He initially worked in Wellington, then followed the gold miners to Australia, spending several years as a contractor providing miscellaneous goods on the goldfields of Bendigo and Ballarat.
Returning to Nelson in the mid-1850s when his father became ill, he won a contract to dig the test drives for copper deposits on the Dun Mountain, going on to contract for the supply of food and stores for the copper-mining project and for the Jenkins Hill coal mine.
Described as tall and slow of speech, he was also strong and fit enough to cope with delivering supplies to miners in the rough 'mineral belt' country, around 20 kilometres by a mountainous track from the township of Nelson.
He was a shrewd investor in property, shares, local bodies, war loans and mortgages, and seemed to have a 'golden touch' in all of his business transactions. By the time he retired in the late 1880s he had amassed a considerable fortune.
After his retirement he lived quietly and frugally with his sister, Mrs Wright, and seemed to have few interests other than the investment and care of his money. However, behind the scenes he helped out in many individual cases of hardship and distress, and contributed to causes such as relief funds, church organisations and educational and recreational schemes.
A generous spirit
In his later years he made larger and more public gifts, including Nelson's cathedral steps; the Rocks Road chains (along Nelson's waterfront); Cawthron Park (in the hills to the east of the city); contributions towards a public hospital and nurses' home; and smaller donations to the Nelson Institute (which used to run the Nelson library), and to the Nelson School of Music and its pipe organ.
Thomas Cawthron died on 8 October 1915. He bequeathed £231,000, practically the whole of his estate, for the development of an industrial and technical school, institute and museum to be called the Cawthron Institute. This was officially opened in 1921, and appointed as its first director was Thomas Easterfield, emeritus professor of chemistry at Victoria University College.
Almost 100 years since Cawthron's death, the name of this retiring but generous man lives on in one of New Zealand's leading scientific research organisations, Nelson's Cawthron Institute.
Sources: Margareta Gee, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 2007; Theodore Rigg, Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 1966; Karen Stade, www.theprow.org.nz, 2009.