work methods were rapidly shifting form manual to high pressure intellectual employment with resulting mental stress and he anticipated that in the future life could well be so complex and work methods so sophisticated that this trend would accelerate even faster. His own personal experience had convinced him that the future would bring an ever growing need for outdoor spaces for recreation and he gradually developed a plan to convert his farm into a botanical reserve. Such a facility was certainly not needed in 1960 – but as it would take 50-100 years to mature, the earlier it could be commenced the sooner it would be available to future generations.
In 1966 the couple offered the debt free 25 hectare farm property, valued at approximately $50,000, to the Wanganui City Council for the creation of a botanical reserve. He made a promise of more finance for development, with the proviso that within ten years there must be at least primary development of a conservatory complex. The Mayor, Mr Andrews, together with then superintendent of Parks and Reserves, Mr Boothby, inspected the property and were immediately enthusiastic. However it must be said that a number of Councillors were either vigorously opposed to the Council accepting or at least doubtful as to the need for 'yet another reserve'. One councillor suggested that the property be sold and the proceeds used for the Sports Stadium then under construction. There was also vociferous opposition from local farming organisations who saw the proposal as a waste of good farming land. Nevertheless in July 1966 the Council accepted the gift, subject to Stanley Bason's right to the use of the homestead during his lifetime. Stanley and Blanche Bason stayed on as curators until Blanche's death from cancer in 1969 and Stanley's from a car accident in 1976.
A poem written by Stanley Bason and found amongst his papers after his death:
'O unexpected stroke of death
Must I leave this paradise,
Leave this native soil,
These happy walks and shades,
The haunt of Gods,
When I had hoped to spend quiet
Thou' sad my remaining days.
Oh thou that never will in other climates grow.
My early visitations and my last
Those which I raised up with tender hand
Who now will rear thee up to the sun?
Who now will protect thee from tribes wild?
Why must I part thus from thee
And wander whither down this obscure path?'
The dream evolves…
A Master Plan was devised and work on the botanical reserve started with roading and the damming of the Mowhanau Stream into a double pond complex. The promised conservatories were completed in 1980 and the Blanche Bason Conservatory was dedicated to her memory.
To avoid confusion with a similarly named sports ground in Wellington, the Basin Reserve, the name was changed to Bason Botanic Gardens and in 1998 the BBG Trust was formed and generous bequests from individuals and associated societies have allowed for much of its development of botanical collections and architectural features.
The Bason Botanic Gardens today offers opportunties ipeople of all ages fun, entertainment and education. Its numerous indoor and outdoor gardens, bush walks and relaxation areas provide all year round enjoyment. To guarantee this, extensive planting of native and introduced plants has been carried out over the years and this is being extended every year. The original homestead is still in use and the homestead garden has been maintained and developed for the enjoyment of visitors.
Future plans include the development of an information centre for research, displays, meetings and gatherings and further plantings to add to and enhance the present botanical collections.