Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

28 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 32. Captain Simeon’s House, Lyttelton

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.

Through the early-to-middle decades of the twentieth century New Zealand paid far less respect to its minor historic buildings than it does today. In ‘progressive’ towns early cottages were often bulldozed without a thought, their now prized kiln fired bricks and kauri boards cast aside or burned, to be replaced by fresh, new houses with modern gadgets but little character. Fortunately Lyttelton, as soon as the city of Christchurch had relegated its status to that of a convenient port, could never claim ‘progressive’ as an architectural adjective and as a consequence can count itself lucky to have arrived with much of its old townscape intact at an age when we value our heritage.

In fact, in Lyttelton, charming old houses and cottages are two-a-penny. And that makes Captain Simeon’s house remarkable because it stands out from the rest as something completely different. I think it all comes down to proportion; that triplet of gables, almost too big, each with its bold sash window observing minutely the business of the port, while the downstairs rooms hide modestly beneath a shady canopy.

Built sometime between 1853 and 1860 by Henry Le Cren, a successful Lyttelton merchant, it is a surprisingly large house and has much greater depth than its front view suggests. Four sets of French doors open on to the garden, two from the large sitting room with its timber/marble fireplace surround, and others from the dining room and the study at the western end. Upstairs are four bedrooms: there used to be five until one was converted into a bathroom. (Which leads me to suspect that the morning ablutions were once performed from a rose-patterned hot water jug and bowl; that the beds stood over similarly ornamented chamber pots, and that a serious call of nature would have required a journey to the end of the back garden.)

Mystery surrounds Captain Charles Simeon; he’s hard to pin down. He came from a wealthy English family and had three brothers all of whom had much to do with New Zealand and the Canterbury settlement. John Simeon, a member of the English parliament, later to inherit a baronetcy, was a great friend of John Robert Godley, ‘The Founder of Canterbury’, and also a member of the original committee of the Canterbury Association. Cornwall Simeon owned property in Christchurch: but Charles was the only one actually to come to New Zealand. He arrived at Lyttelton in October 1851 complete with a pregnant wife, five children, a governess, cook, housemaid, footman, lady’s maid and housekeeper - a retinue described by Charlotte Godley, who accommodated them upon their arrival, as ‘alarming’!

The house that bears the Captain’s name a rewarding subject to paint, the rhythms of its shape in harmony with the colourful garden and the volcanic knob of Mt. Pleasant crouching above. Since 1990 it has been owned by Barry and Wendy Fairburn.


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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.