Wyllie Cottage

14 Stout Street, Gisborne

  • Wyllie Cottage, Gisborne; north (front) elevation.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Damian Skinner. Date: 1/07/2009.
  • Wyllie Cottage Front Room.
    Copyright: Tairawhiti Museum. Taken By: D Meadows. Date: 1/06/2007.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 814 Date Entered 20th October 2011


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Lot 13 DP 319 (CT GS2D/379), Gisborne Land District and the building known as Wyllie Cottage thereon, and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information).

City/District Council

Gisborne District


Gisborne Region

Legal description

Lot 13 DP 319 (CT GS2D/379), Gisborne Land District

Location description

Wyllie Cottage is part of the Tairawhiti Museum complex on Stout Street.


Standing on Stout Street as part of the Tairawhiti Museum complex in Gisborne, it is easy to forget that Wyllie Cottage was built in 1872, when it stood alone as the only European building on the Whataupoko side of the Taruheru River. The cottage was built for Kate Halbert, the Maori daughter of trader Thomas Halbert and his fifth wife Keita Kaikiri, and Scotsman James Wyllie, a trader turned interpreter who worked for Captain G.E. Read in 1854. After marrying in 1854, Kate Halbert and James Wyllie lived on a farm at Tutoko. Caught up in the disturbances of the land wars in the 1860s, in the 1870s they moved closer to the new township of Turanga/Gisborne and built a cottage on land of which Kate Halbert had been confirmed an owner by the judgements of Poverty Bay Commission in 1869. The land was leased to a European, and the Wyllies took out a sublease in 1872, building their cottage on the crest of a hill. They moved into the house in late 1872 or early 1873 with their eight children.

Wyllie Cottage is an early Victorian Colonial, two bedroom cottage in the style that Jeremy Salmond identifies as English Colonial. It is one and a half storeys and has totara framework, totara external tongue and groove vertical boards and battens, with a wrap around verandah and timber shingled roof. It had beaded tongue and groove kauri interior linings and kauri floors and stair treads. The cottage uses the American 'balloon frame'. According to family lore the cottage was built by John Forbes, originally from Dunedin, and who we know was resident in Gisborne in 1872. According to Rob Hall, ‘and its detail indicates that it was planned and built on the spot, not prefabricated.’

Within three years the Wyllies had moved to a new house built on another piece of land that Kate Halbert owned, in 1875. The cottage remained unchanged for the next ten years, where it seems to have been occupied from time to time, possibly by Wi Pere, Kate Halbert’s half brother. By 1882 the land on which the cottage stood had been surveyed into sections, and a bridge was erected across the Taruheru River. The land and cottage was purchased by accountant James Charles Dunlop, who moved the building to its current location, (which is within the curtilage of its original location) which was where the Museum is sited. In 1898 the land, new house and Wyllie cottage were purchased by William Douglas Lysnar. Lysnar rented the cottage, which was used as a residence, a school, and possibly a dressmaker’s workshop. Winifred Lysnar, who inherited the property from her father, sold the house and cottage to the local council in 1954 to establish a museum and gallery. Neglected and in a run down state by the 1960s it was threatened with demolition, but the community rallied to save the building, and it was restored in 1971 to the condition it had been in after its move to its current location in the 1890s. It is currently used as a museum display, demonstrating life in nineteenth century Gisborne.

Wyllie Cottage is architecturally significant as a rare example of typical early European timber construction used to build settler housing in the Tairawhiti region. It is the oldest complete house in Gisborne, and the only one remaining of its particular style and construction. It is historically significant as the first house of European construction to be built on the Whataupoko side of the Taruheru River, as well as its role as an early school, and has social importance because of its connection with Kate Halbert and James Wyllie, for whom the cottage was built. Wyllie Cottage was restored through the goodwill and fundraising efforts of the community, and enjoys the high esteem of the community, and the many visitors who pass through its rooms as part of the Tairawhiti Museum complex.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Built in 1872, Wyllie Cottage was the first European building on the Whataupoko side of the Taruheru River. It was the home of Kate Halbert and James Wyllie, who both played an important role in the development of Gisborne. The cottage was also used as one of the first schools in Gisborne, with successive teachers using it as a venue for private tuition. The cottage is also associated with William Douglas Lysnar and his daughter, Winifred Lysnar, important and respected citizens of Gisborne, who eventually donated the cottage and Lysnar House to the people of Gisborne so a museum and art gallery could be established.

