Commercial Stables

35 Fairfax Street, Murchison

  • Commercial Stables.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Karen Astwood. Date: 1/06/2009.
  • Commercial Stables. Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Taken By: Shellie Evans - flyingkiwigirl. Date: 11/03/2015.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 1634 Date Entered 30th October 2009


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Lot 2 DP 401161 (CT NL402584), Nelson Land District and the building known as Commercial Stables thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Tasman District


Tasman Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 401161 (CT NL402584), Nelson Land District

Location description

When travelling along Waller Street/State Highway 6 through Murchison, turn north into the upper end of Fairfax Street and the Commercial Stables is situated close to that intersection on the east side of the road.


The Commercial Stables in Murchison was constructed at the end of the nineteenth century and its size, timber construction, simple design are typical of a characteristic building form that became obsolete with the growth of motorised transport in the early twentieth century. As such, Commercial Stables is a rare remnant of New Zealand's early transport history.

Despite exploratory expeditions to the area in the 1840s and gold being discovered soon after, it was not until the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that Murchison developed into an established town. The early hotels in the town were established as accommodation for travellers and as such they also featured stables. The Commercial Hotel was one of the most popular in the area and therefore the proprietor built the Commercial Stables at the rear of the hotel for the ease of his guests. The size of the stables is indicative of the demand for stable facilities, and the fact that there were several comparative stables in the town is reflective of the town's growth. The Commercial Stables survived the Murchison Earthquake of 1929 and its office area was used as accommodation. However, with the introduction of motorised transport and it's superseding of horse transportation, by the early twentieth century the various urban stables in Murchison, and indeed throughout New Zealand, were becoming obsolete. The Commercial Stables then became a storage and utility space, and the addition of an accommodation block on the side of the Commercial Stables meant it continued to be a viable structure.

Like other commercial and town stables, Commercial Stables is a wide gable spanned timber structure, with a large central opening at each end of an aisle flanked by horse stalls. These buildings also typically had office areas at the front and accompanying windows, and are also noted for their conspicuous lack of decorative features which is indicative of their primarily utilitarian function. This comparison with other examples has suggested that the Commercial Stables dates from the 1890s. A twentieth century accommodation block along the length of one side of the stables has small cabins and a closed end verandah encompassed under its lean-to. This is constructed using methods and materials similar to that of the main section of the building.

The Commercial Stables is an extremely rare remaining example of an urban stables building, a type of building which in the late nineteenth century was a common sight in New Zealand's town centres. The Commercial Stables is also significant because it is the only original building left from the complex of structures which was developed by the Commercial Hotel, one of the oldest established businesses in Murchison. The presence of this large stables building is also valuable as an indication that the isolation and frontier character of Murchison was abating by the 1890s.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Until the twentieth century Murchison was considered a frontier settlement mainly because of its relative isolation. In the absence of a railway the main means of transport available at the time was horse drawn, and as such travellers not only required accommodation for themselves but for their animals. As such, several large hotels in Murchison had associated stables and the Commercial Stables was built by the Commercial Hotel; one of the oldest businesses which remains in Murchison. The size of the Commercial Stables is indicative of the demand for the facilities and correspondingly the growth of Murchison and its coalescence into an established town in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Commercial Hotel also had a hall, and with this building's demolition and the destruction of the original hotel of the complex, the Commercial Stables is the oldest surviving remnant of this important local business. These factors all contribute to the local historical importance of the Commercial Stables.

The adaptive reuse of the Commercial Stables in the early to mid twentieth century is indicative of superseding of horse transport by motorised equivalents, and was essential to the continued viability of the structure. As a result of this transport revolution the majority of the Commercial Stables' counterparts have not survived. Therefore, the Commercial Stables has considerable national historical significance as a rare physical reminder of a once essential means of transport.

Architectural Significance or Value:

Despite its simple design, the Commercial Stables has considerable architectural value as an extremely rare example of this representative form of building dating from the late nineteenth century. The use of readily available materials and a basic, largely unadorned, form is indicative of the utilitarian nature of this building, and its characteristic large central openings at each end of the central aisle running through the building means the function can be read, and is manifest, in its physicality.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

Commercial Stables is important because it is a physical remnant of a mode of travel which became extinct as the main means of transport in the early dec-ades of the twentieth century because of the technological developments in mo-torised transportation and the ensuing proliferation of cars and other vehicles.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

The Murchison Earthquake of 1929 is one of New Zealand's largest recorded earthquakes and caused widespread damage. The makeshift accommodation set up in Commercial Stables in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake is important because it was a matter of necessity that was indicative of the sur-rounding destruction.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

