In early May 1977, demolition workers were carrying out a run-of-the-mill job at 35 Oak Grove. A large wooden house which had previously been split into four flats was being pulled down due to problems with the age of the building and its maintenance.
This house was once Warwick Hospital, also known as Warwick House and was originally the home of one of Ashburton’s most interesting turn-of-the-century eccentrics, Captain George Coleman. He called Ashburton home only for a short time, but Captain Coleman’s story and that of his former property are still worth talking about today.
Captain George Coleman
George Coleman was born in County Galway in the west of Ireland around 1833. After arriving at Hobsons Bay, Melbourne in 1851 he spent five years on the goldfields at Bendigo, Avoca and Ferry Creek, having amassed a small fortune which he then spent just as quick as he earned it, if not quicker.
In 1857 he decided to ship off to Mauritius, before volunteering for army service in India during the Indian mutiny, during which he held several commands. Seven years later he went back to Melbourne, married Amelia Knevitt and set up a business operating sailing ships.
After achieving considerable success, he decided to sell up and shift to Ashburton. His reasoning for this is unclear but he had his eyes set on our town nonetheless. He bought a mercantile business on the corner of East and Tancred streets despite knowing very little about this kind of operation. After eighteen months he sold his business to Andrew Orr, retained ownership of the land and spent the next 25 years in Christchurch.
Coleman undertook various activities in Christchurch and he ended up returning to Ashburton in 1899 due to his wife’s health. He owned a lot of land in and around Ashburton and he chose to build a massive house for himself and his family on a four-and-a-half acre section he had with frontage on Oak Grove.
Captain Coleman cannot be mentioned without discussing the legend that surrounds his days at sea, which would claim that he was at some point involved with piracy in the South China Sea.
It has been alleged that he was employed by the Royal Navy to snuff out piracy in the area, but instead of doing that, he decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or rather, at the very least he is said to have accepted bribes from the pirates so that they could carry on, hush-hush.
It is said that after a while the Admiralty in London caught wind of Coleman’s game, but they were too late. He had escaped to Auckland, sold his ship, shared his loot and disappeared south.
While it is amusing and certainly imaginative, this tall tale is nothing more than that: a legend, with no evidence to back it up.
Warwick House and Hospital
Upon his return to Ashburton in 1899, he built what was eventually called Warwick House on Oak Grove.
The house was built by the reliable and trusted Smith Bros Builders, who are also credited with having constructed the Arcade and the old Borough Council chambers. Coleman and his family occupied the massive house only for a short time; they took an extended holiday to Australia in 1902 and the property was sold when George died at Strathmore Hospital, Christchurch, in 1903. Captain Coleman was survived by his wife and their adopted daughter Eileen.
Coleman’s estate was valued at £21,648 in 1904, which comes out to just over $4,043,000 in today’s money. He left a bequest that an ornate iron fence should be erected around Baring Square East in his name. This fence now borders the Ashburton Cemetery.
The Oak Grove mansion changed hands a few times, at one point being occupied by two BNZ managers, before coming into the possession of Joe Briscoe and his two daughters Ester and Margaret in 1931. The Briscoes dubbed the house ‘Warwick’ after their ancestral home of Warwickshire and set about converting it into a private hospital which opened in 1935.
Warwick hospital had two wards with eight beds each and fireplaces, four single rooms, an operating theatre, sluice room, bathroom, staff lounge/dining room, kitchen, laundry and a flat for the matron. A cottage at 29 Oak Grove, separated from the hospital by a 6-foot-tall hedge, served as nurses’ accommodation. Warwick Hospital also had its own vegetable garden.
Each duty consisted of two nurse aides who worked six days a week and one sister. Several of the aides were young teenagers undertaking short-term learning periods while waiting for positions in Timaru or Dunedin.
The hospital cared for a wide variety of patients. If someone were to pass away at the hospital, they were temporarily laid out in the small bathroom until the undertaker could come and collect them.
Warwick Hospital closed its doors in 1952 following the retirement of Ester and her husband Dr Harold Billcliff. Due to its size, the house was uneconomical to heat as a private home and so it was split into flats and passed through several owners before finally being bought and demolished in 1977.
Warwick House had an interesting run, although it is a shame that it had to be torn down in the end.
If anyone ever questions you on Ashburton’s history and you want to catch them off-guard, just tell them that there once stood on Oak Grove a mansion built by a pirate (don’t bother telling them the truth about Coleman, let them have the legend instead!)
By Connor Lysaght
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