Story: Jones, Frederick Nelson

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Jones, Frederick Nelson

1881–1962

Saddler, photographer, amusement park owner, inventor

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

Frederick Nelson Jones was one of New Zealand's first photo-journalists. For 30 years he captured with his camera thousands of events as they happened – crowds, fires, street processions, floods, road accidents and celebrations. He also thrilled generations of children by running a popular amusement park and creating elaborate 'Pixietown' displays for department stores. He was born in Nelson on 4 May 1881, the son of Emeline Sophia Intermann and her husband, Frederick Nelson Jones, who owned a livery stable, raced horses and operated one of the first totalisators in New Zealand. Young Frederick attended a private school at Port Nelson, then spent 11 years working at his father's saddlery business in Trafalgar Street.

Interested in cameras in his youth, Freddy Jones took up photography full time after the 1904 fire at Nelson College. When he heard the school was burning he raced there on his bicycle, photographed the scene, then mounted and sold hundreds of his dramatic photographs. With the proceeds he bought land and later built a photographic studio. He became a familiar sight at public events in Nelson, a small, dapper figure, perched precariously on his tall, three-legged wooden stepladder (which is said to have been the prototype of the modern apple-picking ladder). Over the years he took thousands of 'Nelson views', hundreds of which were published in pictorial weeklies throughout New Zealand.

On 1 January 1910, in Nelson, Jones married Ivy Adelaide Florence Dougan, the daughter of the local police sergeant. No children were born of the marriage. In April 1918 Jones entered Trentham Military Camp as a private, but the First World War ended before he could be posted overseas.

Jones shared both his father's nickname, 'Pompy', and his fondness for practical jokes. He loved carnivals, parades, galas and circuses. In 1921 he and Ivy opened Coney Park, an amusement park in Haven Road, complete with a barrel organ, miniature train rides, a merry-go-round, swing boats, a miniature theatre, pet monkeys and other attractions. The park, which operated at weekends and occasional evenings, brought colour and excitement into the lives of thousands of Nelson children. Jones's own photos of Coney Park at this time show it thronged with children and adults. The park was moved in 1926 to a nearby section facing Halifax Street, but closed in 1933 after some minor acts of vandalism.

Jones was also fascinated by sound, especially in its recorded form. He collected and restored music boxes and rare mechanical musical instruments of all kinds, and is thought to have possessed the largest private collection of music boxes in the country. He was the first secretary of the Nelson Citizens' Band, and recorded its practice sessions on cylinders on his phonograph. He also recorded almost every other band that came to Nelson, announcing the items himself. For eight years he was a bell-ringer at All Saints' Church.

Always inventive and skilled with his hands, when he retired from photography in 1933 Jones turned to a new pursuit: the creation of 'Magic Caves' and 'Pixietowns'. These were intricate, comic scenes containing animated wooden pixies, cut out by fretsaw and finished by hand. Hidden from view was Jones's elaborate mechanical system of rods, pulleys, motors and eccentric wheels, which manipulated the pixie figures. His first Magic Cave, built for Trathen and Company's store in Nelson in 1933, was hugely popular, and was followed by others in large department stores throughout New Zealand and overseas. At the Farmers' Trading Company store in Auckland, over 6,000 people visited in one day. Magic Caves became a regular feature of the Christmas school holidays in New Zealand. By the 1950s Jones was operating a small Pixietown factory in Nelson, but he eventually sold the business.

After Ivy Jones's death in 1947 Freddy remained in Nelson, surrounded by his music boxes and whimsical wind-up toys. On 9 August 1957, aged 76, he married Nina Leighton (née Whale), a shop assistant, in Wanganui. He died in Nelson on 29 August 1962, survived by Nina. They had no children. In later life Freddy Jones was affectionately known as 'the youngest old man in Nelson'. Today he is remembered for his photo-postcard images of the city and its environs, and for thousands of negatives housed at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, and the Nelson Provincial Museum.

How to cite this page:

Carol Markwell. 'Jones, Frederick Nelson', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/4j9/jones-frederick-nelson (accessed 22 February 2017)