Story: Cook, William Douglas

Page 1 - Cook, William Douglas

Cook, William Douglas

1884–1967

Farmer, arboriculturist

This biography was written by John Berry and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

William Douglas Cook was born in New Plymouth on 28 October 1884, the second child of William Cook, a bank officer, and his wife, Jessie Turnbull Miller. Both parents were from affluent, well-connected Scottish families. His paternal grandfather, John Cook, was a shipowner in Aberdeen; his maternal grandfather, William Miller, was a city councillor of Glasgow and a partner in cotton mills and dyeworks.

Douglas, as he was called, was educated at Wellington College. He developed a love of horticulture as a schoolboy when he collected early photographs and made notes on the development of Pukekura Park, New Plymouth. When, as a 25-year-old fledgeling farmer, he acquired a substantial area of scrubby hill country at Ngatapa, 22 miles inland from Gisborne, he began almost immediately to plant decorative as well as productive varieties of trees.

During service in the First World War Cook was wounded three times and blinded in one eye. While convalescing in Britain he admired the estates of his relatives: 'I stayed in beautiful country homes…and this left me with a growing desire to create something worthwhile in New Zealand. I'd got the idea that I too could have lovely surroundings'. He named his property Eastwoodhill after his mother's family home in Glasgow.

On his return from the war Cook began tree planting in earnest, using virtually all of his farming profits to buy northern hemisphere species. Neighbouring farmers considered him eccentric, not only for his plantings but also because he was a nudist who enjoyed gardening without the encumbrance of clothes. A book-lover, Cook built up a substantial library of horticultural volumes.

On 20 March 1930 Cook married, in Auckland, Claire Leyland Bourne, who left her job as assistant librarian at Auckland University College to settle at Eastwoodhill. In 1934 they adopted an infant son, whom they named Sholto Douglas Cook. There were difficulties in the marriage, however, and the following year Claire took Sholto and found a home and employment as housekeeper to the Reverend James Young in Wanganui. She did not see Douglas again, though they never divorced. Sholto worked for his father briefly, many years later, as farm manager.

Douglas Cook's dream gradually expanded into a vision of a natural arboretum for future generations of New Zealanders. In pursuit of this, he made many overseas trips to purchase plants, financing them with money from a Scottish legacy and several times mortgaging his farm. From the 1950s the threat of nuclear war in Europe spurred Cook to frantic efforts to plant all he could of northern hemisphere woody plant species. He saw Eastwoodhill as a future repository of plant material for the gardens of Europe in the event of nuclear devastation.

One plant which did not grow well at Eastwoodhill was the rhododendron. In a search for a more suitable site Cook discovered a 'home for rhodos' at Pukeiti on the lower slopes of Mt Egmont. He bought the land and in October 1951 founded the Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, to which he gifted the property. Cook's efforts brought him both national and international recognition. In the 1940s he was a member of a committee which assisted in the establishment of the horticultural faculty at Massey Agricultural College. He was elected a fellow of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture and received its highest award when he was made an associate of honour. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded him its Veitch Medal and he became the first New Zealand member of the International Dendrology Union.

Cook gained enormous satisfaction in his latter years from recognition by botanists of international standing that Eastwoodhill was perhaps the most comprehensive collection of northern hemisphere woody plants south of the equator. But at the age of 80, lonely and unwell, he feared what might happen to his tree collection. In 1965 H. B. Williams, a Gisborne farmer and businessman, agreed to buy Eastwoodhill with the firm intention of maintaining the arboretum. In June 1975 Williams succeeded in establishing the Eastwoodhill Trust Board as a charitable trust.

Douglas Cook, once described as 'a plantsman with the soul of a poet and the vision of a philosopher', died in Gisborne on 27 April 1967. Through his efforts Eastwoodhill had become the most comprehensive arboretum in New Zealand and was a collection of international standing. In 1977 it received the first award by the International Dendrology Society for 'a collection of outstanding merit'.