Rough start for majestic house

By Trevor Quinn, trevor.quinn@age.co.nz


Sweat, resilience, perseverance and determination lie behind the story of the Beetham family and one of New Zealand's most majestic houses, now featured in a new book.

At its height, Brancepeth Station at Wainuioru, east of Masterton, featured a grand stable, library, school, store, cookhouse and had more than 300 staff. Its economic significance to the area was unprecedented.

As well as the toil and imagination needed to construct the estate, a degree of luck is also responsible for its location in Wairarapa.

If not for a shipboard mutiny, Brancepeth could just as easily have been located in Canterbury.

In 1855, a few years before Brancepeth was bought, Edward Beatham's great-great grandfather, George Beetham snr, and his wife, Mary, sailed to New Zealand from England with their eight sons and three daughters.

George Beetham was a portrait artist of note, having painted in the court of the tsar in St Petersburg, Russia, but he could see his large family would struggle financially if they remained in England.

They chose New Zealand after Richmond, their eldest son, who was working in Australia, recommended the move.

Richmond, 17, said that he believed Canterbury offered the best emigration opportunities.

On reaching Wellington, after an eventful 12 months on board, which included a mutiny, they decided to leave the ship.

"The ship was supposed to go to Christchurch," said descendant Edward Beetham, who lives near Brancepeth. "But they'd had 12 months on that ship and they said, 'No way are we getting back on there'."

Edward Beetham's great-grandfather Hugh and his siblings established Brancepeth.

"Hugh's older brothers William and George jnr leased it for a couple of months but they ran out of ammunition and couldn't shoot a bird or a pig to feed themselves," Mr Beetham said.

"So they had to walk back along the coast to Wellington to get more ammunition."

Their older brother, Richmond, who worked as a surveyor on the Rimutaka Hill Rd, later joined them at Brancepeth.

Their resources were far more plentiful after the wedding of their sister, Anne, to T.C. Williams and the formation of the powerful Beetham-Williams family partnership known as "the Firm".

A large saw was bought in Wellington and the siblings had to undertake another mammoth 220km return walk to Wellington with the saw on their backs.

"Three of them worked the saw. They had 20 minutes underneath and 20 minutes on top and then 20 minutes on spill," Mr Beetham said. "So they dug a pit in the ground and they rolled a log over it and started sawing."

When construction began Brancepeth prospered. A 30,480sq m homestead with a battlemented tower was built.

Later a grand stable for horses, buggies and cars was built along with a library of 2000 Victorian books, a school, a blacksmith's, a store and a cookhouse.

Edward Beetham said the story of how they built Brancepeth was inspiring.

"I'm hugely proud of it. What has gone before is nothing short of amazing. What they did, how they built it up and it's up to my generation and the ones to come to keep the legacy running," he said.

Brancepeth Station was once the centre of 31,000ha of pastoral estate and an economic engine for Wairarapa. It is listed by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a category 1 historic place, the highest listing.

Brancepeth was one of the largest sheep stations the nation had ever seen. In 1856 400 Merinos began grazing in the wilderness of Wairarapa's eastern hills, but by the turn of the century 100,000 went through the woolshed pens in just one year.

The new book In the Boar's Path: Brancepeth takes readers on a photographic and historical journey, with photographs by Alex Hedley and text by Alex Hedley and Gareth Winter.

"The book is another chapter in the legacy of Brancepeth," said Mr Beetham.

The book launch will be held tomorrow on the grounds of Brancepeth estate at 3.30pm.

Contact Hedleys Bookshop, telephone 063782875 or email sales@hedleysbooks.co.nz

- WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE

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