Headmaster's House (Former)

34 Arthur Street And Grey Road, Timaru

  • Headmaster's House (Former).
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Melanie Lovell-Smith.
  • .
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Melanie Lovell-Smith.
  • Headmasters House (Former).
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 2076 Date Entered 9th March 1989


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land comprised in the section marked 'A' on DP 77311, Canterbury Land Registration District which is located within Lot 2 DP 60138, Canterbury Land Registration District, the House and its fittings and fixtures thereon.

City/District Council

Timaru District


Canterbury Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 60138 (CT CB36A/541), Canterbury Land District


The former Headmaster's House in Timaru was built to house the principal of Timaru Main School, for many years the largest primary school in the town. Now only the former Headmaster's House remains of the original nineteenth century school buildings. It is a fine example of domestic Gothic Revival architecture and a distinctive landmark in the town.

The origins of Timaru Main School and the associated Headmaster's House lie in the 1859 decision by the Anglican Church to appoint G. Masterton Clark to establish a school in the Timaru area. It was run from a small cottage, then a former woolshed and adjacent cottage, which was not, as the Education Commission pointed out in 1863, waterproof. As a consequence the school moved into a purpose-built schoolroom in Browne Street. From 1865 there had been much discussion about making the Anglican school in Timaru non-denominational but nothing happened until May 1870 when, with the agreement of the Anglican Church, a committee of community representatives was elected to run it.

As well as the desire for a non-denominational public school, there was an on-going concern about the site of the school. Early Timaru was divided into two parts, Government Town and Rhodes Town. While the school was situated in the Government Town it drew most of its pupils from Rhodes Town. Eventually, it was agreed to purchase part of 'Wilson's Paddock', a block of land bounded by North, Theodosia and Arthur Streets and Grey Road in Rhodes Town. Four acres were bought from the Rhodes brothers for £300 and, once building had commenced on the schoolrooms, further adjacent land was purchased to provide a playing field and entrances off Theodosia Street. Timaru Main School remains on this site today.

It took the school committee six months to find suitable plans for their school and tenders they could afford. Eventually F.J. Wilson was hired as both architect and builder and work began on the school in September 1873, with the foundation stone being laid in a ceremony on 16 December the same year. When it opened in October 1874 the Victorian Gothic stone school building was recognised as both the most impressive and costly structure in Timaru at the time, and as the first school building in 'non-combustible materials' in the province of Canterbury.

In the same year as the school building opened the Timaru Main School committee began arguing with the Board over the proposed headmaster's house. Although the 1863 Education Ordinance had required each school to build a master's house, the 1870s ordinances did not specifically spell this out, but it was assumed each school would do so. Since 1873 it had been a condition of any grant for buildings made by the Board that it had to approve both the site and plans of them. The Committee desired a bluestone house, built in stone quarried from Woollcombe's Gully, to match the school; the Board believed that a cheaper timber dwelling would be equally suitable. Agreement over this had not been reached by the time the Board was abolished under the Education Ordinance of 1875. The Board was replaced by a Secretary of Education and a change was also made to the rate required from the local community for the erection of new school buildings, from one-sixth of the cost to half. It also became possible for the Secretary to strike a rate, which he did in Timaru at the level of a shilling per pound. Understandably this was not popular with the citizens of Timaru and a storm of protest arose, so effectively that in the end Timaru did not pay even one-sixth of the cost of the new infants' school, headmaster's house and janitor's cottage.

Tenders were finally called for the Headmaster's House in 1877. In 1878 tenders were called for the finishing of the house and in that tender notice the architect was identified as Thomas Cane (1830-1905). Cane was appointed the Provincial Architect for Canterbury in 1875 and in that role would have been responsible for all school buildings. When the provincial system of government was abolished in 1876 Cane went into private practice. His design for the Headmaster's House in Timaru is Gothic Revival in style and owes much to the domestic architecture that developed out of the ideals espoused by the Ecclesiological Society - that is dwellings Gothic in detail, but adapted for nineteenth-century domestic needs and made from local materials. Evolving as it did from church architecture it is unsurprising that this style is commonly associated with vicarages of the period. However, the Ecclesiological Society also advocated the Gothic style for both schools and school houses.

