Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

01 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 8. Captain Bruce’s House, 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.


Early colonial days in New Zealand were a rich medium for larger-than-life entrepreneurs and opportunists who risked greatly, sometimes won handsomely but more likely and more often lost - with breathtaking resilience.

One such was Captain James Bruce whose name is written large in the history of Akaroa. He was a man of many interests; a mercantile sea-captain who, having managed another’s trading fleet, bought the brig Magnet then wrecked it on the south-west of Banks Peninsula in 1842 - thus giving the name to Magnet Bay. Where despair might have been understandable, the gallant captain’s response was to establish, with the help of a loan from a friendly whaler, The Bruce Hotel, on the corner of Beach Road and what later became Bruce Terrace, and to start a new life as inn-keeper and trader.

Akaroa is the oldest settlement in Canterbury, having its European origins with French immigrants in 1840 (ten years before the Canterbury ‘Pilgrims’ arrived at Lyttelton). At the time when Bruce set up his hotel, it not only offered safe harbour but also some of the more fleshpotty attractions to the sealers and whalers operating in New Zealand waters. Bruce knew them and their ways well, he tolerated them when they were unruly and helped them when they were in trouble; by all accounts he was respected in the town as a fair and kindly man.

He was a Scot from Dundee and although he made his life in Akaroa he clearly neither forgot his country of birth nor his kinsmen. One suspects that he was a sentimental man at heart for, in 1856, in a gesture reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera uncle, he built a cottage each for his two nieces who had come out from Scotland. Perhaps he thought they might care for him in his old age but, alas, he died young aged 52 in 1858.

The totara-boarded cottages still stand on the corner of Aubrey Street and Bruce Terrace. The one I have illustrated has been added to but retains an historic ambience while offering accommodation that’s bound to be less riotous than Captain Bruce’s Hotel in whaling days!



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By Don Donovan