Burnham Grange Sod Cottage

177 Grange Road, Burnham

  • Burnham Grange Sod Cottage.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Helen Brown.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7710 Date Entered 22nd June 2007


Extent of List Entry

The house and the land on which it stands on part of Lot 3 DP 55816, Canterbury Land District, (CT CB 33A/412) with a curtilage extending ten metres from the midpoint of the four sides of the building. The approximate boundary is indicated on aerial photograph Appendix 2, Fig 3, p.19 of the Registration Report.

City/District Council

Selwyn District


Canterbury Region

Legal description

Lot 3 DP 55816 (CT CB33A/412), Canterbury Land District.

Location description

Immediately north of Burnham Military Camp. Geographically the cottage and the occupied houses are closer to Two Chain Road, and this is sometimes given as the address, but access is via Grange Road.


The Burnham Grange Sod Cottage, near the military camp and township at Burnham, is a remarkably well-preserved example of an earth building made from sods. Earth buildings were reasonably common in colonial times as they were quick and cheap to build, and used the materials at hand in places where other building materials were not readily available, like the treeless Canterbury plains. The use of sods, earth blocks cut straight from the ground and assembled in a herringbone pattern, was less common than those made from cob or sun dried blocks. Surviving examples like this one are very rare.

William Peter Cross, an immigrant who arrived in Canterbury in 1868, was living on his 100 acre (40.5 ha) block of rough tussock covered land by 1871. He was one of the earliest settlers in the area and named his property Burnham Grange. Cross is credited by local folk lore with building the cottage himself, though there is a possibility that it was extant at the time of his purchase and had been previously the home of a farm worker on the original larger estate that had first been taken up in the 1850s.

The cottage is a simple structure with its four external walls constructed from sods, and a corrugated iron roof on timber framing. There are four ground floor rooms and an attic, a plan similar to many dwellings that were constructed in the early years of settlement. The front door is centrally located and flanked by two windows. It opens into a tiny entranceway from which the steep stairs rise to the attic and there are two opposing doors giving access to the kitchen/living room on the right and a bedroom on the left. Behind the straight stair, doors open to another bedroom and to a lean-to area extending the full length of the cottage. This was possibly the original kitchen/scullery. Cross enlarged his relatively small holding in later years, becoming a successful, respected farmer who continued living in this small cottage for many decades until 1927. The following owner lived in the dwelling until 1952.

The building's humble architecture is indicative of the frugal and self-sufficient lives of the smaller freehold farmers, following in the wake of the elite wealthy run holders who dominated the farming scene during the first decade of Canterbury's settlement. Its construction and unaltered form make it an especially significant example of domestic architecture from this period.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Burnham Grange Sod Cottage is highly significant as the dwelling of one of the earliest settlers in the Burnham area. The cottage represents in a very vivid manner the pioneering conditions on the Canterbury Plains in the early decades of settlement. Its humble architecture is indicative of the frugal and self-sufficient lives of the smaller freehold farmers who followed in the wake of the elite and wealthy run holders who dominated the farming scene during the first decade of Canterbury's settlement. William Cross, like many others, was able to successfully farm a 100 acre block of land which he later expanded. That original land holding being subdivided into four life-style blocks now illustrates recent tendencies in land ownership.

While sod cottages were generally built by early property owners as temporary accommodation, this building is unusual because of the quality of its construction and its extended period of occupancy. It remained in use as a dwelling until the 1950s, relatively unaltered, so its documentary value as an illustration of colonial living conditions is very high.

The building has a form that was common for early colonial cottages: two windows and a central door on the principal façade, a simple gable roof running parallel to the front elevation, and a lean to at the rear. The two adjacent chimneys, one to the living room/kitchen and one to what was probably the original kitchen in the lean to, is a less usual feature of the typical cottage plan. Very typical of early Canterbury dwellings is the steep central staircase which gives access to two small attic bedrooms. The representative nature of the building's architectural form adds to its importance as an example of such a rare type of construction. Although on one hand the condition of the building is poor, on the other it is quite free of modern alterations, so that it is able to demonstrate clearly its original architectural qualities of simplicity and suitability.

Burnham Grange Sod Cottage is significant as a rare example of skilled 'sod' construction. The very great value of the building rests with this now rare form of earth construction. In addition to the main structural material of earth, there is considerable value in the techniques of timber construction evident in the roof and attic floor framing, and in the joinery fittings of the ground floor. The ground floor partitioning of totara timber framing with earth infill and the use on the first floor timber in the round are further rare and notable forms of construction.

