Imagine you’re John Cracroft Wilson. It’s 1854 and you’ve just arrived in the fledgling settlement of Christchurch. You’re 46, English and educated at Oxford, although you were born in India and spent most of your life there, making a name for yourself in the civil service. You’ve arrived at Lyttelton with your second wife, a daughter from your first marriage, a retinue of Indian servants and some livestock.
You’re here for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you’re suffering from stress and a sabbatical has been recommended. Secondly, you’re looking for somewhere for ex-East India Company employees to retire to. And apparently you have some plans of your own – and money. You tried Australia on the way here, but didn’t much like that, but you think Canterbury sounds pretty good, because there’s land, lots of it, and apparently it’s there for the taking.
And take it you do: Cracroft station (one of Canterbury’s biggest runs), High Peak station and Broadlands station were all taken up by Wilson during his first sojourn in New Zealand, along with land in the suburb we now know as Cashmere. This is where Wilson made his home (he had managers on each of his stations) and it’s this home that interests us.
Back to imaging that you’re Wilson and it’s 1854. Christchurch is pretty new at this point, and building materials are in short supply. The nearest timber is at Riccarton, Papanui or on Banks Peninsula. But anyway, you’re from a class of English society that believes in building in permanent materials. Unfortunately, however, the brick industry’s not really established in Canterbury yet and, well, it’d be a whole lot cheaper to make your own, especially as you have all those servants and some useful materials nearby.
And so that’s what Wilson did. He used sun-dried mud (adobe) bricks for the exterior walls of his house and for the internal walls on the ground floor, while the walls on the first floor were mud-and-stud. The mud bricks were made by Wilson’s Indian servants from a mixture of earth, clay, sand and vegetable matter, much of which would have been sourced nearby.
Analysing these bricks tells us that the mixture was set into wooden frames (with four sides) that sat on a bed of straw, the excess material raked off the top and the bricks left to dry in the sun. The resulting bricks were 1 foot long, 6 inches wide and weighed 7.5 kg each. Wilson also used some lightly fired red bricks in the external walls and used these bricks and mud bricks in the chimney. The mortar used in the walls was also a cob mixture (but contained no vegetable matter), and the walls were coated with a thick clay plaster, with a thin lime plaster on top of this.
Sticking with the theme of using locally available materials, Wilson used basalt blocks for the house’s foundations (these would have come from a quarry on the Port Hills). On top of this layer of basalt sat a layer of gravel and earth, and then a layer of mud mortar. The base course of the external wall was a layer of relatively small high quality red bricks (also clearly made in a wooden frame set on the ground).
The use of timber in the house was kept to a minimum. Some timber framework was used in the internal walls and the roof was timber, including the shingles. Timber was also used for the veranda, doors, windows, architraves, skirting boards and floors.
Wilson built himself and his family a pretty basic house, for the most part using locally available – and probably relatively cheap – materials. But Wilson was no ordinary man. He was a descendant of the Cracrofts of Hackthorn Hall in Lincolnshire, a prominent figure in British India and would become a prominent figure in colonial Canterbury. This sort of man does not build himself an ordinary house. He builds himself a house with 11 rooms. That’s right, 11 rooms. In 1871 (the first year for which statistics are available), the average New Zealand house had just under four rooms. None of these rooms was a toilet or bathroom, facilities that were no doubted located a suitable distance from the house.
Wilson, then, had lots of space for entertaining, as befitted a gentleman of his status. History tells us that Wilson – who was later knighted for his role in the Indian Mutiny – was known for both his generosity and paying low wages, as well as his egotism, arrogance and kindness, and his honesty. To me, his house reflects the contradictions in Wilson’s personality – it was a large house, built with rooms and space to share, and it was a plain house, built honestly and cheaply using local materials. It was also a farm house, not a city house. And unlike many farmers who built relatively simple homes in the early years of settlement, Wilson never replaced his house, dying there in 1881. In this way, too, Cracroft House epitomises Wilson’s frugality.
Acland, L. G. D., 1975. Early Canterbury Runs. 4th ed. Whitcoulls, Christchurch.
Kristiansen, T., 2012. John Cracroft Wilson. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. [online] Available at: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1w31/wilson-john-cracroft.
Ogilvie, G., 2009. The Port Hills of Christchurch. Phillips&King Publishers, Christchurch.
Toomath, W., 1986. Built in New Zealand: The houses we live in. HarperCollins Publishers, Auckland.