Page 1: Biography
Stead, Edgar Fraser
Engineer, horticulturist, ornithologist, marksman
This biography was written by E. G. Turbott and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
Edgar Fraser Stead was born in Christchurch on 22 October 1881, the son of George Gatonby Stead and his wife, Lucie Maria Wilkinson. His father was a grain and export merchant, president of the local chamber of commerce and a successful racehorse owner. Edgar was educated at Christ's College and at Wanganui Collegiate School. He went on to study electrical engineering at Canterbury College, followed by three years at the research laboratories of the General Electric Company at Schenectady, New York.
From early youth Stead had thrived on collecting birds' eggs, fishing and shooting. On the death of his father in 1908 he resettled in Christchurch and, having inherited ample means, devoted the remainder of his life to the vigorous outdoor pursuits he loved. Soon after returning he organised the project for which he is perhaps best remembered: the recovery of the skeleton of a blue whale cast ashore at Okarito on the West Coast. The skeleton is still one of the main display features of Canterbury Museum. It was typical of Stead's energy and perfectionism that he would go on to gain an international reputation in ornithology and field sports, and for his gardens at Ilam.
Edgar Stead married Irene Mary Phillips in Christchurch on 19 August 1915. The substantial house he built at Ilam (now the University of Canterbury staff club) was the centre of a property of some 53 acres on the banks of the Avon River. The fertile alluvial soil proved ideal for rhododendron and azalea culture. Stead visited Britain often and established close links with growers such as Lionel de Rothschild. He regularly imported seeds from a large range of species and developed his own hybrids, several of which became widely celebrated. He is most famous for developing the Ilam strain, based on seeds imported from Rothschild's gardens at Exbury. Stead's rhododendron and azalea collection, now administered by the University of Canterbury, became world famous. His expert knowledge was recognised by his appointment as a rhododendron judge at the Chelsea Flower Show. He was the first president of the New Zealand Rhododendron Association, serving from 1944 until his death in 1949.
Stead was interested in birds from early childhood. Over the years he built up an exhaustive knowledge of Canterbury's bird life, giving special attention to changes brought about by settlement and by predatory mammals. He lectured widely, stressing the need to protect the dwindling populations of native birds. His first published paper, in 1923, was on the migratory waders coming to New Zealand in summer from their northern hemisphere breeding grounds. He collected a number of specimens to support his records and placed them in the Canterbury Museum. In 1927 he wrote an important chapter on birds for the volume prepared by the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury, Natural history of Canterbury. His book, The life histories of New Zealand birds, was published in 1932.
From the mid 1930s Stead's ornithological interests were in the petrels and bush birds of the offshore islands around Stewart Island and off Northland. This part of his field work was later recorded in some detail by R. A. Wilson, with whom he had a lifelong association through field trips. Stead's papers on the offshore islands, published mainly in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, include accounts of the kiore (Maori rat) and short-tailed bat, as well as of birds. He named two new subspecies of fernbird and a new subspecies of bush wren from the Stewart Island area. His scientific contribution was that of a highly gifted and critical amateur field naturalist. His extensive collection of birds and eggs, bequeathed to Canterbury Museum, is of major importance. Stead's field studies and general contribution to natural history and ornithology were recognised by his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1948.
Angling in summer and shooting in winter occupied much of Stead's time. He was an expert salmon and fly fisherman and knew every fishing stream in Canterbury. In England he shot the usual game birds, including woodcock; and in New Zealand mainly pheasants, quail and ducks. On one occasion he shot 16 quail with 16 shots. As a marksman Stead reached world class, winning competitions at Monte Carlo and elsewhere. In later life he was fond of bridge and was a particularly good player. Stead had some business and community interests, serving as a director of the Kaiapoi Woollen Manufacturing Company and for a term as a Christchurch city councillor. He died at Ilam on 7 February 1949, survived by his wife and son.