“It’s like we do nowadays, but slightly different.” – A ten-year old tour guide at the Colonial Cottage Museum.
Among the various new holidays I found on my calendar this year – ANZAC Day, Boxing Day, and the Queen’s Birthday, to name a few – I was perhaps most intrigued by the idea of regional anniversaries. Of course I was accustomed to the concept of celebrating a country’s anniversary – hello, Fourth of July – yet taking this one step further, remembering the day on which each region was founded, was new to me. From Auckland and Northland’s anniversary on the 22nd of January to Canterbury’s on the 16th of December, there are twelve such anniversaries throughout the year – and obviously each holiday applies only within the boundaries of the region it honors, otherwise the country might find the number of its public holidays more than doubled.
From the moment I arrived in Wellington, I knew I planned on using the city’s anniversary as an opportunity to discuss the history of the region as a whole, yet didn’t have any sort of coordinated event in mind to lead off with. I was thus pleased to come across a flyer in the library one day advertising an anniversary barbecue at the Colonial Cottage Museum – another place I assumed I’d get around to visiting eventually. So not only would I have an actual event to mark Wellington’s anniversary with, but I’d be killing those proverbial two birds with a single stone. Brilliant.
The house built in 1858 by a man named William Wallis, the Colonial Cottage Museum features Wellington’s oldest original colonial cottage, claimed to be “the best example of its type in New Zealand.” There were others before it, I learned, but this happened to be the one that survived. Its existence today is due largely to the fact that it remained in the family for 119 years until the 1970s, when the Colonial Cottage Museum Society came into being and started their search for a workers’ cottage to restore. The house is even spotlighted in Wellington, Wellington: A History, in which a former mayor of the city, Michael Fowler, discusses the most remarkable buildings existing from the first fifty years of the city: “Miss Turner’s cottage at 68 Nairn Street is a typical small, colonial cottage, now owned by the city and restored on its original site amongst a vast public rental housing settlement; the cottage is furnished and open for visiting” (18).
Indeed, walking away from the city up Nairn Street, you begin to wonder if the map in your hand is pointing you in the right direction at all. The “vast” housing settlement Fowler mentioned couldn’t be more unattractive or unhistoric – a peach-colored multistory apartment block of city council tenant flats. In the shadow of this modern monstrosity, however, sits the modest, unassuming house that has become the glorified Colonial Cottage. A white picket fence encircling the property fits in with every preconception of cottages and their “charm” you might’ve held before visiting. The wooden siding has been painted the color of buttermilk, a thin awning of brick red corrugated tin hangs over the verandah, and a single chimney protrudes from the grey shingles of the roof. The only thing ruining the picture is a bright yellow flag waving in the front yard, proclaiming “absolutely, positively, Wellington” in a very un-colonial manner. Oh, and the cars parked out front, a silver Honda and a small white pick-up truck. For the sake of photojournalists across the world, I’d love to petition the Wellington City Council if perhaps those two parking spots couldn’t be kept vacant.
Adjacent to the house is a visitors’ center, where I was shown upon arrival by a guy named Brent turning sausages on the barbecue. I paid my entry fee and quickly joined an Asian woman and one elderly Kiwi couple for a tour that had already started inside the house. Our guide was Andy, a young mum with two children hanging on her arm who spent most of the tour saying, “Josh, darling, look with your eyes, not with your hands please,” while trying her best to tell us what we’d come to hear. She was, however, a welcome change from the usual white-haired volunteer you come across in such a position and I found her interest in the house itself endearing.
