Quick history of Barrhill: J C Wason’s model village

What remains of the quaint model village of Barrhill is undeniably unique, the few original buildings standing as a reminder of what was once a thriving settlement and a dream-come-true. Barrhill was laid out in the 1870s by John Cathcart Wason, owner of the Corwar Estate, to accommodate his workers and their families.

Parents and children at a Barrhill School flag hoisting ceremony, 28 September 1901.

Designed to serve a small yet prosperous community, Barrhill enjoyed a period of stability before declining after Wason sold up in 1900. As quickly as Barrhill rose from nothing, the settlement’s population shrank and Wason’s dream died out. The closure of the school in 1938 was the final nail in the coffin.

The birth of Barrhill

John Wason, who was described as a “massive” man of six foot six, took up 20,000 acres by the Rakaia and renamed the run to Corwar, previously known as Lendon. The name Corwar came from his previous home in Ayrshire, Scotland. After managing to transform the run from a tussock-ridden wasteland into arable land, he made a large portion of it freehold and eventually the whole of Corwar was purchased by 1878.

John Cathcart Wason during his two-year stint as an Ashburton County Councillor.

Wason was a keen planter, and his passion for trees led him to develop vast plantations that were visible across the Rakaia for miles as early as 1885. He built a homestead of 20 rooms, surrounded by rare trees and complete with modern outbuildings, a lodge, and gate-keeper.

Wason was becoming more successful by the minute, yet he was seemingly unsatisfied with his progress. A belief he brought from Scotland was that all farmworkers should own their own homes, and so he envisioned a dedicated village to serve Corwar and house its staff. This was to be Barrhill.

Perfect by design

Barrhill was meticulously designed not only to serve a practical purpose but also to reflect certain sentimentalities and beliefs held by J C Wason. The plan for Barrhill was drawn up by Charles F Barker and is dated the 24th of March 1877. There were 28 sections for sale, and 4 large sections bordering the central square were set aside for the church, vicarage and school.

Church of St John the Evangelist at Barrhill.

Spirituality lay at the heart of the village as evidenced by the nearly 145-year-old church of St John the Evangelist that still stands right in the middle of the settlement. Trees featured heavily in Barrhill’s design, which is still known today for its tree-lined avenues. Birches were planted along the east avenue, oaks on the west and the market square was planted with both elms and oaks.

It took until 1975 for the full extent of Wason’s planning to be noticed. It was in that year that Bill Irwin took an aerial photograph of Barrhill which showed the trees forming three circles which are assumed to represent the Holy Trinity with the church at the middle.

Regardless of whatever angle you view it from, it is clear that the village of Barrhill was crafted by Wason with keen attention to detail and strong purpose,

The rise and fall

The first house plot at Barrhill was bought on the 5th of December 1877 by hotelkeeper George Rimer, and so a hotel was one of the first structures in the village. The Barrhill school opened its doors on the 7th of June 1878 with 23 pupils on the first roll.

Barrhill plan with Lot numbers.

Barrhill prospered from the outset as sections were filled up by, predictably, labourers, farmers, and various workers and their families. The village settlers were not all just farm workers; there was Auguste Joen the blacksmith on Lot 6, James Bishop the baker on Lot 8 and Christopher Hammond the gardener on Lot 28, to give a few examples of exceptions.

The Barrhill Hotel in 1914, later an inn.

Before the freezing works were built at Fairton, Barrhill was even the site of a mutton boiling-down works which processed up to 100 sheep a day. Prices for sections varied, presumably due to locations and when the sections were bought; however it is still hard to initially fathom why William Radford had paid £125 for Lot 13 in 1878, whereas John Spring paid just £5 for Lot 24 in 1901.

This may be to do with the fact that villagers were leaving as early as 1886, due to the depression and the gradual sale of Corwar. On top of this, the railway from Rakaia to Methven bypassed Barrhill in favour of Lauriston, which took a further toll on the area.

Remnants, not ruins

Barrhill school eventually closed and consolidated with Lauriston school 10 kilometres away in 1938 and the Barrhill area gradually reverted to farmland with just a few houses remaining alongside the church, the old school building and some other lasting features of a failed dream.

Barrhill School building

The gatekeeper’s lodge at the entrance to Corwar, which is now a fascinating small museum, is another good example of Wason’s distinctive style and is furnished to appear as if it is frozen in time. Barrhill is also home to a historic cemetery, squashed tightly between two paddocks on a long, thin, grassy section.

The few graves that adorn the far end of the cemetery are a reminder of what once was, and the fact that so much of the section is empty, unfinished and unassuming, speaks for itself.

By Connor Lysaght

Photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 12 June 2021.

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