on the canterbury Plains
Idid not deliberately intend to dig up the past as I set off on the main road west out of Christchurch. I was going just 40 kilometres to Darfield, the main town on the western plain between the Waimakariri and Rakaia Rivers.
But what I found in the neighbourhood of Darfield happened to be several people and places that were all, in some way, remembering the past, preserving historical objects, and important buildings in our nation’s history. I even find, within about ten kilometres of each other, the homesteads of a nineteenth-century premier and one of the Original All Blacks.
The land may be flat, but the views of the Southern Alps can be spectacular, especially after some late winter snow. When the road turns north-west at Aylesbury, a sign post points to a scenic lookout on the site of the former Aylesbury railway station. Here, one can wonder at the mountains – and ponder the quirks of a history that left Darfield to develop, and the proposed town of Aylesbury never to eventuate.
In Darfield, I start my exploration at Tussock Square, a peaceful little park on the main street, which was, until 1984, the site of the Memorial Hall.
Spread out in stones and paving is a representation of Darfield, sitting on the plains and dissected by water races.
Beside it, a timeline of plaques adorns a curved wall, a great idea that shows the whole history of the town, originally a railway junction.
It was a Millennium project, and a new plaque has already been added to commemorate the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.
Leith Creamer was the prime mover behind the square and her efforts are a prime example of civic pride, and a good reminder that if it weren’t for such efforts, historic sites such as Tussock Square would probably be developed into petrol stations.
I pay a visit to the Creamer’s home, a new brick house on what used to be a wide strip of railway land that bordered the railway. The adjacent road used to be called Railway Terrace North: now it’s simply North Terrace.
I meet Leith’s husband John, who is a local historian, and happy to chat about the past.
He has lived in Darfield since 1937 when his father arrived to work as a teamster. He remembers the war time when his father and older brother were in the Home Guard, and he became familiar with town life when he was the butcher’s assistant, making deliveries by bicycle.
For many years he was the local butcher, and until the 1960s had a slaughter house just outside the town (he says he got his stock from the Addington market, not wanting to let price negotiations ruin relationships with local farmers!)
Over many years he has witnessed the closing of shops in the smaller settlements around Darfield, such as Coalgate, Hororata, Sheffield, Waddington, Greendale and Kirwee.
John has been involved with the local motor and machinery club, and with forming the museum at the Homebush homestead (which I visit later).
By pure chance, I come across another collector at the other end of North Terrace when I spot an intriguing sign outside one of the houses: “Matt’s Miniature Museum”.
Large windows in the front of the house allow passers-by to view rooms full of old and interesting objects – all sorts of household appliances, including old irons, scales, china, cutlery, phonographs, and bottles.
This private museum is only opened by appointment, and I have arranged to meet Matt Williams who is responsible for this unique collection.
He arrives from his house further down the street on a vintage shop bicycle (complete with old wicker basket) that is the very one he used in his first job as the chemist’s delivery boy.
Previously an industrial engineering manager for the North Canterbury Hospital Board, today he works as a technical services technician at Christchurch Airport.
His career may be attributed to the influence of his father’s electrical trade – and also many of the museum’s electrical items, for the front room was once the showroom from which Matt’s father, Russell Williams, sold all sorts of electrical appliances.
Matt had collected old things as a child, and once his father stopped trading in the 1950s, was ideally placed to save the old appliances and electrical items, which, to his father, were useful objects rather than museum pieces. Matt says that the historical values of objects are more easily recognised by a later generation: “Things are only old if they’re older than you!”
Some china electric jugs, in different colours and patterns, were leftover retail stock from the appliance shop, and by 1965 they were unique and interesting enough to be some of the first items for Matt’s museum. Matt’s father discouraged his clients from destroying the immersion element by using the jug as a milk container, and wrote his Ode to a Little Brown Jug: I be a Speedy jug, I be I be for boiling water for your tea Milk and me do disagree So don’t put milk inside of me.
