Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

01 January 2010

N.Z. House & Cottage 36. Wyllie Cottage, Gisborne

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.

I should explain ‘Mac’ before I go any further. When planning these texts I asked owners and administrators of properties to help with information and anything quirky that might be of interest. It was Jan Colbert of the Gisborne Museum and Arts Centre who pointed out Mac’s burial plaque and told me that ‘Mac’ (Museum and Arts Centre - get it?) made the museum and adjacent Wyllie Cottage his home, having been rescued from near death as a vagrant teenager. He died, having begged snacks and lorded it over staff and visitors for some years, in his feline dotage. His kidneys had packed up; all that junk food, I guess.

One thing you can do with old cottages that you can’t do with old cats is restore them. Wyllie Cottage (strikingly similar to the one in the NZ Historic Places Trust’s logo) was the first house of European design constructed on the Whataupoko bank of the Taruheru River in Gisborne. It was built in 1872 by James Ralston Wyllie and his wife Kate. As their family grew to eight children they extended the house but, interestingly, it never had a kitchen venting chimney and it’s thought that Kate, of Maori background, did her cooking outdoors. There’s nothing outstanding about the cottage but, restored, it is a good example of kauri-shingled vertical board and batten: pleasingly simple.

To make room for a larger house the cottage was removed in 1886 to its present site by its then owner, J.C. Dunlop. His wife ran a school in the cottage and it appears to have served as a school three times, the later schoolmarms being the Misses Evans and a Miss Aylmer. A dressmaker, Miss Simeon, also occupied it (I wonder whether she was related to the transient Captain Simeon of Lyttelton?). Eventually it was bought by W.D. Lysnar whose daughter, Winifred, sold the property, in 1954, to Gisborne City Council.

Thereafter Wyllie Cottage slowly decayed until, partly as a bloody-minded response to the bruited intention of the council to demolish it, the cottage was saved by public subscriptions. Restoration began in 1970 when it was found that the sagging building was not quite as bad as had been thought. Indeed, the biggest job was the restoration of the roof, which was done with shingles supplied by the Historic Places Trust.

As for Mac, he’s buried round the back, among the bedding plants.


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By Don Donovan