Any gnomes at home?

Freshwater ecologist Ian Duggan’s latest publication is a slight departure from science topics. Annette Taylor takes a journey down a historical garden path.

Gordonton's painted gnome takes five (apples.) Chris Smith's artwork.
Gordonton’s painted gnome takes five – apples. This fine little chap used to grace the former Trading Post, now the dairy. Artwork: Chris Smith.

When asked how he came to write a paper on garden gnomes, Dr Ian Duggan says it was because of his children.

A senior lecturer at Waikato University, Ian’s speciality is invasion biology and how microscopic zooplankton and larger animals are spread around the world. He has published numerous papers on the subject, and has worked in Canada’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, one of the top freshwater labs in North America. He has even discovered exotic creatures new to New Zealand, including a snail in a geothermal stream and two tiny crustaceans in home aquariums.

While undertaking this work, he has spent a lot of time around garden ponds, here and in North America, as well as Kew Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.

While at antenatal classes with his wife Kathryn, he met Waikato University environmental historian James Beattie and discovered they shared an interest in gardens.

“James was interested in the history of gardens.” Ian also had a fondness for garden gnomes which James soon picked up on.

“Part of my love for gnomes comes from my sister, who was always into kitsch stuff. My grandparents had a gnome which sat by the fireplace; granddad brought it home close to Christmas after a night out – he thought he was bringing Santa Claus home for grandmother. Gnomes have always been around since I was a kid.”

His new colleague James Beattie was organising a garden history conference at Hamilton Gardens in 2013.
“He invited me to address the conference, detecting my interest in gnomes. It was a bit daunting because some noted garden historians from around NZ and Australia would be there and it’s quite different from science. It was a fun challenge.”

The paper, The cultural history of the garden gnome in New Zealand, published in the journal Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, was a result of that talk which was very well received, he says.

There is a certain snobbery about garden gnomes. “There’s a lot written on the history of gardens – but gnomes and other ornaments get no mention whatsoever. No one really has much of an idea of their history; who owned them, and why they became popular. It was a bit of a detective story to figure out what sort of people had them and where they came from.”

Photo of concrete seal and Ian Duggan
“So you’re not a gnome then?” “Nope, I’m Bob the concrete seal!” Ian examines this lovely New Zealand-made seal, which was recently restored and resides in Gordonton.

Reading old newspapers, Ian found out they first appeared in New Zealand in the early 1930s, and they were far from the comical creatures seen today.

“These were expensive, highly valued items, made out of terracotta and imported from German craftsmen. They graced the gardens of the movers and shakers of society; there were articles in the papers of charity events where the gardens were written about, and the gnomes were an attraction. They were objects to be admired and all out of the reach of the ordinary New Zealand gardener.”

Not long after they appeared, they began to get stolen.

The first mention of gnomes in New Zealand papers was in early 1931 and the first time one was reported stolen was in 1935.

“I came across a lost and found notice in Wellington’s Evening Post in 1935. It had been stolen from someone’s garden and they offered a good reward for its return.”

Photo of vintage gnome
Has anyone seen this gnome? The original advertisment.

The next mention, again from Wellington, included a photo – which Ian was able to use in his paper, and also allowed him to match the gnome with its manufacturer, in Germany.

“There are still regular stories of gnomes being stolen today, especially close to universities. Sometimes large numbers are recovered, and the police have to find their owners. Several gnomes were found under a bridge in Carterton, which had to be rehomed.”

“There was an interesting quote in the paper recently – some Dunedin students said stealing gnomes was a tradition. And the police responded, no, it wasn’t tradition, it was theft.”

But some gnomes do disappear and pop overseas, sending their owners postcards or photographs. “There was a travel ad about 15 years ago which seemed to capture the imagination.”

In addition to newspapers, Ian read up old garden catalogues. “These are great because they had photos, so you can see what the gnomes looked like, and how they have changed over the years.”

Traditionally they were thin little men, with long beards and pointy hats. “After Disney’s Snow White in 1937, they became rounder and jollier. In the 1940s concrete was used and prices dropped – gnomes began popping up in gardens everywhere.

There was even a period in the 1970s when gnomes were manufactured here and exported to Australia.

Now the average garden gnome is made in China and there are no limits to appearance. “There are zombie gnomes, naughty gnomes, biker gnomes – even female gnomes, which was unheard of.”

Tui beer even put out a range of gnomes, which have become highly collectable since they started 15 years ago.

Tui gnomes photo
Tui gnomes at their best. Maybe. Spotted at a Canterbury pub by Number 8 Network.

“But the Tui gnomes lack the traditional pointy hat, which were modelled on German miners’ hats, that could be stuffed with things, for health and safety reasons.