We began in the parlor, just to the right of the front door. “The parlor was the colonists’ chance to show they were doing well,” Andy explained, “It was kept in pristine condition and rarely used.” She pointed out the upright piano and the oil paintings on the wall as signs of their wealth and I couldn’t help but notice the hymnbook on the piano was open to one titled, “There’s no one to welcome me home,” by a certain M. H. McChesney. It seemed a rather odd choice for such a situation. Colonists were also expected to have a wide range of skills and one of the Wallis’ daughters, Clara, was no exception, as a piece of cross-stitch embroidery framed on the wall was intended to demonstrate. William himself, as a carpenter, arrived in New Zealand with just the set of skills he would need to build the house, thus he was able to do most of the work himself, rather than hire out others. This enabled him to construct quite a “posh workers’ cottage,” as Andy described it. The brown velvet drapes, the oil lamps, even the portrait of Queen Victoria, were indicative of the period itself, not just the Wallis family, intending to give a general idea of how such a house might’ve been furnished.
Across the hall from the parlor was the parents’ bedroom, where William and his wife, Katherine, slept and bathed. The two had been married for only three weeks before they boarded a ship in Gravesend, England, and sailed for the new colony at the bottom of the world. If the conditions of the voyage weren’t enough of a honeymoon, Katherine then became pregnant with their first child in those four months at sea. The Wallis family would grow to include ten children, seven of whom would live in the cottage at 68 Nairn Street. While the house wasn’t their first in Wellington, he bought the land not long after arriving in September of 1857, choosing the site based on the spring that ran through the backyard. This source of fresh water was important to William, as there was a cholera outbreak in Te Aro Flats, not far down the hill. The green-striped wallpaper of the room wasn’t original, but both the bed and the dresser were, crafted by William’s own hands. The chest at the foot of the bed came with the family on the ship, most likely holding the few possessions they brought with them.
A door inside the bedroom connected it with a room at the back of the house that functioned as nursery and workroom. The wallpaper in this room was original but, as they do, was covered in panels of plexiglass that had been screwed to the walls. There was an early version of a crib in the room, as well as a rocking horse and blocks that were scattered on the floor. On top of a dresser sat children’s books, Beatrix Potter’s Miss Moppet and another with the unusual title of “The Princess Who Gave Away All.” A black, covered, three-wheeled pram, looking like the forerunner to those used today by active parents pushing their kids while on a jog or run, was apparently designed to avoid a wheel tax that existed on London roads for any four-wheeled vehicle. Sneaky business! A sewing machine by the window represented the other half of the room’s function. Those involved in the house’s restoration were able to identify this room as where the sewing was done from a rat’s nest they found in the floorboards with several bits of fabric in it. Andy informed us that a sewing machine was one of the first things you could get on hire-purchase in New Zealand – predecessor of lay-away?
In the far right corner of the house sat the kitchen, the last room on the first floor. There was a spinning wheel in a corner and a loaf of bread and bowl of apples on the thick wooden table. It had a homey feel about it, as all kitchens should. The stove, built from stones into the wall, was wood-burning to reflect the period – at the time, wood was more plentiful and accessible than coal – but Andy shared that this would have been converted to a gas stove by the turn of the century. Over the fire rested a device that was like a wide grill at the top, with a sort of flat bowl that funneled between the grill and a hollow handle. We learned that this was used to roast meat while at the same time saving the fat to be made into candles. But because rats and mice were just as interested in these animal-fat creations, a round candle holder had been mounted to the wall to keep them out of harm’s way.