Architectural Significance or Value

Wyllie Cottage is architecturally significant as a rare example of typical early European timber construction used to build settler housing in the Tairāwhiti region. It is the oldest complete house in Gisborne, and the only one remaining of its particular, American influenced style and construction. It has an exterior of vertical boards and battens, which represents a type of building exterior common in the 1870s. It uses balloon construction, which was also used in other early cottages, including Waikohua which was built for the Archdeacon W.L. Williams in 1865 at the base of Titirangi/Kaiti Hill. Wyllie Cottage was moved and altered in the 1880s, but it still retains much of its original character.

Social Significance or Value

Wyllie Cottage was saved from demolition by the efforts of the Gisborne community, who in 1970 raised funds so that the cottage could be preserved and restored as part of the museum complex. For this reason, and because it is visited by many people (locals and visitors), the cottage enjoys a high social significance and considerable esteem locally.

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

As a rare surviving example of a house built in the early days of European settlement in Gisborne, Wyllie Cottage represents the growing presence of European settlers and the spread of European technologies (such as house construction) in New Zealand.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

Wyllie cottage is associated with a number of figures who played an important role in local and national history, including Kate Halbert (a leader and tribal expert for Rongowhakaata, who was closely associated with the activities of the land court in Gisborne), James Wyllie, a trader and interpreter who worked for Captain G.E. Read (a pioneering trader in the region), possibly Wi Pere (Maori leader and politician), and William Douglas Lysnar, Gisborne mayor and MP.

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

As a literal museum, representing domestic life in the Tairawhiti region circa 1880s, Wyllie Cottage has great potential to give visitors a sense of New Zealand history. It reveals the physical dimensions of life at the time, providing insight into the way that people lived and the environments in which aspects of their daily lives took place.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

Wyllie Cottage enjoys a high level of public esteem and community association, partly because of its position as part of the Tairawhiti Museum, and partly because the community was responsible for saving the building from demolition in the early 1970s.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

As part of the Tairawhiti Museum complex, Wyllie Cottage is providing public education on the early period of European settlement in Gisborne. The interior of the cottage has been furnished with items that date from the period in the 1880s when the cottage was moved and modernised.

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

Wyllie Cottage was the first European building on the Whataupoko side of the Taruheru River. It represents the very beginnings of European settlement in that part of Gisborne.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape

The cottage is located very close to its original site, which is now occupied by the Tairawhiti Museum building. As part of the museum complex, it is an important element in the museum’s representation of local history, sitting alongside a sled house (also registered with the NZHPT) and stables.

Summary of Significance or Values

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, c, e, f, i, k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Forbes, John

According to Wyllie family tradition, the builder of Wyllie Cottage was John Forbes, who came from Dunedin in 1867. He built the first Albion Club Hotel, and the Catholic Church in 1879. He was living in Gisborne in 1872

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Wyllie Cottage is located in the Tairawhiti Museum complex on Stout Street, Gisborne. It is situated right next to the road, in front of the museum building, and next to two other old buildings, Sled House, and stables, as part of a display about the settler history of the Gisborne region. While the land on which Wyllie Cottage stands has been substantially developed since it was built in 1872, and the cottage has been moved, its present location is still within the immediate vicinity of the building’s original location (on the site of the adjacent museum).

Wyllie Cottage was built for James Ralston Wyllie and his wife, Kate Halbert. Wyllie was a trader who began working for Captain G.E. Read in 1854, and who later became an interpreter. He was born in Ayrshire in Scotland in 1831. Wyllie began trading on the Waipaoa River, where most of the small European population then lived. Kate Halbert was born at Tutoko, near Waerenga-a-Hika, in the early 1840s. She was the daughter of trader Thomas Halbert and his fifth wife, Keita Kaikiri, of the Ngati Kaipoho hapu of Rongowhakaata. She is said to have been educated at the Anglican mission school at Waerenga-a-Hika, and it is believed she married Wyllie on 14 August 1854. In 1856 they went to live on a family farm at Tutoko, where they lived until 1865, when it was destroyed in fighting between Hauhau and government forces. They lived at Matawhero, being warned and escaping in time to avoid the attack of Te Kooti and his men in November 1868. In the early 1870s they lived in Gisborne, and built the house now known as Wyllie Cottage.

Preferring not to live in the European settlement of Gisborne, being developed on land which Kate and 16 other owners had sold to the crown in 1869, the family built their house on land that her iwi owned on the other side of the Taruheru River. The land was under lease to a European, and the Wyllies took out a sub lease in 1872. Building on the crest of the section now known as Kelvin Rise, the family moved into their new home in either late 1872 or early 1873.

