Dunedin’s first state house

Built: 1937
Address: 11 Wilkinson Street, Liberton
Love Construction Co. Ltd

For this post I set myself the challenge of finding Dunedin’s first state house. By state house, I mean a residence from the housing scheme of the first Labour Government of 1935 to 1949.

The state did have a go at social housing earlier in the century. Twenty houses were built at the Windle Settlement in Belleknowes under the Liberal Government’s Workers’ Dwelling Act of 1905, and another eleven houses were built in Dunedin under the 1910 Act, but these projects never developed into the ambitious schemes that had been intended. Meanwhile, the Railways Department had a history of building housing for its workers, and local councils also developed schemes. The Dunedin City Council built rental houses for low-income families in Clyde Street in the 1920s, and in the 1930s it subsidised private housing developments, with 270 houses built when land was opened up at Clyde Hill in 1937.

The housing crisis of the early 1930s was made worse by the Great Depression, with some low-income urban families living in slum-like conditions. Michael Joseph Savage’s Labour Party came to power in the 1935 general election. The party’s electoral platform for housing was modest (chiefly extending state loans already in place), but in their 1936 budget the new government declared plans to build 5,000 state rental houses throughout New Zealand. John A. Lee, who had himself been raised by a solo mother in squalid conditions in Dunedin, was Under Secretary to the Minister of Finance and had the responsibility of overseeing the state housing scheme in its first years. By 1939, fifty-seven state houses were being completed every week and over 30,000 state houses would be built by the time Labour left office in 1949.

A leaflet from Labour’s 1938 election campaign. Ref: Eph-A-NZ-LABOUR-1938-01-010. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23034888.

The first state house developments in Dunedin were at Pine Hill and Wakari. Corstorphine is probably the suburb most associated with this type of housing in Dunedin, but it wasn’t developed until the 1940s. Newspapers from early 1937 refer to a proposed new settlement Liberton in Pine Hill, which apparently took its name from a place in Edinburgh. This may have been due to its association with a local identity, but there also was a default way of finding new names in Dunedin: look at a map of Edinburgh and see what hadn’t been used! Intriguingly, the name of the original Liberton is widely said to have been a corruption of ‘Leper Town’, as a leper colony was supposed to have been sited there. This theory now appears to be discredited and the name may come from the Old English words hlith (hillside) and beretun (barley farm). Three new streets in the Dunedin settlement were arranged in a horseshoe fashion on former Otago Education Board land. They were named after past secretaries of the Board: James Wilkinson, Patrick Pryde, and John Hislop.

A contract to build the Dunedin houses was awarded to the Love Construction Company in April 1937 and soon a small army of construction workers was at work on Pine Hill. Sixty-four dwellings were constructed. The houses were of similar finish with tile roofs and brick exteriors, and the trademark square-paned casement windows, but the designs were varied. The Evening Star noted that Liberton ‘was not being built to a definite geometric pattern, and cannot be criticised on the grounds that every house is exactly similar to its neighbour’. Some local real estate agents were doubtful that the scheme would succeed in such a location. ‘What is the use’, said one, ‘of houses carrying a low rent if they are so far out of the town that the occupiers will have to spend a large sum every week in bus fares?’. For this reason they suggested Green Island, with its easy access to the railway.

On 18 September 1937 New Zealand’s ‘first state house’, at 12 Fyfe Lane in Mirimar, Wellington, was officially opened by the Prime Minister. At the same time, houses in Liberton were already nearing completion, with roofing and glazing completed on some of them, but none were occupied until March 1938. Factors contributing to this may have included the logistics around services for the scheme, or drawn out application processes for tenancies.

So which house was the first? To be consistent with the acknowledged first state house in Wellington, I looked for the first house tenanted in Dunedin. The Otago Daily Times and Evening Star newspapers recorded that the first tenants moved in on 1 March 1938 and featured photographs of their house, though without naming the street or number. After taking a look around the area, I have identified the house as 11 Wilkinson Street.

11 Wilkinson Street on its completion.

Moving in day at 11 Wilkinson Street, 1 March 1938.

Who lived here? Electoral rolls and directories record that the first couple to live at no.11 were Alf and Beryl Seamer. Beryl was 28 years of age, and Alf was a 32-year-old civil servant who worked for the Department of Agriculture. I checked the Pine Hill School records but the Seamers did not have children enrolled there. They remained in the house until 1942, when they moved to the North Island (where they had come from originally). Bill and Esma Lobb were the next to move in and they stayed at the address until 1950.

These days Pine Hill is a mixed area including state houses, ex state houses, and newer private dwellings. The earliest houses are mostly grouped together in Dalmore. As in many suburbs, there are fewer shops than there used to be but there is still a dairy. There are two schools (one state, one private) and two churches (Presbyterian and Anglican). In recent years local gang tensions have sometimes made the news. Wilkinson Street is an appealing spot with its sunny outlook, semi-rural views, and some established trees. Some houses appear down at the heel, but others look lovingly maintained. Where Corstorphine has more of the later weatherboard designs with more uniformity, there is a nice variation on a theme here. Considering the large number of state houses that have been sold under different administrations since the 1990s, I was a little surprised to find that Housing New Zealand still own 11 Wilkinson Street. Of the twenty-eight original state houses in the street, five are still owned by the Crown corporation. No.11 looks mostly original from the outside, although one of the gable ends has been reclad and false shutters at the front have been removed. I hope it will be preserved – sometimes, modest little buildings are more significant than appearances suggest.

