Historical Significance or Value
The significance of Willowfield primarily derives from the fact that its 1863 initial construction means it is an early remnant of European settlement in Taranaki. The Taranaki campaigns of the New Zealand Wars characterised the region during the 1860s, and saw many buildings destroyed. Indeed, it was because of the conflicts that Thomas and Grace Hirst constructed Willowfield in the relative safety of New Plymourth. This house became the heart of this well-known and well-respected family under Grace and Thomas, and then their eldest daughter, Harriet Fookes, and her descendants. Harriet’s husband, Albert Cracoft Fookes was renowned locally in his own right as a land broker and local politician. This longstanding New Plymouth family retained Willowfield for just under a century. As such, Willowfield has local historical significance.
Aesthetic Significance or Value:
Willowfield’s large residential section has interesting landscape features with the building located at the top of a rise and nestled amidst mature plantings, creating a tranquil, secluded, and ultimately charming atmosphere. The interaction of the building, with its quaint early cottage section at the front, with the surroundings is a key contributor to this appeal. So too is the nostalgia associated with the connection between Willowfield and the row of five cottages it is the parent of, which makes Willowfield a landmark New Plymouth building.
Archaeological Significance or Value:
Because Willowfield was initially constructed in 1863 it is associated with the early period of European settlement in New Plymouth. As such the site is of archaeological significance. The section is likely to contain significant archaeological deposits associated with this period, including evidence of the early domestic and garden structures, as well as household refuse.
Architectural Significance or Value:
Willowfield has architectural value because its genesis was as a typical New Zealand building, a Mission and Colonial Regency style inspired cottage of the 1860s.This simple timber framed and board and batten clad cottage remains a key feature of the now expanded house. As such, Willowfield has some architectural significance as a rare surviving example of this once common form of colonial New Zealand domestic architecture.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:
The construction of Willowfield was motivated by the return to New Plymouth of the Hirst family who, like most of the other early European settlers who had taken up rural residences, retreated to the protection of the town as a result of the Taranaki land wars in the 1860s. Willowfield therefore has significance because it is directly linked to this important and representative feature of New Zealand’s early colonial history.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:
One of the original owners of Willowfield, Grace Hirst, has been highlighted as a spirited early European settler woman who was important in her roles as business woman, farmer, nurse and midwife.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history:
It is likely that through archaeological excavation, information could be obtained in relation to the domestic activities at the Willowfield site dating from the 1860s onwards. This could provide knowledge of how, as an early colonial family, the Hirst’s lived and create a picture of how their lifestyle changed through various periods.
(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:
Willowfield is well-known locally and it, and the wider ‘Hen and Chicken’ complex, has been the subject of various media articles appearing over the years. The community have demonstrated interest for its historical significance through activities such as visits from school groups doing historical research projects.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:
Willowfield was constructed in 1863 and soon after the house became the nucleus, or the ‘Hen,’ within a wider family precinct made-up of five ‘Chickens.’ This set of buildings is a well-known feature of residential New Plymouth and was recognised by the NZHPT in 1994 as the Hirst Family ‘Hen and Chickens’ Historic Area. As the integral building in this wider complex, Willowfield has heritage importance.
Summary of Significance or Values:
This place was assessed against, and found to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, c, e, and k.
It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.
This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1993. The following text is the original citation considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration. Information in square brackets indicate modifications made after the paper was considered by the NZHPT Board.
The Taranaki region is thought to have been settled by Maori around 600-700 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that pa were being built in the area, which surrounds Mount Taranaki, as early as the fifteenth century. A number of iwi hold mana whenua in the west coast of the region, including Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga, Te Atiawa and Taranaki. The area which would become New Plymouth was initially populated by Nga Mahanga a Tairi of Taranaki, and then Te Atiawa, who affiliate with the waka Tokomaru and are said to descend from the semi-divine origins of ancestor Awanuiarangi, whose people moved south from Northland to the Bay of Plenty and Taranaki. Te Atiawa affiliate with the waka Tokomaru and are said to descend from the semi-divine origins of ancestor Awanuiarangi, whose people moved south from Northland to the Bay of Plenty and Taranaki.
