Just this past weekend (3rd Jan 2015) Chris and I took a delightful drive to Timaru to soak up some history that I have wanted to see since learning about the pioneering, Rhodes brothers. Here’s a short summary of their story:
The Rhodes and Waitaha (Canterbury) were first introduced in 1836 when the whaling Captain from the ‘Australian’ climbed the Port Hills and looked out over the vast Waitaha Plains. William Barnard Rhodes later reported that it was just swamps and lagoons. But he was impressed. Giving the area its first European name of Port Cooper and the Port Cooper Plains – in honour of one of his employers, Daniel Cooper. Two years later, he returned and introduced the first hoof stock to Banks Peninsula via Akaroa.
In 1843, George Rhodes arrived from England to take over his brother’s operations in Port Cooper as William had settled in Wellington and was making quite a name for himself. George purchased ‘Purau’ from the Greenwood brothers and this became the main hub of the Rhodes South Island farming businesses. This station once swept around the top of the Port Hills to the Scarborough Heads in Sumner and down into Tai Tapu. In 1850, George was joined by another brother, Robert Heaton Rhodes, just before the first four Canterbury Association ships arrived that December. The brothers were in fact sheep dipping when they witnessed the arrival of the historic ‘Charlotte Jane’ as she sailed past Purau and dropped anchor at Lyttelton.
It was 1850, that the brothers got word of cheap land further down south in Canterbury. They had to apply for pastoral licenses twice; first in December 1850 which was denied and then again in June 1851. As this second application did not include the land set aside for the further settlement of Timaru, it was accepted and made legal in 1853. But the brothers did not wait until then; George built a home along the Timaru sea side in 1851, where George Street is now located (plaque pictured). It was 20 foot long and only had three walls! Around 1000 sheep had been herded out of Purau and now South Canterbury had its first sheep station.
When George moved his family out of what is now the township of Timaru, he settled further northwards, naming the area ‘The Levels’ after a family property back in England. Here, he built what is now the oldest building in South Canterbury (pictured). He farmed until his untimely death from a chill in 1864. His death spelt the end of the Rhodes brothers being in business together. The Levels and Purau were sold with Robert moving his family to the estate of Elmwood in Christchurch, now the suburb of Elmwood. The mansion there was knocked down to make way for Heaton Normal Intermediate School in the 1950’s. Robert had purchased the bottom paddocks of the estate of ‘Strowan’ – now known as St Andrew’s College on Papanui Road.
As for The Levels, it was purchased by a former Rhodes employee, a fella known by the name Orbell and this family still remains on the land today.
I thank Nicky for welcoming us into her home and on to her property so we could take a look around. It was amazing to go inside and just feel the atmosphere. We couldn’t believe a family of six lived here once, with a live-in-nanny to boot!
Sadly, ‘The Levels’ mansion built by George in the late 1850’s did not survive much past WWII. It was knocked down for being too cold and for the rooms being too small. A new family home was built and remains today; now boasting its own heritage of being in its sixth decade.
The Maori history of Timaru dates back as far as 1400 AD. Two possible meanings lie behind the name. Some say the name came from ‘Te Maru’ – meaning ‘a place of shelter’, where others say it comes from ‘Ti Maru’ which means ‘shady Cabbage Tree’. It was, after all, a resting place for the Maori dragging their canoes up onto the flat shoreline after being out at sea. Europeans first arrived in the form of whalers in 1839. The first settler ship arrived in 1859 and was named the ‘SS Strathallan’.
My favourite part of the story will always be the robbery of 1000 sheep from ‘The Levels’ by outlaw James MacKenzie in 1855. His collie ‘Friday’ was banned from Canterbury soil for her role in the crime but she found herself back at ‘The Levels’ as George’s most favourite dog a few years later. MacKenzie, during his trial said that she would work for no one else but him and it was true. She never mustered sheep again, despite being asked to do so in Celtic as that was the language MacKenzie trained her in!
*All colour photos taken by Chris and Annette Bulovic*
*’The Levels’ homestead in 1862 courtesy of the South Canterbury Museum – https://museum.timaru.govt.nz/home – Ref 1923*