Larnach Castle



Written by Julie Halligan

Situated on the picturesque Otago Peninsula perched atop a rising ridge stands the imposing and lasting monument to one man’s insistent desire to announce to the world that he had arrived, that he was someone and that he had ‘done good’.

William Larnach had grown up on the rural estate of Rosemount, in the Patrick Plains of the Hunter Valley near Singleton in New South Wales, the land holding of his Scottish father John Larnach and his English born mother, Emily Mudie.

John Larnach was the third son of William Larnach, a man from the proud footballing town of Wick in the County of Caithness who had pulled himself up the economic ladder first by an internship as a Ship’s Purser for His Majesty’s Government. Then on retiring from the sea by carving a comfortable niche out for himself as a ‘tacksmaster’ in the region, leasing large tracts of land from a land owner then in turn sub-letting the land out in smaller parcels of land as farms.

A life as a tenant farmer held lacklustre allure for John Larnach as skilled as he was in the business of agriculture, and he enrolled into His Majesty’s navy as a cadet serving under Major Archibald Clure who was bound for Australia and the penal colony there. John was the first of his siblings to head towards the country being promoted as the place of opportunity, and smothering his tears at John’s departure his five year old brother Donald vowed to follow him out to Australia, a promise he later kept.

Marrying into the family of local landowner and magistrate James Mudie helped elevate John in the society of the Hunter Valley, it also afforded him the opportunity to purchase his own landholding, which flourished under the stewardship of John and his wife Emily, producing ample meat, wool and wheat for export markets.

As the fourth of nine children, William had grown up surrounded by convict servants and labourers which naturally coloured his view on the world and his place in it. While our generation may have played cowboys and Indians, William and his siblings played bushrangers and convicts instead, bringing the leg-roped convict escapees (his sisters) back to justice and a jolly good flogging doled out via William’s make-believe court, modelled on his maternal grandfather’s infamous magistrates bench just across the road at ‘Castle Forbes’.

For the family of ‘immigrant made good’ John Larnach these were the heady days of profitability produced by the sweat of cheap if not free labour in the guise of convicts dumped into the colony by a Great Britain engaged in exporting its detritus. While Britain kept up the flow, men like John Larnach and his villainous in-law James Mudie were able to amass substantial fortunes based as they were on very low overheads.

William’s early childhood was therefore one of privilege and superiority. However by the time he was in his early teens, William’s family fortunes had taken a turn for the worse, Britain stopped exporting her convicts, stocks were falling and wool prices had taken a dive. Oblivious to the crumbling façade William entered Sydney College where along with the usual academic studies he enjoyed the musical soirees and concerts among Sydney society, which later influenced the importance William eventually placed on his own children’s musical educations and the accommodation given over to music at Larnach Castle.

By the time William was graduating from college, his Uncle Donald, the teary five year old who had promised to follow his older brother out to Australia, had carved out a successful career with the Bank of New South Wales reaching the giddy heights of President.

It helped that he had married the major shareholders daughter but this was really just a bonus for a man who had the Midas touch.

William, wanting to emulate his uncle completely in beliefs and style, and wishing to escape the depressing atmosphere of Rosemount and his father, used his uncle’s connection to arrange for William to join the staff of the Band of New South Wales in Melbourne. From this point on Rosemount was never spoken of by William again. After a brief stint in Melbourne and a briefer stint as a miner on the goldfields on the Turon, William was tasked by the bank to open up new branches on the new goldfields as they sprang up, this was ‘Midas Touch’ Donald Larnach’s brainchild, of locating banks in the pop-up tent towns supporting the goldfields and it doubled the banks’ profits in one year.

At the forefront of this venture was William who if he harboured any pretensions to social superiority found these levelled as all struggled to stay healthy on fields that stripped men of their vigour. It was in the gold town of Ararat that William met Richard Seddon and Julius Vogel, RHJ Reeves and Vincent Pyke, future New Zealand parliamentarians with William, all there to try their luck at getting rich.

For William his banking career trajectory was going well, under the guidance of his good old ‘Midas Touch’ Uncle Donald. In fact it was the quiet guiding hand of Uncle Donald that assured William of continuing successes while the markets were good and of astute business advice when the markets were contracting. A stint in the belaboured branch of the Bank of NSW in Geelong at the beginning of a period of prosperity assured William of a trip to London in 1866 and through Donald’s contacts was introduced to the many scions of the European banking industry among them the extremely influential brothers Barings, Francis and Thomas and the Lord Rothschild through whom Donald Larnach had just brokered a 300 million pound loan for the Bank of New South Wales.

It were these men who had formed the Bank of Otago in 1863 to take advantage of the riches of the Otago goldfields and whom Donald hoped that William Larnach would now impress, he was 34 years old and had seventeen years in banking behind him. Obviously these scions of high finance liked what they saw and heard but was not until late 1867 that the London directors of the Bank of Otago offered William the Chief Colonial Manager’s position in Dunedin in the hope that William would be able to reverse its declining fortunes. It was offer grabbed with both hands by William and by late September 1867 the William family had arrived in Dunedin to take up residence. It was a move that in the long run proved of mixed fortunes for the Larnachs.

