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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 1, Issue 3, November 1958

Early Housing in New Zealand — With particular reference to Nelson and Cook Strait Area

page 2

Early Housing in New Zealand
With particular reference to Nelson and Cook Strait Area

In writing diaries we are apt to stress the unusual and to neglect the commonplace. As our forbears did the same, and they were confirmed diarists during colonial times, they did not always tell us things that we would now very much like to know. There were, however illustrated diaries, and many artists left records of what they saw.

Let us summarise what we know of the Maori whare; as it has a bearing on transit housing of the period.

The Whare did not differ greatly in shape from a European house; it was rectangular, had a window and a door and even a verandah in some cases. The materials were not as permanent as European. The huts were small, the walls low, the doorways low and the windows small, but except in scale they resembled houses—they were not wigwams, igloos or kralls, if the latter can be used in the singular sense.

Now this was extremely fortunate for the colonist, as Maoris were skilled in the construction of rectangular dwellings with thatched roofs. It was merely necessary to increase the scale to make them suitable for those colonists without tents or other temporary accommodation. One major point of difference was the absence of chimneys in the whare. They did have hearths In the middle of the floor, but without exit for the smoke. They were not partitioned into rooms.

Colonists who were, of course, building their own permanent houses or erecting a "prefab", sometimes improved on these temporary structures by either lining them with a tent to keep out draughts and moisture, or covering them with a tent fly to keep out the rain, or, and this was rare, by building a fireplace with or without a chimney, on the outer wall. They preferred cooking outside to avoid risk of fire. The disastrous fire which wiped out about 40 of such huts on the beach (Lambton Quay) in Wellington about 1841 is an example of the danger involved.

Sometimes for various reasons it was necessary to live in these huts for longer than had been expected, for under extremely favourable conditions one of the huts could be expected to have a life of about two years. When this was necessary, European ingenuity came to the rescue. Just for the sake of Illustration I will quote from the autobiography of the Moravian missionary, J. F. H. Wohlers. He first came to Nelson and later conducted a mission in Foveaux Strait on Ruapuke Island from 1844 onward. He was without any income at the time. "I sought", he wrote, "no unnecessary unpleasantness in my life as a settler. I had brought strips of glass made from spare pieces, from a glazier at Nelson with me. With my handsaw, axe and pocket knife, I made wooden frames in which to fasten the panes, not much larger than playing cards.

"Now I had windows and was no longer troubled with draughts through the holes for light in the walls. Another opening which the builders had left for the smoke to issue was uncomfortable—I cut a hole in the roof and fastened upright poles into it after the form of a chimney, fastened sticks across them, and plastered my new chimney inside and out with clay. In time the grass on my walls dried up so much that the wind could blow through, I had then to take the grass away, fasten twigs on the walls and then coat them with clay. The whole house was 15ft. long and 9ft. broad. At one end I made a bedroom 9ft. by 4ft., in the middle the reception room 9ft. by 6ft. The walls were carefully plastered with clay to make them fleatight. Then I got a few boards (I got them from the Irishman who used to go round trading) and made page 3steps and doors. The latter were not more than 4 feet high because the side walls were so low.

"I had previously made a table and chair—I discovered some flat pieces of rock which had been loosened from granite blocks. I hewed them carefully into squares, made a sledge and hauled them home. Then with clay, I built them into the shape of a stove. Now my settlement into a comfortable little dwelling was affected."

In places where there was no native labour, the immigrants bad to fend for themselves and they graduated from barracks into a variety of shelters. We will gloss over this quickly.—Some brought tents, some made lean-to shelters against banks, others made slab tents (more permanent than the whare), others using construction timbers, packing cases etc. prepared what became known as "V" huts in Canterbury and else-where. They were all pent and no wall. In the 70's similar huts were erected in preparation for the immigrants in Palmerston North. These latter were made of milled timber with a door and a window in one end.

So far we have considered only temporary housing, but will now consider the permanent home.

In all districts these differed to a certain extent depending on the place where the colonists came from and the nature of the building materials available. In Wellington, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Nelson, Marlborough and Canterbury, there were very many houses built either of clay, or of earth—for there is a difference.

In New Plymouth, these houses were quickly found to be unsuitable, that is, within the first one or two years, and ceased to be built largely because of the climate with a high rainfall, and the women folk looked with horror on the wetas and Maoribugs in the damp thatch.

In Wellington and Marlborough they likewise fell into disrepute, but for quite different reasons. In this case because of destruction by the earthquakes of October, 1848, and September, 1855.

In Canterbury, they still continued to build in this medium whenever materials were suitable. Many cottages are to be seen round the harbours of Banks Peninsular, the foothills facing inland, and in the district of Rangiora.