In the kitchen pantry were rows and rows of jars and preserves and, just as with the candles, you were led to marvel at the ingenuity of these colonists, how nothing went to waste. Only things such as the family’s white sugar cone were imported. The shipping lists for these items were featured in the Evening Post, advertising what was coming in and when. I bought a copy of the first published edition, dated the 8th of February, 1865, and browsed the list of imports. A third of the items on sale from William Hickson & Son alone were alcohol – 10 quarter-casks of Martell’s brandy, 100 cases of Scotch whisky, 20 cases of superior sherry wine – with others including:
60 boxes Sydney soap
10 casks sugar-house treacle
40 bags Mauritius sugar
10 cases Harper-Twelvetrees’ washing powder
2 cases English cheese
It made the whole world of imports and exports seem much more real and tangible, not some invisible exchange dictated by secretaries of commerce in far-off capitals. The Wallis’ sugar cone sat on a side table and they had various tongs to use depending on the size of sugar chunk they wished to cut off. Tea itself was valuable and the family had a lockable tea chest to store it in. A kitchen towel hanging over a chair commemorating “The Royal Wedding” between Princess Victoria and the Duke of York in 1893 seemed to be a bit of an anachronism based on the house supposedly representing colonial Wellington in the 1850s, but I could tell what they were going for and didn’t question it. On the table, among other pieces of schoolwork, was a certificate for penmanship which read, “Writing is almost as important as speaking.” I should think so, I wanted to say. Andy pointed out an area by the stove which was the naughty corner, where the children were forced to stand on a stool in exchange for atonement. Just above the mantle were little stick men drawn on the wall, “perhaps when the children got bored of standing, with a bit of pencil they had in their pocket,” Andy said, and I thought to myself that these are the things you can’t recreate when you go about this kind of restoration.
We went upstairs via a steep, narrow staircase to the children’s rooms, the girls on the right, boys on the left. The girls’ room featured two beds, both wrought-iron, that would sleep three or four at a time. On the bed closest to the door was a quilt, of which the middle part was the oldest thing in the house, having come with the family on the ship. There was a small flowered design to the red-and-cream wallpaper, and hand-knit rugs on the floor had been made from bits of cloth of all colors. A green-and-white checked dress, every stitch done by hand, hung on the wall and toys had been set out all over the room. “This is just to give you an idea,” Andy said, calling our attention to a candle that sat on a desk far too close to the sloping ceiling to actually burn safely, “But it does show you how little things have changed. Checkers, paper dolls, tea seats, they’re all things my children are still into.” Homework was displayed on the bed, familiar worksheets on multiplication and long division, and on the floor sat hot water bottles and old suitcases. “Nana had a case like that, with the straps,” the older woman said to her husband. They had been reminiscing and making similar comments throughout the tour, speaking often of “the war.”
The boys slept next door, the room having been identified as such from another simple clue, much like the rat’s nest from the sewing room. Bits of original wallpaper had been discovered above the door and the geometric pattern of the paper hinted that it was most likely chosen to suit a boy’s taste. On the windowsill of the room was a church built from blocks. Andy explained that it would have been one of the few toys the children could play with on Sundays, as verses from the Bible had been printed on the sides of the blocks. How very virtuous of them! Not quite so spiritually minded were several Punch and Judy puppets laying limply on the bed next to a sheet on which was printed:
Look here, the quarrel has begun
See how they wield their sticks,
And cruel Punch kills Judy dead,
Ah! Punch! what naughty tricks!
Thus far in the tour, there had been another group trailing never far behind, who always seemed to be waiting for us to exit a room before they could follow in behind and carry on with things. At this point in the boys’ room, the other guide, a woman named Beverley who was markedly much older and had short grey hair, came up to Andy and said, “Make them shorter, dear, you’ll be exhausted at the end of the day.” My first thought was to laugh at this affront and ask Beverley, seriously? What was the rush? Your sausages getting cold downstairs? I, for one, was thoroughly appreciative of Andy’s attention to detail and hoped she’d pay the woman no mind.
And I was pleased to see she didn’t, for as we made our way back down the stairs, she stopped us in the hall to point out where William had numbered the wooden boards of the walls. He’d implemented a tongue-and-groove technique during construction and the right side of one board was marked “4” to line up with the left side of the next that also read “4,” and so on with 5, 6, 7, etc. She then showed us how restorers knew where the original kitchen walls had been, because of circle marks pots and pans had left when they were hung while still hot. I recalled the time my mother had – much to my father’s displeasure – branded an old countertop with a lovely black “O” for the same reason, setting down a hot pot, and thought again of how the same mistakes were made a century and a half ago. And a few feet down, you could just see where the children’s heights had been marked with initials penciled next to each line. Over and over, in so many ways, it seemed nothing has changed in the way families “do” life.
