From Heritage New Zealand Spring 2006
by Margo White
Caring for Trust properties is a labour of love, but it gives those who do it a very special connection with our heritage and the people who built it.
Te Waimate Mission House: our second-oldest building.
Rawene is a tiny settlement perched on the edge of Hokianga Harbour with a population, last census, of 462, a remote place that is often so quiet that, on a still day, you can hear a shag dive. And, if you’re lucky, the bouncing bedsprings sound of the white heron, or kotuku.
Lindsay Charman, curator of the town’s historic Clendon House, saw one on his first visit to Rawene, 10 years ago, up in the Norfolk pines behind the pub. He considered it prophetic. “I thought, well, a kotuku! You don’t get a sign like that very often.”
Charman has lived in Rawene ever since, most of that time as the curator of Clendon House. “It’s three days a week in summer, and in the winter I starve. Well, there’s not much work around here, but you adjust.” Charman is a warm and engaging storyteller, relating the story of Clendon House or, more precisely, its former residents, with affection and enthusiasm. He is a poet and published writer; back in 1999 he won the Huia Publisher’s short story award for a story set in Clendon House, called “Top Hat and Taiaha”. A couple of years later, he published a book of stories under the same name. “There are so many interesting elements of good drama in the story behind this house,” he says. “It’s a great narrative.”
A brief history: the house was built in the 1860s by Captain James Reddy Clendon, one of the country’s earliest traders, mainly in kauri. He regularly sailed his ship from harbour to harbour in the Bay of Islands and the Hokianga region in search of good wood. The Maori nicknamed him Tuatara, comparing him to a lizard hunting for food in nooks and crannies. “And there’s still a carved post in the meeting house at Motiti representing Tuatara,” says Charman.
Clendon was widely known among Maori, and a key player in the early part of the 19th century; the first United States Consul to New Zealand, a member of the first Legislative Council, a witness to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. “Yet he is possibly the most underwritten person in New Zealand history,” says Charman.
In 1856, aged 55 and recently widowed, Clendon married Jane Cochrane. She was 17, going on 18, and the daughter of an Irishman, Denis Cochrane, and his wife Takotowi. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that biculturalism was all the rage in 19th-century Hokianga. Or, more accurately, marrying Maori women was all the rage among Pakeha men in the Hokianga. In his earlier years, Clendon enjoyed a lucrative career, but had been under financial stress in the later decades of his life. He had sold his property and house at Okiato, which became the country’s first Government House, to Governor Hobson but the Crown ended up paying him a fraction of the agreed price. In the end, he was paid off with 4000 hectares of land south of Auckland (the area now called Clendon), which he was eventually obliged to sell for a song.
Charman: “He wrote a letter to his mother in 1848, saying, ‘I can see no other prospect but to work hard until the end of my days. I cannot say the Government has done much for me beyond ruining me.’ This is one of the leading Europeans, and he’s saying he’s been done wrong by the Crown!” says Charman. “You see, it wasn’t just Maori who had issues with the Crown.
“And there were rumours that it was the former US Consul who whispered sometimes in Hone Heke’s ear: ‘If you really want to stir up the British, then take the British flag.’ ”
Clendon died in 1872, leaving 34-year-old Jane with a house, eight children and £5000 ($10,000) debt. This is where Charman really warms to his theme, detailing with emphatic admiration the story of a woman who used her intellect, mana, presumably her feminine wiles, and some shrewd business instincts to keep the creditors at bay. “She wheeled and dealed,” says Charman.
“Probably robbed Peter to pay Paul is one way of putting it.”
Somehow, she kept the house, raised her children in it, and eventually died in it in 1919. “And then her son lived here until 1933, and then her grandson lived there until 1966 and his widow sold the house to the Historic Places Trust in 1971.”
Every curator who has ever been here has developed an enormous affection for Jane Clendon, says Charman. “I really enjoy imparting this story of an extremely powerful woman that most people have never heard of.
“You have to pick your market,” he says of the visitors the property attracts. “The place is sometimes brimming with, dare I say it, Aucklanders, and they’re usually in a hurry or waiting for the ferry, and you have to compress your history lesson. But it’s important in the meeting and greeting; you’re setting the tone, you’re creating a narrative around the visit, so that when they walk away they’re not just thinking of the building with a few chairs and plates. They’re thinking of the quality of the lives of the people who actually occupied it. And the bicultural aspect really does surprise people.” (It also resonates personally with Charman, whose father is English and whose mother is of Maori descent.) “And what’s it like to have eight kids? Eight kids on your own!
My parting shot to people is, ‘Next time you think you’re having a bad day, think about what a few of Jane’s were like.’ ”
In the even smaller settlement of Waimate North, half way between Hokianga and the Bay of Islands, 15 kilometres from Kaikohe, Rod Burke manages the second-oldest house in New Zealand, Te Waimate Mission House. “When I came here, the previous curator said, ‘I’ve been here for seven years. Five probably would have been enough.’ I’ve been here for 15 years. Maybe 16. I’ve lost count.”
Te Waimate Mission House is a handsome building, furnished with missionary period furniture, set in pastoral surroundings that were once New Zealand’s first large English style farm, with wheat fields, a water mill and blacksmith shop as well as the chapel, school rooms, houses and cottages.
“What they were trying to do is look for some inland Maori who hadn’t met too many Europeans so they could put themselves forward as an example that Maori would hopefully follow,” says Burke. “Their idea being the Maori were behind in their development and needed to be brought up to speed, to be like Englishmen. But not just any old Englishmen. Not those rough old sealers and whalers at Kororareka who weren’t the most moral bunch in the world, but low church, evangelical, almost Calvinist people.”