The Headmaster's House consists of two double-storeyed gables, which run back from Arthur Street and a third gable, perpendicular to them, which forms the rear of the house. While three sides (east, north and west) are built of bluestone with Oamaru stone facings and quoins, the south side at the rear is brick. It is believed that at one stage it was planned to extend the house to provide rooms for boarders and the rear wall was constructed from brick with this in mind. The front entrance porch situated between the two main wings is timber, Gothic in design, and creates a highly distinctive entranceway. A cross on the top of the entrance porch's arch reinforces the architectural connection between the Gothic Domestic style of the house and church architecture. The interior on both floors is divided into four rooms of roughly equal sizes with a central hallway and staircase. These have timber floors and are lined with lathe and plaster. A notable feature of the hallway is the pointed timber arches which divide the main entrance area from the staircase. The steep gabled roofs are covered with corrugated iron and four chimneys decorate the roofline. A contemporary newspaper report described the house as being 'in a style totally different...' from any of the other school buildings and sarcastically went on to remark that 'extra school accommodation will soon be required, and we have reason to believe that the additions will be executed in concrete picked out with yellow firebricks...cob with a thatched roof...an elegant but inexpensive building of corrugated iron [and] a canvas pavilion.' ['Notes', Timaru Herald, 21 December 1877, p.3] Both the house's size and style clearly reflect the contemporary status of the headmaster within the community.

Completed in 1879 the Headmaster's House remained without a headmaster until 1885, as the then headmaster, James Scott, a bachelor, preferred to continue boarding and receive an annual boarding allowance of £50. Instead the Canterbury Education Board rented the newly completed house to its Inspector, Henry W Hammond, for £100 a year. Once Hammond was replaced by W.J. Anderson halfway through 1885 and a new headmaster, John Wood, began in 1886 the building became used for its intended purpose. It housed a continuing succession of headmasters until the end of 1975, when the principal resigned to take up a position in Nelson. As the house was old and the maintenance requirements were getting more expensive the Board decided not to make it available for the next principal but to transfer the land and house to the Crown for disposal. However, it was quickly decided that the house and land should be offered to the neighbouring Timaru College who accepted it gratefully with plans of using the house for senior students' classrooms. By 1977 only the ground floor was being used, due to concerns over the house's structural safety. The house was threatened with demolition in 1978 and again in the 1980s. In 1988 Aoraki Polytechnic, as Timaru College became known, handed the building back to the Department of Education because of continuing concerns over the threat to the children in the neighbouring crèche should the chimneys of the house collapse.

During the time the Headmaster's House was under threat in the late 1980s the Bluestone House Trust was established by concerned locals with the aims of preserving, restoring, maintaining and improving the house. Eventually it negotiated a license-to-occupy agreement with the Ministry of Education and Aoraki Polytechnic and took over the building in 1990. The Bluestone House Trust then turned its efforts to maintaining and restoring the house and in 1991 found its first tenants in the Working Weavers Co-op who established a gallery and workspace in the house. Currently it is tenanted by SPELD, the Specific Learning Disabilities Federation.

The former Headmaster's House in Timaru is the last surviving nineteenth-century building of the Timaru Main School and possibly the oldest extant headmaster's house in the country. It is a rare example of a bluestone building still standing in Timaru. It is also a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture used in a domestic dwelling, a style popularised by Pugin and closely associated with the Ecclesiological movement of the Victorian era. This style included Gothic forms but adapted to suit the needs of a domestic dwelling. The house is an important work of Cane's, one of Canterbury's prominent early architects. Closely associated with Timaru's largest primary school, it also has a long history as a family home. As one headmaster, Mr J.A. Johnson, said 'Ten of the happiest and richest years...were spent as headmaster of the Main School; my two daughters were born in the master's house...' [Souvenir of the Jubilee of the Main School Timaru October 1924, p.83] It is one of the finest headmaster's houses in New Zealand and the only one to be registered as such by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust Pouhere Taonga. The local community has a strong association with the house, most notably expressed during the 1970s and 1980s when the house was under threat.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

In January 1870 a public meeting resolved that a new school should be established in Timaru to relieve the overcrowding in the Anglican school. By May of that year, however, it had been decided to simply convert the existing Anglican school to public ownership. By 1872 overcrowding in the school was at such a level that the construction of new school buildings was critical.

Work on building a new school began on 29 September 1873 in 'Wilson's Paddock', a block of land bounded by North, Theodosia and Arthur Streets and Grey Road. In 1873 each new school was required to provide a master's residence - thus Bluestone House was constructed.

