Address: 311 Leith Street
Architect: T.B. Cameron (c.1837-1894)
Builder: Norman Wood (c.1840-1907)
This house stood for over eighty years near the corner of Leith and Union streets, on part of the site now occupied by University College. Another design by T.B. Cameron, it was built for Captain Angus Cameron (probably no relation), Chief Marine Superintendent of the Union Steam Ship Company.
Captain Cameron (1829-1909) had a long career at sea and as a ship owner. He had commissioned the construction of Otago, a vessel which later came under the command of the writer Joseph Conrad, and also the Wakatipu, a ship for the trans-Tasman route which he commanded for two years before taking his post with Union Company, then the largest shipping company in the Southern Hemisphere. In later decades he spent much time in Scotland overseeing the construction of new ships for the company. The largest of these was the 5,000-tonne Maheno (1905), one of the world’s first triple-screw liners.
Captain Cameron’s first wife died in 1865 and he married his second, Annie, on 24 April 1882. He was 53 (although his age was recorded as 45 on the marriage certificate) and she was 25. The house in Leith Street was completed around the time of their marriage, with papers now held in the Hocken Collections showing that they were busy furnishing it in May, with such things as a mahogany dining suite, a marble washstand, Brussels carpets, and crimson draperies. The builder of the house was Norman Wood, Mayor of West Harbour, and the build price (in the contract dated 23 August 1881) was £1,323. The house was named Appin after Captain Cameron’s birthplace.
Appin was an Italianate villa of rendered brick built to a fairly conventional double bay pattern but with quite elaborate decoration. The pairs of spindly pilasters flanking the windows were used by the architect in some of his other designs, as were the bracketed chimney caps. Also notable are the quoining, the balustrades above the bays, and the delightfully florid bargeboards. The Palladian (or Serlian) window above the front door was a distinctive touch that doesn’t appear on the surviving drawing of the front elevation.
Some grand functions took place at Appin and on one occasion in 1908 both Martinelli’s Band (the leading dance and social event ensemble of the time) and a fortune teller were installed on the lawn.
Captain Cameron died in 1909 and Mrs Cameron remained in the house until her death on 25 February 1949 at the age of 92. Her son Percy then leased (and later sold) the house to the University of Otago. For two years it was the home of Noel Odell, the new Professor of Geology, who had become famous as a member of Mallory’s ill-fated expedition to Everest in 1924. Odell and his wife didn’t much like Appin, or Varsity House as it was renamed, as it had become rather run-down. From 1952 it housed the Department of English and was known as Cameron House. The Bibliography Room Press (now Otakou Press) was established in an old wash-house at the rear of the house in 1961.
The English Department moved to the new Arts Block in 1965 and Cameron House was demolished between December 1965 and January 1966 to make way for the new University College buildings.
Image credits: Cameron family papers, Hocken Collections, MS-1046/452 (S12-614). Muir & Moodie photographers.
Newspaper references: Otago Daily Times, 13 August 1881 p.4 (call for tenders); Otago Witness, 18 November 1908 p.72 (‘At Home’)
Other references: Cameron family papers, Hocken Collections, MS-1046/015 (financial papers and contracts), MS-1046/667 (front elevation drawing). University of Otago Records of Registry and Central Administration, AG-180-005/006 (Works Committee minutes), AG-180-31 (general files).