European whalers initially arrived along the Taranaki coast in the first half of the nineteenth century, and generally integrated themselves relatively harmoniously with the local Maori communities. By the early 1840s, a Ngati Te Whiti pa at Ngamotu, called Otaka Pa, was still populated but many other Maori strongholds in the region had been abandoned following attacks by taua from the Waikato a decade earlier, which had prompted a major migration of the remnant Te Atiawa population to Otaki, Wellington and Marlborough. However, increasing numbers of European settlers created a demand for land and the resulting tensions between tangata whenua and colonists had lasting effects on all Taranaki residents.
Organised colonial settlement at Taranaki was first instituted by the Plymouth Company in 1839-1840, who arranged to purchase land from the New Zealand Company for the settlement of immigrants from Devon and Cornwall, although this purchase would be much disputed in the future. The site of the township was chosen and laid out by Chief Surveyor Frederic Carrington in February 1841, and settler ships arrived from England from March 1841 onwards.
By this time the Plymouth Company had fallen into financial difficulties, and was formally merged with the New Zealand Company in May 1841. Settler ships continued to arrive, but disputes around the Crown’s role in transferring land out of Maori ownership, and between tangata whenua over who had the authority to transfer land were already evident, frustrating all involved.
Despite the frustration, settlers continued to arrive with relative frequency in the coming decade, and the Hirst family was among them. Thomas Hirst (1805-83) and his wife Grace (1805-1901) emigrated from Yorkshire with five of their eight children in 1851. The distant colony was seen as a good option for Thomas because it offered a fresh start for the wool merchant [and his family].
[While] Thomas undertook business as a travelling wool merchant, Grace and her daughters also set up a business in New Plymouth. The women’s trading enterprise seems to have been a success and among other goods sold were large stocks of items sourced from Grace’s Bracken relatives back in England. Therefore, the Hirst family soon became financially stable [in their new country] and as well as their first New Plymouth home, [a prefabricated residence they named] Egmont House, they soon also acquired a small Bell Block farm in 1854, which they called Brackenhirst.
The upheavals of the 1860s:
The series of prolonged conflicts during the 1860s are now commonly known as the Taranaki Wars, waged between the Crown and Maori in response to Maori uprising against the enforced alienation of their land, and caused widespread deprivation, suffering and loss of life and land for iwi, resulting in the heavy confiscation of tribal land taken by the Crown under the Land Settlement Act of 1863. 185,000 acres of land within Te Atiawa’s rohe was confiscated. The devastating effects of these actions have since been acknowledged by the Crown through formal apologies and efforts of redress by settlement agreements.
The conflicts also affected the fledgling European settler communities, with many residents of outlying areas abandoning their homes and taking refuge in the urban centre of New Plymouth town, or leaving the region altogether for a time. Complaints from anxious European settlers eventually forced the Government to station troops at New Plymouth, and the site of the former Pukaka pa (Marsland Hill) was transformed into a military stockade and barracks in 1855. As the frequency of battles decreased the British troops were gradually withdrawn, until the last detachment of the 50th regiment left in 1867.
Indeed, the Hirsts were among those who moved back into New Plymouth town in 1860 when martial law was declared. The ongoing uncertainty in region was probably a key motivator for the family to embark on a visit to England in 1861-62. Like other abandoned rural properties, the Hirst’s Brackenhirst property at Bell Block was destroyed by fire as part of the ongoing campaigns of the Taranaki Wars. On their return from England, the family purchased a property closer to central New Plymouth in 1863 and built Willowfield. The house is said to have been named after the Napoleon Willow which was located by a spring towards the boundary of the property. The house was constructed of kauri with a tiled slate roof, and became incrementally surrounded by various outbuildings, including a fowlhouse and greenhouse.
The ‘Hen and Chickens’:
Willowfield soon became the nucleus of a family complex in 1864 when the Hirst’s built a further row of houses at the northern boundary of the property. The Hirst’s property became nicknamed the ‘Hen and Chickens,’ with Thomas and Grace residing in Willowfield (the ‘mother hen’) and providing each of their five children with a cottage to either live in or rent out. The houses were all linked by a private lane (which become known as ‘Petticoat Lane’) that ran behind the back gardens of the ‘chickens’.