We moved out of the house into a scullery that had been added on in later years. Andy said she wasn’t sure if William had done so after his time in the Crimean War, when it was first thought best to keep the food preparation away from the dining area. Further out back was the washing house, completely separate from the cottage in order to minimize the risk of fire. It seemed more a shed to me, holding William’s original tool chest, its light green paint peeling, that had gone with him to the Crimean War, and a washing machine, which Andy confessed, was again slightly out-of-period, being produced in 1874. I’ve mentioned an Asian woman on the tour, and all along she seemed delighted to ask about rather self-evident objects. “What is that?” she’d exclaim, and Andy would inform her that it was indeed the washing machine or the wringer or several early variations of irons. But it was a childlike joy and you couldn’t help but share in her innocent curiosity.
Any ground on which the house and its outlying buildings hadn’t been built was cultivated land. In the garden as in the house, Andy explained that the museum society was working towards replicating what the Wallis family themselves would’ve seen from the windows of their cottage. The marks of ingenuity and independence inside could be found throughout the garden as well. In the early stages of the country, it was important for colonists to grow their own food source as much as possible, so the yard was shaded by fruit trees – plums, apples, quince – all of which were used in preserves. The family grew silverbeet, rhubarb, grapes, feijoas, strawberries, raspberries, currants, and mulberries, which after trying, I can say were much too sour for my liking. An herb garden had a two-fold purpose – obviously medicinal, but also to disguise the flavor of food that was off – and included myrtleberry (Queen Victoria’s favorite), wormwood, sage (antibacterial), and angelica. There was even a dye garden, with a bright spectrum of oranges, fuschias, and blues to choose from supplied by nasturtium, dahlias, roses, gladioli, and borage (to attract bees and fertilize the plants).
The flyer I’d seen for the event had mentioned a “Footnote Dance in an Alice in Wonderland themed performance,” and while I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, I decided to stick around for it anyways after the tour ended. I had my share of what the barbecue had to offer before making my way to the garden, where a large group had begun to gather around a not-so-large space. A few minutes past two, the Queen of Hearts started walking down from the house and took her place under the apple tree, pink flamingo in hand. Not far behind her was the Cheshire Cat, who sat grinning stupidly while the queen took imaginary swings at imaginary croquet balls and walked determinedly from wicket to imaginary wicket.
The crowd – myself included – seemed to hold our breath wondering when it was all going to begin, when a woman suddenly stood to her feet and said, “I should tell you, there’s not going to be a ‘dance,’ per se. The characters are placed throughout the garden and house and will be interacting with you.” Well, then, what a weird turn of events. But the White Rabbit could be heard from the front yard exclaiming, “I’m late! I’m late!” whilst the Mad Hatter appeared giving devious looks and making sweeping gestures with his mad top hat. Soon enough, Alice herself wandered down to the garden, much to the delight of the children in the crowd, and began twirling in circles, dancing on the toes of her striped stockings and swirling the folds of her bright blue dress.
With the Footnote Dance not quite the “dance” I was expecting, I realized I’d spent most of the tour listening to Andy talk about details of the family and had failed to note actual physical details of each room. In between the tours that continued to flow through, I went back on my own and lingered throughout the house. As I made my way back into the girls’ room upstairs, there were three young girls already in there, no older than ten years of age. It took a second to listen to them and see that one girl was actually giving a tour. While my first thought was “like the blind leading the blind,” I soon corrected myself as I could tell this girl knew what she was talking about. “The windowsill was kind of like their dressing table, they kept bobby pins and hair brushes on it.” “What’s that circular thing for?” one of her friends asked and the young guide remarked that she didn’t know. “I thought you worked here.” “I do,” she replied, “But I haven’t been here for a year. I’m surprised I remembered this much.” She then talked about an item that worked like a curling iron; they’d let it grow warm on the stove before wrapping their hair around it. “It’s like we do nowadays, but slightly different,” she said in that nonchalant manner in which a child speaks volumes of truth without any idea of it.
