Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

08 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 17. 115 Rue Jolie, Akaroa

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 first visited Akaroa in 1960 I found an unpretentious seaside hamlet of villas and cottages. Beach Road was a curve of clapboard shop fronts with lace canopies. You could buy fish from the boats moored at the end of the jetty and the salt-and-fish perfumed air was filled with the screech of seagulls fighting over scraps. Akaroa’s inhabitants were mainly people who worked in and around a town that seemed at the turning-point of life and death; many of the houses, a number of them empty, were in various stages of decay. While to an artist that sort of scene had appeal I don’t imagine any long-term resident would have shared the feeling.

Akaroa’s Frenchness was then, I fancy, seen as little more than the mildly interesting result of an historical quirk, but at some point it seems to have been re-discovered, identified as a ‘unique selling proposition’ and marketed so successfully that Akaroa, today, is in danger of becoming cute.

One of the positive benefits of the town’s renaissance has been the rescue and restoration of so many of its early cottages and villas, and Rue Jolie (once called Jolie Street), especially between the fine 1875 Coronation Library and Selwyn Avenue, contains more than its fair share of them. I think that one of the best is No. 115; what sets it apart from the others is the glorious range of ochreous tints and shades slowly acquired during years of weathering of its totara timbers.

Doctor Daniel Watkins, who became Akaroa’s first doctor, arrived in Christchurch in 1850 followed by his son Henry in 1857. His older son, Stephen (who must have been an artist of some repute for he was an Associate of the Royal Academy) arrived in 1860 and also made his home in Akaroa. The villa at 115 was built for Stephen and his wife who shared it with the doctor until he died in 1882 aged ninety-one. With fifteen acres it was sold to François Narbey, an early French settler, in 1884. He had a family of nineteen and his descendants owned ‘Narbey House’ until 1973 when it was bought, having lain empty for ten years, by Dick and Barbara Allison.

They found it hugely dilapidated but bit by bit restored it through moods of despair at the size of the task, or elation when, perhaps, some thrilling aspect of its history was suddenly revealed behind old, tattered scrim. I was delighted, having made 115 one of my three choices from Akaroa, to discover that Barbara Allison had complemented the restoration by writing an excellent book, An Akaroa Precinct, about the villa and its neighbouring houses. Such dedication is rare: I hope that Barbara Allison’s opinions are listened to when Akaroa’s future is discussed.

The Louis Quinze door knocker is a recent addition, but entirely appropriate.


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By Don Donovan