The search for the university’s oldest building turned up several interesting contenders. Mellor House – featured in last week’s blog post – may have won the prize, but it’s a shame not to share some of the tales of other buildings we looked into!
I wouldn’t have got far in my search without the expertise of architectural history experts David Murray and Michael Findlay, who can look at a building and distinguish that some feature, such as the roof angle or style of weatherboard, dates from a particular decade, or that a house bears the distinctive marks of a particular architect. Michael and I wandered around campus looking for buildings which might be particularly old. I then researched their history from a variety of sources. Old rates records, kindly checked by DCC archivist Chris Scott, were particularly helpful in narrowing down dates.
As the old photograph above reveals, there were various houses scattered along Leith Street and the hill below Clyde Street in the 1870s. This area is still home to a collection of old houses which have been incorporated into Arana College. The big question is, how old are they, and did any of the buildings in this photo survive into the 21st century? Of course, one complication is that few houses remain unaltered for over a century! Many homes started out as small cottages and were gradually added to over the decades; a new roof or windows or cladding can disguise their original form.
A good example is the two attached houses at 107-109 Dundas Street. The large double bay windows at the front suggest a late nineteenth-century construction date, but closer inspection shows that these windows have been added to an earlier flat-fronted house. In fact, a careful look from above at the chimneys and roof lines (thanks Michael!) reveals that this is the building which appears on that same corner location in J.W. Allen’s 1870s photo. Rates records are patchy for that period, but judging by the date of the photo and the style of the original building we date its construction to the early to mid-1870s.
By 1877 – possibly earlier – this building was owned by Richard Tilbury. Just as the Cook family owned their home for eight decades, the Tilbury family were long-term owners of the joined Dundas Street houses, though the families had contrasting class backgrounds. Richard Tilbury was a Londoner, the son of a waiter. By 1870 he and his younger brother George were living in Dunedin, where both young men married. They worked together as expressmen, meaning they delivered goods to order by horse and carriage. Richard retired from the Tilbury Bros partnership in 1907, leaving his brother and nephews to run the business.
Richard Tilbury was the father of ten children, and saw his share of tragedy. His first wife, Eleanor Farnell, died in 1881, aged 32, around the time she gave birth to their seventh child. The baby followed her to the grave two months later. Two of their older children had also died as infants, and another at three years. In 1882 Richard married Irish woman Kate Finerty, who gave birth to three more children. Their son Harry drowned in the Leith in 1892. Newspaper reports of the accident reveal that the 9-year-old fell into the river just near the family home; there were suspicions that he had a seizure, which he had become prone to recently.
Fortunately not all of the Tilbury children died young; several of the five who survived childhood lived into old age. Their father, Richard Tilbury, died in 1934 aged 89 years, and his wife Kate died 6 years later. Richard left various bequests to his children. One of the pair of Dundas St houses went to his youngest daughter, Henrietta, and the other to his youngest son, William. When Henrietta Tilbury died in 1949, she left her house to be used by her sister Sophia Tilbury during her lifetime; it was then to pass to her niece Thora Smith (William’s daughter). Sophia, the oldest of the Tilburys, lived on at Dundas St until 1964, when she died at the grand old age of 90; William, the youngest, ended up in Waimate, where he died in 1968 at 80 years.
Two generations of the Tilbury family thus owned the Dundas St building for a remarkable ninety or so years. The University of Otago later bought the property and added it to the growing complex of houses which formed Arana. Arana may have been based around the grand Clyde St home of Sir James Allen, but it also came to own a mish-mash of cottages of various ages and styles. However, the Tilbury home remains the only surviving 1870s house identifiable on that side of Leith St in J.W. Allen’s photograph.
A couple of other houses in the vicinity did rouse our curiosity. The distinctive cottage just around the corner from the old Tilbury home, now painted orange, has the somewhat timeless design of any very simple house! It used to sit at 122 St David Street, and was moved to its current location to make way for new developments at Arana. Rates records show it was built around 1885, a few years after the university registry building.
Another house I’m suspicious about is on the other side of Leith St – could this, perhaps, be built around the original cottage of James Gebbie, the nurseryman? Since the house is still privately owned, I haven’t researched it any further. There are, of course, many old buildings in the vicinity of the campus which don’t belong to the university, including some rented to students.
At the top of the hill, in Clyde Street, are some much grander homes. The Allen house, named Arana (a Maori transliteration of Allen), dates from the 1880s, as do several of the others. We wondered about the house at number 96, now known as Thorpe House and part of St Margaret’s College. Council records reveal that this is a contemporary of the university’s geology building – it was constructed in 1878 for warehouseman Joseph Ridley. The house then passed through various hands before it was purchased by solicitor Jefferson Stephens around 1913. I wonder if he socialised with the Cooks, around the corner in Union Street? The house remained in the Stephens family, latterly to Jefferson’s son Oswald Stephens, a teacher, until St Margaret’s took possession in 1980.
Do you have any stories to share of the old houses which have been absorbed into the university and its residential colleges?