The lost gardens of Karori

Stone lion, homewoodHappy New Year everyone!  Looking through my New Year’s resolutions for 2013, just about the only one I kept was starting up this blog.  It’s been far more absorbing and enjoyable than I imagined when I wrote that resolution and it’s been great to have so much positive feedback and encouragement – thank you!

In this post, I write about two once very well-known Karori gardens – Donald’s Tea Gardens and Homewood.  It’s been the time of year for charity open gardens which gave me the opportunity to explore what remains of both of them.  This was going to be a fairly short post – but the more I looked into them and their history, the more there seemed to be to say…

The Karori Lions ‘Super Garden Trail’ at the end of November included two gardens that were originally part of Donald’s Tea Gardens.  These gardens, situated between what is now Campbell and Donald Streets in Karori, were  a very popular weekend excursion for Wellingtonians for most of the second half of the 19th century.  The thirty acres of plant nursery and gardens were established by Scottish immigrant and nurseryman Robert Donald in 1853.  The 1897 Cyclopedia of New Zealand describes the gardens as having fish ponds, summer houses, childrens’ swings, a boating lake, croquet and tennis courts, and an ‘endless profusion’ of flowers.  Teas were served on the verandah of the house and honeymooners were able to stay overnight.

Robert Donald's holly hedges, Donald Street

Robert Donald’s holly hedges, Donald Street

Robert Donald planted ‘grand and sombre’ holly hedges to provide shelter from the Karori northerlies for his flower displays and some of these holly hedges remain in the first garden we looked at on Donald Street.

Part of the gardens were sold off in the early 1900s, and what was left, along with the Donald House was bought by the newly-married Dr Daisy Platts-Mills and her husband.  Dr Daisy Platts-Mills sounds like a remarkable character.  She was one of New Zealand’s first female doctors, the first female doctor in private medical practice, and the first doctor to live and practice in Karori.  She was highly active in the community, serving on numerous committees.  Among other things, she was a champion for women’s and girls’ health issues, gave her services to striking watersiders in 1913, and was thanked by the Karori Borough Council for her dedicated work in the Karori community during the 1918 influenza epidemic.  I’m not sure how long the Platts-Mills lived at Donald’s Tea Gardens, but it could be that their son, John Platts-Mills, another interesting character, was born there in 1906.  John Platts-Mills became a socialist and trade union campaigner in the UK. He was recruited by Churchill to set up Soviet friendship committees when the Russians became UK allies during WWII, served as a Labour MP after the war, and later became a barrister – his cases included the appeal of the Great Train Robbers and the Kray twins.

The Platts-Mills kept the gardens open, but these had fallen into disrepair by the end of World War I.  The house was demolished in the 1930s and the land was subdivided and sold.

There do not seem to be many photographs of the gardens still in existence.  The only one I could find online was of this rather bizarre umbrella competition, but this gives little sense of the what the gardens were like.

Umbrella competition, Donald's Tea Gardens

Umbrella competition, Donald’s Tea Gardens – see below for reference

From the Donald Street garden, we cut through into another garden which also formed part of Donald’s Tea Gardens.  There are several large trees in this garden – including lime trees and some native trees – which would have been in the original gardens.  Refreshments were being served on the verandah of the house and a brass ensemble was playing, much in the spirit of the Tea Gardens.

Donald's Tea Gardens

Exotic and native trees in remnant of Donald’s Tea Gardens

Sadly though, it seems that very little remains of features of the gardens described in the Cyclopedia.

Benjamin Sutherland at Homewood

Benjamin Sutherland at Homewood – see below for reference

A couple of weekends later, Homewood, the residence of the British High Commissioner, held its annual open day, a charity fundraiser for Save the Children.  In the 1920s, Homewood was bought by Benjamin Sutherland, the founder of the Self Help Cooperative grocery stores.  He and his wife Lucy created what seems to have been a rather whimsical garden here which was frequently open to the public for charity events.