The accommodation of their children nearby was not a surprising move considering Grace’s character, and most likely to some extent the insecure atmosphere in Taranaki during the 1860s. Grace reportedly had an indomitable spirit, strong religious convictions, and an inherent belief in the importance of family, which was a reason why it was extremely difficult for her to agree to move to New Zealand in the first place. Indeed, she was the matriarch of the family and for some time her home-base of Willowfield was important to the family. Grace was also known in the wider community for her willingness to, and her ability in, attending pregnant women and nursing the sick, as well as comforting the bereaved. Grace and Thomas were also active in church affairs and after Grace’s death in 1901, the family commissioned a new stone pulpit for St Mary’s Church in New Plymouth, in their honour.
Thomas contributed to the family’s local profile through his business affairs and other roles, such as being a Justice of the Peace. It seems that he
was well-known and respected in New Plymouth society. Like his wife he was heavily involved in church matters and for many years was a church warden at Saint Mary’s Church, as well as being a representative in the Diocesan Synod. Thomas was also involved in public affairs, especially early in his residence in Taranaki when he was a Member of the House of Representatives and also on the Provincial Council.
It was perhaps because of the growth in fortune and family size of Thomas and Grace’s eldest daughter Harriet [Fookes] (1839-1918), that in the 1880s the Fookes family [took up residence in] Willowfield. It has been stated that Thomas and Grace both lived at Willowfield until their deaths. However, when Thomas died the couple were resident at their original New Plymouth home, Egmont House. Indeed, the Fookes’ had legal ownership of Willowfield from the early 1880s, seemingly dating from just after Thomas’ death, as well as retaining one of the ‘chickens’ under Harriet’s name. The other cottages remained divided amongst Grace and Thomas’ other daughters, and as such the Hirst descendants, which numbered 46 grandchildren and 52 great grandchildren upon Grace’s death, retained a connection to Willowfield and the wider Hirst family precinct. It would seem that Grace was living in one of the cottages at the time of her death in 1901.
Harriet Hirst had married Albert Crac[r]oft Fookes (1839?-1916) in 1867, a man said to have been ‘well known throughout Taranaki.’ When the couple were first married Albert was a Waverley store keeper, an occupation he had taken up after serving in the Taranaki Military Settlers during the Taranaki Wars. Subsequently he became a success as a land broker and was involved in projects such as the establishment of the Midh[i]rst Special Settlement. By the 1880s the couple had moved to New Plymouth to live at Willowfield, and Albert continued to run his business from that town. Here he also took an active role in local politics, which built on his role as New Plymouth’s second Mayor, the office he held between 1878 and 1879. Aside from this short term, Albert also remained involved with the Borough Council. Albert was also involved with the New Plymouth Harbour Board, and other commercial interests included the Taranaki Ironsand Company.
The Fookes’ had a sizeable family with five daughters and six sons, one of [whom] became a local medical practitioner, with another a solicitor in Stratford. As such, there were many large family and social occasions hosted at Willowfield, including wedding receptions. Albert and Harriet lived at Willowfield until they died in 1916 and 1918 respectively. Willowfield stayed within the Fookes family until 1958, which meant that descendants of Grace and Thomas Hirst had lived at Willowfield for just under a century.
Initially, the ‘Hen and Chickens’ were located in a wedge-shaped section between Pendarves, Eliot, and Cameron Streets - with the section of Pendarves Street that ran in front of the ‘Chickens’ known as York Terrace. However, around the time that Willowfield was sold out of the Fookes family in the mid twentieth century the original land parcel was progressively subdivided, especially along the Cameron Street boundary. Likewise, Willowfield itself was divided into four self-contained flats in the early 1960s. A fire in one of the rear flats in 1976 was fortunately quickly contained from spreading throughout Willowfield, although its kitchen was gutted.
