Warder's House (Former)

39 Oxford Street And Winchester Street, Lyttelton

  • Warder's House (Former), Lyttelton. Image courtesy of vallance.photography@xtra.co.nz.
    Copyright: Francis Vallance. Taken By: Francis Vallance. Date: 20/09/2012.
  • Warder's House (Former), Lyttelton c.1980-81. Image courtesy of Christchurch City Libraries - Jae Renaut Collection.
    Copyright: Christchurch City Libraries.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7533 Date Entered 11th December 2003 Date of Effect 11th December 2003


City/District Council

Christchurch City


Canterbury Region

Legal description

Sec 345 Town of Lyttelton (RT CB7A/469), Canterbury Land District

Location description

Corner Oxford and Winchester Street.


This Rustic Gothic styled example of domestic architecture is significant because it was built in 1875/6 to accommodate a warder from Lyttelton Gaol. The gaol, which functioned from 1851 to 1921, was sited directly across the street. Of this important complex which is registered Category 1, only the concrete retaining walls and a small block of cells built into the upper slope of the site remain today. The gaol began with a single three cell block of wattle and daub construction and expanded rapidly to house the increasing numbers of prisoners and warders. A major building programme begun in 1874 put pressure on the existing gaol site and the Crown leased this conveniently located section on the opposite side of Oxford Street to accommodate the Chief Warder. The existing Head Warder's small house was moved across to the site prior to this six roomed Gothic house being constructed by prison labour. There is no precise documentation of the occupants over the years, though local residents of Lyttelton remember it as the Gaoler's or the Head Warder's residence.

Constructed of timber with a corrugated iron roof, the house is in remarkably original condition. Its two storeyed form and styling are typical of the 1870s, with the repeated gables featuring elaborately decorated barge boards and timber detailing across the verandah.

The town of Lyttelton retains a number of heritage buildings as examples of the first 50 years of settlement. This is one of the most notable domestic examples because of its architectural character and its long association with the gaol.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Lyttelton Gaol was a dominating feature of Canterbury's port from the first years of settlement until 1921. This was because of its physical presence close to the town's centre and visibility from the surrounding hillside residential areas. Residents were also very aware of activities at the gaol, especially when there was a hanging.

The "hard labour gang" was responsible for much of the physical work around the town, building retaining walls, leveling the site for the Timeball Station, forming roads, stone guttering, etc. and the gang's activities were a familiar sight to the citizens. At the gaol site itself the immense concrete retaining walls and the small block of cells on the upper level are all that remain of the complex. The most complete remaining feature is the Warder's House looking across to the site.

The Warder's House is a striking feature on its prominent site at the corner of Oxford and Winchester Streets. It is a fine example of the Rustic Gothic style of architecture with its strong gabled form and timber decorative detailing. Its planning is typical of the 1870s and it is in remarkably original condition.

The officers who lived here served at Lyttelton Gaol in a demanding job dealing with a range of social misfits as well as brutal, hardened criminals. This residence is a reminder of the lives they led. It is well known by local residents because of its association with the gaol and all of the dramas of the past which occurred within its confines. The location of the house indicates the importance of having gaol warders living either on the premises or in close proximity to it.

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

Since the first years of settlement New Zealand has sought to establish a suitable system of maintaining Law and Order. The Gaol at Lyttelton was a prominent feature of the penal system for Canterbury and the South Island for the latter half of the nineteenth century and the Warder's House is the most intact surviving feature from the Gaol complex.

The house's significance is increased by the fact that it was built by prison labour.

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

Lyttelton Gaol had a number of remarkable men as Gaoler. Edward Seager, gaoler from 1862-5, strongly advocated the removal of "lunatics" from gaols and promoted the concept of separate asylums. He became the first superintendent of the Sunnyside Asylum, which he governed with enlightened views. James Reston, gaoler from 1855-62, and 1865-76 was concerned about many aspects of prisoners' welfare - the need for education, separation of first offenders from hardened criminals, etc.

The Warder's House's association with the Gaol links it to the changing attitudes over crime and punishment.

