Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

28 November 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 4. Deans Cottage, Riccarton

I wrote and illustrated ‘New Zealand House and Cottage’. It was published in 1997. It’s a snapshot of some historic New Zealand homes - both grand and modest - as they were preserved at the end of the 20th century.

I have decided to share some of the entries from the book from time to time on this blog.


There’s an atmosphere of neglect about the oldest building in Canterbury. Not that it is dilapidated or in need of maintenance, it’s something harder to define - something spiritual, perhaps - as if, having been shifted from its original location slightly farther west, and having been restored to its ‘original condition’, a duty has been completed and interest has flagged.

It might benefit from a cottage garden - hollyhocks and Canterbury Bells - but then the purists would say that that is not what Deans Cottage is all about. Maybe so. It was built in 1843 seven years before the Canterbury Pilgrims arrived in their first four ships. In sympathy with its moody Riccarton Bush surroundings it’s a simple house, especially so as totara, matai and kahikatea from that same forest comprised its frame and boards and shingles. The cob chimney looks suspiciously orderly, though, and doesn’t quite harmonize with the rest of the cottage, perhaps the temptation to tidy things up a little overcame the restorers?

I started my New Zealand life in Christchurch in 1960 and was quickly absorbed by bits of its history. It amazed me that in just over a century the Canterbury Plain had been cultivated and had such a fine city as its centre. What was more amazing was the thought that when planners of the Canterbury settlement arrived and stood on the Port Hills the only sign of ‘civilization’ in the vast run of shingle plain was that group of buildings in a stand of bush which the Deans had named Riccarton after their Scottish parish.

The cottage had been standing for ten years when John Deans brought his new wife, Jane, there from Ayrshire in February 1853. I have been told that when she walked through the door she was suffering from three forms of sickness: sea-, morning- and home-. That year her first son, John, was born and less than a year later her husband died in the cottage leaving her a widowed solo mother. Despite its present impersonality it’s not difficult to imagine, while standing in the dim light of a small back room, how dear a haven the cottage must have been to a pioneer family twelve thousand miles from their origins with nothing but courage and faith to buoy them.

In that same room, on one of the dark-stained walls, there is an indistinct pattern. It looks as if a hot poker has scorched an etching of small leaves and flowers into the timber. Nobody seems to know what it is or how it came there but I believe it must be from wallpaper which has somehow offset into the timber. It is, to me, one of the more intriguing details of Deans Cottage.




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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.