Tough Lives in Early Homes

Renting a flat can be a massive headache – challenges often come in many forms such as appalling flatmates, black mould, inadequate insulation, and so on – but none of these come close to the hardships faced by early European settlers.

Polynesian settlers, upon their arrival in New Zealand, quickly utilised their prior knowledge of Pacific Island systems to establish themselves around key resource areas.

By the time of European settlement, Māori had mastered the land, centuries prior, while the new arrivals had little idea of what to expect in Aotearoa.

A 1946 documentary on New Zealand housing inspired me to consider early housing in this country, particularly the early settler houses of the early-mid 19th Century.

What was life like in the early huts that dotted Canterbury’s landscape? To what degree did these borderline shanties provide comfort for early European settlers? Literary accounts, photographs, and artistic depictions give us plenty of information to piece together an adequate vignette of early Canterbury life and its challenges.

1) Original sod homestead at Longbeach.png

Roughing it

Freda Morland recounts the experiences of her grandfather, Burton Shipley, in her book “Burton Shipley: A Canterbury Settler”. During his early years in New Zealand, Shipley lived at Snowdon Station in the Rakaia Gorge for a time, as well as on a farm up in West Melton. Morland claims that Shipley and his family would have lived in houses made of sod. These houses were not entirely weatherproof or suitable for all temperatures, which meant that harsh weather could lead to major hardship for settlers living in them, and attempts at gentility were often hampered.

Morland states, in reference to the family having to stay in one of these dwellings at West Melton, that “considerable hardships must have been endured there.”

One incident occurred at the residence involving a pig, which had rushed in as soon as Shipley’s mother had set the table, and to her grief the pig pulled the tablecloth off the table, smashing her irreplaceable dishes. We can only imagine how psychologically draining it would have been to live in such a house, and even more so if you were to lose sentimental items like this when you had little to begin with.

2) A primitive hut on Alford Run, 1860..jpg

The tyranny of distance

Isolation was a major issue for settler families such as the Shipley’s, because of the lack of opportunities to socialise with others and the distance from necessities, such as doctors’ practices and stores.

This harsh fact is demonstrated by Burton’s efforts to procure medicine for his sick family; Burton walked from West Melton to Lyttelton and back to get medicine for his wife, who sadly died along with his daughter in 1868. (Following roads, walking that distance one-way would take seven and a half hours today.)

Overall, the nature of the houses that early settlers lived in, as well as that of the early New Zealand landscape, made daily life for settlers such as Burton Shipley and his family extremely difficult.

3) An example of a slightly later hut, built around 1866 at Fairview Farm, Wakanui Road..jpg

Rising standards

As you have probably noticed, sod huts that were prone to pig mishaps are thankfully no longer the dominant form of housing in this country.

While the earliest examples of substantial European-style buildings included Georgian-style designs, they were only available to a few people. Notable Georgian houses include the Kerikeri mission house and the Treaty House in Waitangi, which was once home to the first British Resident of New Zealand, James Busby.

4) A hut at Hakatere, showcasing some crude construction in places but otherwise stable.jpg

Following the initial popularity of the Georgian-style and as migration increased in later periods, Victorian houses took the pole position in terms of New Zealand’s most popular style of abode.

As new houses in new styles have continually spread across the country, others more or less retain their original forms. Examples include many of the Victorian villas across Ashburton – some of which still display original period motifs, such as the wooden scrollwork and decorative patterns that adorn many a veranda across town.

5) Watercolour painting of Samuel Butler's cottage at Mesopotamia, painted by William Packe.jpg

Of course, alterations are often necessary with older houses – insulation, electrical systems, internet connections, plumbing, and many other aspects of homes, need to be upgraded every once in a while. Thankfully, from a conservation point of view, many people choose not to alter the original style of their house too much when making essential or non-essential changes.

The progress we have made in housing is staggering and I am truly grateful for it – just imagine trying to install electrical wires in a sod hut while trying to keep the pigs away!


By Connor Lysaght



  1. Original sod homestead at Longbeach.
  2. A primitive hut on Alford Run, 1860.
  3. An example of a slightly later hut, built around 1866 at Fairview Farm, Wakanui Road.
  4. A hut at Hakatere, showcasing some crude construction in places but otherwise stable.
  5. Watercolour painting of Samuel Butler’s cottage at Mesopotamia, painted by William Packe.

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