Difficulties immediately arose in financing construction of the house. In 1875 the Provincial Board of Education was established and a member of the Executive was appointed Secretary of Education. The new Secretary raised the local contribution for the erection of new school buildings from one sixth to one half of their cost. This contribution was to be found by rates to be levied at an amount struck by the Minister of Education on all rateable property in the school district. The school committee raised legal objections to the rate struck by the Minister and the Education Board was advised by its solicitor that the rate was questionable. In the event a tax of one pound per house and five shillings per child was levied - less than one sixth of the rate originally struck.

Although completed in 1878 the Headmaster's House was not needed for some years. The Headmaster, Mr Scott, preferred to receive a fifty pound lodging allowance rather than live in the house. The Board let the house to their inspector at one hundred pounds a year, making a profit of fifty pounds. The building has, however, been lived in by a succession of the school's headmasters - John Wood (1886-90), F.W. Wake (1890-96), J.A. Johnson (1896-1906) and many others.

The former Headmaster's House is probably the oldest and most impressive extant house erected for the headmaster of a primary school in New Zealand. The lavish architectural treatment of the building is expressive of the Headmaster's status within the school and Timaru itself. Recently the house has provided a meeting place for many interest groups as well as classrooms for the South Canterbury Community College, now known as the Aoraki Polytechnic.


The small suburban detached house with its own garden was a peculiarly English ideal which was very successfully transplanted in New Zealand. Such houses were popularised in the Victorian era by A.W.N.Pugin, a champion of Gothic architecture. Architects associated with the ecclesiological movement in Britain and inspired by Pugin's example (such as William Butterfield and George Edmund Street) created a style of domestic architecture, particularly for parsonages, using Gothic elements in a simple and earnest way.

Bluestone House is a particularly fine New Zealand example of this type of house. Gothic forms, such as the pointed arch and steeply pitched gable roofs are incorporated in the design but are not stressed. The Gothic style has been adapted to suit nineteenth century domestic needs - large sash windows were built rather than Gothic arches. Large brick fireplaces and chimneys are included to heat the house. Despite deviation from historical Gothic precedent, the Gothic style was considered suitable for a headmaster's house. Education had long been associated with the church, churches were often designed in the Gothic style, and it followed that schools and their associated buildings could be appropriately designed in Gothic. The cross above the porch stresses the link between education and the church. Bluestone House was also designed to complement the original bluestone Main School buildings, designed and constructed by F.J. Wilson.

The Headmaster's House is an especially important work in Thomas Cane's repertoire. It is arguably his most successful extant building. Corfe House, Christ's College, Christchurch (erected the same year as the Headmaster's House) has the same simple gabled forms but it does not have the intricate detailing of the porch at Timaru. Whereas Corfe house was erected in timber, the former Headmaster's House, Timaru, is a fine example of bluestone construction. Few bluestone buildings remain in South Canterbury and houses in this material are becoming increasingly rare in New Zealand.

Bluestone House is the last remaining building of the original structures erected as Timaru Main School 110 years ago.


The townscape significance of Bluestone House has to some extent been compromised by the construction of buildings adjacent to it. Built on an incline on a large corner section it is nevertheless a well-known Timaru building, visited and admired by many.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Cane, Thomas Walter

Thomas Cane (1830-1905) was born in Brighton, Sussex. For many years he worked for Sir Gilbert Scott, the celebrated architect of London. Cane came to Lyttelton in 1874 and succeeded Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort (1825-1898) as Provincial Architect for Canterbury. He held this position until the abolition of the provinces in 1876, making his name as a Christchurch architect.

Cane was responsible for Corfe House at Christ's College and for Christchurch Girls' High School which became the School of Art, and later an extension of the University of Canterbury Library. Cane also achieved recognition as a landscape artist.

Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description


The Timaru Herald carried a tender notice for the construction of a schoolmaster's house, Timaru on 22 August 1877. Tenders were called for finishing the building in the Press on 1 February 1878 and in the Timaru Herald from 7-13 February 1878. On 4 March 1878 the Timaru Herald carried a tender notice for building porches for the schoolhouse.


Thomas Cane is identified as the architect in the tender notice in the Press, 1 February 1878.


The house has a conventional Victorian plan, consisting of a central corridor running from the front porch to the back door. Rooms are situated on either side of the corridor and stairs are located in the corridor opposite the entrance porch.