As a now rare example of a once prevalent and essential building type, particu-larly in isolated areas without rail access, Commercial Stables has the potential to provide knowledge about early modes of transport and the demise of horse drawn transport in the early twentieth century through mediums such as on site interpretation. Because of its association with one of the longest running busi-nesses in Murchison it also has potential to provide information about the early development of the town.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places"

While many pre-twentieth century small scale rural stable buildings have survived, the transport revolution which saw motorised vehicles surpass horse driven conveyance as the main means of travel meant that urban stables became obsolete. Because of this most were demolished and therefore, the Commercial Stables is now a rare example of what was a popular type of building around New Zealand's towns and larger urban centres in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The settlement of the Nelson region is said to have begun with the landing of the prominent early iwi, Waitaha, in the waka Uruao. This travelled from Hawaiki and the voyagers made landfall on the Boulder Bank circa 850, near what would become Nelson city. From there scouting parties set out to explore the interior while others continued their journey by sea down the east coast of the South Island. Maori later developed a series of trails inland around the Murchison and Nelson Lakes area, such as that through Tophouse Pass. For Maori, and eventually the Europeans who used it in the mid nineteenth century, this and other tracks in the area were vital passages providing access to the West Coast as well as eastern and southern districts.

A European association with the Nelson area was first established in 1642 when Abel Tasman anchored in what was to be called Murderer's, then Massacre, and now Golden Bay. The result of this first visit was a lethal exchange between the Dutch sailors and Ngati Tumatakokiri. It was centuries after this initial encounter that European interest in the area began in earnest with explorative visits from Captain James Cook and Dumont D'Urville and a few others. Then in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century flax traders and sealers began to frequent the coast around Nelson. However, because there were few whaling stations in the immediate area there was no substantive European settlement until the New Zealand Company's establishment and settlement of Nelson from 1841.

The company explored the potential of several sites for its settlement but Nelson was chosen as the nucleus, despite the generally swampy nature of the low lying areas, because of its harbour and the plentiful supplies of game and fish. It was then a matter of Captain Arthur Wakefield meeting with the various iwi of the region to persuade them to agree to the proposed settlement. This was essentially a confirmation and extension of a land sale organised by the Tory expedition in 1839. The meeting took place at Kaiteriteri and Wakefield eventually negotiated a deal with those in attendance. However, subsequent events demonstrate that in regard to this and some later transactions there were discrepancies in what each party believed they had agreed to. This led to several instances of conflict in the Nelson region during the 1840s, in particular. Perhaps the most well-known occurrence was the 'Wairau Affray' in 1843.

It was not until the 1850s that the Nelson community and other towns in the area began to coalesce. Provincial government was established in 1853, and most of the farm land from Wakapuaka to Brightwater was occupied by this date. By the 1850s all of the major Christian denominations could also boast of clergy and associated buildings in and around Nelson. Between 1853 and 1858 the European population of the district had risen from 4,587 to over 7,000 and continued to grow and prosper into the 1860s and 1870s with the aid of the local gold rushes and the nationwide demand for the area's produce. The gold rushes also saw the development of small trading and supply settlements further inland.

Early explorations into the Murchison area were undertaken in the 1840s by Charles Heaphy, Thomas Brunner, and William Fox. Until the discovery of gold in the proximity there was little to entice people into the area, but by 1865 there was sufficient interest in the area for Brunner to return and survey the town, which was first called Hampden. This name was changed to Murchison in 1882 to forestall confusion with a town in Otago and also one in Hawke's Bay. However, at this time and indeed until the twentieth century, Murchison was considered a frontier settlement and its continuance relied on small-scale gold mining operations and its timber industry. Roads in the area were rudimentary, if they existed at all, and so access was minimal and difficult. This isolation did not foster commerce and as such the standard of living of most local residents in the late nineteenth century was barely above subsistence.

The first Commercial Hotel in Hampden was constructed in 1873 by Thomas Kerr who had previously had an inn on the Porika Track. A few years later Kerr sold the business to George Fairweather Moonlight in1878. However, soon after Moonlight became the proprietor the building was severely damaged in a flood so he decided to move location and build a new hotel of the same name. By this time Moonlight was well-known locally because of his role as the postmaster and because of his larger than life personality. Prior to living in Murchison Moonlight had followed goldrushes around the world, working the goldfields in California and Australia before trying his luck on the West Coast of New Zealand in 1863. After speculating in several other areas he set up an accommodation house and stables in the Maruia Valley and then ran a coach business before opening a general store in Hampden in 1870. However, his literal association with gold-diggers got him into financial strife and he was declared bankrupt in 1883, mainly because of a series of unhonoured loans he had made to local gold prospectors. As a consequence the hotel was sold to John Rait.