But to return to Wellington, Nelson and Marlborough. Clay houses in Wellington were originally congregated in the older portions of the city such as Te Aro and Thorndon, but there are not any left today. However, there is one area in South Wellington which used to go by the name of Clay Hut when I was a boy, and I am given to understand that there is still an example in Berhampore. There used to be one at Makara and I also recall the huge clay chimney end of a roadside hut in this area.

With regard to Marlborough, there were numbers of small huts scattered throughout the district by 1855. Nobody was willing to build permanent large homes on the grazing holdings and absentee owner areas; judging from remains, these huts were very poorly constructed.

Now it has been recorded that the earthquake demolished these clay huts in the Cook Straits area but the destruction was selective — those which were built on the plain were demolished, but those built on the solid ground—foothills—were spared.

Let us turn to Nelson. In comparison with Wellington and Marlborough, there are many of these clay houses still standing in Nelson, some of which have not a crack on them, and they date from before 1855. The most important are those built by the architect W. Beatson in Stoke and Nelson, but these properly constructed houses with walls of 2 to 2½ feet thick are not the only houses which are in excellent order. There are also well built small cottages, some at the foot of Washington Valley are well known, and there are even some crude turf sheds on solid ground still standing.

It appears then that two main reasons may contribute to their survival; position and construction.

With regard to position it is as well to remember that there are still same clay houses standing on the foothills to the west of the Wairau plain on the main road to Nelson; that is, on solid ground.

As to construction, the Nelson houses were well built—of mono-page 4lithic structure mostly—i.e. clay with tussock or bracken pounded bit by bit into a frame to make a solid wall: for larger residences, 2 – 2½ft. outer and 1 – 1½ft. inner walls, smaller houses of this construction having not less than 1ft. thick walls. Others were made differently; turfs were cut and rammed one on top of the other with the grass still on them. This construction was used mostly for sheds and I know of one of these still standing. The third method was with large bricks of sun dried clay mixed with tussock, a method used frequently in Canterbury. The size of brick varied but they were about 9 by 12 by 18 inches and often larger.

A well known picture in Edward Jerningham Wakefield's "Illustrations to Adventure in New Zealand" shows a cottage being constructed in this manner at the foot of what I take to be Washington Valley. This is at variance with the opinion of Miss Brought who relates that the cottages erected at the foot of the Valley by Mr Simpson were made by piling soft clay in a pile and then trimming it to the desired thickness. Perhaps there was a little of each.

One more method, and this has already been forecast in the first part of this talk, was then, and still is known as wattle-and-daub. This was the method adopted by Wohlers. A framework was made, the intervals filled with basketwork and the whole plastered inside and outside to whatever thickness was required. The Te Awa Iti Whaling village was built in this manner. The village had been there from the late 20's and when Wakefield visited it in 1839, he described it thus:

"The walls of the houses were constructed of wattled supple-jack called kareau, filled with clay; the roof thatched with reeds; and a large unsightly chimney at one of the ends, constructed with either the same material as the walls or of stones heaped together by rude masonry."

I might add that the plaster method is easy, as my small daughter was quite competent at making huts in this manner and I have known walls even sparsely plastered (dragging mud out of the stream is tough work for girls) to last for some years when not roofed.

Both Wohlers and Wakefield have mentioned chimneys; their construction is of some interest. It will be noticed that the method used by Wohlers was to make a wooden framework for the chimney. He does not say so, but it seems to imply that in his whare, the chimney was more or less like a ventilator, from the roof up, but I hardly think that this could have been intended. A method commonly used in New Zealand, Australia, and America was to drive posts in the ground and to use wattles daubed inside and out, treating the chimney breast in a like manner, but using a heavy member to support it over the opening.

In construction like this it is not necessary to tie or nail the timbers together. They can be merely laid on each other in superimposed layers, corners notched as in a log hut, and then the whole plastered together. A cross timber high up with a wire dangling, or an iron bar lower down is required for suspending pots etc.

Of course in a clay house, these walls and chimneys are of the same construction and do not have frames of wood. They do, however require a heavy beam to support the chimney breast, and to support walls above windows and doorways, but these latter are usually supported by built in frames while the walls are under construction. Clay had many uses for the earliest settlers. It was the first mortar in general use, as for instance the building of stone fireplaces; but within the past ten years I have seen a clay wash still being used to paint the insides of an old fashioned open hearth at Akaroa, a tradition carried on from 1840!

Another type of clay construction is sometimes mistaken for wattte-and-daub which has been dealt with in detail. Some pictures of early huts show a wooden frame which has been filled in with clay without having any basket work foundation. This took the form of clay bricks stuck together with pug mortar, or with lumps of moist clay filling all the space between the framing. This is half-timbering and was rarely used.

