Williams Cottage

21 Marine Parade, Queenstown

  • Williams Cottage.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Melanie Lovell-Smith. Date: 19/06/2002.
  • .
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Melanie Lovell-Smith. Date: 19/06/2002.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 2336 Date Entered 24th March 1988


City/District Council

Queenstown-Lakes District


Otago Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 24375

Location description

Corner of Marine Parade and Earl Street.


Williams Cottage is believed to be the earliest remaining cottage in Queenstown. This small wooden cottage was built by John Williams (?-1881), who purchased the section in April 1866. The deed of sale included the 'timber on the ground' and it is thought this timber went into the construction of the cottage, which is believed to have been built soon after 1866.

Queenstown was established as a service town for the gold miners that flocked to the area after gold was discovered in 1862. Williams arrived in Queenstown with his sisters in December 1863 and worked for a time as boatman for William Rees, the first Pakeha settler in the area. In 1864 Williams went into partnership with his brother-in-law, George Archer, running a boat on Lake Wakatipu. They acquired the Government Escort Service contract to transport gold on the lake and one time transported 33,000 ounces of gold in a whaleboat to Kingston. Williams and Archer launched the first screw steamer on the lake, the 'Jane Williams' (later named the 'Ben Lomond') in 1872. From 1878 the partnership used the 'Jane Williams' to meet the train at Kingston three times a week, and also to collect timber and firewood from the head of the lake.

Williams built his cottage on the lakefront at a place where a sailing ship would naturally land in a south-westerly wind and where there is a sloping gravel beach suitable for pulling up boats. (Because of its siting Williams Cottage has been flooded several times during its lifetime.) In many ways Williams Cottage is a typical weatherboard cottage of nineteenth-century New Zealand, with a gabled roof, rear lean-to and a verandah along the front. It has some distinctive features, however, including the unusually high roof, the longer than normal parlour and the hand-tooled joinery. The framing of the walls and floors is historically interesting as the spacing between the studs and joists is extremely haphazard, reflecting the amateur builder. The cottage has two stone chimneys, which are topped with brick. The roof was clad in corrugated iron in the nineteenth century and the original timber shingles still remain under the iron. The cottage was without electricity or indoor plumbing until the 1990s.

Williams remained in the cottage until his death in 1881. His cottage was inherited by his older sister, Mary, and upon her death in 1906, by Williams' other sister, Elizabeth. It was then bought by stonemason James McNeil, whose work around Queenstown included the Ballart Street Bridge, the former Lake County chambers and his own house, McNeil's Cottage in Church Street, all of which are still extant. McNeil's widow continued to live in Williams Cottage until 1944. It was thereafter used as a holiday cottage by the Mulholland family, whose ancestors were also a pioneering family of the area.

From the 1980s Williams Cottage was unoccupied and threatened with demolition. After a prolonged struggle by the local community, the local council, and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust/Pouhere Taonga it was purchased by the local council in 1994, on the condition that the Queenstown Heritage Trust raise and pay back to the council half of the purchase price ($200,000). Williams Cottage officially reopened as an annex to the Lakes District Museum in 1997.

Williams Cottage is the oldest wooden cottage still standing in Queenstown. It is associated with the early settlement of Queenstown and with the early history of Pakeha shipping on Lake Wakatipu. The cottage has remained remarkably unmodified and thus demonstrates the living conditions of many early New Zealanders. Now used as a shop and a small cafe, a number of the small rooms remain relatively unaltered and the original wallpapers, the earliest of which pre-date 1878, are a distinctive feature. Queenstown began as a small group of humble buildings and tents around the lakefront and Williams Cottage is an important and rare physical reminder of those beginnings. It is held in great esteem by the local community, as witnessed by their efforts over the years to protect the cottage.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The crown grant on Sec 9, Block 3, on which the cottage stands, was applied for by Israel Shaw in 1864. J R Williams owned a narrow section, 8a or 8b, next door in the middle of the block (Crown Grant map and surveyor's map, 1863, Hocken Library). William's cottage does not appear on the 1863 surveyor's map nor on a photograph of the area taken in 1864. The deed on section 9 was transferred to John Williams in April 1866 for the sum of 23 pounds which included 'timber on the ground' for the house. It is very likely that the house was built soon after. Williams is listed in the electoral roll of 1867 as owning two freeholds and houses in Church and Rees Street (now Marine Parade). The roofline of the house is depicted in an accurate lithograph of Queenstown drawn by W Potts in 1870 and, though partly obscured by trees, is present in an 1873 photograph. An 1878 photograph of the great flood shows the cottage as it is today with a picket fence around it and water up to its window sills. (Hocken Library).