Several rooms still have remnants of early wall linings and finishes which themselves add to the technological value of the building.

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

As the home of one of the earliest settlers in the Burnham area the Burnham Grange Sod Cottage has special significance. The scale, style and construction of the building illustrate historical and cultural aspects of rural life experienced by early farming colonists who migrated to New Zealand with out substantial financial resources. William Cross, the owner and probable builder of the cottage, is representative of the type of modest early rural landowners who took up smaller rural blocks of land on the Canterbury Plains and worked hard to make a moderate but sustaining income from it.

The cottage is also representative of the particular era in Canterbury's rural development when smaller freehold blocks were developed as mixed farming units, in the wake of the breaking up of the initial large pastoral runs. Farming is an integral feature of post-colonial New Zealand identity and the New Zealand cultural landscape. This property illustrates farming's evolution. As in the case with many other small farms, the land holding increased, but now it has been reduced again to provide smaller life-style blocks approximately ten hectares in size. This is a recent New Zealand wide tendency.

(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history

The cottage's site and environs provides opportunities for archaeological investigations as it dates from c.1870. The cottage itself has the potential to provide knowledge of early sod construction as an aspect of building archaeology. Very few equivalent examples are known to exist in New Zealand. Considerable knowledge can be obtained here of the techniques, the methods of construction and the materials that were used.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place

Burnham Grange Sod Cottage has outstanding significance as a rare example of 'sod' construction, further differentiated by the inclusion of the timber slips laid in the horizontal joints. Its longevity, compared with other surviving sod structures demonstrates the quality of its construction. Although it has not been well maintained it remains in reasonable condition so that its original form and layout have remained intact. Aspects of technological interest include the external sods, the chimneys, internal stud walls that have mud infill, timber construction techniques, the venerable range and use of newspaper as internal linings.

(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from early periods of New Zealand settlement

Burnham Grange Cottage is one of the oldest buildings in Burnham, dating from the early years of European settlement on the Central Canterbury Plains. This area was not closely settled in the first decade after the Canterbury Association's 1850 founding of the province and William Cross's c.1870 cottage is the oldest residence in the Burnham vicinity.

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

Burnham Grange Cottage is especially significant as a rare example of 'sod' construction, with timber slips laid in the horizontal joints. There are few other examples, as discussed in the comparative analysis, and they are mainly of lesser importance and quality.


Burnham Grange Sod Cottage has outstanding significance as one of only a few sod buildings in Canterbury and wider New Zealand. It is a rare example of the type of sod cottages built by early property owners as initial accommodation. Its humble architecture is indicative of the frugal and self-sufficient lives of the smaller freehold farmers who followed in the wake of the elite wealthy run holders who dominated the farming scene during the first decade of Canterbury's settlement.

The small, humble dwelling reflects important aspects of Canterbury's past that are also represented through New Zealand. Because of its date of construction archaeological methods of investigation would reveal much about the past and there is also great potential for knowledge of history and of construction techniques to be gained here.

Dating from c.1871 it is now at least 136 years old. Although not one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Canterbury province, it is the oldest dwelling in the Burnham district, giving it special importance in the region.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

The vast plain Ka Pakihi Wakatekateka a Waitaha (the seed bed of Waitaha) that stretches from the Waitaki to the Rakahuri (Ashley River) once provided an abundant food store for Maori. Waitaha, followed by Ngati Mamoe and then Ngai Tahu traversed the plains on hunting and kai gathering expeditions. The major rivers provided access routes for Maori travelling from the sea coast inland to the passes leading to Westland. The Central Plains between the Waimakariri and Rakaia Rivers and Kakapotahi (the Malvern foothills region) has been occupied by Ngai Tahu for many generations. The Ngai Tahu presence is evidenced in the wahi ingoa that remain on the landscape. These place names record Ngai Tahu history, and point to the landscape features including maunga, awa, former pa sites and wahi tapu that were significant to people for a range of reasons. Some of the names are still used today; others remain only in the customary knowledge base of the tangata whenua. Waikirikiri (the Selwyn River) is the closest waterway to Burnham and despite being perhaps used less frequently by Māori, many taonga have been recovered from sites along its northern tributary known today as the Hawkins River. The pa site nearest to the Burnham area was Whakaepa Pa located on a bluff south of the Waikirikiri near present day Coalgate. Kaiapoi Maori seasonally joined their relatives at Whakaepa Pā to undertake kai gathering expeditions to Waikawa (Lake Lyndon) and to travel through to Arahura on the West Coast.

