Address: 134-144 Albany Street
Builder: James Small
Silverwood Terrace is the almost forgotten name of a row of houses in Albany Street, close to the university campus. Still further lost in history is the large and sprawling wooden home this name came from. Silverwood stood behind the terrace until its demolition in 1923.
Percival Clay Neill lived at the original Silverwood from 1872. His posthumous claim to fame is as the great-grandfather of actor Sam Neill, but in his own day he was one of Dunedin’s most successful merchants. Born in Belfast, Ireland, he founded Neill & Company, a firm that imported wines, spirits, and other goods. It later merged with R. Wilson & Co. to become Wilson Neill & Co. Neill was also the French Consul from 1873.
In 1877, Neill moved to Chingford, North East Valley. He subdivided the Silverwood property but kept the house as his town residence until 1882, when the solicitor Edward Chetham Strode purchased it. Around this time it was described as a thirteen-room house with ‘pantry, and cellar, stable, loose boxes, coach house, laundry, tool house, fowl house, and cow house. Water laid on to the house, stable, and garden’.
It was at Silverwood that Strode died of typhoid fever in 1886, at the age of 34. His wife, Jessie, left for England soon afterwards.
Later occupants of Silverwood included the warehouseman Allan Broad (1841-1930), who was manager of the Mutual Stores and a foundation member of the Hanover Street Baptist Church. He was followed by William Reid (c.1834-1909), a prosperous seed merchant turned florist, resident from about 1890 to 1898. Reid had worked at the Royal Norfolk Nurseries in England and had an international reputation as a collector of native ferns and shrub seeds, which he exported. His daughter, Annie Elsom, followed the same profession and became a successful businesswoman in Christchurch.
From 1898, Silverwood was the home of James and Elizabeth Small. Born in Forfar, Scotland, around 1843, James married the slightly older Elizabeth Gall at Dundee in 1873. The following year the couple arrived in Dunedin, where James became a successful building contractor. His first major project was the Dominican Priory in Smith Street, designed by Frank Petre and built between 1876 and 1877. The innovative use of poured concrete in this building is celebrated today, but Small’s contribution remains overlooked. Petre’s call for tenders specified a brick building, and Small submitted the only tender for concrete construction. This was identified as the more cost-effective option, and it seems likely concrete was Petre’s plan from the beginning, with the tenders for brick construction being called to determine an alternative price.
The collaboration continued. Other buildings designed by Petre and constructed by Small and his team included the Exchange Buildings on Liverpool Street (now Guardian Apartments), the Equitable Insurance buildings (Phoenix House), an office building for the Otago Harbour Board (Donald Reid Building), and the Catholic Basilica in Wellington.
Small was the main contractor for three buildings designed by Louis Boldini: the Grand Hotel, Butterworth Bros warehouse, and the AMP Society’s buildings. These were among the most impressive commercial buildings of Victorian Dunedin, each with an elaborate four-storey stone facade. They were notable for extensive structural use of iron and concrete, including concrete floors on iron joists.
Small built the six Silverwood Terrace houses next to his own home between 1902 and 1904. It is likely he designed them himself, as I have found no record of an architect’s involvement and the surviving plans show only sketchy drafting. The first building permit, issued in November 1902, was for the two houses closest to Clyde Street. The permit for the middle two houses followed in April 1903, and the final two were approved in November 1903.
Terraces were not typical of New Zealand housing, but they were relatively numerous in the urbanised environment of central Dunedin. More than twenty historic examples stand in the city today. The earliest dates from the 1870s and the latest from about 1914, by which time public transport and private cars were providing easier access to the suburbs, and blocks of flats were beginning to find favour. Usually built as investment properties or speculative builds, the grandest terraces were handsomely finished for a market that included working professionals and the genteel. At the other end of the spectrum were rough wooden tenements rented to the poor.
Silverwood Terrace, though not among most expensive, is one of the better examples. Built in brick, it has a neatly cemented street front, with exposed brickwork at the back and sides. Its style is plain and unfussy, with simple cornices and other mouldings, and a touch of the Italianate about it. Variations in the design contribute to a pleasing rhythm: the middle two houses have faceted bays grouped together at the centre, while the outer houses have square bays with the balconies grouped together. The overall effect is approximately symmetrical, although the houses at the Clyde Street end are narrower than the rest. The cast iron balcony railings are excellent examples of their type, and provide the most ornate features.