William, with an eye for a chance to increase his financial prosperity was not slow to take up the chance to indulge in land speculation and on visiting the Otago Peninsula within weeks of his arrival, determined to buy up land there and build himself a house much like his Uncle Donald’s castle like home of ‘Brambletye’ in Sussex which he had much admired.

William also involved himself in various agricultural industries beyond his expanding farming interests such as in the kauri timber trade, logging for a foreign market insatiable for this exotic timber. This was in the era of no Department of Conservation of Resource Management Acts and as such many track of land was pillaged ruthlessly by William’s company in search of the vertical gold.

While William had done very nicely for himself financially in Australia, in the oncoming New Zealand years suffered the unrelenting professional vagaries of uncertain markets, collapsing share prices, stumbling banks (he was not able to reverse the downward slide of the Bank of Otago and it was eventually bought by the Bank of New Zealand) a penurious government barely solvent and saw his own personal fortunes expand profitably eventually to decline slowly but surely under the burden of over-extended loans, failed agricultural business ventures, risky land speculations, accusations of portfolio mis-management by banking clients and conflicts of interest concerning his bank and his own business ventures along with loss of prestige within parliament when he voted in error for the Banking Amendment Act, which cumulatively and eventually eroded his financial and social status.

It was during these roller coasters years that William Larnach conceived the plans for what he called ‘The Camp’ in the early 1870s which the world today recognises as Larnach Castle.

It was a design of a commodious and grand proportions and it was decided by William to locate it on the land bought some years earlier out on the Otago Peninsula.

His meticulous attention to detail and organisational skills stood him in good stead during the years of construction from 1873 to 1887 and it must be noted that this grand gesture almost broke him financially despite the playing up by Larnach of his own personal prosperity to the public’s gaze.

The breadth of the development is reflected in the following details; ‘Approximately 200 workmen were used to complete the main structure, using imported materials from around the world. Much of the stone used for the Castle came from a basalt quarry nearby. Other materials included yellow brick, Glasgow brick, Oamaru stone, Port Chalmers basalt, Cornwall blackstone, Italian marble, Marseilles cobbles, Catlins timber, North Island Kauri and local Caversham sandstone for the ballroom. The Godfrey family carved many of the building’s intricate ceilings; a single ceiling in the main foyer took six and half years to complete. In 1875, twenty tonne of glass was imported from Venice, in an effort to enclose exposed verandahs unsuitable for Dunedin winters. The addition of the 3000 square foot ballroom was made in 1887; a 21st birthday present for Larnach’s eldest daughter Kate. The resulting complex eventually contained 43 rooms and required a staff of 46 servants. The complex included 35 acres reserved for grounds, including a vinery, and a home farm of 300 acres with its own farmstead including a cow byre for 300 cows, stables, and quarters for farm workers.’ Life at ‘The Camp’ by the standards of the time was opulent and indulgent, William Larnach was himself an ebullient, gregarious and generous host.

By the early 1880s William Larnach by now drinking heavily and depressed due to his miserable financial state became insolvent, The Castle and various other assets had been transferred into his wife Emily’s name and were therefore beyond reach. Following hard on the heels of this calamity was the unexpected death of Emily in 1880. Mourning did not last long and Emily was followed quickly by wife number two, Emily’s half sister Mary, who died herself in 1887. Wife number three arrived four years later in 1891, Constance de Bathe Brandon. Wedded bliss could not make up for his disastrous fortunes and a failed attempt to revive his finances in Australia saw William Larnach return home to New Zealand literally a broken man. William shambled about the New Zealand parliament buildings like a ghost and there were some who thought that he was terminally ill as William’s pallor was pale, his clothes were hanging from his frame and his attention was lacking. It was either illness or extreme stress, either way he was a shadow of his former self.

The fateful day for William Larnach was the 12th October 1898 where William, according to legend was at parliament when a letter arrived for his attention. It is not known what was in the letter, speculation later ran rife that it was about his son Douglas and William’s third and much younger wife Constance who apparently were involved in a love affair. But as the letter has never been found, this is what it was then, speculation. It could have been about his finances however by this time, William was inure to this aspect of his life. Apparently after reading this mysterious letter William locked himself in a committee room and shot himself in the head ( William it is known, organised a pistol purchase some weeks prior, giving the seller a story about being charged with the purchase on behalf of a friend). William left behind no note to explain his actions and the coroner later supposed that although there would have been ‘an immediate cause and while there was no evidence to show what that may have been, that there was enough’ to indicate that Larnach had been ‘overwrought and suffering from disease and mental depression.’ It was only left to offer up the verdict of ‘Suicide due to temporary unsound mind’ which was accepted by the jury.

William Larnach died intestate and it was left to his surviving heirs to squabble over the carrion left behind that was the estate of William James Mudie Larnach. Good fortune did not favour his heirs as court disputes destroyed the family. None of the family ever lived at Larnach Castle again after William’s death and by April 1900 the estate was put up for auction where it failed to sell. In 1906 Donald Larnach sold the estate to the New Zealand Government and for some years it serves as an asylum for the insane, but for most of the 20th century it mouldered until it was purchased in 1967 by its current owners, The Barker Family and revived and who now run it as a hotel, a venue for weddings and such and delicious high teas.


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