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Living With History

The obligations of the home owner when buying an historic house are not definite. The house may be listed on a council district plan but that offers no protection. There is a little more protection if you can get the New Zealand Historic Places Trust to list your building. No mean feat in an environment of restricted budgets even if your property is one of the few ‘significant’ ones in the town.

One would expect that the decision to buy an historic home comes with an implicit obligation to honour its history. In our case we accepted that obligation to be as sensitive to its origins as much as possible while making it comfortable for modern living.

We bought Osneloc House some thirteen years ago but it was only three years ago that we turned our eyes to modernisation prior to moving in.
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Osneloc House was built by the daughter of Elizabeth and William Colenso in 1899. Its place in the town’s history is significant. Elizabeth retired to Otaki where she lived with her daughter until her death aged 83.
She is buried across the road at Rangiatea Church amid her descendants.  Her daughter Fanny, married into the Simcox family whose lives are still bound to Otaki. Osneloc is Colesnso spelt backwards. 

We were the first owners who were not descended from Fanny Simcox. We bought our treasure from her great granddaughter. Our home had not had the dreadful modernisations of many decades and remained reasonably true to its original form. Our challenge was to honour the past while moving into the future.

The house is built with native timbers: Matai on the floors, Rimu on the walls and ceilings and Kauri for the doors. Those timbers are beautiful and the ornate ceilings wonderful. We have not covered them simply cleaned and polished them and they form the warm heart of the house.

What we have done to bring it into the 20th century is take a small hallway wall down to enlarge a bedroom, modernise the bathroom and create a second. We took the maid’s bedroom to build a new kitchen, the rationale being we didn’t have a live in maid! And we turned to old kitchen into a study. The result is a modern home which honours its historic integrity.

We still have the existing fireplaces supplemented with a heat pump, we have left the floors polished but laid under floor insulation. We have renewed the insulation in the roof space. While not modern day warm it is substantially warmer than in the past. With its 16 foot stud it is never going to be easy to heat but the house is filled with sunlight, accessible to the outdoors with large French doors and comfortable.
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Part of its history remains untouched. The small loft above the front door with a small window was the place for the homing pigeons. Presumably they took messages to and from Fanny’s daughter, for whom the house was built, to the homestead in Forest Lakes!

Elizabeth Colenso’s granddaughter described her as a woman who was “sincere, humble, unselfish and generous. One who lived for others and never spared herself in any way.”

She was born Elizabeth Fairburn in Kerkeri, Northland, to William and Sarah who came to New Zealand with the church missionary society. From the beginning, Elizabeth was imbued in missionary life, devoted to God and his teachings. In the isolation of her early life, without companions from her own culture, she became a fluent speaker of Maori and in time became a teacher. Her childhood was tough, with many “terrors and sufferings when they first settled among these savage tribes.”
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She married William Colenso, a printer who also worked for the Church Missionary Society. Colenso was a man who did little to endear himself to anyone, even his future wife. He told her, all he wanted was a suitable partner for mission work.

Theirs was a loveless marriage, fraught with tension and bitterness and eventually the marriage became one in name only.

They left the Bay of Islands to start missionary work in Hawkes Bay. Elizabeth was the first white woman there and spent eight years of missionary life, serving others in one of New Zealand’s  most difficult pioneer environments.

It was here, as the mother of two children she suffered her most humiliating period of her life when her Maori maid gave birth to her husband’s child. Unable to leave, she behaved with her ingrained sense of missionary duty and brought the baby up. Troubles continued when the child’s parents wanted to return to their tribe but William Colenso refused to let them go.

Eventually when William was suspended from the church she was able to leave him, taking with her the baby. Neither Elizabeth nor their daughter Fanny ever saw William again. She also denied him access to their son for many years.

More years as a missionary passed until she took her children to England, where she met Queen Victoria and acted as an interpreter for the Maori parents of the Queen’s godson, Albert Pomere.

She went to Norfolk Island at the age of 58 to continue her missionary work of teaching, sewing, and nursing. She remained there for twenty years. While she was there she translated the Book of Common Prayer into Mola, the language used by the Melanesian Mission on Norfolk Island.

It is a privilege to live in such an historic home. We regret that out approach, complete with history, to the Historic Places Trust was rejected because they did not have the money. Frankly I don’t understand why they needed money. We did not ask them to buy the property or restore it in any way, merely to acknowledge its historical significance for our town.