The terrace is sympathetic to the slightly older semi-detached houses next door, which date from about 1896. On the corner of Clyde Street a slightly later house with exposed brickwork, built in 1907, is also in harmony.
Each of the Smalls’ houses had a conventional floor plan. The two largest rooms were on the ground floor, with the one facing the street presumably intended as a parlour. A long hallway ran through to a single-storey extension at the rear, housing the kitchen and scullery. Stairs were at the centre and at right angles to the hall, due to the narrowness of the buildings. On the first floor were four bedrooms and a small bathroom. There were five fireplaces in each house. Toilets were in outhouses.
The houses remained in the ownership of the Smalls for nearly twenty years, and were sometimes referred to as Small’s Terrace. Neither this nor the Silverwood name appears to have remained in use for long. Street directories give some insight into the backgrounds of the Smalls’ first tenants. The heads of the households were two widows, a mechanical engineer, a storeman, a bootmaker with his own business, and a retired seedsman. Most stayed only a few years, but after her husband’s death Margaret Buchanan remained at no.136 until her passing in 1923, and John and Catherine Mitchell lived at no.140 until 1930.
Elected to the Dunedin City Council in 1905, James Small served as a councillor for thirteen years, as Chairman of the finance committee, and as an elected member of the Dunedin Drainage Board. He died at Silverwood on 3 March 1919, aged 75. The following day the flag of the Grand Hotel flew at half-mast, as a mark of respect to its builder. Obituaries describe Small as an unassuming, unostentatious, and capable man, who ‘worked hard and keenly in his own quiet way for the good of Dunedin as a whole’.
Elizabeth Small gave ‘unostentatiously to the poor and needy of the neighbourhood’ until her health declined. She died on 24 July 1923. The couple had no children and Elizabeth’s estate, with the exception of a few bequests to friends, was left to charity. Silverwood was demolished later that year, the Otago Daily Times recording that in the early days ‘it was among the most handsome residences in the city. But it did not escape the changes of time, and, after a period of retiring shabbiness, the last straw has been placed on the camel’s back and tenders for removal have been called.’
The Silverwood Terrace houses went to auction in 1925. Notices described them as being of superior construction, and no.134 as a ‘splendid double-storey brick residence, containing 7 commodious rooms, bathroom, hot and cold water, washhouse, copper and tubs, and conveniences; handsome appearance; freehold section’.
The main outward change in recent years has been the replacement of wood-framed sash windows with aluminium framed ones, but the original style and glass remains on one of the houses. A uniform colour scheme helps to show off the architecture. The houses are now student flats, and according to the Dunedin Flat Names Project, no.138 has been known as both ‘Wards Manor’ and ‘Mope on in’. Perhaps the old name ‘Silverwood’ might again become familiar.
Otago Daily Times 2 February 1872 p.2 (birth of Neill’s daughter), 5 November 1874 p.1 (reference to house as ‘Silverwood’), 16 March 1897 p.4 (Reid’s advertisement), 4 March 1919 p.6 (James Small obituary), 6 March 1919 p.5 (appreciation of Small); Evening Star 10 January 1873 p.2 (Mrs Neill’s advertisement),), 27 February 1878 p.3 (subdivision), 2 March 1882 p.3 (sale of Silverwood), 15 March 1886 p.3 (Mrs Strode), 27 February 1906 p.5 (reference to Small’s Terrace), 18 October 1909 p.4 (death of William Reid), 4 March 1919 p.6 (James Small obituary), 6 March 1919 p.5 (appreciation of James Small), 10 March 1919 p.6 (tribute to Small), 23 July 1923 p.8 (Elizabeth Small obituary), 4 September 1923 p.6 (demolition of Silverwood), 5 September 1925 p.24 (sale of properties), 23 April 1930 p.7 (Allan Broad obituary); Lyttelton Times 6 January 1886 p.4 (Strode obituary); Otago Witness 28 December 1920 p.53 (correction).
Directories (Stone’s, Wises, and telephone)
Dunedin City Council Archives, including building register, permit plans, and drainage records
Death registration of James Small
Thank you so much, I really enjoyed reading this in ODT
Thanks Gloria. I have more room here so have included some extra info.