Many items were collected in the course of his father’s business when old electrical appliances or systems were replaced. On one wall, Matt shows me the first time control for Darfield’s street lighting; beside it, the servants’ call system that was part of the daily management system at the homestead at nearby Racecourse Hill.
Russell Williams was also the chief fire officer at Darfield (he received a Queen’s Service Medal for his work), and introduced the first radio communication system in the country to turn out fire volunteers for emergencies – the fire siren could not be heard at the other end of town in a nor’wester wind.
The Williams family has been connected with Darfield since Matt’s grandfather was an electrical linesman in the area. Roland Williams was the first to install mains reticulation in Darfield in the 1930s (powered by Lake Coleridge) and was also the film projectionist at the Memorial Hall.
During Matt’s childhood, the family lived in the house before a bigger one was built further back on the property. His collection extends from the two front rooms into other rooms of the old house, and into an adjoining shed as well as into a separate garage. Here, there are countless tools, old telephones, marine engines, stationary engines, farm engines, pumps, tools, and motorcycles – even an old booklet of auctioneers’ lot numbers, which, Matt jokes, his family may use to disperse the collection when he eventually departs from the scene.
Matt even shows me a little peep hole in the back office wall through which his father could observe customers who had entered the showroom. If he didn’t want to see them, he would sometimes sit quietly out the back where he could be enjoying the conversation of one of his mates – Matt remembers one of these mates, whom he called “Cocky” (Don) Coleman whose war service had left him with a wooden leg. He remembers especially the time when he was surprised by Cocky demonstrating a new wooden leg which folded at the flick of a button.
Most of the museum’s items have been donated, though in recent times Matt has acquired items through TradeMe and swap meets. The readiness of people to donate was apparent from the early days when his father left ten old mechanical jacks outside, right beside the footpath. His mother was sure they would be stolen, but within a week the ten had become twelve!
A few kilometres north of Darfield on Highway 73, I linger to take a look at the massive Fonterra milk factory that was built here recently.
It’s remarkable enough for what it is, but is pretty uninspiring, a rectangular block rising up beside a shed, albeit a very big one.
Its sign on the main road banning visitors for the reason that the place was a construction site was not particularly inviting.
I will therefore only say that the factory’s presence here is a pretty good indication of the widespread conversion to dairy farming in the area, and that at night it is lit up like a giant beacon that may help guide aeroplanes into Christchurch airport – provided they do not mistake it for the airport itself.
Right opposite the factory, the century-old nine-bedroom homestead at Racecourse Hill was badly damaged in the 2010 earthquake, regarded as a demolition job, and put up for sale.
It was only saved by the foresight and dedication of its new owners, Brian and Bernice Cribb. Brian saw that the old girl was not a lost cause and sought his own engineering advice. The brick foundations had proved solid enough, the main problem being the collapse of the brick chimneys and the brick walls of the ground floor (which supported the wooden walls of the first storey).
Brian remarks that the engineers responsible for heritage demolitions should not be able to sleep comfortably for a long time to come.
After the Cribbs bought the house in September 2012, three months were spent in securing the structure before restoration began. The brick walls have been rebuilt with a stronger structure of timber framing and plywood bracing. While everything within reason is being restored, new bricks are being used as they are a less costly option than re-shaping the quake-damaged originals.
An industrial kitchen has been built so that the property can host functions if this is desired in the future. The job has entailed new plumbing and wiring. Brian notes that the builders and contractors have all been enthusiastic about the project, and without their willingness, things could have been much more difficult.
A year on, and it’s almost ready for the Cribbs to move in and occupy one end of the building while the remaining few months of work is completed. They have been living in some converted stables on the property.
Here, Brian makes me a coffee while Bernice prepares Pete, one of her horses, for a ride around the adjacent equestrian arena.
It’s early on a lovely, sunny Saturday afternoon and a couple of members of the Malvern Riding Club roll up to exercise their horses and gain some instruction from Kay Stott.
