On Saturday 31st October, 2015, our group travelled south to the Tophouse Hotel to meet with the St Arnaud history group led by Chris Richards.and Helen Campbell to learn more about the area and the historic hotel – now for sale.
After being treated to an excellent morning tea, Helen talked to us about the accommodation houses which had been established in the area from the earliest times of European settlement.
The current hotel is not the first and only but the fourth to serve the needs of the drovers and travellers moving between Beavertown (Blenheim) Canterbury, the West Coast and Nelson.
Helen spoke of the “master builder in cob”of Tophouse, Ned James, and described the method he used: not clay bricks or rammed earth in wooden forms but by simply piling up the wet clay from the foundation which meant that the walls had to be wider at the bottom and narrowed in at the top. It has certainly stood the “test of time” having survived both the Murchison and Inangahua earthquakes without any apparent damage.
“The hotel was completed for the Longneys in 1888 “in the middle of winter” and “dancing went on all night”. In the morning 17 inches of snow and 2 miles of downed telegraph wires to Rotoiti meant that William White and many others of the dancing party were marooned. White made temporary repairs to the lines in his party clothes and many wore William’s spare clothes – quite a sight as he was a very short man! The party went on as they were snow bound for a week with dancing every night with musicians.” (Helen Campbell from her text ‘Tophouses’)
Ned James constructed many of the accommodation houses in Nelson and Marlborough, including Tophouse, Rainbow, Tarndale and Acheron (Homestead 1862/63- built with tussock-thatched roof with beech rafters tied with flax) and the Molesworth Cob Cottage 1885.
He had been at various times a ships builder/carpenter, blacksmith, house builder, stationhand and rope maker.
The group expressed their concerns about the future of the hotel, which is currently for sale, and how it might be managed and run as a focal point for the history of the area.
Helen’s talk was followed by one from a local archivist who explained how she was gathering together and storing archival material from the area in a room which had been set aside next to the hall in the St Arnaud village.
After lunch we visited the earlier sites and an old school building where one of our members, Neil Puklowski, had attended primary school.
It was a sunny, clear and warm spring day and everyone left with a better appreciation of the history of the area and one of the oldest buildings in the district.
Helen Campbell for her information on the history of the Top Houses
Nelson Provincial Museum for the Photograph of Ned James.