The Billy Thomas Archive


Ashburton is known for its many beautiful houses – most in a Cape Cod style, designed from 1923 by local architect William ‘Billy’ Thomas (Born Wakanui 1891, died Ashburton 1967), who was later joined in practice by his business partner Garner Hannaford (Hank) Ward.

The Billy Thomas Archive is held at Ashburton Museum – it forms a unique collection providing design information about the buildings that Thomas worked on, alterations to designs during the process, and who the buildings were designed for.

The designs also give insight into the way that people lived. The use and names of rooms is different now, and where services are sited has changed. Houses no longer include a dairy, scullery, drawing room or maid room, or a designated room for coal. In Thomas’s earlier designs, toilets were sited at the back porch, in later designs the bathroom included a toilet. Details such as these show shifting use over time and would provide interesting comparison for current home owners.

The plans tell much about Billy Thomas, the man. They show his attention to detail and the care he took to ensure that each design element worked in harmony. Some are beautifully hand coloured, providing evidence of contemporary colour schemes and Thomas’s artistic vision. Others carry signatures or annotations by inspectors and tradesmen; the men that Thomas worked with.

They are also working tools, so signs of wear and the odd stain attest to their use on building sites.

The plans also tell of community needs. While Thomas is best known for his ‘Cape Cod’ homes, not all of his designs were grand: there are also a number of modest two-room cottages. The collection also includes public buildings such as public halls, churches, business premises and shops, and rather large buildings – the Ashburton Hospital and Borough Council building for example.

The Billy Thomas Archive

Sadly the collection is not complete. Some buildings have only a few items connected with their construction, or alteration. Some well-known Thomas buildings have no information at all – it is thought that Billy gave the plans to the owner after the construction was completed. The museum is keen to locate missing plans to ensure a complete record is kept of their whereabouts.

Regardless of its incomplete nature, the collection will provide a great resource for people researching their buildings, as well as those looking for insights into how buildings were constructed in the mid-century period. Some of the drawings show details of fireplaces, or window frames, while others are hand coloured drawings showing exactly what the house looked like from the outside.

The Donor

The Billy Thomas Archive was donated to Ashburton Museum by local business owner, Rodger Bradford. The Bradford Building team worked on construction of the new Ashburton Art Gallery and Heritage Centre on West Street. During construction they gained first hand insight into the behind-the-scenes areas of the museum, where collection stores provide optimum conditions designed to preserve collections for the future.

Mr Bradford had been given the design records by Thomas’s business partner Hank Ward in the mid-1980s, following a chance meeting with Ward at Auckland Airport. Seeing the new museum building going up prompted Mr Bradford to again consider the value of the records he had saved, and their future use and preservation. He recognised that they would hold great interest and value for members of the community.

Donating this material to the museum would ensure that the records were preserved for the future, but most importantly made accessible to the public. By being held at the museum, the collection was properly catalogued for the first time so that each record could be easily found. The designs were stored in purpose made drawers for easy access, with acid fee enclosures to preserve the contents.

Image captions:

  1.  Detail of hand coloured plan drawn by William Thomas. Cameron Street residence for EW Easterbrook Esq, 1923.©Ashburton Museum.
  2. Detail of plan drawn by William Thomas, including scullery and coal room. Ashburton residence for WH Woods, 20 February 1923.©Ashburton Museum.
  3. Billy Thomas and his wife c.1925.©Ashburton Museum.


Author: Tanya Zoe Robinson

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