Foundations for properly built clay houses were carefully prepared, and page 5in Nelson they are on a foundation finishing a little above ground level composed of stones set in cement mortar. I will refer to this a little later when discussing some of the remaining houses. Walls were finished with lime plaster rough cast on to walls which had been keyed to receive it by picking the dry surface in a downward direction. Later, some walls were replastered with Portland cement plaster, and examples occur where large sheets of plaster have fallen away due to moisture getting behind it from neglect.

I will now mention briefly some of the houses round the district. It was during the early 40's that I made a survey of the cob houses in the Wellington, Marlborough and Nelson districts, but the thesis which I then wrote was not published and has been unfortunately misplaced. These lists have been compiled from remaining notes in my field books. I am also mentioning two other houses of historical interest, which are not built of clay. The following slides show the houses I shall discuss.


This house is not a cob cottage, but is the wooden house erected by John Waring Saxton at Stoke.

This weatherboard house was prefabricated in England and imported by the New Zealand Company and erected at the Port. There can be little doubt that it is a Manning house, as H. Manning was supplier to both the New Zealand Company and the New Zealand Government as his contemporary advertisements show. It was erected on its present site some years later by J. W. Saxton. Originally somewhat larger, it has been reduced in size comparatively recently. The present occupiers are Mr and Mrs Raine, nee Saxton.


Langbein's residence and outbuildings. "Broadgreen", Nayland Road, Stoke. Architect W. Beatson; builder, probably Holland, for Mr Buxton in 1851.

This is undoubtedly the most beautifully placed clay house in the district, with a wonderful outlook and setting of mature trees. The house has ten rooms, kitchen with a black and red terracotta chequered floor; dairy and buttery attached. The kitchen and buttery wings extend to the rear of the house, and the long wide bench for milk pans has a row of recesses below for churns. The original wallpapers in this house are in excellent condition. Except for minor alterations in the central classical front doorway, this house is almost as originally built for Mr Buxton. Outer walls are 2ft. thick, and inner partitions, 1ft, thick, on stone foundations; the roof is slate, with ornamental barge boards and ornamental brick chimneys.

3.Stoke: at the end of Nayland Road is one of the most interesting of the clay houses. Like most colonial houses it has grown with the family increase and prosperity. The Northern portion Is of cob; this portion is a two storeyed house of six rooms, 2 upstairs. The upper portion of the front elevation is divided into three identical gables with carved bargeboards and casement windows, and the end facing North has a similar gable. The verandah extends round both these facades. Built by Holland in the year of the earthquake, 1848, it is therefore 110 years old. It is the home of Mr W. B. Stead.
4.Towards the Northern end of this interesting road, there is another house with even gables, but with sash windows. The verandah of this house also carries round two sides. It resembles the house of Mr Stead, and was probably by the same builder. When I first saw this house it was in bad repair, but it has since been restored. Near to the house may be seen the pit from which the clay was obtained. It was built by Mr Ward, and was afterwards occupied by Mr Alfred Harley, 1890, and then by the John Beatson family in 1902.

The home of the late Mr H. E. Stephens on the Main Road to Richmond, was built in 1850, so it also weathered the great earthquake of 1855. The architect was William Beatson, and it was built for Captain Nicholson, a sea captain. He used to watch his horses training from the balcony above the front verandah. This house has nine rooms in the clay portion, and the clay was excavated from the cellars and round about the site. Walls are built on a foundation of river stones set in cement mortar, page 6rising 1½ft. above the ground level. Outside walls are 2½ft. thick and inside walls, 1ft. The brick chimneys have three fireplaces to each, and they rise from a very extensive cellar. An interesting feature of this house is that the walls above the gable ends are of timber, and the massive cupboards contained therein are intercommunicating between adjacent bedrooms.

William Beatson was the architect of the nearby Church of England, built from Poormans valley stone. Its foundation stone was laid by Bishop Hobhouse in 1864.


Cottages at the foot of Washington Valley. Of the three, one is somewhat older than the other two. This is the house which I mentioned earlier as appearing to be that illustrated by Wakefield. The original material of this house is in good condition, and with sympathetic treatment could be brought back to original condition.

The list of clay houses in Nelson City is by no means complete, as there is a two storey house at the end of Nile Street East, another in upper Collingwood Street and yet another which belonged to Col. Bissett at Brookside. This is a two floored house with a cellar. Its construction is somewhat masked by alterations and additions.


Hope. There are many clay houses in the Waimea, but the first which I would like to mention was erected in 1863 by Mr Hartford. This is an unusual style, with a hipped roof which has small gable-roofed dormers evenly spaced round the sides. The front elevation has three dormers. It is a large house with a wide verandah. It is owned by Mr Busch, orchardist and breeder of champion Clydesdales. When I visited him about two years ago, the house was in need of repair but it still had its old world atmosphere with jam being made on the huge kitchen range in the old fashioned kitchen. From the glimpse of it last January, repairs appear to be under way. It occupies a good position to the left as you approach Brightwater.