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

The house's architectural character, location and planning illustrate the life-style of settlers in the 1870s. Its historical and physical links to the gaol help to tell the story of that important institution.

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

The attractive styling of the house, its prominent site and its known links to the Gaol have made this property well known and highly regarded by the residents of Lyttelton. A leaflet available from the Lyttelton Information Centre includes information about this building, thus alerting its significance to visitors.

(f) The potential of the place for public education

Because of its prominent siting the house is clearly visible and explanations of its use can accompany any study of the Gaol's history. See (c).

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place

As the most intact surviving feature of the Gaol complex this house is an important representation of the discontinued institution.

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

N.A. Built in 1875 the house was part of the Gaol's development, but the Gaol itself began in 1851.

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

There is some doubt as to whether other houses built for warders survive in Lyttelton. A local historian is currently researching this. The Gaoler's report of 1902 (A.J.H.R.) refers to two cottages being built for warders, but a search of land office records has not yet been successful in identifying them. The subject house is of more substantial size, character and age than the latter "cottages" and is the only known house built in the 1870s for a gaol warder in the South Island.

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

The centre of Lyttelton retains a number of historic buildings and sites, and local residents are currently working on a proposal for this to be recognised as a registered historic area. The Warder's House is included as a feature on a historic walk leaflet.

As a major feature of the Lyttelton Gaol which was built on the northern boundary of the then Magistrate's Court, with the Police Station alongside, it was part of that precinct from the beginning. Today it neighbours the Gaol site, with the primary school, the former Magistrate's Court/Borough Council Building, and Police Station to the south, still forming a notable heritage precinct.


Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Lyttelton was the place designated by the Canterbury Association as the port, and initially the chief town, of the carefully planned settlement of Canterbury. Although Christchurch later became the principal city, Lyttelton grew to a much more sizeable settlement during the 1850s after the arrival of the first immigrants. The maintenance of law and order was an issue from the beginning, and make-shift lock-up facilities were soon replaced by more permanent premises. The gaol that developed in Lyttelton was to become the principal penal facility in Canterbury until 1915, when the Paparua Prison took over this role.

The site on which the gaol was located is central in the town and was originally designated as a market place, though never actually used as such. A plan drawn by Gaoler, James Reston, as part of his 1865 report to the Provincial Government, shows the layout of the gaol. In this year the average number of prisoners was 78, with a staff of one gaoler, one chief warder, eight warders, a matron and an overseer of works. Houses on the Oxford Street frontage of the gaol site were provided for the gaoler and the Chief Warder.

In 1870 Town Section 173, which neighboured the gaol's northern boundary, was purchased by the Provincial Government to allow for building extensions. Alterations and additions were considered necessary in order to organize a separation of prisoners within the confines of the gaol, as it was recognized that association with hardened criminals could have a detrimental impact on minor offenders. Major revisions were planned by Benjamin Mountfort and begun under his supervision in 1872. At that time, he was the Provincial Government's Architect, designing all the principal public buildings and making skilled use of concrete for the major institutions like the gaols here and at Addington, and the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum.

The date of construction is not known for the two houses shown on the 1865 plan of the Lyttelton Gaol, but it was considered that they needed replacement as part of the major upgrading of 1872. The new Gaoler's house, set on concrete foundations, was framed in timber, lined internally with concrete and clad externally with corrugated iron. It was well underway when described in the Lyttelton Times, 6th February, 1873. However by the end of 1874, Reston, the Gaoler, was concerned at slow progress with the rest of the building programme and Mountfort was asked by the Provincial Government to explain increasing costs and delays. In the report he wrote in February, 1875 he explained progress, the extra work required to create a stable dividing wall between the gaol site and the new school being constructed ( to his designs) on the southern boundary, and the constraints imposed by the need to retain decaying buildings in use until new ones were completed. He stated:

"We have moved across the yard the kitchen and dining shed, while to accommodate the Chief Warder's house the Government have rented a piece of land on the west side of Oxford Street, (the corner of Oxford and Winchester Street), to which the warders house has been moved during the erection of the new cells now in progress. All this necessarily makes the work more expensive".