Business continued as usual under the Rait's ownership. However, from the late 1880s Charles Downie, who would later build Downie's Hotel in 1900, leased the Commercial Hotel from the family. This expired in 1899 and the Raits moved back but then sold the hotel in 1901. It is probable that it was around the period of Downie's proprietorship that the stables were built. Because most of the Commercial Hotel's clientele were travellers at the time the stables were constructed and the main forms of transport involved horses, it was reasonable for the hotel to offer stable facilities. It would seem that stable facilities were a requirement at the time for hotel's to be able to be competitive; for example other hotels in Murchison, such as Downie's Hotel situated close to its counterpart, also offered such housing. Downie's stables could accommodate twenty horses and therefore must have been comparable in size to the Commercial Stables.

Murchison seems to have come of age in the early twentieth century; changing from a frontier settlement into an established support centre for the burgeoning dairy and other industries. This transition was recognised in 1909 when the town became the centre of Murchison County, an area that was previously incorporated into the Inangahua County. This was a status symbol, but also a result of the growth of Murchison's identity as a dairy farming area as opposed to that in Inangahua County which was characterised by mining and milling. The transition from frontier community to established town and seat of local governance was physically marked in Murchison by the building of the Council Chambers (1913) and other civic buildings.

The presence of several large hotels, complete with stables, in the town centre by 1900 and enough patronage to ensure their ongoing viability is also evidence of this early twentieth century change in the town's fortunes. The Commercial Hotel was prominent among these and as such when the timber building was destroyed by fire in 1927 it was big news in the town, especially since several people were killed in the fire. The fire had threatened to repeat the devastating 1914 fire in the town and could have easily spread to the stables and other surrounding buildings, but fortunately the fire fighters were aided by the winds being light.

Perhaps the biggest event in Murchison during the twentieth century was the Murchison Earthquake on the morning of 17 June, 1929. Despite both being magnitude 7.8 earthquakes the devastating effects of the Murchison Earthquake were overshadowed in the national consciousness by the destruction caused by the Hawke's Bay Earthquake. However, for those who it experienced in and around Murchison the earthquake was a terrifying experience. A Glenhope resident, Jean McWha recalled everyone's relief when the initial reports that Murchison 'had disappeared completely under slips' was proven false by the streams of refugees who evacuated the town and headed for Nelson the next day.

These refugees were mostly women and children who were being sent out of the area. One of the 'plucky' young men who stayed on to help in the aftermath was thankful to be allowed to doss in the Commercial Stables in the days that followed:

'we were allowed to take a mattress from the Commercial Hotel and made a communal bed on the floor of one of the rooms at the front of the Commercial Stables...and turned in for the first sleep in a bed since Monday. Sunday morning at 6 a.m. the heaviest after shock occurred. What I remember most of all is the others tumbling over me to get out quickly. The first out saw the front of Hodgson's Store finally collapse.'

Hodgson's Store had been a concrete building constructed only fifteen years earlier. Even though the men scrambled to get out of the stables during the aftershock, the timber construction made it a recognised reasonably safe place to stay in the days following the main earthquake, and a remarkable survivor. The result of the ongoing seismic activity was that the Murchison area 'was shattered to the extent of being virtually uninhabitable.'

With the rise in use of motorised vehicles the use of horses for conveyance was reduced and made the Commercial Hotel's stables redundant in terms of their original purpose. However, it would appear that in the years subsequent to the Murchison Earthquake there was an accommodation block built onto the side of the stables. This row of small cabins was used for auxiliary hotel accommodation and also as staff lodgings. This addition meant that the building still had a function and relevance, in addition to the main section of the building being used as a general shed and utility space for the hotel. This is perhaps why, unlike its counterpart at Downie's Hotel and also others around New Zealand, the Commercial Stables survived into the motorised transport age. The change of function into utility and shed spaces of smaller stables seems to have been more common, and within Murchison Hodgson's Stables is one such example. The rarity of stables that were the size and form of Commercial Stables was recognised by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) in the late 1970s, at which time it was thought to be 'the only remaining commercial stables in the country.'

Physical Description

Commercial Stables is a relatively large, simply designed timber building, set back slightly from the road in the northern part of Murchison's commercial centre. Aside from the Commercial Hotel, which the stables were built for, and a business in a small shed to its rear, the stables immediate surroundings are undeveloped in terms of residential or other buildings. The Commercial Stables' next closest neighbour is the Murchison Theatre which is on the site traditionally occupied by the Commercial Hotel's hall, and this is also a long, gabled, timber structure. However, on the opposite side of the road there is a series of residential buildings. All the buildings on this northern section of Fairfax Street are single level structures.