For that truly seemed to be the theme of the day – like nowadays, but slightly different. And when I thought about it, it made sense. The house was built only a century and a half ago. The great differences between then and now lay mostly in the developments of electricity, automation, and technology. But the basic premise of things was the same. There hadn’t seemed to be any new revolutions in thought or design that had occurred over the years. Where the Wallis boys had used building blocks, modern children play with Legos. Where Katherine Wallis had pressed wet clothes through a wringer, modern mothers use a dryer. Where William Wallis had hung a cowbell and carriage lamp in the washroom, modern fathers store lawn mowers and weed-eaters in their two-car garage. The same, but different.
Because I suppose hearing “colonial” cottage, I had expected something older, something more remarkably different, but I soon realized the mistake was in my own perception – “colonial” doesn’t imply old, it simply implies the period in which a country is still a colony. For me, my immediate connotation of colonial is further back in time only because of the period in which my own country (and state, for that matter) was a colony. Even when I looked up “colonial” in the Encarta World English Dictionary, the definitions I got were (1) “possessing, ruling over, living in, or relating to a colony;” (2) “relating to the 13 original British colonies in North America before their independence in 1776;” (3) “relating to the colonies of the former British Empire, or to the Empire as a whole;” (4) “dating from or in a style typical of British North America from the late 17th through the early 19th centuries.” So I knew I wasn’t crazy in the way my mind heard “colonial” and automatically jumped to a certain period in time.
Thus when looking at Wellington in its colonial days, it was important to get a good grip around the time frame. I’ve written before of the New Zealand Company and its leader, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, when looking into the history of Christchurch, and again Mr. Wakefield popped up in Wellington’s past. Somehow, though, I’d gotten the idea that Christchurch was the first settlement in New Zealand, but it appears I’d gotten my wires crossed. As it turns out, the first immigrant ship of the New Zealand Company, appropriately named the Aurora – often associated with the dawn in classical literature – arrived in Wellington on the 22nd of January, 1840, almost ten years before settlement began in Canterbury. More accurately, the ship landed on the beach at Petone, across the harbor, before the settlement moved to its current location after several floods.
I’ve also written on the degree to which the founding of New Zealand was a deliberate move on the planners’ part. Those involved in the settling and surveying of Christchurch had specific theories and ideas about colonization and, so it seems, did those in Wellington. In the introduction of The Making of Wellington: 1800-1914, David Hamer and Roberta Nicholls write, “The New Zealand Company represented one of the main applications to practical colonization of the theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a figure now regarded as of major importance in the history of nineteenth-century political economy. Wellington was an outcome of a significant movement in British theorizing and practice in colonial development” (2). I find it no coincidence that this “significant movement” took place after the Revolutionary War left the United States a new independent nation, with all ties with Mother England severed. Perhaps Wakefield and his English associates were determined not to let the same thing happen twice? Perhaps they were ready to learn from their mistakes and make sure things didn’t go awry in yet another new colony?
That’s just my own musing, but there’s no doubt, as Fowler writes in Wellington, Wellington, “we were consciously founded, our town being earnestly planned as a new settlement of British stock, a mixture of tradesmen, a few professionally trained persons and some others with skills in farming. Each of these families forsook some security, at least of known environment, for the unknown Antipodes on the other side of the world, encouraged by that tremendous enthusiast, Edward Gibbon Wakefield” (9). The Wallis’s – William and Katherine and their ten children – were such a family who pushed comfort aside and struck out on the hope that what they found would be worth more than that which was left behind.