Williams was boatman for a short time to the local runholder, Rees, who has a two-masted schooner, the Young American, on the lake (Boatman was a registered position in New Zealand at the time). John Williams and his sisters had come from Orford, a coastal town in Suffolk. They had arrived in Queenstown in December 1863. Williams went into partnership with his brother-in-law, George Archer, and was running a boat on the lake by 1864. They acquired the Government Escort Service contract on the lake which was for transporting gold. In 1872 they launched a 'clipper-built, screw steamer', the Jane Williams (named after their aunt), which later became the Ben Lomond and the oldest vessel on Lloyds Register when it was scuttled in 1952. After the arrival of the railway at Kingston, Williams and Archer ran the Jane Williams thrice weekly to Kingston and once a week to the head of the lake, where they loaded it with timber and firewood. In fact Williams id=s described as a firewood merchant in the 1880 directory. Williams died in 1881 at the age of 53.

John Williams seems to have had two older sisters - Mary, who inherited the house from him, and Elizabeth, George Archers wife, who inherited the house from Mary. (All four are buried in the same plot in the Queenstown cemetery). Mary kept the books for Williams and Archer and presumably is the Miss Williams, accountant, recorded in the Queenstown directories for the 1880s. She must have been one of Otago's first women accountants, She died in 1906 at the age of 83 and Elizabeth in 1915 at the age of 89 years. Around 1900 Elizabeth ran a dairy.

The house was bought in 1915 by James McNeil who had been a stonemason in Queenstown since at least 1887. He died only five years later and was succeeded in 1920 by his widow, Anne Bella McNeil, who also lived to a fair old age, dying in 1944. So from 1881 to 1944, except for five years, the house was lived in by aging women which may help explain its unmodified nature and lack of plumbing and electricity. In 1944 it was bought by William E Mulholland, coal miner of Kaitangata, for use as a holiday cottage. The Mulholland's were also a pioneer family in Queenstown. A William Mulholland had worked as a sailor in Queenstown in the 1880s and lent money on mortgage to Mary Williams between 1884 and 1901. Two Mulholland sisters, who run a confectionary shop, lived in an old stone cottage round the corner from the Williams Cottage, and so it is perhaps not surprising that William E Mulholland, being accustomed to pioneering conditions, did not modify the cottage either. The Mulholland's sold only recently (1987, the time this report was written) to an Auckland branch of Avis Rent-a-car. The lack of plumbing was not unusual in cottages of this size in Queenstown well into the middle of this century.

Architectural Significance:

This is an unusually unmodified example of the small cottage of this period, very few of which remain in New Zealand. It demonstrates the skills of an artisan such as John Williams and the living conditions which he considered appropriate. It also demonstrates the living conditions tolerated by Queenstown women up to the first half of the century.

Townscape/Landmark Significance:

This is an important pioneer cottage in s prominent position in Queenstown, right on the water front and passed by many thousands of tourists every year.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Williams, John Ralph

Williams was a shipmaster by trade and was probably trained in carpentry suited to ship building. He was an early Queenstown businessman.

Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description

Architectural Description (Style):

The style is Colonial Georgian with the addition of a front verandah and an unusually high roof. The high roof on such a simple cottage is not unusual and appears on the two cottages which the Bryants built at Kinloch and in other 1870 cottages. It is also quite characteristic of early colonial cottages on the Pacific Islands, the high roof presumably adding desirable ventilation space. The house may be a kit set design.


The house is remarkably unmodified, retaining apparently its original joinery, Champion kitchen range and roof shingles under the corrugated iron. It has not even had electricity or plumbing installed. The house has been flooded by the lake several times during its lifetime.

Notable Features

Williams Cottage has retained much of its nineteenth century and early twentieth century wallpapers and friezes. In some cases the wallpaper is layered on scrim over timber sarking; in other cases, such as the ceiling in the parlour, the wallpaper is laid on top of cotton backing stretched between the joists. The layering of wallpapers over the years and the fact that they remain in situ is one of the significant historic features of the cottage.

Its likely status as the oldest wooden house in Queenstown, its association with a pioneer mariner and the longest serving steamer on the lake, and its unmodified nature.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1866 - 1867
It is assumed that Williams built the cottage soon after he purchased the land.

Construction Details

The walls are wooden weather boards with beaded edges at eye level and rough pit sawn high up in the gables. The roof was shingled and the shingles are still in place under corrugated iron. There is a massive brick chimney. The front windows under the verandah are four paned and the side windows six paned. Much of the internal joinery is hand made, such as the internal doors, fireplace surrounds and the kitchen sideboard. The front architraves and window facings may also be hand made. There are five rooms which include a long parlour, a kitchen and three bedrooms. There is also a wash house at the back with another massive chimney, which does not appear in the 1878 photographs of the cottage. The roof is very high as if it was intended to make attic rooms eventually.

Completion Date

4th July 2002

Report Written By

Melanie Lovell-Smith

Information Sources

Hill, 1985

Martin Hill, Restoring with Style, Wellington, 1985.

Mahoney, 1996

Paul Mahoney (in association with Lou Robinson), 'Williams Cottage: Work Specification Report', May 1996

Conservation Plan

Conservation Plan

Jackie Gillies, The Williams Cottage, Marine Parade, Queenstown: A conservation plan, Queenstown, 1996

Other Information

NZHPT Heritage Order (21 November 1988)

Order Legal Description: Sec 9 Blk 3 Town of Queenstown CT 4B/726 (Dunedin Registry)

This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.

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.