Laying Larnach to rest

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 late-Victorian times.

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 attraction.

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.