Images of other stables, like Gay's City Stables in central Nelson, demonstrate that the type of building that the Commercial Stables represents was a popular form by the 1890s and into the early twentieth century. These buildings have single expansive gables and are timber framed and clad structures. The stables which lined each long side of the structures were accessed through a central aisle which had a sizeable opening at each end. They also all had windows in their front facades which would correspond with the office windows present in Commercial Stables. Some examples had features such as parapets which obstructed the view of the gable, and the Gay City Stables had a clerestorey gabled skylight which, as well as providing light, would have aided in ventilating the building. The Commercial Stables does not feature a parapet or clerestory and the available images are inconclusive as to whether it originally had this latter feature. This form and size of building seem to have been reasonably common in town centres by the 1890s and this, in conjunction with photographic evidence, suggests that the Commercial Stables would have been built circa 1890s.

The Commercial Stables is labelled as such, in raised timber lettering, on the gable end of its front façade. This utilitarian building is marked as such by the minimal use of decorative elements. However, the addition of curved wedges to the undersides of the brackets supporting the brace of the upper gable-end, implies a reference to decorative elements common in buildings of the time, such as corbel courses. The finial attached to the brace is a recent addition, but other examples dating from this period also had braces for attaching signage, and this was the case at Commercial Hotels by the 1920s at least. Just below the horizontal line of the gable the door opening begins and has a shaped horizontal architrave which is level before descending on a 45 degree angle on either side; a shape mirrored in the opposite opening at the rear of the building. This front opening, and the single sash with upper multi-paned awning windows which flank the opening, are capped with a string course which does not continue around the rest of the building. The sash of the south window has been replaced with two mismatched panes.

The rusticated weatherboards of the front façade continue around the rest of the building, with the exception of the corrugated iron sheeting which covers the rear/east façade. This material is also used for the roof cladding, although unlike that on the rear façade, it is not painted. The roof also has metal flashings along the ridge of the gable and folding over the roof ends. The walls of the stables sit on totara piles, whereas the interior floor of the stables is a concrete pad that is slightly stepped up on each side of the central aisle in correspondence with the stalls.

In addition to the walls supporting the expansive gable, there is also exposed timber framing on the interior, and rows of timber posts on each side of the central aisle which timber trusses span and strengthen the gable leading up to its apex. The exposed rafters of the roof extend beyond the lengthwise walls of the stables and are visible under the eaves on the exterior of the building. The north side of the stables still features remnants of the horse stalls such as some of the framing and one of the dividing walls, and the two eastern stalls also feature some of the timber flooring used to line the stalls. However, aside from the posts supporting the roof, the opposite side has been opened up.

The only window which punctuates the wall of the stables is on the south side of the accessway of the rear façade. However, the two office areas, enclosed with rusticated weatherboards, each have a front window and there are additional windows on the north side of the building. While the forward most office spaces appear to be original, it seems that the office area on the north side was expanded into the stall area at a later date and a window installed.

Abutting the stables is the accommodation block which consists of cabins and a verandah incorporated into a lean-to spanning the length of the south façade. The eight small cabin spaces each have a numbered door and a small multi-paned window immediately east of each door's architrave. The west doors are one weatherboard above ground level, but by the eastern cabin this step has diminished completely. Each cabin is lined with timber strip flooring and a mixture of match and hardboard wall linings. As in the interior of the stables, the rafters of the closed verandah are exposed. The west wall of the lean-to terminates in line with the front façade of the building, and unlike its east counterpart, this wall does not feature a window. Like the majority of the building, the verandah posts are timber and are simple square posts which are diagonally braced on upper each side.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1890 -
Commercial Stables constructed

1929 -
Accommodation block constructed

Construction Details

Concrete, corrugated iron, glass, timber

Completion Date

6th August 2009

Report Written By

Karen Astwood

Information Sources

McAloon, 1997

Jim McAloon, Nelson: A Regional History, Whatamango Bay, 1997

McLintock, 1966

An Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1966

Mitchell, 2004

J and H Mitchell, Te Tau Ihu o te Waka - A History of Maori of Marlborough and Nelson, Wellington, 2004

Newport, 1966

J N W Newport, A short history of the Nelson Province, RW Stiles ad Co Ltd, Nelson, 1966

Papers Past

Papers Past,

Grey River Argus, 26 May 1915

Brown, 1976

M C Brown, Difficult Country: An informal history of Murchison, Murchison, 1976


The Prow,

Stephens, J., 'Top House - Vital Crossroads for Centuries.' Accessed 19 June 2009

Murchison Centennial Committee, 1976

A Pictorial Record of the Murchison Centenary, April 1st to 4th 1976, Murchison, 1976

Murchison District Historical and Museum Society Inc, 1979

Stories of Murchison Earthquake 17 June, 1929, Murchison, 1979

Venner, 2002

The Wakapuaka Cemetery: A place to walk and wonder, Nelson, 2002

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region Office.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.