I propose now to mention several more clay houses in the surrounding district.

8.Stafford Place, Waimea West. I have not been able to check up on the present condition of this house. The clay portion was built by Henry Paul Redwood, who came out on the "George Fyfe" in 1842 in the early years of the settlement, but the wooden extension was erected in the early 70's. This house was severely damaged in the 1929 earthquake. The illustrations show the effect of earthquakes. This would resemble the damage of the early earthquakes referred to in the earlier part of this talk, except that the walls would have been considerably more brittle because of age. The method of construction is also apparent. The clay portion of the house was still in occasional use up to the time of the earthquake.
9.Amberley Farm, Richmond. The clay portion was built in about 1853 by Benjamin Lusty, who arrived on the "Clifford" in 1842; he named it after the estate of that name in his home county of Gloucestershire. The clay portion was derelict in 1940, but the wooden addition of about 1860 still remained.
10.Miss Walker's house. This somewhat resembles the Higgins house of Spring Grove, but as better proportioned dormers.
11.Hope. This house, with three acutely pointed weatherboard gables, has, clay ground floor walls, 2ft thick. It was built by Mr Hogg the surveyor, and the kitchen is paved with cross sections of Totara logs.
12."Beaconhill", Hope, was built in 1848–50 by Mr Webley. The lower portion of the walls are of clay construction. It was bought by Major Paton, 1862 and additions, designed by Mr H. B. Huddleston in 1863, were completed by Taylor Green, soon after.
13.Spring Grove. Clay house with the familiar central front door flanked on each side with windows but without dormers. It has a wide verandah of usual form, extending round the two corners. It is interesting in that horsehair was used in some parts to bind the clay. This was built about 1855 on the N.Z. Co's suburban section of Charles Waring Saxton by Mr Boddington.
14.Spring Grove. Originally built by Mr Higgins, this small two storey page 7house has walls of clay up to the height of the first floor, dormers and surrounding verandah.

Spring Grove. This large clay house was built by William Jeffries in 1856–57. He had arrived on the "London" in 1842. The walls are 18 inches thick and it contains nine rooms.

The parents of Lord Rutherford were married in the left front room of the house, his mother being the daughter of Mrs Jeffries by a former marriage. The officiating minister was Rev. W. Kirk of the Methodist church.

16.The nearby Methodist chapel is of clay, the walls being finished with cement plaster.
17.Spring Grove. The corner house with weatherboard additions, wide verandah and tall chimneys, is worthy of notice. It was built by Mr Woolley, a man of substance.
18.Brightwater. Clay house built by Peter Kerr in the early 50's. He arrived as a youth of 16 on the "Fifeshire". The front elevation is interesting with its triple casements on either side of a central doorway, and above the verandah which just turns the corners is a pair of small gable roofed dormers. The ceiling is very low in the front rooms — the headroom being a mere 6ft. 6in. It has passed through a succession of hands and when last I enquired, was occupied by Mrs A. Biggar.
19.I will mention only one more house, and as promised it will not be a clay building. I refer to the "Gables" erected in the 50's by John Palmer as a store.

As a centre of interest for many years, the huge barn at the rear was the scene of many a country dance. Although not made of clay, there is a pit adjacent from which the clay was dug for the bricks from which the house was built, for all the bricks for the building were burnt on the property. It is hoped that this house can be preserved for future generations, but as with most houses of similar age, much of the timber will require treatment or replacement. One of the charms of this residence, is the formal garden to the right, with old fashioned blooms set in small geometrical box-bordered beds. It is owned by Miss M. A. Palmer.

The making of bricks was a very old craft as far as New Zealand is concerned, missionaries from the earliest times having burnt bricks, as mentioned in the Williams Journals, while some of the earliest illustrations of Christchurch show small conical kilns in the vicinity of Oxford Terrace. These home-made bricks were, of course, made in moulds, for the cut brick came later with mechanisation.

Now to end the talk, I will describe the smallest clay house that I know. The house is about 16ft. by 10ft., a single room with walls about a foot thick. The maximum height of the walls is about 5ft., into which are embedded the roof ties, so low that it is necessary to duck to pass under them. They are the stems of saplings. There is one door and two windows on the long side. In the gable end there was a fireplace which has been boarded up. At one time it had a colonial oven which has been removed to an adjoining wooden addition and fitted into a brick fire place, and is still there; the floor was earth and there is no damp course to the walls. The doorway is very low, and the spaces for the windows, small. The original windows are in the wooden addition. The rafters are saplings and it now has a corrugated iron roof. I have never seen any so small in this district.


The uniform nature of the illustrations is due to their having been taken by Miss Hunter Brown.

Mr L. W. Field: For the loan of the negatives, and the arrangements for the making of the slides, and for operating the projector.

Mr Blick: For the splendid job he has made of the slides.