Great reading David. Its amazing how many times one drives by these terraces and hardly notices them. Not any more! Interesting also to see how close Silverwood was to the water’s edge and the substantial mark James Small left on Dunedin.
I pass the terrace every work day and enjoyed finally satisfying my curiosity! It would be good to delve further into Small’s work with the Drainage Board, which seems to have started out with controversies and where it looks like he made a big impact in his own quiet way. Thanks Richard.
David, don’t ever stop! I find these articles both fascinating and stimulating…and when I visit Dunedin, I often look out for the buildings you’ve researched.
Cheers Phil – your kind words are much appreciated. I haven’t had much time for blogging this year but there’s lots more I’d like to write about here.
A lovely set of graceful homes – I love the elegant wrought iron!
Thanks as always for your interesting articles.
Compliments of the season to you.
Thanks Valerie – Merry Christmas.
Interesting; from that date they are very much like plain versions of what might have been built 20 years earlier (at least here in Melbourne) – there are Victorian elements, name the cast-iron, and the door surrounds, but nothing that looks like Edwardian detailing; at first I thought they were maybe 1880s but had the decoration knocked off. Another oddity, the second last ones at each end have a second door – part of the conversion to flats ?
I suppose the old-fashionedness (for Dunedin also) makes more sense in the context of their being designed by a 60-year-old no-nonsense builder. He was a Scot, and they remind of some terraces in Edinburgh but with balconies, so perhaps that’s another influence. The additional doors in fact front lanes running between the pairs of houses, linking the street to the back yards.
I really enjoy the information given on this site and appreciate the efforts that have gone into research.
Thank you Jo.
Hi David, It’s really interesting to learn about such buildings and their stories, and to read others’ comments. I’d never heard of Small, nor of his links to Petre and Boldini. Keep it up!
Thanks very much Athol – I enjoy the comments too. Small rarely seems to get a mention while the architects get all the glory. I haven’t found anything else pulling together his work since he died nearly one hundered years ago. He doesn’t even make it to Heritage New Zealand’s web listings, although those particular buildings are yet to get fuller updated reports. I wonder if he was involved with Woodside, H.S. Chapman’s concrete house on Lovelock Avenue (another Petre). So far I haven’t been able to find out who built that.
Thank you so much for presenting this research. I also wonder if Woodside and The Cliffs (Cargill’s Castle) are also his work, given his connection to Petre? There is some support for The Cliffs being his, and I note that in the call for tenders (4-8 June 1875) Petre also stipulates a masonry building.
Thanks Max. I wondered the same thing, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t find any documentary evidence one way or the other. It would definitely make sense and I’d be very interested in any information that came to light.
My great Uncle Peter Lyders was adamant that James Small was the building contractor for The Cliffs (Cargill’s Castle) but we don’t have any documentation to prove it decisively. Peter’s father, Frederick Lyders, was prominent in the building industry in Dunedin from the mid 1870s until the 1920s and a friend of Frank Petre. The Lyders family occupied Cargill’s Castle from c.1907-c.1921
That’s a great reference! Thank you Adair. Small doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves (almost none in anything published since his death) so it would be great if his role in other projects could be pinned down. Frederick Lyders’s name is familiar from a number of projects – do you have any family photographs of buildings he worked on?
I found an interesting reference in Wynn-Williams’s thesis (1982): ‘Since writing this chapter I have heard that the son of the major contractor to work on this [the Dominican] convent claims his father designed the whole convent and was responsible for the direction of the concrete work. The fact that Petre’s claim to the design, as published in newspapers such as The Illustrated New Zealand Herald, 23.4.1878, p.6 was unchallenged suggests the claim on behalf of Mr J. Small is unsubstantiated. However, I was unable to further research this controversy in the time remaining to me.’ There is obviously something wrong with the claim, not least because to my knowledge the Smalls never had any children, but it possibly hints at some actual significant role in the design work. Perhaps more clues will surface.
Thanks David – this was so cool to read.
I lived at 134a (upstairs) from 1973-78 just before I turned five. There was a lovely house behind them then. Owned by the publisher that had the Siamese cat logo down by Queens Gardens – McIndoe- they were super kind people.
Thanks Gypsy, it’s always great to hear these personal connections.