When one thinks of the Austen Deans – award winning artist, mountaineer, World War II survivor – and the interesting life he crammed into 95 years, one could understand why he was the centre of a ghostly occurrence at Riccarton House that no one can really explain – even today.
On the 1st December 1915, Riccarton House was filled with the cries of a newborn baby. This was nothing unusual to the then 59 years old house; the walls and foundations had witnessed many births over the years but who was to know that this would be the last.
The baby’s father, Alexander Deans – known to the family as Alister – was the 6th son born to John Deans II and his wife Catherine Edith in 1890. Even though the threat of a War World loomed over the house as it did over Christchurch at that time, I’m sure Alister took a moment to quiet his thoughts as he held his first born close to his chest.
The baby was named Alister Austen Deans but this young lad would grow up to be known as Austen. His mother Nora Knight – preferred to be called Norna – had grown up alongside Homebush in the neighbouring estate of Racecourse Hill. Maybe no one was surprised when the two youngsters formed an attachment than led to their wedding earlier in Austen’s birth year. Just like his grandfather, Austen seemed to be very much a honeymoon baby.
It was the next day that really got the Deans talking. In the bedroom – referred to by Riccarton House guides as the ‘teenagers bedroom’ and the most haunted’, Norna regained her energy tucked up asleep in bed. Next to her in a bassinet was baby Austen. The Nanny worked quietly nearby when she noted that someone had entered the room.
Upon turning to look, she saw an elderly woman with deep set blue eyes, small and fragile in frame, dressed in black, walk up to the bassinet and peer in at the baby. The curious Nanny just watched as the woman simply turned away without a word or a glance and left the room.
At the next opportunity, the Nanny queried the rest of the house about the odd visitor. She was met with puzzled looks as they had been no guests to the house that day. When the Nanny explained what she saw, the family said that she had described Jane Deans to a tee. It seemed the Great Granny Deans wasn’t going to miss out on seeing the new addition even due to the fact that she had been dead for 4 years!
Austen grew up with a great love for Riccarton House, so much in fact that he felt guilty it had surpassed his own family farm of ‘Morven’ (subdivided from Homebush in 1906)in his affections. At one stage in his adult life, he had even entertained the idea of purchasing Riccarton as his own.
He had appeared in ‘The Press’ shortly before his death to express his sadness at the on-coming demolition of some of the remaining Riccarton Farm buildings (due to earthquake damage) that is now a part of Christchurch Boys High. He recalled how his cousins and he would play in the old buildings as children. I can’t imagine the grief that would have been in his heart at this news; after all, he was the last Deans to be born at Riccarton.
Austen’s father Alister, enlisted for World War I the following year, along with his brothers and many other young Cantabs lads. Sadly, he was not to return. He was killed in action at Passchendaele, Belgium on the 4th October 1917. Sadly, he would never met his second born, David McIlraith Austen Deans who was born the same year.
*image of Austen Deans courtesy of http://www.stuff.co.nz*