Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

29 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 33. Alberton, Auckland

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.

When I saw Alberton for the first time - over thirty-five years ago - I thought it weird. The oddly curved ‘ogee’ towers seemed a clumsy attempt to do something almost impossible with corrugated iron and the balustraded façade, a mixture of Italianate and Indian arches, had a saccharine pomposity. But maybe its phoney grandeur was concealing something genuine? I was pleased to discover that behind the grand exterior there lies a simple farmhouse the evidence of which, in my illustration, is the central gable.
Allan Kerr Taylor, born in India in 1832 and educated in Edinburgh, was one of six brothers who came to New Zealand between 1843 and 1851. He bought land at Mt Albert when he was sixteen and farmed it while probably living in a cottage of local scoria. He began ‘Alberton’ in 1863 to house his new wife Martha Meredith whom he’d married in 1862 while on a visit to England (she died the following year.) Widowed and childless, Kerr Taylor married again in 1865 to seventeen year old Sophia Davis of Kaitaia. She bore ten children and outlived Allan Kerr Taylor by forty years, dying in 1930 as ‘mistress of Alberton’.
In his heyday Kerr Taylor prospered mainly from forestry and mining investments. He employed Matthew Henderson, a leading Auckland architect to give visual expression to his wealth through building on to the modest farmhouse a ballroom, guest rooms, a conservatory, and all that addendum of architectural embroidery by which Alberton is so well recognized. Thereafter, until his sudden death in 1890, life at Alberton was an open season of ‘at homes’, archery parties, balls and meets of the Pakuranga Hunt. It was not all parties, though; Kerr Taylor served on the Provincial Council and was chairman of the Mt Albert Highway Board.
When he died, Sophia found that prosperity had faded and in the remaining years she had to sell portions of the estate in order to keep Alberton going. She clearly managed well, though, and she and her daughters continued to live in the big house while she threw additional energies into feminist, ratepayers’ and welfare matters. The three daughters remained in the house after Sophia’s death and the last of them, Muriel, bequeathed Alberton to the Historic Places Trust in 1972. Of its original 550 acres the estate has contracted to the one last acre and its house, completely surrounded by Auckland’s expanding suburbs.
Alberton is now an exhibition of dynastic life from colonial days to the early twentieth century. Of all it has to show I find the pencilled message written on the white painted wall above a housemaid’s bed most intriguing: ‘Susan does not like it here so she is going to leave cause Mrs Taylor calls her Cookie.’

Who was Susan? Was Sophia Kerr Taylor a cruel mistress? Why did she call Susan ‘Cookie’?



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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.