The club, which used to meet at the Sheffield Domain, operates very informally, with members meeting once or twice a week. Caroline (who drives the Springfield school bus) has recently taken up riding again after her family has grown up, and says she is surprised that she enjoys it so much and now often makes the effort to come twice a week. It’s a good way for the members to meet socially, improve their riding, and, I am told, it is good for the horses to interact with each other as well. Recently the club even staged a show-jumping and dressage show in the arena.
If ever Racecourse Hill is to be used for functions, its facilities have been enhanced by the Cribb’s recent acquisition of St Theresa’s, the old wooden church from Coalgate. Earlier in the year it was transported in one piece over 12 kilometres and placed on the property.
I am heading out that direction myself, but only as far as Homebush, originally the property of Scottish brothers William and John Deans, who, from 1843, had been the very first farmers on the land (which they named Riccarton) which was to become Christchurch. They leased 33,000 acres from local Māori, but in 1850 this was seized from them by the Canterbury Association who wanted the land to create the city of Christchurch.
William had some legal training in Scotland and fought to retain the land on which they had been the first, brave pioneers. They managed to retain just 400 acres at Riccarton, but won the right to lease an equivalent 33,000 acres in the west on the Canterbury plains. Thus, in 1851, they began anew at breaking in a massive expanse of empty plain for farming.
Much of that land has been divided up and sold over the years, but five Deans families still farm on the original land, including Jim and Louise Deans who own the 1350 acres that retain the Homebush name as well as many of the original farm buildings. Unfortunately its fine looking brick home (completed in 1903) was destroyed by the 2010 earthquake.
Initial TV coverage of the effects of the quake showed the now well-known image of a crippled homestead, the roof of which had fallen into the bedroom of a teenage boy. Feverish with excitement and darting about the countryside in a helicopter, a TV news crew had reported this as Homebush: in fact, it was the Hororata homestead, several kilometres away. However, the mistake remains in many minds.
I meet Louise Deans beside the vacant space where the homestead once stood and watch builders working on the framework of a new house further down the front lawn. The wood for the framework was milled on the property, but the construction materials will consist mainly of steel, concrete and glass. Louise and Jim are recycling rimu and kauri timber from the old house to use for stairs and kitchen benches in the new one. It is built on a raft (floating) foundation, and has a modern design with living spaces merging into each other, and being further from the steep hill to the west, the house will catch more sun than its predecessor.
The damaged brick stables building (1870) was repaired immediately in 2010, four bricklayers working flat out for a month so that its museum and cafe could be open for the tourist season. Homebush takes group bookings from September to April, offering lunches with tours of the museum and the extensive gardens. Louise is usually on hand to impart her extensive knowledge of the family’s history. At the moment she is completing a biography of the pioneering William Deans.
The attic-like top floor of the long stables building is full of old household items. It’s like Matt’s Miniature Museum, only on a larger scale, and has similarly snowballed from donations. There are dolls, toys, biscuit tins, washing machines, ovens, radios, furniture, clothing, china, and kitchenware – even some typewriters and the wedding dress of Mona Anderson, the Darfield writer of the well-known, A River Rules My Life, and other books about her life in the high country. Downstairs, there are carriages, tools, saws, station signs from the old Homebush railway station, and one room devoted to a collection of brick and pottery products of local brickworks, including the Homebush Brick and Tile Works that was set up at Glentunnel.
Most notable is the rugby display related to Bob Deans, one of the Original All Blacks. Greatuncle of Jim Deans, he was the third generation of the family to farm Homebush, and took over the homestead block when the run was divided after his father’s death in 1902. He was the first member of the family to live in the new homestead, but died from peritonitis in 1908 at the age of 24.
