Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

26 November 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 3. 68 Nairn Street, Wellington

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.


It’s a square box with a ridged pyramidal lid - you could hardly say it was ‘designed’ - and yet it works wonderfully well. As is so often the case, simple practicality produced a satisfying proportion which could so easily have been ruined by ill-considered embellishment. Those dormer windows, if too small or too large, could have spoiled it but on the contrary they fit perfectly: and the only major addition was the verandah - that part under and including the red iron roof - a full frontal hook-on that seriously altered the house’s shape, but fortuitously improved it.

So it’s a handsome cottage by any standards and thanks to a few people with abundant energy and vision it was saved from demolition, and instead of yielding to a car park gained a new lease of life as the Colonial Cottage Museum in 1980.

The reason why 68 Nairn Street is so good is because it was built by a competent, pragmatic tradesman. In his twenties, probably as a journeyman carpenter, William Wallis of Royston, Hertfordshire had applied his skills to the construction of hospitals and barracks for the British army in the Crimean War. There he would have had a concentrated course in practical, economic timber building techniques, valuable experience that would have served him well when planning and fabricating his cottage and, later, running his Manners Street sawmill and Mangaroa Valley timber yard.

Twenty-seven years of age and with the Crimea fresh in his memory, he arrived in New Zealand in 1857 with his young wife and almost immediately bought the land at Nairn Street, nicely elevated above the bustle of the young city and with a fine view of the distant harbour and its surrounding hills.

On a typically steep Wellington hillside section, he built the kauri cottage in 1858. At around the same time their first child was born and thereafter Mrs Wallis, who must have been a formidable woman, produced nine more, placing not only upon herself but also upon the cottage enormous spatial strains which culminated in the additions of a wash house, kitchen and the front verandah in about 1870; and the building of another house next door.

An inside lavatory was incorporated, too, from which event I deduce that for about twelve years the Wallis family, at times of need, come sun or southerly, beat a well-worn path to the dunny at the back fence. There is still, as you can see from my illustration, an outside loo, but it’s a fresh, smart, treated pine replica probably bearing only superficial resemblance to that which was regularly occupied by members of the family.

68 Nairn Street accommodated the Wallises and their descendants for 120 years until 1977. The Wellington City Council then acquired it and over the ensuing years it was lovingly restored (it still has original wallpaper on some walls) by volunteers of the Colonial Cottage Museum Society until it opened as the museum you see today.


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By Don Donovan