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