In the nineteenth century, the Canterbury Association initially considered the Burnham region too barren for farming or agricultural purposes. With neither grazing nor water, the area was labelled wasteland, scrubland and even desert on the early survey maps. However, land on the plains was taken up rapidly by the new settlers and in the 1850s a considerable part of the Burnham area was integrated into Cracroft Wilson's already extensive Crown leasehold, 'Broadlands'. Broadlands was initially worked as a cattle station in the 1850s but converted to sheep in the late 1860s. By this time the extensive subdivision and freehold sale of Canterbury's original leasehold runs was underway. The first freehold sale in the Burnham area was to a young English settler, Richard Bethell, in 1861. Bethell named his new property 'Burnham' after his one time home, 'Burnham Beeches', Buckinghamshire, England. Thenceforth, Burnham became a geographical entity and Bethell set out to establish an English-style settlement there with a school, church and manor house (his own). Three years later Bethell was instrumental in establishing the first church on the Canterbury plains, All Saints Church, which opened for worship in 1864. The centre of Bethell's property and All Saints Church were (originally) located about three miles to the south of the present day Burnham township. By 1879 the entire Broadlands 25,000 acre holding had been subdivided and sold to various freehold owners.

By the mid 1860s both road and rail communication passed through the western section of Burnham with a main 'coach' road running through to Timaru. From this time, there was an increase in the settlement of the area. The railway offered the possibility of cheap freight and the advent of corrugated iron roofing enabled the collection of precious rain water, in an otherwise waterless landscape. In 1863-64, Rev. H. Harper wrote: 'Things are changing here. A good deal of land has been purchased, and is under cultivation; fences are appearing and people are settling where hitherto sheep roamed at will tended by a few shepherds'. Among the earliest settlers in the area were William Cross, John McIlroy and Joseph Nichol who arrived in New Zealand between 1866 and 1874.

William Peter Cross arrived in Lyttelton by the ship Lancashire Witch in 1868 and spent the three following years farming at Brookside, the area to the south of the Selwyn River bordering Lake Ellesmere. In 1870 Cross made an application to purchase a freehold of 100 acres at Burnham. Though Cross did not legally secure his land purchase (part Rural Section 14056) until 1872, details given in the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand 1903 indicate that he was in residence at Burnham from 1871. The oldest portion of 'Burnham Grange' as Cross's estate was known, consisted of rough tussock land that required breaking in. According to local folklore, Cross built the sod cottage on the property himself, though it is also feasible that the building was extant at the time of purchase. While a degree of uncertainty surrounds the exact date of construction, this building is undoubtedly a rare, example of an early sod house that was constructed with considerable skill.

Turf building was well known in Europe and with the growth of the new colonies it travelled to the Americas and Australia where it became known as 'sod'. Sod became a valuable building material in New Zealand in areas where ready access to timber was scant, especially on the Canterbury Plains and parts of Otago. Fitton's (1856) New Zealand: Its present condition. advised intending emigrants that sod buildings with a wooden frame and plaster were recommended for their warmth and economy, the only cost being a sharp spade and the owner's labour.

Excellent tough sods may be obtained almost everywhere, as the surface of the ground which has never before been broken up is densely matted with roots and fibres, and when cut like peat into blocks dries into firm compact masses.

At this location, the decision to build a sod cottage is understandable. Sods were cut at an angle, sometimes with a special wide spade which produced pieces about 500mm wide. The Burnham Grange cottage is constructed of a single thick wall made with sods laid at an angle in layers, the slope in each layer angles opposite to that in the next layer. This method gave the walls of the cottage a characteristic 'herringbone' appearance. While the herringbone pattern was a traditional aspect of sod construction, the Burnham Grange cottage is unusual in having thin timber laths laid between the blocks in some places, apparently in every second course. This would have added some tensile strength to the walls. Another atypical aspect of cottage is the nature of the sods, which do not appear to have been taken from the surface of the ground as no evidence of grass or tussock remnants have been observed on the faces. Although the technique of construction is certainly that of sod building, the building material may more properly be described as 'cut earth blocks'.