He is most famous for being a member of the All Black Northern Hemisphere Tour of 1905, when the team won 34 matches, lost only one, and scored a total of 976 points, conceding just 59. Playing mostly at centre, Deans played in 21 of the games, scoring 20 tries. In the test match against Wales in Cardiff, as is now part of rugby folklore, he scored a try but it was not awarded as by the time the referee appeared on the spot, the Welsh players had pulled him back over the line. That try would have drawn the match and left the team undefeated on the tour. It is well documented that Deans sent a telegram to the Daily Mail asserting that he had “grounded ball six inches over line” and “was pulled back by Welshmen before referee arrived.”
The museum has an interesting display of items relating to Bob Deans’ rugby career, including his caps for the All Blacks, Canterbury, and Christchurch Boys’ High, a couple of his All Black jerseys, and a Welsh jersey from that infamous day at Cardiff Arms Park, as well as old black and white film footage of some of the matches. It is a little collection of national significance and Louise tells me the family are very happy to safeguard it and display it for those who are interested.
In 1879, a turbine room was added to the stables building where a turbine imported from the US (and carted by dray horses over the plains) became a powerhouse for the farm, powering a saw bench and a chaff cutter, amongst other mechanisms. A channel was dug to a pond nearby so that water from the Waianiwaniwa River could be drawn to power the turbine, which (made in Dayton, Ohio, and patented in 1863) is believed to be the only surviving model that is still in working condition.
While William Deans and other early runholders on the plains naturally chose the better watered land next to rivers, most of the smaller farms that were settled later lacked a convenient water supply for their stock. Digging wells was expensive and carting water from the nearest river impractical, so in 1871 the Provincial Council investigated the proposal of one of its members, Kirwee farmer, Colonel de Renzie James Brett. Having got the idea from irrigation schemes in India (whence he also brought the name Kirwee), he suggested that water from the Waimakariri River be siphoned off and brought across the plains to the Malvern District by means of water races.
The scheme actually began in 1877 with a dam across the Kowai River, and grew over the next decade as more and more water races were dug across the plains. By 1889, the network needed more water so an additional supply was created by tapping the Waimakariri as well.
The system is still in use in the area today (as well as in other parts of Canterbury), and a monument that recognises de Renzie’s role spans the main water race at Kirwee. It is clearly visible on the side of the main road opposite the pub – a bright white domed structure, the design of which seems to acknowledge the Indian connection.
Wayne Rowlands is one of six workers for the Selwyn District Council who maintain the water races between the Waimakariri and Rakaia Rivers. He’s been doing it for 25 years, so is well qualified to explain to me the workings of the races that he looks after with Chris Ruscoe in the Malvern area (the others in the Paparua and Ellesmere areas go as far as Christchurch and the coast). He takes me up to the two intakes on the Kowai River, several kilometres past his home in Springfield. Nearby one can see the remnants of the old gates where the original dam once spanned the river.
The new intakes are very simple, constructed to slice off some of the water flow into well built channels. A grating prevents floating objects from entering and some vertical gates can be adjusted to change the flow. The shape of the opposite bank can also be changed by bulldozer if the strength of the flow alters considerably. Wayne checks the level of the river every day, as well as the levels in the races. He also attends to any blockages, and laments the amount of litter he has to remove (especially plastic bottles).
The main race from the Kowai descends to Waddington where it splits, one branch going to Darfield and on to Charing Cross, the other through Kirwee (a fall of over 200 metres). These main channels (along with another from an intake on the Selwyn River at Glentunnel) split into smaller and smaller races so that almost every farm between the Waimakariri and the Selwyn that requires it is connected to the system to water their stock (irrigation is a separate matter). When the Kowai gets low in the summer, a direct channel from the Waimakariri is opened up (its junction with the Kowai race can be seen in the park opposite the war memorial at the west end of Darfield).