“Gnomes are still being mentioned in the papers; getting stolen, roaming the world, sending pictures back. They’re not going to go away, they’re still popular. It will be interesting to see what happens next.”

  • Gordonton artist Chris Smith painted his eye-catching, colourful Wall of Fame on the Trading Post frontage, (now the dairy) depicting life and the locals of Gordonton in 1999.  It created much comment and appreciation for at least 10 years, but was painted over when new tenants moved into the building. The cartoon of a greedy gnome on the tearoom’s window was particularly stubborn to remove, he recalls.“It took them ages to scratch that off. I was chuffed.”  Read the full story here.• Calling all gnomes: so how many gnomes or other charming garden ornaments are lucking around our neck of the woods?  Let us know if you have one or more, and send in a pic.  We know they’re out there.
  • A final note on concrete seals from Ian: “They don’t appear in any of the garden catalogues I have up until 1946 – then there is a big gap. If their popularity was related to Marineland, that didn’t open until 1965. But that does match up to when I can start finding pictures of them. There was one stolen in Levin in 1991, and it had been on their lawn for 18 years. There was a concrete seal in a new playground in Auckland in 1969. The Flutey’s from the paua house had a couple around their pond for a time, which started to be developed in the 1960s. But from what I can tell, 1960s… There did seem to be true ‘art deco’ seals which appeared earlier, but were for indoor decoration.”  Bob the Gordonton seal (whose exact location must remain secret) is a fine specimen, complete with the original concrete ball, which at one time may have been painted. He was found in six crumbling pieces in a Hamilton garden and nursed back to health.


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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

18 thoughts on “Any gnomes at home?

  • October 29, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Fascinating. At last someone asking the questions about the things we all want to know. Gets my seal of approval. Did Ian’s paper cover anything on decorative garden wells?

    • October 30, 2015 at 9:48 am

      No. But he quite rightly says there is much more to research. I think he needs a research grant!

        • November 2, 2015 at 11:20 am

          Arf arf! Very good, Tamahere. As always!

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  • November 10, 2015 at 11:44 am

    “Gnominate him” . . . . Arf arf from me too!

  • May 25, 2016 at 9:52 pm

    I love the art deco concrete seal. They are becoming very popular in Auckland with all ages..was there ever a patent on them?

    • May 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

      I don’t think there’s a patent – it’s hard to find information on them!

      • May 26, 2016 at 1:34 pm

        Sure is! Would live to see them in people’s gardens more often. Such a kiwiana item ?

        • December 8, 2016 at 6:35 pm

          I have one of these concrete seals, in original condition. It has a glass ball on its nose (not concrete), and has an electrical wire plumbed through the base up to the ball where a light bulb sits inside the ball. I know where a second one is, exactly the same, but with the glass ball missing, plumbed for power too. Both are identical to the one in the picture above in every other way.

          • December 8, 2016 at 8:11 pm

            Thanks for that Duncan. The seal in the picture has a groove running up the inside to the nose; we wondered if it was for a pipe to carry water so that it could act as a fountain, but the information about the electrical wire makes sense of it.

  • December 8, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Mine has a very small hole where the mouth is, about 5mm diameter. Not sure what that is for and doesn’t seem to come out anywhere else. Will check it over when properly cleaned up. The hole in the top of the nose is much bigger, and with a plastic (bakerlite?) thread set in the concrete, about 15mm dia – this is the ducting for the power. This goes right through to the base via a tube.It is completely all original, even looks like some original paint left on it. Planning to restore it very soon. Would love to see more pics, but can’t find any more. I think the glass ball on the top is probably original, with porcelain light bulb socket and bakerlite cup.

  • March 24, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    We have a seal just like that one too we love him!!!! it has a light fitting and a white, round glass screw-on light globe on the nose. They can be used as lights or fountains – our family used to go to 18th Avenue motel in Tauranga every summer and they had one beside their pool which was a fountain squirting water into the pool. I loved it and hence when I saw one on trade me over ten years ago we snapped him up. He has travelled all over New Zealand with us when we find our forever home we will wire him up as a light or a pool fountain. 🙂

    • March 27, 2017 at 8:58 am

      Thanks for that lovely yarn Anne – very envious of your seal’s glass globe! Look after him well!

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  • October 13, 2019 at 5:56 am

    Hi I am doing a massive art project about these seals, documented on my Instagram @kissfromaseal wherein trying to locate as many as I can. Can anybody shed some more light?

    • October 29, 2019 at 11:59 am

      N8N would be delighted to share a pic of Bob the Seal, Amy! And if anyone has more information on where more seals hang out – get in touch!

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