The Burnham Grange dwelling has a form that was common for early cottages. The main east facing frontage is symmetrical with two ground floor windows flanking the central door, a simple gable roof running parallel to the front elevation, with a lean to full length along the back. It has two chimneys along side each other on the north side, one to the main kitchen/living area and one to the lean-to at the rear. A steep central staircase gives access to two small attic bedrooms. The fact that this cottage has endured for at least 135 years is evidence of its sound construction but must also be attributed to its extended period of occupation. The cottage continued in use as a dwelling for approximately 81 years (1871-1952).

William Cross lived here from c.1871, playing an active role in the small Burnham community. He was a church officer at the All Saints Church and later became a member of the Courtenay branch of the Canterbury Farmers' Union. In 1890 he married an Irish woman, Margaret Johnston. By 1903 Cross's property, Burnham Grange, consisted of 240 acres (97.1 ha) of freehold and 189 acres (76.5 ha) of leasehold land. It was devoted to sheep farming, grain growing and dairying. William Cross owned the Burnham Grange property until he died. At the time of his death on 26 August 1927, he was living at the nearby township of Doyleston. He is buried at Linwood Cemetery.

Burnham Grange was sold to George William Dutton in 1928. Dutton, also a farmer, lived in the cottage until its sale to Aubrey William Scott in 1952. Though the cottage has probably not been used as a residence since this time, Aubrey Scott undertook some restoration of the cottage during the 1950s that helped stay its deterioration. Following Scott's death in 1961, ownership of Burnham Grange passed to Malcolm Scott as executor.

By the early 1960s, the rarity of what was then referred to as Cross Sod Cottage and consequent desire for its ongoing retention had become a matter for consideration by New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT). The cottage was recognised as the best-known example in Canterbury of a herringbone construction sod block house. Concern was raised that the cottage had fallen prey to vandalism. Subsequently, a fence was constructed around the cottage to protect it from vandals and straying animals. The cost was met by NZHPT which made a grant of £440 for the preservation and protection of the cottage consequent on the owners' agreement to have the property declared a Historic Reserve, under the control and management of the NZHPT. The cottage and eight perches surrounding it were gazetted a Private Historic Reserve on 24 June 1965. Despite its reserve status and the protective fence, the building continued to deteriorate due to ongoing vandalism. In 1972 a number of opinions were proffered regarding the reserve status of the cottage. The Ministry of Works District Architect concluded that the poor interior condition of the building was uneconomic to restore due to being in private ownership and visited only infrequently by the public. A report emphasised that the cottage's isolated position made the house subject to vandalism and stated that it was in 'a very poor state of preservation, with sod deterioration and with rotten and borer infested timbers'. Representatives of the NZHPT inspected the property in November 1972 and ultimately decided to request that the Minister of Lands cancel the Historic Reserve designation. The reserve status of Cross Sod Cottage was revoked in 1973 because the cottage had fallen into disrepair, there was a lack of local interest in the building and the landowner was unwilling to maintain the building. The hope was expressed that future owners might have greater interest.

In 1990 the new owner of the property, Wayne Bartlett, put forward a proposal to make the cottage the public focus of a vineyard venture. This proposal received the support of NZHPT but ultimately did not proceed. A condition report and specification for repair of the cottage was produced in 1990. The original Burnham Grange property had been subdivided into four lots around this time. In 1998 the property transferred to new owners and when the present owners purchased it in 2005 they immediately engaged in discussions with NZHPT about the building's conservation.

Physical Description

Physical Description

A few decades ago the cottage, partially surrounded by trees, stood alone in the middle of a large open paddock on the wide expanse of the Canterbury Plains. From its site, distant views could be obtained to the mountains and over the century since it was built, expansive vistas over the plains' sparsely populated, tussock covered landscape have changed. Now there is a closer scattering of buildings, trees, well stocked pastures and several neighbouring areas of exotic plantations.

Recent subdivision has seen the original farm divided into four lifestyle blocks, each with new buildings on them. A driveway from Grange Road gives access to the Burnham Grange cottage which still stands alone in an open paddock with many of the large surrounding trees now removed. Beyond it are grapevines and sheep paddocks. Today, the cottage is approached from the rear, which faces west.

Essentially, this is a six room mud cottage built by the 'sod' method, with a central corridor, an upper floor in the roof space, and a lean-to at the rear, also in sod construction. The plan was typical of the period and the construction system well known to many immigrants, especially those from rural backgrounds.

