Homestead comes with convoluted history

From rabbits to riches, an illegitimate child and a house divided — the history of the Earnscleugh Station Homestead is a tangled tale, becoming more so in the retelling.

Now, as the mansion is up for sale and the tales of sibling rivalry are widely reported, a family member has come forward to set the story straight, with a book by the illegitimate child to back her up.

The basic facts are undisputed: in 1902, Stephen Thomas Spain took up the lease on Earnscleugh Station, a 28,000ha run of abandoned sheep country, its bare hills swarming with rabbits.

Mr Spain hired local men as rabbiters, some of them local farmers who had found farming too difficult with the fierce competition from the rabbits for each scrap of feed.

Those introduced pests made the runholder his fortune, first in the selling of pelts and then, during World War 1, when he built a cannery to supply rabbit meat to the domestic market and soldiers overseas.

Mr Spain considered the 60-year-old Cairnmuir Cottage that was on the property insufficient for himself, his wife Marion Alice, known as May, and their seven children.

Historic Earnscleugh Station homestead. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Historic Earnscleugh Station homestead. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

In 1919, he had noted architect Edmund Anscombe draw up plans for a castle-like building in the Victorian/Edwardian/Jacobethan style prevalent between 1880 and 1920.

The homestead contains a range of features pertinent to the period, including rectangular windows divided into smaller rectangular panes; windows with ornamental stone or brick detailing and lintels; a symmetrical facade; bay windows; wings off the main living area; a flat parapeted roofline; and doors enclosed within classical framing.

The building’s display of conspicuous consumption and the fact it was built on leasehold land had locals in the nearby townships calling it "Spain’s Folly".

It is not long after the homestead was built that the threads of the tale begin to unravel, with a research report for the Historic Places Trust, Dunedin, in 1997 stating that the leasehold and the homestead passed to Mr Spain’s sons Fabian and Casimir Spain, and his son-in-law Leslie Hunter Denniston, after Mr Spain’s death in 1940.

Earnscleugh Station Homestead as it appeared in the 1940s. The two upper balconies on either side...
Earnscleugh Station Homestead as it appeared in the 1940s. The two upper balconies on either side of the sunroom have since been closed in. PHOTO: NEW ZEALAND HERALD GLASS PLATE COLLECTION, AUCKLAND LIBRARIES, 1370-217-8
It goes on to say Fabian lived in Auckland while the other two families shared the homestead, and the report states it was not a happy partnership, with the result being the complete division of the house.

It is from this that stories of battling brothers began.

Bayleys Cromwell sales consultant Gary Kirk has taken the tale as true and included it in his sales materials for the stately two-storey residence that has a Category 1 classification on New Zealand’s historic places register.

"Not so," said a descendant of the Spain family, who contacted Mr Kirk to set the story right.

Barbara Chapman, whose grandfather was Stephen Spain’s cousin, has another tale to tell, that occurred when Mr Spain and his wife were still living, and centres on the women, who were often overlooked in our pioneering stories.

It was not the brothers who were at odds, she said, but rather older sister, Gabriella Helena, who had married Leslie Denniston, and a younger sister, Bernice Cecilia, who had divided the house of Spain.

"It’s been a family story, and quite an amusing story, all my life — and I’m 78," Mrs Chapman said.

"It should be a movie — it’s fascinating," she said, before adding, "we’re a very eccentric family."

The friction began, it seems, when younger sister Bernice returned home, unwed and "with child". That was shocking enough in the times but more so in a family where Mr Spain had joined the Catholic faith.

The unwed mother named her baby girl Gabriella, perhaps hoping to regain some favour in the eyes of elder sister Gabriella, who effectively ran the house while their parents were away in the Wainuiomata buying land.

The child Gabriella, known to all as Gay, was a sharp observer and in 1969, under her married name of Gay McInnes, wrote a book about her childhood in the 1930s, splitting her time between a house and family divided and a convent school upbringing.

The cover of Castle on the Run, by Gay McInnes.
The cover of Castle on the Run, by Gay McInnes.
That book, Castle on the Run, is a major source for the Historic Places Trust report but one passage was overlooked.

Mrs McInnes wrote of returning home one time to find the emotional family divide had become a more solid one of brick and mortar.

"Before this they built the wall, a brick wall, to divide the girls, which completely cut off a section of the house," she wrote.

"It went right through the house, across the front verandah, continued out across the drive and garden in the shape of a tall trellis that later trailed climbing roses in an effort to camouflage."

For those readers concerned about the fates of the wayward Bernice and her illegitimate daughter, Mrs Chapman assured the Otago Daily Times that Bernice married while Mr Spain was still alive, and Gay became her aunt Gabriella’s favourite niece.

The homestead and adjoining land was bought seven years ago by noted pipfruit orchardist Con van der Voort, whose daughter Jackie van der Voort said the building’s history was of great interest to her father.

The family is selling the building to save it, as they realised they would not be looking at restoring the homestead for at least 10 years and wanted it owned by someone who could do so, she said.

"It’s an asset to the community and it’s an iconic building in the community," Ms van der Voort said.

-- tracie.barrett@odt.co.nz

 

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