Historic Narrative for A Splendid Afternoon at Pavitt Cottage

Most of you will have now seen inside the beautifully restored home of the Pavitts; it will be open again for those of you who haven’t yet had a chance, after the auction. History on the Peninsula was made here at this cottage, so let me tell you its tale.

Its story begins in 1842, when Charles Barrington Robinson bought a piece of land in this Bay. Then, this whole valley, like the rest of the Peninsula was covered in almost impenetrably dense virgin forest. As Akaroa’s first magistrate Robinson had little time to make an impact on the Bay itself. His part in the story is really that of a catalyst, for it was he who brought the Pavitts to the Bay.

In 1849, Robinson was back in England, part owner of a ship called the Monarch, and bringing a party of British settlers to Auckland. That plan changed when the Monarch struck a violent storm off Tasmania and lost her rudder. The crippled ship battled on, and up the South Island coast, and then lost her anchor as well. Her attempts to make land were thwarted and the ship was nearly wrecked on dangerous rocks. When she eventually  made it to Akaroa, the passengers were nearly starving and in desperate fear of their lives and most of them decided to stay put. Amongst them were John and Elizabeth Pavitt with their 8 sons and 3 daughters, some adult, and Samuel Farr, the fiancÚ of their oldest daughter.

Samuel Farr climbed the hills behind Akaroa daily for a week and wrote:

"The panoramic bird’s eye view we had of the luxuriant and romantic country almost baffles description…Over the bay, the water without a ripple mirrored the forest covered mountains with their soft purple tints. A scene so exquisite and fascinating could never pall. We were charmed with all we saw: the vegetation in its primeval beauty: almighty giants of the forest overshadowing dainty ferns and delicate mosses; rippling streamlets winding in sweet cadence amid the forest trees…"

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This was taken from above the cottage Sept 2003. We can see what Samual Farr was talking about.

Within 25 years that forest was largely gone. The almighty giants scarfed, felled and milled to build Christchurch, the rest of the bush reduced to blackened ash. And it started here, in Robinson’s Bay when the Pavitts built the Peninsula’s first power sawmill designed by their talented son-in-law, Samuel Farr.

Farr had never designed such a machine before, and there wasn’t anything like it to copy in the whole of Canterbury, so he built a scale model first, and when that worked, he and the Pavitts, who were already in the process of purchasing Robinson’s land in the Bay and labouriously pitsawing timber, looked for a site where they could harness the power of the stream to start machine sawing the timber instead.

The site they chose was here. Farr and the Pavitts worked fantastically hard to build the power mill – a reservoir was formed, and a flume nearly 100 feet long constructed from it to feed the huge overshot waterwheel which they had made. The mill had only just started working, when a fire fanned by the Nor’wester came down the valley and consumed everything they had done– the mill, their house, all the sawn timber, and even their treasured piano brought out from England.

But the Pavitts had tasted success, and carried on with great determination. They rebuilt the mill and then this house. It is made of machined timber, presumably the first lot which came off the rebuilt mill. Men seeking work came to the valley, and undertook the immense task of cutting down every primeval giant by hand, sawing off the branches, cutting each trunk into lengths and dragging them down the steep hills with bullock teams. From the mill the sawn timber was carted to the beach and taken out by ship. The Pavitts built six of these as well in their time. And fire, fire which caused so much destruction to the first mill, was the only tool they had to clear the brush and the scrub. Dragging out the giant trunks by bullocks was one thing, but how else could they have cleared the mess left behind?

Then after 12 years of backbreaking pioneer work in the Bay, the Pavitts moved on. The energetic Thomas Hughes who had joined their partnership and moved into the house took over the Mill, but within a year a rogue log had killed him. The Mill was bought by a new partnership, Saxton and Williams who expanded the operation. They converted the Mill to steam and built a tramway down through the valley to speed the progress of the logs. The tram dyke can still be seen upstream from here. The valley bustled. Many Peninsula families, whose names we know today, started here as mill workers – the Currys, Kingstons, Pipers, Shadbolts, le Valliants, Kotlowskis. These people lived very simply – in the paddock across the road, the carpark, today, you can still see Kotlowski’s cottage – a pitsawn slab hut. This building which we see as a cottage was actually the big house, the Mill House, the heart of the Bay. Saxton and Williams built a shop and butchery on the back, they erected a school in the paddock, they put a school master’s house across the road.

By 1877, just 25 years after logging started, the Mill closed down. The bay was logged out. It had taken less than the working lifetime of one generation, less than the time some of us have lived here now, to strip the primeval forest from the Bay. At the same time, the human population had gone from a handful to a valleyful. Looking back now you ask how could they do it – they who had appreciated the beauty so much when they arrived. But then they had not come here seeking a haven of beauty, they had come with the dreams of pioneers, to make their fortunes, to create a new and better version of Europe in this land. They had cleared the land for farming and seen the great new city of Christchurch built from the timber of the Peninsula. And on the way, they had seen its beauty reduced to blackened ash and burnt stumps.

Now we see the landscape after over a century of recovery and evolvement. We are lucky enough to see the trees the settlers planted to remind them of home – the deciduous oaks and walnuts - in their maturity, which they never did. The native trees too have made quite a remarkable comeback in the gullies and slopes from the tiny remnants which were left. But the whares and cottages of the mill workers, those buildings hand crafted from the virgin timber of this Bay have gradually disappeared.

This house too might well have disappeared by now if it were not for John Fernyhough, a direct descendant of Mary Ann Pavitt and her husband Samuel Farr. John had long had a dream of owning this house and when he finally purchased it was very run down. John’s goal was to restore the cottage as much as possible to its original condition. He didn’t want to create a museum, but a comfortable holiday home where the descendants of the Pavitts could stay and connect with the lives their pioneer ancestors.. This difficult double goal he has managed very well. Harnessing the talent of local builder Kevin Templeton, the structure has been skilfully repaired; re-piled, re-wired, plumbed, insulated, fixed but not altered. Deciding what to do was like a treasure hunt at times – the discovery of old shingles under the rusty corrugated iron roof lead John to decide that painstaking job of re-shingling was worthwhile. Some modern comforts like a bathroom obviously had to be included, but choosing fittings and fixtures to keep the cottage with an old fashioned feel was part of the challenge and the fun of the restoration. Some of the best work here is the least obvious – take note of the very fine sashes of the windows. These are almost all new, constructed to match the originals, like the timber spouting and downpipes. The colour was chosen because scraping through layers of paint that seemed to be the closest to the original. The Pavitt home at the front is structurally unchanged and John agonised over a few compromises which have brought more light into the rooms at the back which were originally the shop. The result is a very sympathetic restoration.

We can celebrate today that because of John’s work the Mill house of his ancestors will stand as the historic heart of Robinson’s Bay for many many years to come, to remind new generations of the incredible bravery, determination and labour of these pioneers. But the story of the Pavitt House and its surrounding history also makes us think; about the environment each generation inherits and what kind of custodians we are in our own time and place. How appropriate then that we gather here to fundraise for our native tree reserve under these mature walnuts and at this house, now one of the last remnants of the virgin timber milled from the Bay.