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