Colonel de Renzie Brett cannot take all the credit for the races in the area, for John Hall, another member of the Provincial Council, was soon developing a system of water races on his Rakaia Terrace Station, a large area of land between the Hororata and Rakaia Rivers. Premier of New Zealand 1879-82, Hall is best known for his later role as the parliamentary leader in the campaign for women’s suffrage (when the Bill that gave women the right to vote was passed in 1893, he sent a telegram to Kate Sheppard: “Bill passed by two – hurrah!”). Hall can be said to be responsible for the development of shelter belts on the Canterbury Plains, for he promoted Bills that encouraged the planting of trees in exchange for freeholding of land. The three-roomed cottage, built on the vacant plain here in the 1850s by the Studholme brothers, still survives as part of an enlarged homestead that has been occupied by Hall descendants ever since he bought it in 1861.
Kate Foster is part of the fourth generation of the family and lives here with her husband, Richard, a few kilometres to the west of Hororata. They have farmed here for 45 years, and they welcome me into the sunny conservatory and ply me with tea and biscuits. It is probably quite rare to find a comfortable family home that has such historical importance that it could just as easily be a national museum. While Hall’s political papers have found their way to national repositories, historically valuable station documents have always remained on the property (albeit some of them previously stashed in a loft).
While historically important, the house is also impressive without being pretentious: perhaps this is because the later additions to the original cottage have continued to use weatherboards and the upper storey has been built within the height of the original dwelling.
The house is not symmetrical, neither are the gardens that surround it, but they are so well established that the whole place has a natural rather than a planned feel.
Nineteenth-century carved Maori panels on the front verandah complement the neat, white exterior walls.
Displayed on the walls of the entrance hall, designed in 1890 by Samuel Hurst Seager with kauri and rimu panelling, are artefacts that John Hall acquired on his travels around the world, including African spears and a South American armadillo.
Family portraits, including that of John Hall, hang in the library, where Kate and Richard show me Rakaia Terrace Station’s big, heavy journals in which the daily work by the station’s nineteenth-century staff is recorded.
Richard tells me they were at first puzzled when they saw it was recorded in 1868 that a couple of the workers were going on many trips “to the lake”.
After a bit of study, it was discovered that they were taking bullock wagons to Timber Yard Point on Lake Ellesmere and retrieving a load of timber, milled at Little River on Banks Peninsula, and returning the next day, making over 100 such trips for the material to build the station’s woolshed. The huge, 20-stand woolshed is still standing on the property today, and the Fosters are currently restoring it.
Richard has worked hard to preserve several farm sheds and a blacksmith’s shop (not to mention numerous farm tools and machinery), many in their original, rough nineteenth-century condition. It is planned that in the future these will be developed for permanent museum displays. At the moment Kate and Richard conduct group tours of the property, and in the springtime they host garden and woodland walks. The previous week they had hosted “Snowdrop Sunday” and I notice the little white flowers are still giving a good show.
The maintenance and preservation of this historic property is clearly a big part of the Fosters’ lives, and in everything they tell me I detect a determination to pass it on in the best possible condition. Damage from the earthquake (including six toppled chimneys) has already been remedied. In 2010 they transferred part of their property to the Terrace Station Charitable Trust so that it can be preserved and protected for future generations. Richard jokes that they are now tenants on someone else’s property.
Sir John Hall (he was knighted in 1882) is buried in the graveyard of St John’s Church in Hororata, and left money for the stone church (1910) to be built there in memory of his wife, Rose. It is interesting that when the previous wooden church (1875) was built, Hall offered to contribute 10 guineas if it was to be used exclusively for Anglican services, but £100 “if it could be used by other denominations”. The less progressive church decided to take the 10 guineas.
Another interesting tale concerns the moving of the wooden church across the road to make room for the stone one. While being towed across by a team of horses on a Saturday, it slipped off its runners. It was left there until the Monday, and the Sunday service that was held there in the meantime could be said to have taken place in a real “middle of the road church”.
Hall was actually a lay reader, and, before the first church was built, often conducted services in the simple cob cottage belonging to Bentley Coton on the other side of the township. This historic little building (1864), rebuilt in 1978 by the Hororata Historic Society, is closed owing to earthquake damage, but it still evokes a time when the plains were treeless and Coton was one of the very first smallholders farming in the district.
