Historic Place Category 1
Lots 13 & 14 DP 711
This concrete block house in Carew Street, Kaiapoi was built by Norman Kirk (1923-1974), New Zealand's fourth Labour prime minister. Kirk was prime minister from 1972 until his death in 1974. The son of a cabinet maker, Kirk left school when nearly 13, and found work as an assistant house painter in Christchurch. He then worked as an apprentice fitter and turner, followed by a variety of jobs including as a fireman for the New Zealand Railways, a boiler assistant, and an engine driver. He joined the Labour Party in 1943, the same year he married Lucy Ruth Miller. Kirk and his new wife moved to Katikati in the Bay of Plenty, where he worked as a boiler engineer for four years.
Kirk built his house in Kaiapoi after he and his family returned to the South Island in 1948. It was built on land he purchased at Kaiapoi, where it was cheaper, and he constructed his house in the evenings and weekends, while his family lived with his parents in Christchurch. At the time, he was working as an engine driver at the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company's factory in Papanui, and would bike out to Kaiapoi after work to build his house.
After World War II there was a shortage of basic building materials including bricks, roofing tiles, and corrugated iron. Moreover a substantial deposit was required by both the State Advances Corporation (established by the Labour government in 1936 to lend money for the erection of houses), and by builders, before a family could have a house built. Kirk did not have enough money to borrow from the State Advances Corporation, nor to employ a builder. Both these things influenced the materials and construction of Kirk's house. He made the concrete blocks and constructed the entire building, with the help of his father, over an eighteen month period. In Kirk's words: 'I set to work and made a mould for concrete blocks, still using pieces of 4 x 2. With a mixture of sand, cement and coke grease - coke dust to you - one can make a good light cinder block 18 x 9 x 4. When we had some of these made, we set up the boxing to pour the foundations, just my father and I. Then piece by piece, we got the timber and the house was built.'
Unsurprisingly, given that neither Kirk nor his father were trained as builders, the house is extremely simple in plan and style. Originally the roof of the house was flat, and covered in malthoid, a cheap substitute for other roofing materials that were either unavailable or too expensive. This roof tended to leak, and a barrel of tar was kept handy to patch it. It has subsequently been replaced by a hipped corrugated iron roof.
After the house was finished, the family moved out to Kaiapoi and Kirk revived his involvement in the Labour Party, rebuilding the defunct Kaiapoi branch. Kirk became mayor of Kaiapoi in 1953, as part of the first Labour majority on the Kaiapoi council. He was also the youngest mayor in the country at the time and was remembered for various improvements to the town's infrastructure and for reinvigorating Kaiapoi. His first term as mayor of Kaiapoi established him in local politics and he was returned unopposed in 1956.
Kirk first stood for parliament in 1954, as a Labour candidate in the safe National seat of Hurunui. Although unsuccessful, he stood again in 1957, this time in the Lyttelton electorate and won. As a result of a promise he made the citizens of Lyttelton, he and his family left Kaiapoi in January 1958 and moved to Christchurch. Kirk remained in parliament from then until his death in 1974, gradually rising through the Labour Party ranks to become president of the party in 1964. The following year he became Leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, and therefore leader of the Opposition. Although Labour was unsuccessful under Kirk in the 1966 and 1969 elections, they swept to victory in 1972 with a majority of 23 seats. This victory was seen as a personal triumph for Kirk and according to Michael Bassett, he led 'an activist government the like of which had not been seen in New Zealand for 40 years'. Kirk's Labour government was noted for both its international policies, and for its internal policies on issues such as housing, health and education. Among other initiatives, Kirk's government established the Housing Corporation, which could lend up to 90 percent of the cost of a new house. However, New Zealand began to suffer from the downturn in the economy and the rising world oil prices which combined with the government's rising expenditure led to soaring inflation. Throughout 1974 Kirk's health slipped and although he continued to work, he was admitted to Our Lady's Home of Compassion hospital in Island Bay on 28 August, where he died three days later.
It has been said of Norman Kirk's house at Carew Street that it, 'in an uncanny way...reflects the solid, plain, honest and kindly character of the man himself'. The house stands today as a reminder of a self-made man who rose from a working-class background, with no secondary education, to become Prime Minister of New Zealand. It is associated with what historian Gael Ferguson refers to as 'the New Zealand dream'; the long-standing desire of New Zealanders to own their own home, and the belief, which Kirk supported, that they should be able to do so. It also reflects the housing and economic situation that many New Zealanders found themselves in immediately after the Second World War. The house stands as a representative of the New Zealand tradition of do-it-yourself or DIY, a New Zealand tradition developed by necessity in the colonial days, which has subsequently become part of the image of the archetypal New Zealander.
- Original Construction: 1949 (circa) - 1950 (circa)
- Modification: 1970 (circa)
- Addition: 1976 (circa)
- Dictionary of New Zealand Biography,Michael Bassett, 'Kirk, Norman Eric, 1923-1974', Vol. 5, 1941-1960, Auckland, 2000, pp.271-274
- John Dunmore, Norman Kirk: a portrait, Palmerston North, 1972,pp.48-51
- Gael Ferguson, Building the New Zealand Dream, Palmerston North, 1994,pp.7-11, 233-241
- Pauline Wood, Kaiapoi: A Search for Identity, Rangiora, 1993
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