The current owners have owned Willowfield since 1979 and spent the first decade or so catching up on the necessary repairs and deferred maintenance, and removing the flats, therein reinstating Willowfield as a much-loved family home. The house has now been completely relined inside, with the original kauri on scrim linings replaced, and the central rooms have been remodelled to create an open plan kitchen/dining/sunroom space and various living areas. Hand-forged nails have been found during construction work.
The house is regularly the subject of public interest for its historical significance, with various media articles appearing over the years, and visits from school groups doing historical research projects.
W.N. Stephenson - architect for 1921 alterations and additions
Messenger Taylor and Wolfe - architects for 1940 alteration and additions
Setting and Exterior:
Whereas Willowfield was once prominent in the centre of a large section, today it is located down a driveway and hidden from the view of passers-by by surrounding houses and established trees. It is situated in the centre of the wedge-shaped city block formed by Cameron, Eliot and Pendarves Streets. The site slopes down towards Pendarves Street and Willowfield sits besides a gully that runs parallel to Eliot Street. The gully is naturally swampy, and was the former site of a pond with an island and bridge. Although neighboured by residential development along Cameron Street, the house is bordered to the east by tree-filled sections, which were part of the original block owned by the Hirsts and which the present owners have been restoring to the title as they become available for purchase. The house therefore presents the sense of being amidst a tranquil garden setting. The house’s immediate garden slopes east from a lawn towards the gully, and features a number of well-established trees, including a walnut tree of considerable age.
Upon entering from the driveway, the visitor is presented with the main elevation of the original 1863 cottage. The main section of the original 1863 building consisted of a square cottage which displayed features similar to typical Mission house and Colonial Regency style cottages, such as symmetrical placement of multi-paned French casement windows either side of a central main entrance. Another typical feature is the vertical board and batten hand-sawn timber cladding on the exterior. The hipped roof is tiled with ‘pink’ slate and a corrugated-steel roofed verandah is formed along the principal façade, which would have also originally extended to shade a ‘walkway’ that ran partway around the sides of the house (mentioned by Grace in her letters of 1864), although extensions have now filled in the verandah space on the west and east elevations. Archival sources suggest that doors and windows were brought from England, and it is probable that those remaining along the north elevation of the house are this original joinery.
This original portion of the house has had some alterations over the years. By the 1890s the north eastern corner of the verandah had been enclosed, and this space is used as a study today. It is possible that the north western corner had also been altered to provide more space by this time; today the verandah has been enclosed at this side to extend the master bedroom, which has seen the installation of a set of the original casement windows along the northern façade of this room (possibly moved from its original position on the western or eastern façade), meaning that the front elevation now has three sets of windows.
Likewise by the 1890s a two-storey gabled section had been added to the rear of the cottage - probably during the 1880s coinciding with the residence of the large Fookes family. This addition is a single-gabled structure, clad in vertical board and batten to match the original portion, but with double-hung sash windows. The windows on the western façade each sport tiled sun hoods supported by arched brackets.
At some stage after the 1890s the somewhat unusual design of the roof of the original cottage was re-formed. The 1890s Joseph Martin photograph shows that the hipped roof profile extended around all four sides of the square cottage, but rather than rising to a peak or being capped with a flat platform, the central portion dipped down to a central well at eave level, creating the need for the provision of some drainage through the centre of the house. The removal of the eastern aspect of the squared roof to create a gutter draining to the east has created the appearance of a double-hipped roof on this side. The chimney on this eastern roof ridgeline was necessarily removed for this work, altering the symmetry of the original pair and leaving a remaining chimney on the western ridgeline. This chimney is echoed by a smaller one behind, on the two-storey extension.
Another major alteration to the east façade of the original cottage is the complete enclosure of the verandah along this side to form a sunroom. This verandah was enclosed in stages, as a montage of historical photos shows, and when the house was divided into flats there was formerly a bathroom in this position. Original casement windows from this and the western façade have been reused in various positions around the house, including at the southern end of this sunroom and the eastern elevation of the rear lean-to addition, allowing access to an outdoor patio area.
The southern end of the building comprises of single-storey extensions that have been added in two stages. The first was a single-gabled structure added in 1921 at the time of alterations to the two-storeyed portion, then extended by a lean-to addition at the southernmost end in 1961 when the house was converted into flats. These have been also clad in vertical board and batten, and while the house exhibits a number of styles of window joinery the overall effect is of a conglomeration of extensions that tell of the history of use of the building over the decades; for example the need for more space to accommodate expanding families.