The old stone church was hit badly by the earthquake, and today sits temporarily abandoned, the top of its tower boarded up. The loose and fallen stonework has been piled up neatly nearby, most of it protected in a special tent. Services are now being held in the old wooden church.
The Hororata Community Trust was created to help the District rebuild after the earthquake. Not just for the heritage buildings, but for private homes and businesses that represented lives that had been shattered by the disaster.
Their major fund raiser has been the Hororata Highland Games, held in 2011 and 2012 (this year it will be held on November 9) at the Hororata Domain. With Highland dancing and pipe bands, and competitions like the caber throw, it attracted 10,000 visitors last year. It has been a massive innovation to boost community spirit and identity.
Another contributor has been the Hororata pie. I buy a specimen at the Hororata Village Bar and Cafe which is run by Jason and Jarnia Kupe (50c from the purchase of every pie goes to the community trust).
The history (and the legend) of the pie began 30 years ago with Ellie Hutton who made it at home on the coal range. Jarnia tells me it was popular with locals and with the boys after rugby, and after Ellie began making them at the pub, it was very popular with skiers after a day on the slopes. The pub was closed after the earthquake and Mark Stewart and Ainsley Walter bought the recipe for $4,400 at the closing auction and created the Hororata Pie Company.
Jason is a butcher, and now makes the pies at the cafe, which is opposite the old pub, and the cafe’s bar has now become the local.
To define the recipe (which was a “handful” of this, and a “sprinkling” of that) Jason asked locals and older cooks what they remembered of the pie, and now offers a number of varieties, including mince, steak, steak and cheese and chicken. Jarnia sees to the other edibles in the cafe – all homemade, including the breads and pastas.
The pie is delicious, and sets me up for the drive back home. Once back on the main road at Darfield, I can always make my way back to Christchurch by following one of the Fonterra milk tankers – unlike the metropolitan buses, it seems that there is one every five minutes.
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHARLES COLE
Top Darfield’s clock tower has information boards about the surrounding area. Middle Tussock Square is on the main road in the centre of Darfield. Below One of the timeline plaques gives the history of Tussock Square itself. A recent plaque brings the timeline up-todate with the earthquakes.
The timeline on the wall in Tussock Square. Right John Creamer outside his house, with one of the four NZ flags I saw flying in Darfield.
Matt’s Museum extends into a garage. Right The front room of the Museum.
The Fonterra factory on Highway 73, a few kilometres north of Darfield. Below A friendly sign on its approach road.
The restoration of Racecourse Hill is nearing completion.
Brian Cribb surveys the front where brick walls are about to be filled in.
Brian outside St Theresa’s, transported from Coalgate earlier in the year.
Instructor, Kay Stott, looks on as Pete decides to go on a run by himself.
The workshop in the stables.
Some bricks made at the Homebush Brick and Tile Works, Glentunnel. Right A picture of Bob Deans beside one of his All Black jerseys.
The All Black and Welsh jerseys from 1905, side by side in the museum.
The stables at Homebush, with the water tower built beside the turbine room.
Below Sheep wait to be shorn outside the Homebush woolshed.
Wayne Rowlands at the upper intake for the water races on the Kowai River.
The sign where Homebush Road meets the West Coast Road.
The monument to Colonel de Renzie James Brett spans the water race at Kirwee.
Richard and Kate Foster outside their home at Terrace Station at Hororata
A portrait of Sir John Hall hangs in the library at Terrace Station.
The woolshed at Terrace Station is currently undergoing a big restoration job.
Hororata’s old wooden church is currently being used for services. A mountain view from Terrace Station at Hororata.
Coton’s cottage was used for church services between 1864 and 1875.
The church of St John’s at Hororata was badly damaged in the 2010 earthquake.
Poster on a farm shed advertises the Hororata Highland Games 2012. This year’s games take place on November 9. I catch Jarnia Kupe making pasta in the kitchen.