Wyllie Cottage was the first European building on the Taruheru side of the river, and in its original location it faced towards the small settlement of Gisborne. A photograph by William Crawford dated 1874 and now in the collection of the Tairawhiti Museum, illustrates the isolation of the cottage with its small wooden fence amidst the manuka and scrub covered landscape. A shelter belt of macrocarpa trees were planted by the Wyllies along the river bank, a detail just visible in the Crawford photograph. It is possible that the cottage was built by John Forbes, who came from Dunedin in 1867 and built the first Albion Hotel in Gisborne. He was definitely living here in 1872. In 1879 he built the original Catholic Church. To mark this possible connection, two of Forbes’s saws hang in the hallway of Wyllie Cottage.

Wyllie Cottage is an early Victorian Colonial cottage in the style that Jeremy Salmond identifies as English Colonial. It is one and a half storeys and has totara framework, totara external tongue and groove vertical boards and battens, and beaded tongue and groove kauri interior linings and kauri floors and stair treads. The cottage uses balloon construction. As Salmond writes, ‘In 1 ½ storeyed houses, the American 'balloon frame' was sometimes used. Invented in 1833 this had studs running full height in the walls, and first floor joists fixed to the sides of the studs.’ The front or north facing façade is symmetrical, the roof is shingled, and the windows are double hung with fixed upper sashes.

According to Robert Hall, when first erected the cottage had a verandah that wrapped around the front and both sides of the building, providing 30 square metres of covered space. The parlour was located downstairs on the right, with a fireplace at the end and in interior chimney. The main bedroom was on the left, with a smaller bedroom at the back of the house, and the rest of the downstairs taken up with a long back room, probably used as a living room. There was no chimney or vent for a stove, suggesting that cooking was done outdoors. The stairs turn to the right, leading upstairs to two rooms that were used as bedrooms. The bedroom located over the downstairs bedroom is the smaller of the two upstairs rooms by the width of the stairs. Wyllie Cottage is very similar to Waikahua cottage (now destroyed), which was built for Archdeacon W.L. Williams at the base of Titirangi/Kaiti Hill and also used balloon construction. The exterior vertical boards covered by battens was also used in other buildings of the time, including Matawhero Church which still survives and is registered as a Category I building (Record no. 796). Salmond writes that this was a simpler alternative to weatherboards, and consisted of wide boards (about 300 mm) being fixed vertically with each joint covered by a narrow (75 mm) batten. The building has a skillion or lean to added to the back of it. Construction details suggest that the skillion was part of the original scheme, and added as soon as the main building was erected, in order to meet the space requirements of a large family.

The Wyllies did not occupy the cottage for long. Wyllie had taken another and larger sub lease with the notion of turning the land into a sheep run, but the titles were insecure and the land became caught up in a larger transaction covering 8000 hectares. Kate Halbert secured 120 hectares after the freehold titles were awarded, the south east boundary of which ran along the land they had lost, with the rest of the area in the direction of the current Gisborne hospital. Kate and James Wyllie built a new house on this property at Mangapapa, which may have been the second European building in the area. On the 19 December 1875 James Wyllie passed away at the age of 44. Kate Halbert later married Michael Joseph Gannon, a licensed interpreter, and lived in Wellington, Auckland and Gisborne with him.

Hall suggests that the cottage remained substantially unchanged for a decade after the Wyllies left it. It may have been used informally by Wi Pere, Kate Halbert’s half brother. By 1882 the land had become the property of the New Zealand Native Land Settlement Company, and after litigation, which ended in 1883; the surveyed and sectioned land was sold. An inscription on a damaged sheathing plank reads IFD - JRW 19/6/84, which might refer to James Ralston Wyllie, a 19 year old son, and is a final sign of the original owners.

By 5 January 1886 the land and the cottage had been purchased by James Charles Dunlop, an accountant. Dunlop built a new house on the site of Wyllie cottage, and moved the older building to its present location at the rear of the section next to Stout Street. The original chimney and verandah was demolished, and the cottage was modernised. A new chimney was built at the back wall of the parlour, acting as a kitchen fireplace as well, a back porch was added, the roof shingles were replaced with corrugated iron, and a new verandah with a concave iron roof was built along the front façade.

Due to financial difficulties, Dunlop sold the house and cottage to William Douglas Lysnar on the 26 August 1898. William Douglas Lysnar was one of the great characters of Gisborne. A lawyer who could speak Maori, Lysnar earned a reputation as a fearless opponent in and out of court. He would not accept defeat, and during his career was involved with a number of well known court cases, one of which went as far as the Privy Council in London. In 1893 he married Ida Eleanor Tiffen, the daughter of a wealthy Hawke’s Bay sheep farmer. With financial help from his father in law Lysnar began developing a business empire. By 1901 he had a dairy farm at Makorori and a butter factory at Okitu nearby. In June 1915 he formed the Poverty Bay Farmers’ Meat Company Limited and became its first chairman. From 1908 to 1911 he was mayor of Gisborne. He managed to convince the council to raise a loan for electricity, sewerage, improvements to the streets, and a tram system. Willing to take risks and adopt new technology, Lysnar purchased two battery powered trams on the advice of Thomas Edison, the American inventor. A later foray into national politics saw him elected to Parliament in 1919, defeating Sir James Carroll. He was a passionate and vocal defender of the region’s interests and future, and he held his seat until 1931. Douglas Lysnar died at Gisborne on 12 October 1942.

