Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

02 December 2009

N.Z. House & Cottage 9. Rhodes Cottage, The Levels

I wrote and illustrated ‘New Zealand House and Cottage’. It was published in I997. 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.


The starlings of South Canterbury must think that this is the largest nest in the world. On the spring day that I visited they had successfully penetrated the screen of chicken wire that covers the thatch and were cavorting inside and outside, squealing and fluttering like feathered extras in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’.

Despite that, this fascinating cabin is well enough cared for and sits attractively, somewhat hidden, in a neat private historic reserve garden beside the modern farm house. It’s a strong building, not because it was intended to last but because of its materials: solid, vertical totara slabs lined with cob supporting substantial rough-hewn rafters and a deep thatch of wheat straw which a craftsman thatcher would have no difficulty maintaining or replacing. It’s the oldest surviving building in South Canterbury and is unique.

The Levels Station, named after his Yorkshire home, was first settled by George Rhodes and his brothers in 1851. George took his new wife, Elizabeth, whom he’d married at Lyttelton, to her new home in 1854. It took them eight days to ride from Banks Peninsula to The Levels, a journey you can do these days between breakfast and morning smoko. At first they stayed near the beach at Timaru but soon moved inland to occupy the slab hut in which they were to live until a more suitable dwelling was erected by 1856. The hut measured three metres wide by nine long. It had two rooms, with an open fireplace at one end. The floors were of clay which, I imagine, would have created a fine dust to coat clothes, furniture, food and books. I daresay, too, that it was subject to constant re-levelling for the more used areas, the doorway for example, would otherwise have soon worn into potholes.

George died tragically in 1864, having contracted typhoid while dipping sheep, and Elizabeth, with her four sons and a daughter moved into Timaru. Later the tract containing the hut passed into the ownership of the Orbell family and, in 1946, the ‘old hut’, dilapidated and propped up, was given to the South Canterbury Historical Society. The Rhodes family restored it in 1951 and it has since been further restored and maintained by the Historic Places Trust.

A romantic sidenote: it was from The Levels that the much mythologized James McKenzie and his fabulous dog ’stole’ 1000 sheep and drove them over the hills and far away towards what became Mackenzie Country.


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By Don Donovan