A White’s Aviation aerial view of Liberton taken in April 1947. Pine Hill School is at the centre. Ref: WA-06367-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/30652431

Newspaper references:
Otago Daily Times, 8 April 1937 p.12 (‘The Liberton project – its success doubted’), 19 April 1937 p.10 (Dunedin contract let), 31 August 1937 p.4 (progress), 2 March 1938 p.4 (‘Liberton homes – first tenant moves in’).

Other references:
Findlay, Michael. Dunedin Contextual Thematic History. (Dunedin City Council, 2009).
O’Brien, Rebecca. First State House. (New Zealand Historic Places Trust register entry, 2002).
Schrader, Ben. We Call it Home: A History of the State House in New Zealand (Auckland: Reed Books, 2005)

Thanks to the Dunedin Public Library for access to their newspapers for photography.

26 thoughts on “Dunedin’s first state house

    1. Brian Carnahan

      Great reading of the history of the State housing. My father may have worked on some of those houses in Dunedin as he was a carpenter with O’Connell McEwan.

  1. Brent McKenzie

    I lived in Mayfield Avenue in Wakari. It was a State house area and my house was built in 1936. When I opened a wall up there was a date written by a builder or brickie on the chimney bricks March 1936. Unfortunately that chimney and the record has been removed by later owners.

    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks Brent – that was an interesting discovery you made! There’s something not quite right there though and I wonder if an 8 (1938) looked like a 6. The Government passed its budget in August 1936 and the scheme took a while to implement. There was a fairly elaborate ceremony for the opening of the country’s first state house in Wellington in September 1937. Wakari was developed at the same time as Liberton, with the purchase of land there reported in June 1937. A contract to build seven houses in Mount Street was let in August of the same year. If you give me the street number for your old house I might be able to trace the permit for its construction.

      The first state house in Wakari (as identified by K.C. McDonald in 1965) was something of a special case. 139 Helensburgh Road was built for the Johnson family, who were famous for the ‘Johnson quads’ born in 1935. I’ve found that they moved in on 1 March 1938, the exact same day that the Wilkinson Street house was occupied! So perhaps the two houses should be considered first equal, but as the Liberton house was a standard part of the scheme, and largely complete by August 1937, I still give it a slight edge.

    2. Brent McKenzie

      Thanks for all that, really interesting. I knew about the house in Helensburgh Road, it’s large. I was 55 Mayfield Avenue, Lot 8 deposited plan 7073 Area 698sq metres C/T 2D/1296. Originally tenanted by Pollocks I think who then swapped for a bigger house in Greenhill Avenue with Mrs Smith from whom I bought it.
      Kind regards

  2. Dan

    Very interesting read! I happened upon it while looking for historical photos of Pine Hill/Liberton. I now occupy 45 Wilkinson.

  3. Jen Rouse

    Hi David,
    I just stumbled across your post and found it very interesting. I’m currently researching my ancestor, Catherine Johnson, mother of the Johnson quads! She’s a cousin of my Nanna, Maureen Johnson, and she’s one of a number of family members who emigrated to New Zealand and Australia from England at various points in the 20th century (we also count the first governor of Papua New Guinea and his wife, a nurse who set up the country’s first blood bank, among our relatives). I’m about to have a baby come April, and my family mentioned something about a distant cousin having quads in New Zealand in 1935, which started me googling. What an amazing woman, and quite an inspiration! She and the quads all bear a striking resemblance to my family. There’s some mention of their ‘model house built specially for them’ here:http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/51587237 which might interest you if you haven’t already seen this article. Apparently it had all mod cons! I do hope it’s still standing, would be wonderful to visit it someday.
    Warm wishes from Hastings on the south coast of England,
    Jen Rouse.

    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks for that Jen – it’s great to hear of your family links. That Women’s Weekly article is interesting, and I see the quads room is described as a dormitory rather than a bedroom! The house is still standing at 139 Helensburgh Road.

    2. Jen Rouse

      That’s nice to hear! I looked it up on google maps but it was hard to tell if it was the original house, as the property is well screened with trees.

      By the by, I also discovered yesterday that there were possibly a further set of quads further back in that family. I found a book called ‘Quadruplets and Higher Multiple Births’ By Marie M. Clay, who corresponded with the quads and their mother:

      ‘The mother, Mrs Catherine Johnson, aged 81 at the time these notes were compiled, added an interesting comment on her family history. Her mother’s maiden name was Wroblenski and her grandparents came to New Zealand from Poland. Her great uncle remembered a family funeral in Poland, which he recounted to her. It took place sometime between 1930 and 1870, at a big church. Four white coffins were laid out with four babies in them. It was assumed that they had been a quadruplet set.’

      As far as I’m aware the Johnson quads were all healthy though. Vera had some kind of special needs and lived in a home, but otherwise they all thrived.