Information is lacking about the history of the cottage when it became a rental property. Robert Hall suggests that a man named Steele rented the cottage in 1886, and was possibly the first tenant. Mrs Dunlop, who was a teacher before she married, ran the Whataupoko Ladies’ College in the cottage, with Miss A.L. Rees, who later moved into bigger premises and turned her school into Cook County College. A large window in the south wall of the cottage was probably added during this period to provide suitable light for a classroom. There are advertisements in the Poverty Bay Herald from 1896 which suggest that the classes in Wyllie Cottage were taken over by Miss Drummond and then Miss Glanvill, who was trained and had been working as a teacher in England. J.T Evans rented the cottage in 1898, and Hall also notes another teacher, Miss Aylmer occupying the cottage, along with a dressmaker called Miss Simeon. In the twentieth century a freezing worker called Outen rented the cottage from 1934 to 1940, and worked two days a week for Lysnar instead of paying rent. The final tenant was Mrs J.G. Brown. A newspaper article published in 1960 noted that she had lived in the house for the past 20 years, and ‘finds it a frail, but otherwise tenable home’.

Hall writes that in 1899 W.D. Lysnar approached his mortgagee Rev. Samuel Marsden to demolish the cottage and replace it with a stable and buggy house. Avoiding destruction at this time, the cottage was again faced with demolition in the late 1960s. By this time the ownership had been transferred to the Gisborne City Council, according to the wishes of W.D. Lysnar and his daughter, Winifred Lysnar, who sold Kelvin Rise (the big house on the section) and the cottage to the council for a nominal sum so it could be used as an art gallery and museum. The council declared that they could not afford to restore the building, and the public rallied to the cause, fighting for restoration and raising money so that it could become a tourist attraction as part of the museum complex. As Hall writes, ‘The Gisborne public responded vigorously and restoration was achieved without cost to public funds, save for the gift of shingles by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Private loans and gifts were added to Museum resources in furnishing the cottage. The Gisborne Garden Club created the garden, following early descriptions and photographs.’ When it was moved to its present location the cottage was restored to its late 1880s condition, and furnished with items from the museum collection that related to domestic life at the end of the nineteenth century.

Physical Description

Wyllie Cottage is an early Victorian Colonial Cottage. It features balloon construction, and is made of totara with a kauri lean to. The external sheathing is vertical board, with a batten shingled roof.

Wyllie Cottage is one and half storeys, timber construction, balloon framing. It has a gable roof with rear lean to and front verandah. Kauri shingle roof, symmetrical front (north) façade. All windows double hung with fixed upper sashes.

The framework is totara, as are external tongue and groove vertical boarding and battens. All interior linings are beaded tongue and groove kauri, although many walls and ceilings are unlined. Floorboards and stair treads are kauri. Linoleum has been laid in passages to prevent wear.

North (front) elevation: The verandah is straight roofed with a low wooden x frame balustrade and four turned supporting posts. The door is topped by a three light fanlight, and flanked by two six light windows. The doghouse style dormer window in the middle of the main roof is also a six light.

On the east side are a six light and a four light window on the ground floor, and a four light on the first floor. The west side has a four light on each floor.

The rear (south) elevation has a four light window and a small porch with a z frame door. The chimney runs between main structure and a lean to, heating both kitchen and parlour. The angled, steep staircase is on the east side of the passage which runs down the centre of the cottage, leading to a small landing with two attic rooms. There are four rooms on the ground floor. Each room has been furnished in a style consistent with the late nineteenth century, with glass panels in the doors allowing visitors to view them.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1872 -

Late 1880s cottage moved to present location

1970 - 1971
Cottage restored by A.L.W Martin

Construction Details

Timber including totara and kauri, corrugated iron, iron

Completion Date

8th August 2011

Report Written By

Damian Skinner, Gail Henry, Linda Pattison

Information Sources

Gisborne Herald

14 Dec 2012

‘Old house has link with history’, 2 Jul 1960, ‘Old cottage possible tourist attraction’, 9 Jun 1969

Mackay, 1949

J A Mackay, Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z, Gisborne, 1949.

Salmond, 1986

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

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Lower Northern Area 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.