For the oldest dwelling on the Canterbury Plains, there is very little written about the intimate details of the Deans Cottage build – not even the actual date was thought important enough to be recorded. All we know – is that it was constructed sometime in the latter half of 1843 from Kahikatea and Matai felled in the nearby Riccarton Bush. But what amazing historic events the cottage played host to!
By the time the Deans Cottage came into existence, the farm of Putaringamotu was well established – complete with farm buildings, stockyards and ploughed paddocks planted with potatoes and wheat. From dawn to dusk, the Scottish Deans brothers (William and John) and their employees – the Gebbie and Manson families – tended to the needs of their small pioneering group. They had to; they were the only Europeans living on the vast Port Cooper (Canterbury) Plains. John Gebbie oversaw the welfare of the hoof stock, which included Canterbury’s first Clydesdales and Merino sheep. Samuel Manson was kept busy with his hammer and nails and erected every wooden structure that was needed (including the Deans Cottage). The wives spent their day organising food (which included the preparation of meat and the running the dairy), doing the washing and, at night, making candles from scratch.
As for the Deans brothers: they filled in the gaps – ploughing, building, gardening and grinding wheat into flour with a handheld mill that they brought with them from Wellington.
And it was here that Christchurch’s history really began. When the Canterbury Association began to look around New Zealand for suitable land to build their Anglican city, it was the example of the Deans brothers that showed that the Port Cooper Plains rich and fertile soil where much could be achieved with hard work and determination.
It was in the Deans Cottage on Christmas Day (1848) that the brothers requested from their guests of the New Zealand Company and the Canterbury Association that Putaringamotu be renamed to Riccarton (after their parish back in Scotland) and the Otakaro to the Avon River. Sitting around a dining room table (which is still in the Deans family), our founding fathers gathered around one of our earliest maps (pictured) and spoke of their dreams for the future. The cottage was also used as a base camp for our earliest of surveyors – a place of shelter, food, supplies and bit of R&R (which usually included a bit of bird shooting).
It was also a cottage of great sadness. On 23rd June 1854, on a sofa in the main sitting room, John Deans succumbed to Tuberculosis at the young age of 34. He left behind his wife, Jane, and their 10 month old son.
With John’s brother, William, having already drowned in 1851, Jane was suddenly the only Deans left to run Riccarton and the Darfield estate of Homebush (the latter remains in the family today). She would later write about the Deans Cottage being ‘…so dark to me…’ in reflection of the great sorrow she lived through there. In John’s last days, he spoke to Jane about the building of Riccarton House and the protection needed for Riccarton Bush – in what is believed to be New Zealand’s earliest conservation act.
Jane moved into Riccarton House in 1856 and her cousin, and farm manager, Douglas Graham took over the cottage – beginning the history of it being a workingman’s Whare. Douglas Graham is remembered today in the naming of Grahams Road in Burnside where he owned land. Unfortunately, he died resulting from an accident in 1872 before he got to develop his land into a farm of his own.
The cottage was moved from its original site in front of the Avon and beside Kahu Road (sketched in April 1844) in 1947 and fully restored in 1950 by the Rotary Club of Christchurch. It was then moved to its present site in 1970. It withstood the earthquakes of 2010/2011 with only the chimney requiring repairs and this was undertaken in 2016. Historic Homebush bricks – from the Dean’s clay works business in Glentunnel – were used in the rebuild.
In a city that has lost so much of its heritage, the Deans Cottage has become much more special but the message hasn’t changed. With Riccarton house close by, it remains an example of Canterbury’s “early struggles and eventual progressive reward for hard work”
*Image courtesy of the Riccarton House & Bush Trust Board – http://www.riccartonhouse.co.nz*