  4. Elaine Joseph [ nee Ovens]

    My family lived in Hislop Street next to the park from about 1942 or 3 until about 1951. We were the second family to occupy this house and after us came the Taylor family who moved from the house next door. Our family outgrew this house (I’m the eldest of seven children) and we moved to a brand new state house just a few metres away in the new street named Allenby Avenue, number 34. My parents eventually bought it as by then the government had a very generous policy in place which made ownership possible.

    My grandparents, Jack and Minnie Ford (nee Driver), owned the dairy farm in Pine Hill Road across from the school. I attended Pine Hill School from primer one until standard six then off to O.G.H.S. for next four years. The new Northern motorway cuts through the former farm, more state houses were built on his property, e.g. Hillary Street, and the new infant block for Pine Hill school built on the site of his cow sheds and barns.

    What happy, happy days they were. Pine Hill has so many great memories for me so thanks for this wonderful website which I came upon so by chance.

    1. Alan McRobie

      Hi Elaine:
      Yes, I remember you and your grandparents! My parents lived in the house at 25 Wilkinson Street – next to ‘the gully’ from 1838 until 1983. They were the first occupants and bought the house at the end of 1950. I, too attended Pine Hill School – Miss Bremner, new entrants to Std 2, a PA in Standard 3, and Davey Pringle for my final years. That was before the big post war housing boom that you mention. Then on to OBHS and teachers college.
      At my younger daughter’s insistence I have written something akin to memoirs of my life and career (not publicly available). I devoted one section to early days in Liberton. About 6 months ago I revisited Liberton and was very surprised indeed to note that the original settlement (known originally as ‘Liberton Township’ was remarkably little changed from when I lived there – even the nine car garages almost across the road from your original home in Hislop Street are still there and appear to still be used. The school’s a bit of a tragedy though. It has shrunk back to its pre 1950 size (apart from the hall and the Hislop Street classrooms built in the 1950s. It has lost its pristine white colour and red roof and, I understand, its roll is down under 50.

  5. dopamine66

    Despite another really interesting post David, I must protest your dismissal of the houses built on the Windle Settlement at Belleknowes as somehow not qualifying for the title of Dunedin’s first ‘state’ housing. The Windle scheme may not have become as grand a project as was envisaged, but the houses were built and one, or some, of them must have been first! Two great, great uncles of mine each successfully applied for one of the Windle settlement allotments (Albert Line Quennell – Allotment 49 and William Bruce Quennell – Allotment 54) from the Otago Land Board in May 1907. However, by this time, several houses already had their tenants in situ according to a report in the Otago Daily Times of March 9, 1907: ‘Of the 20 workmen’s dwellings at Windle Settlement, erected and in course of erection, only two are tenanted, One more will be occupied to-day, and another one, the fourth, within a few days’. I can find no further evidence of which two allotments first welcomed their new owners or indeed which of the houses were built first but I suspect a number of them were built concurrently. Surely they qualify for the title of Dunedin’s first state houses – clearly nearly 30 years prior to your nominations!

    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks for your comment – it wasn’t my intention to be dismissive and if I explain myself I hope you’ll agree that I wasn’t. A lot has been written about the Windle Settlement and its significance, which I wouldn’t dispute for a second. I try not to go over old ground much in these posts, and this one was about exploring the first ‘state houses’ under the scheme begun in the 1930s, which is less well covered (in a Dunedin context). I did acknowledge Windle and could have inserted more qualifiers (perhaps I should have) but I didn’t think it was necessary as long as I made it clear what I was looking at. The Windle houses are certainly ‘state housing’ but at the same time the popular term ‘a state house’ was not in use at the time and is generally understood to refer to something else. I did think about this when writing the post, and if I had written about Windle, I would probably even have headed it ‘Dunedin’s first state housing’. It’s a fine distinction I know, but I hope you’ll see that I wasn’t dismissing Windle, just exploring the archetypal ‘state house’. The family history you give is very interesting!

  6. dopamine66

    Very clear explanation David – I didn’t take your intention to be dismissive at all – sorry, my ‘protest’ was meant to be a very light hearted one fuelled with the delight I had in finding some concrete evidence of a part of my family’s emigration to Dunedin. Please forgive a relatively ignorant ‘foreigner’ – love the excellent research you undertake for this blog!

  7. Nevile Colley

    I like to see who lived in No 16 Blundell Street, Liberton, Pine Hill. I have been here for 26 years,

    1. David Murray Post author

      From what I can tell the first occupants of 16 Blundell Street, about 1952, were Ian Stanley McColl (1924-2011) and his wife Marjorie Eleanor née Lind (1922-1993). Ian was a tram conductor and then a bus driver, before he trained to become a school teacher. Later in his career he was a principal, at Kilburnie (Wellington), Melville Park, Oamaru Intermediate, and briefly Dunedin North Intermediate before he retired in 1984.

  8. Kj

    Don’t know when this was posted but current occupant is myself everything is still Original in the inside except for a shower head installed recently over bath. But old houses come with old pipes and looking like government believe it’s time to sell. Due to being so old pipes are unable to be fixed or replaced without knocking out the brick of the side of the house.


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