The front elevation is symmetrical about a timber porch, flanked by gables and shallow two-storey bay windows. The porch is especially intricate in design. It has an Oamaru stone and bluestone base supporting timber posts and studs. Braces between the posts and studs form Gothic cusping. The steeply pitched gable roof has decorative bargeboards and is surmounted by an iron cross.

Each of the side elevations is asymmetrical in design. The east elevation of the building has two gables of varying size. Four solid brick chimneys enliven the roofline of the house and large shaped timber brackets support the overhang of the roof.


The house is largely in original condition.

Notable Features

A heritage covenant over the house was established with the NZHPT in 2000 (26/4/2000). The covenant also includes, as culturally significant features identified for retention and protection, the staircase, the remaining original ceilings and the remaining original wooden joinery, fireplaces, door furniture and light fittings, the trees located on the Arthur Street frontage, the picket fence on the Arthur Street frontage and the wrought iron fencing along Arthur Street and Grey Road. Interestingly the wrought iron fencing was donated by the Aoraki Polytechnic around 1998. It originally came from elsewhere on the Polytechnic's property and was not originally associated with the Headmaster's House.

In the north west corner of the section is a granite and bluestone memorial to the dead of the First World War. It commemorates the 70 teachers and ex-pupils of Timaru Main School who died in the war. The memorial's foundation stone was laid on 16 June 1921 and it was unveiled nine days later. It is still used for Anzac Day services.

The intricate detailing of the porch and the quality of the stonework.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1877 - 1879

Construction of concrete steps to Arthur Street after Timaru City Council lowered the level of the street

Weatherboard lean-tos added to west and south walls

1990 -
Chimneys repaired, masonry repointed, spouting & downpipes replaced

Construction Details

The south wall and chimneys of the former Headmaster's House are brick. All other external walls are bluestone (the building is therefore widely known as Bluestone House). Oamaru stone quoins and facings relieve the bluestone. Timber is used in the porch, the barge boards and eaves brackets.

Completion Date

24th June 2003

Report Written By

Melanie Lovell-Smith

Information Sources

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR)

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives

E1, E1b, 1880-1890

Archives New Zealand (Chch)

Archives New Zealand (Christchurch)

Buildings and Sites, Timaru Main School, 1950-1980 Ministry of Education Box 30

Button, 1974

J.M. Button, 'Timaru Main School Centennial Celebration', October 1974, Timaru, 1974

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 3, Canterbury Provincial District, Christchurch, 1903

Dixon, 1978

Roger Dixon & Stefan Muthesius, 'Victorian Architecture', London, 1978

Gillespie, 1971

Oliver A. Gillespie, South Canterbury: A Record of Settlement, 2nd edn., Timaru, 1971

Hardcastle, 1924

John Hardcastle, Timaru Main School Jubilee, 8th October 1874-8th October 1924: sketch of school history, reminiscences of former teachers, messages of congratulation, Timaru, 1924

Wilson, 1982

Pam Wilson, 'The Architecture of Samuel Charles Farr 1827-1918', MA thesis, University of Canterbury, 1982


Wilson, 1984 (2)

J. Wilson, Lost Christchurch, Springston: Te Waihora Press, 1984.

Lyttelton Times

Lyttelton Times


Murray, 2000

Jenny Murray, 'The Lyttelton Timeball Station : A Historical Report' in NZHPT, 'Timeball Station, Lyttelton, Volume 1 : Historical Reports', December 2000.

Parker, 1968

J.S. Parker, Timaru Centenary, 1868-1968, Timaru, 1968

South Canterbury Museum

South Canterbury Museum, Timaru

Headmaster's Reports to School Committee, 1912-1956, Timaru Main School Collection, 2001/154.008

Stacpoole, 1976

John Stacpoole, Colonial Architecture in New Zealand, Wellington, 1976

Timaru Herald

Timaru Herald

'Notes', 21 December 1877, p.3

Timaru Main School, 1949

Timaru Main School, 1874-1949 Souvenir of Platinum Jubilee 7-10 October 1949, Timaru, 1949

Timaru Main School, 1999

Welcome to the Timaru Main School 125th jubilee: 3 schools, 1874-1999, Timaru, 1999

Turner, 1981

Gwenda Turner, Buildings and Bridges of Canterbury, Dunedin, 1981.

Other Information

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.