The area of land leased by the Provincial Government was part of the ΒΌ acre section, TS 62, first owned by William Guise Brittan, (a notable early settler) then sold in 1860 to Jane Wormald (widow of an attorney for the Canterbury Association, never resident in New Zealand). It was divided into three parts, each with a small leased building. One part of the section was leased by a blacksmith from early in the 1850s until the 1870s. In November 1874, the Provincial Government arranged to lease the corner section, an area of 10.3 perches with a frontage of 42 feet to Oxford Street and a depth of 66 feet (12.8m x 20.1m) along Winchester Street. . In December 1883 this section was purchased by the Crown. It was ideally situated for use by gaol staff and for a brief period the head warder must have lived in his relocated house while his new residence was being constructed. Work at the gaol was described in an article in The Press, 24th August, 1875 and it explains the siting of the Chief Warder's house at the southern end of Oxford Street where it was in Reston's 1865 plan. "The building is of concrete, with stone dressings and will be a handsome edifice when completed." Historic photos of the gaol frontage confirm the description and location.


There has been debate as to whether the existing house at 39 Oxford Street is the building shown in Reston's 1865 plan and moved across the road in 1874. There is no photo of the gaol site showing the house to give an indication of its appearance. However, the dimensions for the first chief warder's house as shown on the plan are 30 by 14 feet (9.1m x 4.27m), much smaller than the present house which exhibits no evidence of enlargement. The area of the two storeyed section is 30 feet 6 inches by 16 feet (9.2m x 4.9m), so without the two rooms under the lean-to roof it is of similar size. However, details of finishing throughout the building are consistent with them being completed at one time and there is no sign in the internal framing that the rear two rooms were added later. It seems most probable that this house was constructed once the new Chief Warder's residence was completed on the gaol site and James Arnold, the current Chief Warder, had vacated the small building placed on the site temporarily. There is no reference in surviving records to indicate who designed the existing residence and though Mountfort was responsible for the new complex of buildings around the gaol itself, stylistic evidence does not indicate him as the designer. A pattern book design may have been utilized with prison labour undertaking the unskilled work supervised by Horation Henwood, the Gaol's Clerk of Works.

There is also no record in the gaol archives of who resided at 39 Oxford Street and there has been confusion over this issue, especially since a plaque was installed naming it the "Gaoler's House". More recently it has been suggested instead, that it was the Chief Warder's house. Clearly , the officer holding this title would have lived in the specifically built residence within the main gaol confines through the latter part of the 19th century. However, once street directories became more detailed in the early 20th century there are listings in Wise's New Zealand Directory that show the Chief Warder was living here from 1908, and this accords with the memories of older Lyttelton residents. In the final years of winding down, with the decision to close in 1915 and the gaol becoming empty in 1921, there would have been many changes in the use of the 1874-6 buildings and we are left to conjecture about the use of what had been designed as the Chief Warder's concrete residence. We can assume that the timber house at 39 Oxford Street was home to a warder of some seniority from the time of its construction. . By 1877, 13 officers controlled 105 inmates and a year later the number of warders had increased to 19. Accommodation could not be provided for all of these warders, though attempts were made to keep as many as possible on the premises or within close proximity of the gaol.

For a brief period after the last prisoners had been moved to Paparoa a section of the gaol was used as a police gaol. After unsuccessful attempts were made to sell the complex, agreement was reached with the Lyttelton Harbour Board for the purchase of all the demolished concrete from the site for use in harbour works. Ownership of the site was transferred to the Canterbury Education Board and the Lyttelton School was able to extend its playground once prison labour from Paparua had completed the demolition. For a time the Gaoler's house was retained as residence for the school caretaker. Across the road the house at 39 Oxford Street remained in Crown ownership but now under the responsibility of New Zealand Railways. In Wise's Street Directory for 1923 the house's occupant is shown as Edward J.Vine, Loco driver.

