Robert Wellwood was born in County Kilkenny, Ireland, probably on 21 May 1836, into a Protestant farming family. His parents were Ann Proctor and her husband, Ambrose Wellwood. Like many young Irish of his time Robert decided to try his luck in New Zealand, and took a passage on the Queen of the Avon, landing at Wellington in July 1859. He was followed later by his younger brother Arthur.
To see his new country Robert went swagging. He visited Hastings, later returning there to work for J. N. Williams. Catching the prevailing gold fever he went off to Otago, but failed to make his fortune and returned to become farm manager for Williams. In 1870 he received from Williams 200 acres on the Heretaunga plain, and built a home there which he named Maxwell Lea. A plane tree planted in the garden was grafted to form a cross as a protection against evil.
In the 1870s Wellwood became involved in many local body activities, including the Hastings school committee, the Diocesan Trust Board and the Heretaunga Road Board. He became prominent in the Masonic lodge for many years and held office as worshipful master. On 11 April 1872, at Puketapu, he married Annie Heslop, who was from a farming family. Two sons were born before Annie Wellwood died on 12 August 1881. On 14 March 1883, at Wellington, Robert married Jane Ann Taylor Ling, the daughter of a butcher and businessman. They were to have five daughters and two sons.
Wellwood sold Maxwell Lea in 1884 and set up an auctioneering and commission business the following year. He opened his own saleyards, which are said to have had the best facilities of any in the North Island. The same year he also opened a wholesale warehouse offering a wide range of stores. He purchased another farm on the Heretaunga plain, Raureka, in 1887.
Wellwood was always prepared to take calculated risks but made sure his ventures were well publicised. The opening of his saleyards was promoted by a lavish lunch for the leading farmers and other prominent citizens, and the opening of his warehouse by a fancy dress ball. 'Life', he once said, is 'made up of speculation'. He also became involved in the land, estate and general commission agency fields, and those attending his first sale on 25 March 1885 were invited to christen the Hastings Salerooms with champagne.
In September 1884 Wellwood was elected a member and appointed chairman of the newly created Hastings Town Board, replacing one of the five original commissioners. Two years later Hastings was proclaimed a borough, becoming overnight the largest borough in the country. On 29 September 1886 Wellwood was elected the town's first mayor, unopposed. Although a popular mayor he resigned after a year to take a business trip, but served another seven years on the council in the 1890s.
Wellwood was one of the chief promoters of new industries in Hawke's Bay. He was elected president of the Hawke's Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society in 1888 and in 1890 was the first chairman of the Hastings Farmers' Association. Six years after his death his former home was purchased by the Agricultural and Pastoral Society to complete the Tomoana showgrounds area. The plane tree he planted is now a magnificent feature of the showground gardens.
Wellwood's mayoral portrait shows a strong face, partly concealed by a full black beard, with a fine aquiline nose and expressive, hooded eyes. Although he gained wealth and success in his adopted country, it appears that he never forgot his more modest beginnings. When he stood for election to the Hawke's Bay County Council in 1876 he is reported to have said: 'I do not think our Council should be composed of Members who count their acres by thousands and their sheep by hundreds of thousands. I am in favour of there being a sprinkling of the yeoman class which is the bone and sinew of every country. It is this class we may expect will act as a check to the spending proclivities of the wealthy.' At a later political meeting he stated that his best sympathies at all times were with the working man.
Robert Wellwood's long and successful life ended on 26 January 1927, at Hastings. He was in his 91st year. Jane Wellwood died at Masterton in 1936.