I paid my gold coin donation and walked up the driveway past a collection of classic cars and plant stalls.  The house is an imposing and rather bizarre mixture of Edwardian villa and wooden gothic castle with its big bay windows, crenellations, and tower.  A few rooms were open and I milled around with my fellow Karori-ites in the baronial wood-panelled entrance hall complete with cake stalls and flute player.  Devonshire teas were being served out on the lawn.  I bought a couple of jars of home-made jam from one of the stalls, and went back out to explore the gardens.

Homewood cottage

The original Homewood cottage – see below for reference

Benjamin Sutherland was not the first person to create a garden at Homewood. Chief Justice Henry Samuel Chapman, Judge of the Supreme Court of the Southern Division of New Zealand, arrived in Wellington in 1843 with his wife Kate and young son Harry.  He bought the section on which Homewood stands, had a cottage built and created a farm and garden between 1844 and 1852. Although he cleared much of the bush, he left stands of some large native trees to create a ‘parklike’ setting.  Long before the days of Dr Daisy Platts-Mills, Kate Chapman was often called upon to help with minor medical problems in Karori, her husband referring to her as the ‘Frau Doctorium of this neighbourhood’.

Interestingly, Justice Chapman bought his section from another gardener, Alfred Ludlam.  Ludlam did not develop his Karori section, but established a farm and gardens in what is now Woburn in Lower Hutt.  Alfred Ludlam’s gardens later became McNab’s Pleasure Gardens which were the Hutt Valley equivalent of Donald’s Tea Gardens, and Ludlam was also instrumental in setting up and stocking Wellington’s botanic gardens.

Samuel Parnell

Samuel Parnell – see below for reference

Justice Chapman employed Samuel Parnell to build his cottage, the carpenter who set a precedent for the new colony in 1840 by refusing to work for more than eight hours a day, establishing a workers movement to ensure the eight hour day was upheld.  It was perhaps thanks to Parnell that the workers of Wellington had the leisure time to enjoy their picnic outings.

In 1852, Justice Chapman sold his house and land to John and Henrietta Johnston, a wealthy and well-connected merchant family.  The Johnstons were hospitable and community-minded people, and the house was frequently used for entertaining.  After John’s death, the house was taken on by their son Charles, who in 1889 became the first mayor of Wellington to be born in the city.

Wellington’s 50th Jubilee was celebrated on the lawns of Homewood with a picnic and dancing.  In 1903, Charles had the house largely rebuilt on a much grander scale.  He entertained regularly, holding picnics and garden parties.  Charles Johnston died in 1918, having lost two sons and a son-in-law in WWI.  His widow stayed on in the house, selling it in 1925 to a builder, Charles Pulley, who subdivided and sold much of the land, selling the house to Benjamin Sutherland and his wife Lucy.

Unlike the wealthy Johnston family, Benjamin Sutherland was a self-made man.  He worked for New Zealand Railways, where he set up a workers’ cooperative shop because he was concerned about rising prices.  This did not go down well with the Railways Department.  He went on to set up his self-help grocery stores in 1922 which were highly successful.  The stores sold goods at the lowest possible prices and he had generous benefit schemes for his staff.  Samuel Parnell would no doubt have approved, and maybe John Platts-Mills would have done too.

Conservatory, Homewood

Conservatory, Homewood – see below for reference

Homewood provided a retreat for Benjamin and Lucy Sutherland, and with a landscape architect and a large team of gardeners, they created their gardens. These were described in newspaper accounts as a ‘wonderland’, ‘a halcyon spot’ and ‘a reminder of fairyland’. A ‘winter garden’ conservatory was attached to the house with a fernery, waterfalls with coloured lights behind them, and tropical fish.  The gardens had a swimming pool, three walled gardens, ferneries, grottoes and glow worm caves.    There were also aviaries and a begonia house.  The Sutherlands seem to have been very fond of ‘little figures’, including gnomes, which were arranged around the garden – one account describes gnomes grouped around some tiny fountains, ‘watching with delighted attention balls kept in play by jets of water on which are played vari-coloured lights’.