It is a rare, surviving example of this construction method, with the atypical feature of timber slips laid in the horizontal joints. The external walls are built up with sods cut in the shape of parallelograms and laid in an alternating herringbone pattern, traditional for this form of earth construction. There is a range of depth to the wall from c.450 to 500 mm though some are in excess of 600mm. Note, however, that the sods do not appear to have been taken from the surface of the ground. In some other instances of sod construction, remnants of tussock or grass remain discernable on the upper surface of the blocks with roots below. However it has certainly been the technique of sod or turf construction that has been used here. In some places thin timber laths, still in good condition, have been laid between the blocks to add further stability to the walls. This is an unusual feature that perhaps is comparable to the use of flax leaves laid between the sods in the cottage at Longbeach.

The roof is corrugated iron. Notable features include two sod chimneys, dado rail in the kitchen/living area, internal plaster, some scraps of wallpaper, and some early newspaper as wallpaper. Some doors and windows remain in place; there are very steep stairs (virtually a ladder), remnants of a built-in dresser in the kitchen, and a fairly complete coal range. Partitions on the ground floor are framed in light section sawn timber with earth infill (a type of 'stud and mud' technique); the structural timber here is totara. On the first floor timber in the round has been used for framing of the partitions and the lining material is moulded tongue and groove boards.

Comparative Analysis

The significant heritage values of this cottage are in its construction. Surviving examples of buildings constructed from sods are now very rare New Zealand. Because they could be constructed quickly from materials at hand and colonists from England were familiar with the technique there were many first homes built from sods, usually only used for a short time. As Jeremy Salmond explains:

They were usually deserted once the fleas got in or a permanent house had been built, and they crumbled after a few years in the weather.

Sod houses were often built by early property owners as initial and temporary accommodation because they could be constructed quickly. Sod construction's humble position in the architectural hierarchy is exemplified by Samuel Butler's well-known houses at Mesopotamia. When Butler vacated his original 'soddie', it was a natural progression for him to upgrade to a more technologically sophisticated 'cob' house built nearby.

Other earth building systems that were used have left us a greater number of examples. The buildings made from sun dried bricks or cob have more frequently survived, often because they were well maintained and continued in use for a considerable time, often by descendants of the original owners. There are several such well preserved examples in Canterbury.

Few building on the NZHPT Register are readily identified as being of sod construction. Near Ashburton the notable Longbeach Cob Cottage (Category II, Register No. 1759) has now been identified as being of unique, double skin sod construction. There is also 'Sod House' (Category II Register No. 3254) at Peebles in the Waitaki Valley. It is a barn, built as a granary in 1868, and it does not demonstrate the herringbone form of the sods as clearly as those at Burnham Grange. In Marlborough's Awatere Valley at Weld's Hill there is an unregistered sod barn identified by local experts on earth structures as the only sod building in the province. Other unregistered items of sod construction are found in Canterbury and Otago. Many of these are remnants like the partial wall from a smithy at the Kyeburn diggings near Naseby. There is an example of a basic Chinese miner's hut retained as part of a historic trail set up by Macraes Mining Company at Macraes Flat, an early Otago goldmining settlement. At Loburn in Canterbury a single roomed cottage built by an Irish settler had an extra room added in cob and then a three walls rooms of sun dried brick were added.

The Burnham Grange Sod Cottage is a remarkably original example of colonial planning and form, but it is the construction techniques which were used that make it of such special significance.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1870 -

Construction Details

Main construction: Sod blocks placed in herringbone pattern, with thin timber lathes laid in the horizontal joints. Clay mortar

Chimneys: Sod blocks with clay mortar.

Roof: Corrugated iron on totara timber framing. No evidence has been found to indicate that a thatched roof was ever in place. Weatherboards in the gable ends

Interior: Ground floor internal partitions are framed in light section sawn timber with earth infill, similar to “stud and mud” construction. The sod walls have some remnants of plaster finish and there are sections where newspapers have been pasted over timber linings. Some area of timber flooring remain, earth elsewhere. Timber doors, window frames and stair.

Completion Date

12th April 2007

Report Written By

Pam Wilson

Information Sources

Salmond, 1986

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

Thornton, 1986

Geoffrey Thornton, The New Zealand Heritage of Farm Buildings, Auckland, 1986

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Southern 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.