And so the Wallis cottage represents some of the key challenges young settlers faced when beginning their new lives in Wellington, especially a few particular ones not to be encountered by their Christchurch counterparts. As our guide Andy shared, the house is constructed almost entirely from native timber – only the stairs were built from pine partitions used in the ship on the voyage over. This wasn’t an architectural accident, a decision made due to a lack of stone or brick, however, but a response to the geological environment. As Chris Cochran explores in his essay “Styles of Sham and Genuine Simplicity: Timber Buildings in Wellington to 1880,” with Wellington being situated on a major intercontinental fault-line, the early occurrence of several large earthquakes meant builders had to reevaluate their choice of building materials. In October of 1848, a quake rocked the harbor, leaving three dead and the new town in shambles. The Independent reported on October 18, “The scene can never be described, the crashing of houses, the fall of bricks…wooden buildings are about the only class of habitations which can be deemed secure against such dreadful shocks.” Thus the colonists came to see that where bricks broke, wood merely bent.
Only seven years later, though, yet another earthquake struck. On the 23rd of February, 1855, the strongest shock in the country’s recent history took place, thankfully causing less damage only because new buildings had been built from timber. Brad Patterson addresses the issue in his essay, “A ‘half Australian, half American’ town: The economic foundations of Nineteenth Century Wellington.” He records the visit of a French political scientist named André Siegfried to Wellington in 1898. Of his time in the city, Siegfried writes, Wellington seemed a “completely colonial town, built of red roofed wooden houses… [There were] at most two or three stone buildings, and these were pointed out with undue admiration… [The town seemed] ‘half Australian, half American.’”
Of course I could choose to take offence at the American jab, but I won’t stray off-task. Patterson, though, goes on to defend the early Wellingtonians and their architectural decisions, explaining that the abundance of wooden buildings had more to do with the “proven vulnerability of masonry to earthquakes” (180) than it did with any aesthetic choice. What may have seemed like a rough-and-tumble makeshift town was actually a deliberate response to the threat of earthquakes. The timber of the Wallis cottage merely demonstrates the colonists’ adaptation to their new environment.
In addition to – or perhaps because of – the geomorphic conditions of Wellington, families like the Wallis’s were faced with another challenge – the region’s physical and topographical makeup. The hills surrounding the harbor were something new that residents in the Canterbury Plains would’ve never had to overcome. But what made their adjustment to the new physical environment of Wellington all the more difficult was the fact that early surveys of the region failed to prepare them for it. The surveys failed to accurately portray the topography of the harbor, the hills that would present quite a different situation to the arriving English settlers who were used to farming and raising sheep on flat land.
In another essay, “‘A Queer Cantankerous Lot’: The Human Factor in the Conduct of the New Zealand Company’s Wellington Surveys,” Patterson discusses the role of Captain William Mein Smith, the first Surveyor-General to the New Zealand Company from 1839 to 1842. Of the issues Smith encountered, Patterson writes, “When the laying out of farms commenced in earnest, it became readily apparent that the ‘running survey’ system advocated by Dawson was inappropriate to the conditions. Based on the creation of a regular ‘chessboard’ of rectangles, it had been most extensively used previously on relatively flat lands. Smith recommended that it be abandoned, and that triangulation, or some more simple system, be substituted. Wakefield would have none of it” (69).
By letting personal politics get in the way, Wakefield failed to prepare surveys that would be useful and accurate in their portrayal of Wellington. Was it a way of denying how different the actual land was from the way in which they desired to shape it? As Patterson writes, the town “was to be a sweeping and symmetrical montage of rectangularly aligned streets; of regularly spaced squares and public buildings; of well-defined retail, commercial, and residential sectors” (180-1). Was it the impossibility of molding the terrain of Wellington to fit this vision that left Wakefield unwilling to cooperate with Smith? In reality, the survey was little more than a sale plan, breaking the land into the required 1,100 one acre sections that “had been simply plastered on to the irregular topography” (181). The plan made no allowance for the reality.