Upon entering the house through the front door, a central passage is encountered which leads past entrances to rooms on the west and east, under a decorative rimu supporting truss, and through to a hall on the ground floor of the two-storeyed portion. This hall forms a central junction of the house, and features rimu joinery installed in the early 1920s and a Canadian cedar post supporting the centre of the space.
While the interior space of the original cottage would most likely have been divided into four rooms, today the altered layout of the rooms in the oldest part of the house reflects the building’s history of its conversion from home to four flats and then back to a single family home. The interior of the entire house has been extensively remodelled during this process. A master bedroom and ensuite, study/office and workroom feature in the front part of the original cottage. The enclosure of the verandah has created a sunny open-plan kitchen, dining and sunroom within the eastern aspect, with this exterior wall fully lined by a row of casement windows featuring six-paned dappled glass square leadlighting above the transoms. Utility rooms lead through from here to the central junction hall, passing through a back entrance porch which has enclosed walls that were formerly on the exterior of the house, as evidenced by the vertical board and batten cladding.
From the central junction hall a formal lounge is accessed to the west. This room has an open fireplace and the ceiling joists and beams are exposed amongst plaster panelling. A staircase leads from the central hall to the upstairs storey of the house, in which bedrooms and a bathroom are located beneath the sloping ceiling. Evidence of the former layout of the flats is present in a piece of loose scotia in the central hall, indicating the former position of a dividing wall. The extensions to the rear of the house contain bedrooms, bathroom and a living area opening onto the outdoor patio area.
A cellar space is accessed from beneath the verandah/sunroom, and archaeological material from a rubbish pit was located here during repairs to a verandah post. The slim wooden piles of the original portion of the house are visible from here.
Partial enclosure of verandah at north eastern corner
Two-storey addition completed
Remodelling of roof, removal of chimney
Alterations and additions – staircase replaced in central hall, new rimu joinery; single-gabled addition to rear of 2-storeyed portion
Alterations – new kitchen and bathroom installed at southern end of enclosed verandah space
Conversion into four flats, including lean-to addition
Damage by fire to rear flat
Alterations – conversion from flats back to a single dwelling
Extension to master bedroom, including relocation of interior walls; alterations to rear lean-to addition including creation of rumpus room
Alterations to kitchen/dining/sunroom and adjacent utility rooms
Brick, concrete, corrugated iron, glass, slate, timber
1st June 2011
Report Written By
K. Astwood and B. Wagstaff
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1908
Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 6, Taranaki, Hawke's Bay, Wellington, 1908
New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)
New Zealand Historic Places Trust
Central Region Office, Wellington. House (Willowfield), New Plymouth NZHPT File 12013-1111
Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940, Auckland, 1986, Reed Methuen
28 November 1877
G & R Lambert. An Illustrated History of Taranaki, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 1983.
'New Chapel at Mangorei', Taranaki Herald, 16 Oct 1869, p. 2.
5 May 1855, 15 April 1871, 23 May 1878, 8 November 1878, 11 October 1883, 12 October 1883, 7 February 1888, 9 September 1901, 12 February 1902, 8 September 1902, 21 November 1907
Hawera & Normanby Star
Hawera & Normanby Star
2 August 1916, 6 April 1918
New Plymouth District Council
New Plymouth District Council
Building permit records
Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Maori Peoples of New Zealand: Nga Iwi o Aotearoa, David Bateman/Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Wellington, 2006
Nigel Prickett, Historic Taranaki: An Archaeological Guide, GP Books, Wellington, 1990
Wells, 1878 (1976)
B Wells, The History of Taranaki, Edmonson & Avery 'Taranaki News Office', New Plymouth, 1878. Reprinted by Capper Press, Christchurch, 1976
Ward, A 1997
Alan Ward, National Overview – Vol III – Waitangi Tribunal Rangahaua Whanui Series, GP Publications, Wellington, 1997
A fully referenced registration 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.