Sayer's Slab Whare

Arcus Road, Carterton

  • Sayer's Slab Whare, Carterton.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Rebecca O'Brien. Date: 30/08/2002.
  • Sayer's Slab Whare, Carterton.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Rebecca O'Brien. Date: 30/08/2002.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7429 Date Entered 30th June 1998


City/District Council

Carterton District


Wellington Region

Legal description

part of pt Sec 307 Taratahi District & Lot 2 DP 22969 Blk V Tiffin Survey District


A rare relic of a once common form of shelter, Sayer's Slab Whare was built in Carterton around 1859, shortly after the area was opened to European settlers as a small farms settlement. Among the first settlers to arrive in Carterton were John Ashmore and his stepson Richard 'Dickey' Sayer. Ashmore, commissioned by the Wellington Provincial Council to build the 'Black Bridge' over the Waiohine River, ran out of funds in 1858. He moved out of the area a year later when Ngati Kahungunu leader Ngatuere Tawhirimatea Tawhao threatened to burn his house down after Ashmore had refused to pay local Maori for grazing rights. The 14 year old Sayer, a friend of Ngatuere, remained. Without funds or assistance, the slab whare was a logical choice of shelter for Sayer, then living at subsistence level as a hunter.

Constructed of totara trees harvested from the land, the simple box-like house could be easily built by a single man with very little outlay other than labour and a heavy iron wedge. Demonstrating carpentry skills that may have been developed during the construction of the Black Bridge, Sayer took considerable trouble to chamfer each slab to ensure that each board would slide neatly in behind the other. Such refinement was unusual and is not normally associated with slab whare construction. The single roomed house had a steeply pitched roof, a single door and two simple, symmetrically arranged windows.

When he turned 20 in 1864 Sayer married Hester Blake and began to farm the surrounding land. Around this time Sayer covered the dirt floor with wooden boards. To create more living space he extended the whare by adding a lean-to. This was not an unusual form of housing at the time. In 1865 the New Zealand Advertiser disdainfully described Carterton as a settlement consisting of 'slab shanties and bark whares', illustrating the popularity of this form of housing construction in the area. Sayer, his wife, and their six children lived in the whare until the mid 1880s.

As the settlement developed and saw-milled weatherboards became increasingly available, the slab whare was gradually replaced with the more elegant New Zealand villa. Many whare were converted into storage spaces or used to house animals. When Sayer moved into a new villa just metres away his son, Richard Burgess Sayer, moved into the whare. When Sayer died in 1902, gored to death by a bull reared on his farm, his son moved into the villa. The whare may have been unoccupied until 1930, when Sayer's grandson moved in after wiring the shelter for electricity. The whare remained in use until the Sayers' leased and later sold the property to its current owners in 1967. Efforts by the owners to transform the whare into a museum have not been realised and today this rare example of early settler housing is used as a woodshed.

As an example of an early form of housing used by Pakeha settlers, Sayer's Slab Whare is highly significant and has considerable potential to provide insight into early New Zealand history. Use of the slab and batten technique to create simple box-style whare from native timbers was a common practice in early Pakeha settlements. Sayer's Slab Whare is an eloquent example of how such whare were constructed and the degree of comfort they could give their owners. The whare is also noteworthy for the unusual care and skill that went into its construction. Chamfered boards and features such as the stone path leading to the house were not typically found in such shelters. Such attention to comfort may partially explain the continued use of Sayer's Slab Whare when most were abandoned for the New Zealand villa style of house. Despite the numerous changes that occurred to the whare throughout its long history as a residence, much of the original construction remains.

As one of the few such whare that has survived into the present, Sayer's Slab Whare is significant for its rarity. Although the simple box cottage style is well represented by examples built in stone, cob and weatherboard construction, there are only three other registered examples of slab housing. The only registered example of slab construction in the Wairarapa is Lars Anderson Schou Barn. The whare is therefore locally significant as an example of housing that evidence suggests was once prevalent in the Wairarapa area between the 1850s and 1880s. It has national significance as one of the few slab houses remaining in New Zealand.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Dicky Sayer's Slab House (colloquially known as Sayer's Slab Whare) is believed to have been built circa 1860 by Richard 'Dicky' Nicholas Sayer. It is now a very rare example of the type of split batten habitations built for European settlers in the Wairarapa from the mid 1850s onwards. Born in Wellington in 1844, Sayer moved to the Three Mile Bush district circa 1859, just as public works were retrenching. For a time he is believed to have lived in this structure, earning a subsistence living as a hunter. Sayer married in 1864, at which time he probably extended the whare to the north-west. He died in 1902. The simple building, altered in several phases and connected to electricity in 1930, and which suffered damage to its stone chimeny (replaced in brick) in the 1942 earthquake, currently stores firewood.

Sayer's Slab Whare was designed in the Victorian Colonial Simple Box House style of the period 1837-1870, and is technically known as a Slab House because of its form of construction. Style and construction indicators are:

- Plain Georgian styling with gable ends and symmetrical arrangement on the east elevation of a centrally placed door with flanking windows on either side

- Steeply pitched gable roof form

- Lean-to addition (1864) on the rear west elevation, with external doors on the northern and southern ends

- Brick chimney, 1942, placed on southern gable of house replacing original stone chimney and fireplace

- Early settler construction of wall plates clad with split totara slabs and thinner split battens

- Regular colonial joinery for door and window frames

- Floor boards laid on the earth

- Wooden roof shingles still evident under corrugated roofing iron of a later date

Sayer's Slab Whare was assessed for historical significance under s23(2) criteria but was not considered to be of sufficient signficance for a Category I registration under these criteria.

Sayer's Slab Whare was not assessed for cultural significance under s23(2) criteria.