The first family to occupy the house were the Clarkes. To describe them as Calvinistic is probably an exaggeration, says Burke, but they were at that end of the evangelical scale. Missionary zeal isn’t so fashionable these days, and the term “missionary” is frequently used as a derogatory adjective meaning paternalistic and didactic. Does Burke actually like the Clarkes?
“You can’t help but get fond of people when you’ve read their personal diaries and letters,” he says. “And we’ve got a couple of Clarke’s letters home to his parents. He didn’t seem to be one of those stiff Victorian fathers. There is an account from one of his daughters, written to her nieces, and the picture that comes through is that he was quite a kindly father by the standards of the time.
“The Historic Places Trust is not a religious organisation, but my subjects are religious people, so religion comes into it,” says Burke. “We try and present it in a way that is based on sound historical study. You just can’t talk about it in a way you might talk to, say, a professor of comparative religion or a historian of the Anglican Church.”
Burke appeals to those who may not be interested in the religious side of the story by drawing attention to the construction of the building. “It is an interesting piece of architecture. Aesthetically, it’s a great building; it’s all symmetrical, all kauri built on puriri foundations. And it’s a classic Georgian building, which is uncommon in New Zealand architecture, which was mostly neo-gothic.”
Burke’s CV is a long and varied one. He did art history at university before studying librarianship at the University College of London. He’s spent much of his life overseas, and, prior to managing Te Waimate, was working at the National Library in Wellington. But the librarian’s job was becoming increasingly technocratic: “I don’t think I need to explain why sitting at a computer eight hours a day is bad for your health.”
Now he lives in relative isolation, on site, where the closest neighbour is half a kilometre away. Presumably, the money isn’t that great so why does he do it? “I’ve always had a strong sense of public service,” muses Burke. “And I’ve been very disappointed over my long years of working life that public service has been eroded by political leaders while pop stars and football players have been lauded to the skies. But I always thought it was a privilege to be able to spend money accountably and do it well. And security may not sound very interesting, that’s one of the satisfactions of the job. Knowing I’m making a difference in keeping New Zealand’s second-oldest building safe. To make sure it continues to exist.”
When Jan Titus became the property manager of the Timeball Station in Lyttelton, Christchurch, she told herself she’d do it for five years. “Part of me worried that I would get trapped here,” she says. “But part of me saw that it was a great challenge.”
The station was built by the Canterbury Provincial Council in 1876, a castle-like building that had a tower for the timeball, and a three-storey building adjacent to it that contained residential rooms, working rooms, the clock room and the lookout room. It was constructed of scoria, and there were leaky-building problems from the start; over the years it has been modified to be more watertight, and extended.
Various people have lived in the residential part of the building over the decades, including former television presenter and Mayor of Banks Peninsula, Bob Parker. Titus has a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the University of California, and has a particular interest in fundraising, which is where she has invested a lot of her energies. She’s been there six years now, during which time she has overseen the restoration of the gardens, of the building’s exterior and of the interior of the original part of the building. Restoration continues on the building’s
“We’ve uncovered the original entrance doorway, which was partially moved in 1912 to the new front entrance. The remaining handiwork of Brassington, the stonemason, is now visible and it’s wonderful. There’s a lot more remaining than we hoped.” Yet there is much more to be done: rebuilding the stone wall, restoring the kitchen and patio area and, most importantly, developing innovative visitor resources.
The Timeball Station is one of a handful surviving around the world, and the only original one left in New Zealand. Once upon a 19th century, any seaport worth its salt had one. It was the most precise means of giving a time signal to ships in the harbour so they could check their chronometers, which they used to establish their longitude and figure out where they were in the world.
The timeball is made out of a wooden frame and covered with a thin layer of zinc, measuring one and a half metres in diameter. A mast is threaded though a hole in its centre. The ships would mark their time the instant the timeball was dropped from the catch at the top of the mast. The first one was dropped in December 1876 and the last in December 1934. (By then, they were replaced by radio signals.)
The dropping of the ball was re-initiated in the late 1990s. In the early days, local station keepers relied on the Wellington observatory to provide them with the right time. Nowadays, Titus trusts on an old transistor radio. “We have it tuned to the National Radio’s news programme,” she says. “And on the sixth pip we drop the ball.”
Visitors to the site have included the great-great-grandchildren of the building’s original stonemason, and the great-grandson of the last station keeper. Titus says there are many captivating stories to do with the place. Children are keen anyway, because they want to see the castle. “Then you give them the story about longitude, which has all sorts of great hooks,” she says, admitting that Dava Sobel’s book Longitude has been extremely useful. “It’s got science and technology. It’s got piracy. It’s got [Commodore] Anson, who lost half of his crew to scurvy because he couldn’t measure his longitude and couldn’t find the land he thought he was heading towards.”
It’s not only a legacy of historical navigational tools, but of the role of ports in Christchurch’s economic development, she says. “And one of the things I like about these places is that they are never going to be built again. It costs too much to build in stone. Or the sites are considered too difficult – this one is on a cliff. In the 1960s, there was talk of this all being bulldozed. These places deserve to be looked after.
“I feel extremely lucky and privileged to have this job,” she says. “It’s always interesting, and I’ve learnt so much and met so many interesting people both as a host and through the professional work of restoration and conservation. All these people who have such good will for this little building.”