Freddy Jones was affectionately known as ‘the youngest old man in Nelson’. Today his postcards of life in and around Nelson at the start of the 20th century provide a valuable record of life in New Zealand at that time.

Frederick Nelson Jones with Mutt the Monkey (

Apart from taking thousands of photographs, he also created the magical world of  Pixie Town.


One of my earliest childhood memories is visiting Pixie Town in the basement of the DIC department store in Dunedin. It was a Christmas treat for my sister and me (along with most other young kids in Dunedin) to enter Santa’s Grotto, a magical place where hundreds of mechanical pixies, nodded, bounced, rocked and swayed as they clickety clacked their various activities in a series of scenarios that were exhibited side by side in rows of  booths.


Frederick Nelson Jones was born in Nelson on 4 May 1881 and as a lad, he became interested in cameras. In 1904, when he heard Nelson College was burning he headed there on his bicycle as fast as he could with his cumbersome camera. He photographed the dramatic scene then sold more than 1,500 mounted prints of his photographs. With the proceeds from this successful venture he bought land and built a photographic studio, taking up photography full time.

Postcard of Nelson College Fire

Frederick became one of New Zealand’s first photo-journalists and for 30 years he photographed events as they happened – everything from crowd scenes, fires, ships, social gatherings, street processions, floods, even road accidents which were always popular with a public fascinated with motorized vehicles. Freddy was often seen at public events perched precariously on a tall, three-legged wooden stepladder which he designed and which later became the modern fruit-picking ladder. Over the years he took thousands of ‘Nelson views’ with many published in the pictorial weeklies which were popular at the time throughout New Zealand.

Furniture Removal Van 1920Country Outing 1914


Frederick 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 including the loudest gramophone in Nelson. He was the first secretary of the Nelson Citizens’ Band, and always recorded its practice sessions on cylinders which he replayed on his phonograph. He also recorded almost every other band that came to Nelson.


Frederick had a passion for entertaining children but sadly, although married, he had no children of his own. He had a troupe of monkeys named Mutt, Jeff, Fits and Starts as well as a donkey that he used to captivate the local children during the galas and parades he organised.  In 1921 he opened Coney Park to brighten up the lives of the children of Nelson during the Depression. The amusement park included a merry-go-round, a miniature theatre, swing boats and a miniature train called ‘The Flying Scotsman’. The park also hosted travelling circus companies that were popular at the time. Coney Park closed in 1933, the same year Frederick retired from photography.


With time on his hands, Frederick still wanted to entertain children so decided to create ‘Magic Caves’. These were colourful, intricate, amusing scenes with animated wooden pixies, expertly cut out by fretsaw and finished by hand. To animate them, he devised an elaborate mechanical system of rods, pulleys, motors and wheels of various sizes, which he organized to manipulate the pixie figures. All the machinery was hidden from view so children would not be distracted by the actions of the fairy tale characters that moved in front of them.


His first Magic Cave was built for Trathen and Company’s store in Nelson in 1933 and was hugely popular with the public of all ages. Because of this popularity, other large department stores around New Zealand wanted their own Pixie Towns. At the Farmers’ Trading Company store in Auckland, over 6,000 people visited in one day. By the 1950s Frederick was operating a small Pixie Town factory in Nelson and Magic Caves had become a regular feature of the Christmas school holidays in New Zealand’s largest cities.

In this age of lifelike computer generated images, Frederick Jones’s handmade characters look crude but it’s this very crudeness that makes them so appealing to present day viewers. The work that has gone into the creation of each of them and their jerky movements only add to their appeal. They are a colourful relic of a time before the world had various devices for portable entertain. There was great excitement each year as the countdown to the opening of Santa’s Grotto grew near. I can still remember the joy I had as a little boy gazing at the inhabitants of Pixie Town jerkily performing their tasks in front of me.


Pixie Towns faded from their Christmas appearances in the late 60s when they became ‘old fashioned’. A number of the pixies were destroyed but fortunately a few sets were saved and sold to people who saw the value they represented. These sets have been repainted and the mechanisms repaired and since 2004 have gone on display in all their clackety clack glory at Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin. Each Pixie Town season attracts around 20,000 visitors proving Fred’s little wooden pixies still cast a spell over people of all ages.

Frederick died in 1962. Today, 13,000 of his photo negatives survive in the Nelson Provincial Museum and at the Alexander Turnbull Library, providing a valuable record of life in early 20th century New Zealand. Despite the valuable contributions he made during his life, Frederick Nelson Jones is little known in New Zealand today, even in the city where he had worked so hard to make a better place.

Ceidrik Heward

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