Sayer's Slab Whare was assessed for physical significance under s23(2) criteria and was considered to be of Category I significance.

s23(2)(g) The technical accomplishment or design of the place;

Sayer's Slab Whare is a typical example of a very early form of house building in New Zealand. Slab houses were usually built by a single man, and were relatively simple to make since all that was required was to split tree trunks with an iron wedge into two-inch thick boards approximately seven feet in length. To pit-saw boards to these dimensions took two men a considerably longer time, but split boards could easily be produced by one man. Very often single men had only themselves to fall back on as a resource on the New Zealand frontier, and Sayer certainly fell into this category of the self-reliant pioneer.

Sayer's Slab Whare was constructed by splitting totara logs into scantling for the framing and rafters of the place, and slab boards for the exterior cladding and battens, the latter being placed over the joins between the slabs. The scantling, or framing that the slabs were nailed to, is concealed by wall lining, but the rafters under the roof can be clearly seen inside the whare since it has no ceiling. Most of these have the rough hewn appearance of split scantling, although some of the timbers may be replacements of a more recent date. Some of the original timber roof shingles are still in place under the corrugated iron which was possibly placed on the roof as late as 1930.

Archival evidence suggests that the whare was wired for electricity around about 1930; the insulators are still in place on the northern gable end although power appears to be no longer connected. There is also evidence that indicates Sayer went to some trouble in building his whare. Outside the door there are cement paving blocks set into the ground which have only recently come to light. The slab cladding is also chamfered on the edges of the boards, so that each slab board slides in behind the other. This could be taken as architectural evidence that Sayer possibly worked on the construction of the Black Bridge that was partly built by his stepfather, John Ashmore, a project where Sayer would have picked up his carpentry skills. Although no archival evidence has been found to support this theory, the whare indicates a refinement in construction not normally associated with slab houses. As noted above, under s23(1) the present chimney replaced Sayer's original stone chimney and fireplace in 1942 following the Wairarapa earthquake of that year. The Carterton fault line runs along only a few metres behind Sayer's whare.

Originally Sayer's whare was a simple rectangular box with two windows and one door. Joinery has been used for the door and window frames, but this was not uncommon for some early houses of this type. The joinery could be of a later date than circa 1860 however. Of some interest is the way in which the builder stopped draughts, caused by the inevitable gaps which appear between joinery and slab construction, by plugging the gaps above the window frames with clay. Some of the clay still remains as an example to the present generation of how do-it-yourself settlers solved the inherent problems of frontier house construction. Around about the time Sayer was married, in 1864, he extended the whare on its western elevation by adding a lean-to. The lean-to was a conventional addition for box houses and usually housed the kitchen which would otherwise be situated away from the house. Presumably Sayer made his alteration for the same functional reasons. The join between the original house and the lean-to extension can be most clearly seen on the north gable, where he placed a series of slabs directly over the join. The lean-to effectively gave Sayer from two to three rooms in his whare plus two additional doors (one at the north end and one at the south end of the extension.) He also put in another window on the south end of the lean-to.


Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description

Sayer's slab whare is a simple, box-like shape with a steeply pitched roof and a lean-to addition on the side. At the front of the house there is a single door and two simple, symmetrically arranged windows. The lean-to has a door at each end and a window on the side next to the chimney. Built entirely of totara, Sayer constructed his whare around a number of hardwood posts driven deep into the ground. He used framing timber, or scantling, for the rafters and ridge poles. To the exterior he nailed slabs of totara. The join between each slab was covered with thin totara strips or battens. Using clay, Sayer carefully plugged any remaining gaps that would let in a draft. There was no ceiling and some of the original, hand-hewn totara shingles that covered the roof can still be seen from the inside of the whare. It is not known when the shingles were first replaced with corrugated iron although early photographs suggest that it may have been around 1930, rather than the 1880s as suggested by researcher Frank Fyffe.

In the lean-to, constructed approximately five years after the original house, pit-sawn timber beams appear to have been used for framing. The exterior is clad

with slab boards and on the north gable the connection between the lean-to and the original house can be seen clearly, as Sayer placed a series of slabs diagonally over the join. The original earth floor was probably covered with totara boards around the same time as the lean-to was erected. Many of these boards have rotted away as they were laid directly over the damp earth.

Other changes occurred to the whare when Sayer's grandson moved in around 1930. The remains of the electrical wiring in the southern end of the whare date from this period, as does the pinex wall covering that was later removed by the current owners. The original chimney, which would have been covered with slabs and piled up with stones on the inside, was not designed to withstand earthquakes and the current brick chimney and fireplace were built after the earthquake of 1942. Standing a short distance from the whare is Sayer's villa, built around 1885. It provides dramatic evidence of the different style of housing adopted in New Zealand as Pakeha wealth increased and settlement become more established.

Notable Features

Chamfered boards

Remnants of the clay used to block drafts between the boards

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1859 - 1860

1864 -
Lean-to and wooden floor added

1930 -
Corrugated iron roof added, wired for electricity

1942 -
Fireplace and chimney replaced

Construction Details

Built of totara using slab and battern construction to create a simple Victorian box-shelter with a lean-addition.

Completion Date

5th October 2002

Report Written By

Rebecca O'Brien / NZHPT

Information Sources

Bagnall, 1957

A. Bagnall, A History of Carterton, Carterton, 1957

Bagnall, 1976

A. G. Bagnall, Wairarapa; An Historical Excursion, Trentham, 1976

Fyfe, 1996

F. Fyfe, 'Dicky Sayer's Slab Whare', May 1996, NZHPT File 12013-547

Oxenham, 1993

S. Oxenham, Waiohine, Carterton, 1993

Salmond, 1986

Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940, Auckland, 1986, Reed Methuen

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.