Myths and mysteries surround William Larnach and his
family, their extravagant castle on Otago Peninsula and their
Gothic memorial tomb in Dunedin's Northern Cemetery.
As a new effort is launched to conserve it,
Charmian Smith tries to dispel some of the myths surrounding
the now derelict mausoleum.
For almost 130 years, the most striking memorial in Dunedin's
Northern Cemetery has been Larnach's tomb.
To the left as you enter the gate, the soaring 17m spire of
the memorial chapel is visible well above the surrounding
monuments of other wealthy Dunedin families - in an area
known as millionaires' row.
The plots are large, fand William Larnach bought three and
a-half of them to erect the ostentatious funerary monument, a
conspicuous display of wealth and status common in
The mausoleum was designed by the notable architect R. A.
Lawson in 1881 in the form of a Gothic chapel, modelled on
his graceful First Church, built in 1873.
William James Mudie Larnach, banker, businessman, politician,
government minister, and builder of the grandiose house, The
Camp, now known as Larnach Castle, on Otago Peninsula in the
early 1870s, was no stranger to flaunting his prosperity,
however precarious it ultimately proved to be.
He built the mausoleum in 1881 as a memorial to his first
wife, Eliza Jane Guise, who died suddenly on November 8,
1880, of an apoplectic fit, now called a stroke. Her name and
dates of birth and death can still be made out carved on the
door lintel, now sadly defaced.
Subsequently also buried there were Larnach's second wife
Mary Cockburn Alleyne, Eliza's half-sister, who died of blood
poisoning after an operation in 1887; his eldest daughter
Kate Emily Larnach, who died of typhoid in Wellington in
1891; and Larnach himself, who committed suicide in
Parliament buildings in 1898.
It is said to have been due to the parlous state of his
finances, but is also speculated to be because of an affair
between his third, much younger wife, Constance de Bathe
Brandon, and his younger son Douglas. In 1910, Larnach's
elder son, Donald Guise Larnach, who also committed suicide,
was buried there too.
Larnach died intestate and his family was torn apart by legal
battles over what little remained of his property. The castle
was sold in 1906, went through several different ownerships
and fell into various states of disrepair.
Now carefully restored by Margaret and the late Barry Barker,
who bought it in 1967, it is a major showpiece and tourist
The dramatic story of Larnach's colourful life and
dysfunctional family has been told in a play, Castle of Lies,
by Michaelanne Forster (Fortune Theatre 1993), an opera,
Larnach, by John Drummond (Opera Otago 2007), in biographies
The Ordeal of William Larnach (1981) by Hardwicke Knight, and
King of the Castle (1997) by Larnach's
great-great-granddaughter, Fleur Snedden.
Larnach's tomb has found no such saviour. It is derelict. It
is a wonder it has survived at all. Not only have the wind
and weather wreaked havoc on the Oamaru stone and slate, the
tomb has also been continually vandalised and desecrated -
the stained-glass windows and stone mullions shattered, the
doors broken, many stones smashed and pulled apart.