After my tour of the cottage was finished, Andy took me aside in the visitors’ center and showed me a replica of the original survey used by settlers to select their plot of land. Indeed, while the outline of the harbor was intact, there was no sign of the slopes I’d already gotten to know so well in the city. I could thus understand the frustration of a settler that Patterson describes, who “unable to locate his allotted section on the slopes, condemned the town as ‘fit only for goats and asses’” (181).
But having to choose between sink or swim – in the face of major earthquakes and unexpected terrain, challenges unique to the Wellington region – early settlers did surely rise above. As I walked through the garden of the Wallis cottage, an English woman came up to our group and remarked on how amazing it was that the family lost only one child to diphtheria. “Usually, you lost whole families to it back then.” The conversation turned to the resilience of the family, on how young William and Katherine’s marriage was when they set out on the ship and how she became pregnant on the voyage. “It doesn’t make any sense,” the woman continued. “I’m from Gravesend, England [where the Wallis’s came from] and there’s no pluck there. There’s nothing to say about it, it’s very industrial. So for them to go off into an unknown land is amazing. I’ve seen where they came from, and now I get to see where they came to.”
Indeed, in this age of the internet, where images can fly from continent to continent with a few clicks of a camera and mouse, it is remarkable to consider that families such as the Wallis’s came to New Zealand having absolutely no idea, no picture of what the country looked like. It was sold as “the great outdoors” and “the new world,” but that was all they had to go on – many of the settlers bought their plots of land before even arriving, only to find the brush-covered terrain unlike anything they’d experienced before. It was a risk to come, a risk they took, and there’s no denying the pluck of these early colonists in shaping a life for themselves in New Zealand. Fowler puts it perfectly: “In this ferment of expansion, the entrepreneurial skills of certain settlers came to the fore in this burgeoning town. This was not surprising for there was a wealth of talent amongst those well-above-average persons whose families or themselves had enjoyed the fortitude to leave complacency behind and travel to the unknown at the other side of the world” (19).
And so it makes sense that many of the settlers who arrived brought with them a particularly useful set of skills. It made sense that, as Cochran writes, many of the first settlers were carpenters and builders and farmers who arrived with the capability of putting their new world together – the ability to not only survive, but to thrive, was within their reach. Their previous occupations were of a practical nature that could easily be utilized in New Zealand: “William Wallis was a builder; William Spinks a storekeeper; Robert Bould, who owned Daisy Hill Farm, was a sheepfarmer; Chew was a timber merchant…The buildings that they built and occupied therefore represent the living conditions and lifestyle of skilled artisans in early Wellington. They show an economy of means, the maximum usefulness being squeezed out of the form of the building with tight staircases and small bedrooms in the roof spaces; they gain architecturally from their clear geometric forms, their lack of decoration, their style of ‘genuine simplicity’” (117).
In a way, even, this might explain the agriculturally-dominated perception of New Zealand – of sheep and hills and rolling farmland. It causes me to think for a moment about the lack of a strong literary or artistic tradition in the country and to connect it with the progression of such in my own homeland. The first settlers arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s, and one could say it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the American literary scene really took off. Thus if you place New Zealand against a similar historical timeline, it makes sense that authors and artists are still developing, because to found a country, to literally build cities from the barefoot earth, you couldn’t send artists. You have to send practical minds with the practical means of building and planning. Could you imagine a young Nathaniel Hawthorne or Emily Dickinson mucking around through rainy hills with a load of native timber on their shoulders?
And through it all – through a history of earthquakes and inaccurate surveys and a good dose of pluck – I thought of how such houses as the one at 68 Nairn Street become restored and commemorated. If, as Fowler wrote, it is a “typical” cottage of the era, there surely must have been scores of others. Yet it is the fact that this house has endured, that its walls still stand, that its identity is changed from something entirely ordinary to something entirely noteworthy.