A cottage built with stolen money

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The window to the right in the front parlour is part of the rebuilt house front. Photo: Caroline Crick

Sue Thomas was doing genealogical research for a Scottish woman tracing the birthplace of her grandmother when she came across Blackmore Cottage. The Nelson house was in a sad state of disrepair and after Sue and her husband bought it they began a long journey of restoration and research.

Its past tenants, Sue discovered, included a Victorian conman, a Scottish stonemason and a lighthouse keeper’s wife and her descendants.

The four-room hip-roof single storey cottage was built by Edward Hugh Ennis Blackmore, who came to Nelson on 22 October 1853 with his wife Jessie and son to take up the post of customs officer. When he applied for the post he claimed to have a non-existent BA from Oxford University – perhaps this was the start of his dodgy dealings. He’d arrived in Auckland from England in 1848, and bought the section on Russell Street from Nelson’s first magistrate, John Poynter.

Things seem to have gone wrong for Blackmore quite quickly. In early 1856 he was asked to leave Nelson after failing to account for almost £2000 of customs duties collected during his tenure. The family was dispatched to Australia with 10 shillings for their fare, relinquishing to the Crown ownership of the cottage, livestock, household possessions and other properties including Adele Island and Fisherman’s Island.

There’s no record of the scandal in the press of the time but a letter to the governor from local landowner John Tinline records his dismay that Blackmore was allowed to leave to country with a large rent debt to Tinline. Perhaps the story was kept under wraps to avoid embarrassing the Customs Office.

Blackmore went on to teach in Sydney, setting up his own school, which later went bankrupt. He died in 1903 with less than £200 to his name.

Scottish stonemason Robert Simpson bought the house in 1858 for £93 10/. He changed the roofline to a gable end, put in a narrow staircase and used the attic rooms as bedrooms. He died in 1891 but his company Simpson and Brown continued long after his death, and their mark can be seen on headstones in Wakapuaka Cemetery.

Lighthouse keeper’s wife Martha Kidson moved in with two of her 12 children in 1892 after her husband, John Kidson, died and she was forced to leave her home on the Boulder Bank to make way for the new keeper’s family. Most of her children were farmed out to lighthouse keepers around the country but she took with her a disabled daughter and her youngest child. From the verandah of her new home she hung the sign ‘Bank House’ – a remnant of her life on the Boulder Bank.

Martha died in 1913 and her son Russell, who lived next door at no 10, let the house to tenants for many years until moving into it himself in the 1940s. He added a 1940s Californian bungalow-style extension on the street frontage, removing the original verandah and front walls of the house. This was probably a grand architectural fashion statement at the time but when the Thomases bought the cottage in 2002 they removed the extension, reconstructing the original frontage using photos from Martha’s time.

Russell grew vegetables on the steep terraced rear section and sold them to local residents. He died in 1967 and his late son Eric shared many recollections of the cottage with the Thomases.

“He knew exactly the number of steps going up to the attic room and how wide they were,” Sue says.

She and her husband also rebuilt the lean-to kitchen, which was peppered with bullet holes from a particularly gun-happy tenant. They uncovered the remnants of Kidson’s extensive vegetable terraces and stabilised them with stone walls. The front of the cottage has been carefully reconstructed and the furnishings chosen to fit the period, including original chairs from the Vosper brothers in Vanguard Street.

Sue’s research has yielded a gallery of past tenants, including Blackmore as a young man and his wife Jessie on their wedding day. Martha Kidson is framed standing at the front of the cottage under her ‘Bank House’ sign. Russell Kidson is leaning on his garden fork, probably planning his planting schedule for the year.

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Blackmore Cottage

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Past tenants

Blackmore Cottage today is a testament to the dedication of its owners in retracing its human history, and restoring it to its original simple style. The people who lived in it have all left their mark in some way or another - some good, some bad, but knowing their stories brings a special meaning to Blackmore Cottage.
blackmore sisters The daughters of Robert and Jean Simpson, the cottage's second owners. Blackmore Jessie Jessie Blackmore on her wedding day.
Piwa perched