The house and garden became run down after Benjamin Sutherland’s death and was sold to the British High Commission in 1957.  The winter garden had to be pulled down in the 1960s because it was in a poor state of repair, and apparently also provided a route for rats into the house.  The swimming pool is still there at the bottom of the lawn where the devonshire teas are being served, although it looks a bit small for the ‘fancy diving’ displays that were advertised in the 1930s.

I can’t see any sign of any gnomes or other figures on my exploration of the gardens however – maybe they were not judged to be in keeping with the residence of a British High Commissioner.  However there are four stone lions that were commissioned by Benjamin Sutherland – two standing guard near the driveway, and two more by a circular garden at the side of the house.  The circular garden looks much as it did in the time of the Sutherlands, although the fountain with coloured lights that Benjamin Sutherland could operate from his study has gone.

Homewood fountain

Homewood fountain – see below for reference

Homewood front lawn

… and without the fountain

The tennis courts and lawn also look much the same as in photographs of the time, although today a couple of large speakers are blasting out loud music in the tennis courts, and a couple of workers are starting to clear up games equipment.  The lawn in fact dates from the time of the Johnstons, when it was used for croquet, as does a heritage-listed summer house tucked away in one corner.  There’s also an impressive weeping tree with a knotted trunk at the end of the lawn, along with several other large trees, both native and exotic. The native trees could be among those that were spared when Justice Chapman cleared the bush.

Lawn at Homewood

Lawn at Homewood

Walking back up the lawn towards the house, I notice a little japanese bridge and pavilion to the side of the tennis courts which was there at the time of the Sutherlands.  I’m also pleased to see that the three walled gardens still exist, although the entrance to one is blocked by a traffic cone, presumably because it is in poor repair.  They are much smaller than I expected though and their high curving walls look odd, out of keeping with the formality of the lawns and borders.  Inside, they seem rather neglected.  It’s difficult to reconcile them with the breathless newspaper accounts of the time.

IMG_9361 IMG_9392 walledgdn crop

Back in front of the house, a schoolboy choir is singing and the plant stalls are being packed away.  I follow a steady trickle of people back down the drive as Homewood closes its gates until the next charity open day. In many ways, the gardens here do not seem to have changed significantly since the time of the Sutherlands – the British High Commission seems to have mostly preserved them as they were.  However, the things that made them remarkable to visitors at the time – the coloured electric lights, the fairytale figures and the glow worm caves – have disappeared.  But then these were all things that were perhaps of their time and I suspect that we are not so easily enchanted these days.

self help store


Karori Historical Society (2011) Karori and its people
King M (2003) The Penguin History of New Zealand
New Zealand history online, Samuel Parnell
Papers Past
Shepherd W (2000) Wellington’s Heritage: plans, gardens, and landscape
Smedley B (1980) Homewood and its families: a story of Wellington
Te Ara Enclyclopedia of New Zealand, Benjamin Sutherland
Te Ara Enclyclopedia of New Zealand, Daisy Platts-Mills
The Guardian, John Platts-Mills obituary

Photo References

Competition for the best decorated umbrella, Karori, Wellington. Cullen, H (Mrs), fl 1986 :Postcards of garden parties. Ref: 1/2-164704-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Benjamin Sutherland (1873-1949) in his garden at Homewood, Karori. Sutherland, Ben :Photographs of Benjamin Sutherland, 1873-1949. Ref: 1/2-199104-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Barraud, Charles Decimus, 1822-1897. [Barraud, Charles Decimus] 1822-1897 :Judge Chapman’s house, Karori. [ca 1850]. Ref: B-004-006. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Samuel Parnell. Wright, Henry Charles Clarke, 1844-1936 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-020462-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Conservatory interior at Homewood, Karori, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-038545-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Fountain in action, Homewood, Karori, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-038523-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Display of groceries in a shop front window(probably the Wellington branch of Self Help Co-op Grocery Ltd at 296 Willis Street)). Burt, Gordon Onslow Hilbury, 1893-1968 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-015562-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.