Monday, February 26, 2024

Celebrating the woolsheds of Wairarapa

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A conservation architect is on a mission to document region’s oldest and most interesting sheds.
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Chris Cochran is on a mission to ensure Wairarapa’s woolsheds get the appreciation they deserve.

A conservation architect, Cochran has received funding through the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to produce a book, Woolsheds of the Wairarapa – An architect’s appreciation of a New Zealand vernacular.

It’s become a labour of love for a man who has spent a lifetime caring for old buildings, earning a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 for his work.

“Farm buildings are the indigenous architecture of New Zealand,” Cochran said.

“Our farm buildings are very distinctive and they don’t have equivalents anywhere else, except perhaps Australia. They’re unique to New Zealand and they deserve to be better appreciated.

“There are plenty of books on grand homesteads and public buildings. There is very little on our farm buildings and I’m going to rectify that.”

Cochran, who lives in Wairarapa, said the region is where large-scale sheep farming began in 1844 and where woolshed design had its first beginnings. 

With farming practices having changed over the years, many woolsheds are disappearing, either left abandoned, used as storage or converted into homes or function centres. 

The current woolshed at Brancepeth was built in 1938 to the design of Masterton architect Raymond Lee. It is fully clad in corrugated iron. Photo: Jim Simmons, courtesy of Ed Beetham

Cochran sees the book as the perfect opportunity to record their history before it was too late. He has been scouring the region in search of woolsheds – the older the better – and has so far come up with a list of about 150. Locals have been quick to point him in the direction of any he wasn’t aware of. 

He has spoken to the owners of 45 sheds and has already gathered a treasure trove of photographs and stories. It is thought the oldest shed still standing in the region is at Brancepeth Station, and was built in 1859.

His book is likely to focus on up to 50 woolsheds, those that are particularly interesting, aged or have stories behind them. He said the difficulty will be deciding which sheds make the final cut, but “we will aim for good representative coverage”.

“There are some amazing stories that centre around these buildings. They’re all of interest. I’m not discounting anything at the moment.

“The book is quite specifically aimed at the buildings themselves, their designers, builders and adaptations made to them over time. I’m not going to delve too deeply into the history of the particular station or the family.”

A distinctive feature of early Wairarapa woolsheds is that many were built from native timber – “there were magnificent stands of totara and matai and rimu throughout the Wairarapa” – that was felled and milled on site.

“The internal structure of woolsheds is always exposed, so you can see all the framing, joints and finishing details. I’m also taking an interest in the technology of these buildings.”

There will be a section in the book set aside for “the amazing number” of woolsheds destroyed by fire. 

The Tora woolshed, on the east coast of Wairarapa, was built by Eric Riddiford in 1913 and originally had 20 stands,10 each side. Today five stands are operational, and the woolroom is available for hire when not in farming use. The materials were brought in by sea, just as the wool went out by sea, with reliable road access only reaching the station in the 1950s.

Cochran said once the buildings caught fire, their remote locations and limited water for firefighting meant it was often impossible to save them.

Part of the joy of delving into woolshed history is being granted access to historic documents and photographs, and to carry out research in the Wairarapa Archive and Turnbull Library.

He was particularly surprised by a diary entry about a fire that destroyed a woolshed on Te Awaiti station.

“I found in the Turnbull Library, in the diary of EJ Riddiford for 1884, the most laconic entry you could imagine: ‘Woolshed burnt down, first seen by Jack Fisher @ about 1/2 past 2am. 14 pressed bales of wool burnt,’ and that’s all there was to it.”

Cochran said the project has been so much fun that it hasn’t really felt like work.

“I go to parts of the country I’ve never been to, and talk to people I have never met before.

“Now that I’m retired I’m able to do a project of my own. These buildings deserve to be documented, and their stories told.”

Cochran is keen to hear from anyone with information or stories they would like to share about interesting woolsheds in the region. He can be contacted by emailing chris@thewedge.co.nz

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