In 1962 the house went back into private ownership when it was sold to Martha Harkess, a widow. It was transferred to R.J. Hanson, seaman, in 1967, transferred again to Mavis E Boyd, housewife, in 1969 and in 1975 to J.S. Downie, watersider. Mr Downie sold the house early in 1997 and the new owner applied for Resource Consent to enlarge the house, almost doubling its existing size and adding a garage from the Winchester street frontage. The publicly notified application was greatly opposed by local residents for whom the house was regarded as one of the town's most important buildings and the application was turned down. At the end of that year the present owners purchased it and have carefully maintained its original form and character.

Physical Description

The two storeyed house faces Oxford Street and the gaol site across the road. On the ground floor are the four principal rooms in a square plan divided by the central passage from which the stair rises. The two front rooms, sitting room and bedroom, are mirrored on the upper floor by two further bedrooms, while the two rear rooms, kitchen and bedroom, are under the steeply sloping lean-to. The lean-to is extended on the northern Winchester Street side to accommodate the original pantry and scullery. Today the kitchen is located in what was the scullery and a bathroom is in the former pantry. To level the sloping site, a stone walled basement was built beneath the room at the south-west corner of the house. The basement is accessed from the exterior. Across the yard from the rear of the house is the former wash-house, complete with copper and tubs, with a flush toilet opening from it.

The house's form is tall and narrow with just the four rooms in the two storeyed section. The dominating form of the gables with their decorative barge boards is repeated around the upper section while the frontage is enlivened by the verandah. The decorative timber work has been well maintained, remaining intact. The scalloped detailing of the barge boards terminates with a diamond shaped motif which is repeated across the verandah. The southern gable is undecorated and there were no windows on this side of the building, presumably because it faced the worst of the weather. The present owners have been able to find a sash window of matching form and dimensions and have inserted this in the upper bedroom to allow a view over the harbour. This now completes the symmetry of the two storeyed section.

The central front door opens into a generous hallway with a timber archway separating the front section from the rear and screening the foot of the stairway. On the right is the parlour with its original timber framed fire place, backing on to the kitchen stove in the room beyond. A tall brick chimney serves these two fires and one in the upstairs bedroom. It makes a strong accent on the roof line with its three elongated, fluted chimney pots. Throughout the house the skirtings, window and door surrounds are well detailed and original. Walls were lined with scrim and wallpaper, later covered with wall board which has recently been removed.

Volcanic stone which was used for the many retaining walls built by prison labour around Lyttelton, forms the wall along the sloping Winchester Street boundary while concrete was used for the base of the decorative iron fence across the Oxford Street frontage and the imposing pillars which frame the gate way. A more durable stone was used for the many gutters laid around Lyttelton by prisoners and there is a well preserved section of this distinctive guttering along Oxford Street in front of the Warder's house.

Notable Features

Wash house and toilet at rear of house.

Stone retaining wall on Winchester Street boundary.

Low concrete wall and iron fence on Oxford Street boundary.

Construction Dates

1875 -

Original Construction
1875 - 1876

Former pantry in rear lean-to converted for use as bathroom.

1998 -
Re-roofing of corrugated iron roof, insertion of sash window (matching originals) in south wall of upper floor bedroom.

1998 -
Removal of cupboards, one at end of central passage and two flanking range in kitchen, all unsympathetic later additions.

Construction Details

Stone basement walls, timber framing and cladding, corrugated iron roof, with a section of corrugated iron cladding the southern wall of the two storeyed section.

Completion Date

12th July 2004

Report Written By

Pam Wilson

Information Sources

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR)

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives

Reports of the Inspector of Prisons, H20, 1876 to 1921

Archives New Zealand (Chch)

Archives New Zealand (Christchurch)

Canterbury Provincial Council records, File CP342c, Gaol Buildings, 1866-72; Files CP402-412, Inwards Letters.

Byles, 1992

Terry Byles, 'Reston's Hotel, The History of the Lyttelton Gaol', Christchurch, 1992

Gee, 1975

David Gee, The Devil's Own Brigade, A History of the Lyttelton Gaol, 1890-20, Wellington, 1975

Wises Post Office Directories

Wises Post Office Directories

1870 to 1923

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this 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.