The house that Thomas built

I’d like you to meet the Reverend Thomas Richard Fisher, a devout Wesleyan whose ill-health – preacher’s throat, no less – unfortunately prevented him from preaching for some time. He arrived in New Zealand in 1857 and promptly set himself up in business in Christchurch (apparently he arrived with quite a lot of money, and made even more – but don’t say I told you). Since his arrival in Christchurch, he’s devoted himself to worthy activities – a founder of the British and Foreign Bible Society and a minister for the Wesleyan church, and he’s even preached for the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians from time to time. Such a religious chap. It’s 1885 now, and he’s 79 and he’s slowing and settling into his retirement, during which he and his wife Sarah would love to spend as much time as possible with their ever-increasing family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (of whom there will be 36 by 1890; Press 13/1/1890: 5). Such a fortunate man! Colonial life has been so good to him!

Cotswold House, 2012. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Cotswold House, 2012. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a picture of Thomas or Sarah Fisher, but until the earthquakes, we had two buildings that Thomas was intimately associated with, both of which we recorded. Many of you will be familiar with the Fisher building, one of the central city’s most prominent 19th century buildings. But you’re probably less familiar with Cotswold House, the house the Fishers built in Parlane Street (then Clifton Street).

An 1860s advertisement for Fisher's business. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/12/1864: 6.

An 1860s advertisement for Fisher’s business. Image: Lyttelton Times 22/12/1864: 6.

Thomas Fisher set up shop on the corner of High and Hereford streets in c.1860, establishing a grocery shop there. By the late 1870s, Thomas’s son William had joined the business, and they built new premises, designed by no less an architect than William Armson. Clearly, the rumours of wealth were more than just rumours…

The resulting building was a glorious Venetian Gothic number, as suited the prosperous businessman in the years before Commercial Classicism became the style du jour. Built in brick with limestone detailing, it occupied its corner site well. This was a three-storey building, with a stone-lined basement underneath. The numerous limestone carvings drew on nature for inspiration (echoing some of the themes in last week’s post). The underside of the veranda was pressed tin and the veranda brackets were an excellent example of Victorian excess.

The basement found under the Fisher building. Photo: M. Hennessey.

The basement found under the Fisher building. Photo: M. Hennessey.

Rondels on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Rondels on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Veranda post on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

Veranda post on the Fisher building. Photo: K. Watson.

A window, Cotswold House. Photo: M. Hennessey.

A window, Cotswold House. Photo: M. Hennessey.

But what about Richard and Sarah Thomas’s house? It was built in 1885, but we don’t know who the architect was (not Armson, as he’d died in 1883). Thomas and Sarah’s new house was a bay villa. Although it looked relatively plain, after studying the building, I am left with the sense that it was richly decorated, but in a calm, restrained way. There was little in the way of Victorian excess here, with the exception of the cast iron fretwork around the veranda. The richness came in the little details: the corbels, the pediments, the angle-stops, the panels under the windows, the porthole-style ventilation holes. Small details, well executed.

It was big. About 16 rooms (although the newspaper advertisements said 11 or 12, but apparently some rooms just don’t count). With seven bedrooms. Why did a retired couple need seven bedrooms? I guess there were all those children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come and stay. And there must have been at least one servant, although all the bedrooms were generously sized, and all had fireplaces.

The breakfast room fireplace. Photo: J. Hughes.

The breakfast room fireplace. Photo: J. Hughes.

Most of the original decorative features inside the house were long gone when we recorded it, but some fireplaces remained, as did skirting boards, a ceiling rose and some cornices. The original fireplaces weren’t those from very best rooms, but there was one from the breakfast room and two in the upstairs bedrooms. And the interesting thing about these was that they matched – not just each other, but also the external decoration. Oh, the one from the breakfast room was a bit fancier, but all three were of the same basic design, and they matched the corbels on the exterior. Not immediately obvious, but it’s these small things that matter. We all know that Victorians were fairly over-the-top by our interior decorating standards, and often every fireplace in the house was different. Not in this case. Maybe it was cheaper to buy a bulk lot, but I prefer to think that the Fishers were paying close attention to the decoration of their home, and ensuring a consistency of design throughout.

The first floor, upside down. Photo: M. Hennessey.

The first floor, upside down. The tongue & groove floorboards are at the bottom, with the insulation boards above, running between the joists & supported by fillets. Photo: M. Hennessey.

There’s just one other detail about the house I’d like to draw your attention to: the floor of the upper storey was sound-proofed. Yep, that’s right. We’ve only seen this in two other 19th century buildings in Christchurch, and they were both commercial. Not a common thing to do then. So why did the Fishers go to the trouble of sound-proofing their home? Good question. Maybe it was those hordes of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, creating a ruckus upstairs and disturbing the genteel entertainments of the Reverend and Mrs Fisher.

Two buildings representing the two different faces of the Reverend Thomas Richard Fisher. The central city business, designed to catch the eye and draw the customer in, reflecting the successful businessman. The suburban residence, presenting a restrained, genteel façade, reflecting the refined tastes of the Wesleyan minister and his wife.

(As a side note, it’s interesting to compare Cotswold House to William Bowen’s house, featured a few weeks back.)

Katharine Watson


Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at:

Press. [online] Available at:

5 thoughts on “The house that Thomas built

  1. Fantastic blog article and nice to see and hear about the Fisher family. When I was researching them a few years back I remember that the family were still heavily involved in their church and business ventures to their dying day. In addition to the visiting large extended family I wonder whether some of the sound proofing could be due to church and business meetings (although would have expected they’d use downstairs rooms perhaps???). They could have been very considerate and wanted their religious fervour in song and voice not to annoy their neighbours!!!!

    • Oh, I like that idea! Something I didn’t mention in the post was that the house had two pianos (—–10-CHP-1-byDA-on–2cotswold+house–), and one of my colleagues has since suggested that the sound-proofing could have been to stop that noise travelling upstairs. And no doubt those pianos came in handy when singing hymns! I’d love to know more about what you found out about the Fishers. I didn’t look into the lives of the children at all, but I’m sure that would be interesting too.

      • Of course that does sound most likely especially if there were sleeping children in the house and hymns were sung downstairs until the small hours! I didn’t research in huge detail the family but do have some info. I understand you had a look at the report I did for NZHPT and from memory I have a bit more info on the Fisher’s that was used to meet requirements of my Masters. Would be happy to share my findings 🙂

        • That’d be great, thank you! You’ll see we have a contact email address on the blog, so that’s probably the easiest way to send information in.

  2. I have published a book on the Rev Thomas and his family. Very interesting family and of course there are now many decendants here in NZ.
    “The Rev T R Fisher Story” Available in epub and pdf or the ibook store

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