The Old Stone House was built by Sir John Cracroft Wilson (1808-1881) in 1870, and it remained in the family’s ownership for the next 96 years.
John Cracroft Wilson was born in India, and educated in England, before working as a magistrate in Delhi. In 1854 he sailed for Australia, on leave from his position, accompanied by his family and along with his Indian and Eurasian servants; however, Australia was not to his liking. Learning about the opportunities in Canterbury, New Zealand, he decided to make his way there and landed in Lyttelton in April 1854.
Sir John bought much land in Canterbury, including a 108-hectare property on the Port Hills which he named Cashmere after his favourite part of India – Kashmir. After his leave had finished, he returned to India leaving his eldest son to take over the management of the property.
Sir John and his wife returned in 1859 with a further collection of servants. Sir John quickly became a key local figure in the growing Canterbury area; a patron of drama and opera, chairman of the Canterbury Musical Society, and serving on many school committees, councils and boards.
Initially his Indian and Eurasian servants lived in small huts, but some found the Canterbury weather hard to endure and Sir John, feeling a strong sense of responsibility, built them a substantial stone accommodation house a few hundred yards from his homestead. They were able to live there communally, like the extended family that is still common in India. This house is now known as the Old Stone House.
No details survive of the building’s construction, but it was described as reminiscent of farm dwellings in England a few centuries earlier, and consisted of three floors. The lower floor seems to have been intended for storage and stables, the main ground floor for cooking, eating and communal areas, with the top floor thought to have housed the sleeping quarters. The stone used in construction is reputed to have come from a quarry on nearby Marley’s Hill, with stone from this quarry used in similar buildings of the era.
1900s - from Private ownership to Community use
Sir John died at Cashmere in 1881 and was buried at St Mary’s, Halswell. His eldest son Frederick inherited most of the estate, dying in 1902, when the property passed into the hands of his eldest son, John Cracroft Wilson, who died in 1930 when the house was inherited by John Frederick Cracroft Wilson. During most of this time the house was used mainly for housing farm workers and for storage.
With the outbreak of the Second World War the Old Stone House was used for Combined Headquarters Southern Command. It was used to house the Signals Section associated with Combined Headquarters and a 70m high radio mast was erected outside the building’s south end. The family’s large homestead on the hill above, which had been built in 1902, was used as offices, and sadly was destroyed by fire shortly after the war ended, just as the house was to be handed back to the family.
John Frederick Cracroft Wilson had, like his great grandfather, a strong interest in the enhancement of the community, serving for many years on the vestry of St Augustine’s Church, on the board of Rhodes Convalescent Home, and making the old homestead and the Old Stone House available for community use. The original homestead together with one and a third hectares of land was gifted to the Girl Guides Association in 1959 in recognition of the devotion of his mother, Mildred, and wife, Barbara, to the organisation.
Mechanisation, and a reduction in the size of the estate over time, reduced the need for accommodation for farm staff, with only one or two living there during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. As the farm needs decreased a variety of local organisations were allowed to use it as a shelter, including the Guides and the Student Christian Movement (SCM).
The SCM’s association with the Old Stone House dates back as far as 1919. Using the building intermittently between the wars, the SCM became a regular user from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. Members became involved in maintenance of the site and regularly held meetings, camps and devotions there. The building was gifted by the Cracroft Wilson family to the SCM in 1966 and plans to continue improvements and use it as a retreat and National Conference Centre were developed.
1970s - Fire, Rebuilding and a New Use
On Saturday 10 July 1971 disaster struck with fire destroying the main roof and upper floor. The fire appeared to have started in the middle of the top floor spreading from there to the roof and the wooden floor below. It is understood that a student had left a bed lamp on his pillow then left, leaving light for another student who was expected. The house was reduced to a shell, its future uncertain.
News of the fire made local and national news and a radio appeal for volunteers led to a good turnout of helpers. The ground outside was littered with hundreds of broken slates that had fallen from the roof, inside were more remnants of slates mixed with charcoal from burnt beams, partitions and furniture. The main roof and loft floor had burned or collapsed completely with the northern end of the central floor badly burned. The basement, newly cemented, was undamaged, as were the internal and external stone walls.
In 1971 meetings with both the Heathcote County and Christchurch City Council were held with the idea of renovating and turning the building into a community centre to meet the needs of the local community. The Historic Places Trust was also approached regarding restoration of this significant piece of Canterbury history.
In December 1972 the inaugural meeting of the Cracroft Community Centre was held, a committee formed, and plans for the mammoth task of fundraising and rebuilding the Old Stone House were developed. Emphasis was placed on the rebuilding and also on developing community activities by those people who would be the users. A children’s holiday programme was established, yoga, interior decorating, and crochet groups were formed.
The enormous task of fundraising was a priority and social activities, pay your way activity groups and fairs played an important role in contributing to the fund. A public appeal was launched, grants were sought and local councils became an integral part of the rebuilding with financial support, also enabling a loan.
With an army of dedicated volunteers, including years of tireless campaigning by Norman and Betty Roberts to have the building saved, successful working bees were held and work progressed steadily on the building and surrounding grounds. The grounds had never been gardened before and the laying of more than 3000 paving stones, sowing of lawns and planting out garden beds was undertaken by yet another group of volunteers.
Feltex Carpets produced the carpet specially designed to honour John Cracroft Wilson and his legacy, and furniture, drapes and china were purchased. The interior was designed both to meet the needs of its community groups and also to feel welcoming and inviting.
The Official Opening was held on 17 November 1979 with over 100 attending and many more attending the Open Day that followed. The Old Stone House then became an integral part of the Cracroft community and a well-recognised landmark. It was used to host a variety of groups and activities during the week, while at weekends it was been a popular choice for weddings and functions.
2010 and Beyond: Earthquake and
Disaster struck again in the form of the devastating earthquakes that damaged or brought down so many historic buildings in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.
In 2016-17, the building underwent a 15-month restoration programme costing around $2m which has strengthened it to 67 per cent of the new building standard. A series of concrete beams is now hidden inside the walls and a complicated steel structure sits beneath the slate roof. The chimney has been rebuilt around a steel core and the stone lintels have been replaced. The strengthening work is barely noticeable and the building looks exactly as it did before the earthquakes.
At the official re-opening, on 7 February 2018, John Cracroft Wilson's great-great granddaughter, and former Patron of the Cracroft Community Centre, Caroline Murray said that the building had a stubborn heart, like its founder. "It has inspired so many people to get it back on its feet again. It really clearly has a heart and a will to survive.”
The building continues to be run by the Cracroft Community Centre Committee as it was before the earthquake and has now reverted back to its role as a meeting place for the community and a wedding and events venue. It stands both as a piece of history and a tribute to those who worked so hard to see it rise from the ashes, their dream coming to fruition.
An open day for the public was held on Saturday, 17 February 2018 and the Old Stone House is once again Open For Business.