Topic: Northbank, Historic homestead

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Built in 1912 for John (Jock) Sowden on the old Jellalabad Run later known as Heslerton.

Northbank homestead, on Northbank Road, was built between 1905 and 1917. It is sited on land that was, at one time, part of the early Leasehold Run number 108.

Originally called Jellalabad (Jalalabad), its boundaries were the Rakaia River to the south, Camla Run 47, Haldon Run 1964, Dunsandel Run 18 to the west and Oakleigh Run 101 to the east. It was a run of 20,000 acres.

Richard Alsop Hilton took out a licence for it in August 1853. During 1855 and 1856 Thomas Kinsley Adams held the station on terms from W.H. Kynvett. Then in 1857 it went to Brown and then to Dowling and in 1860 to Charles Ferrars Knyvett.

Charles Ferrars Knyvett, with his wife and W.H. Knyvett, were chief cabin passengers on the 'Grananoque', which arrived in Lyttelton on May 9, 1860. Knyvett was responsible for changing the name from Jellalabad to Heslerton, naming it after his family's home. His father, Reverend Charles Knyvett was rector of Heslerton, a village in North Yorkshire. Two roads in the area, Knyvetts Road and Heslerton Road also reflect his influence.

His brother, W.H. Knyvett was chief shepherd on the Heslerton Run and 7000 to 8000 sheep were run on the land. In 1867 after Knyvett drowned, the Heslerton lease went to Cecil Augustus Fitzroy and Thomas Dyke Acland. Fitzroy and Acland held Heslerton for six years. The free-holding of the central part of the land occurred when John Johnson Loe bought part of the leasehold from the Crown. The Certificate of Title details the following:

 "Crown grants of land from Victoria, by Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, Queen... do herby grant John Johnston Loe of Leeston in the Provincial District of Canterbury in our colony of New Zealand containing by admeasurement six hundred and forty six (646) acres being numbered 25279,25280,25419,25551, 25869 on the map of the Selwyn Survey District ... and with all the rights and appurt-anences thereto belonging to John Johnson Loe, his heirs and assignees for ever from 22nd June 1876....."

Having bought acres in the centre of the run it made the overall run unworkable and the partners sold the rest of the Run at auction and Loe purchased it. At this time Loe was one of the most influential men in the district but in 1879 when the land boom burst, Loe went bankrupt. In 1881 the land transferred from the bankrupt estate of John Johnston Loe through the trustees of his estate to the Bank of New South Wales.

During this period until 1904 it was owned by the bank and leased to Phineas Balfour, then James Balfour and to James Copeland. Around 1904 a syndicate sub-divided and sold it off in six lots. In March 1904 Jonathan Sowden and his son John Sowden, farmers of Dunsandel, bought the part of the run that surrounds the current homestead. In August 1905 Jonathan Sowden transferred his interest to John (Jock) Sowden. It is during this period that the homestead was built and the garden laid out and landscaped. It is likely that the homestead was built in 1912. At that point Jonathan Sowden took out mortgages to Henry John Beswick, Robert Heaton Rhodes, Arthur Edgar Gravenor Rhodes and Henry Artur Labener which suggests that these may have been to finance the building work.

The homestead is built in traditional villa style with double hung sash windows, leadlight front door and a verandah on the north and west sides. Rimu and kauri timbers were used throughout and ornate plaster ceilings applied to the hall and two reception rooms. Art nouveau style decorative tile fireplaces also feature with wonderful timber fire surrounds.

Alfred Buxton, the respected Christchurch-based landscape architect is known to have completed asphalt and landscape contracts at the property before 1917. The garden has some traditional hallmarks of Buxton's work, notably weeping elm, monkey-puzzle and fan palms.

In 1918 the property was sold to John Penny who had come to Rakaia from Gisborne as a bank manager. It is understood from information from the Penny family that John bought the farm and his brother Jeremiah Penny lived and ran the property with his family. The family remembers that there were hard times in the depression years and think that "the family more or less had to walk off" in the late 1920s. It was then managed by the mortgage holder, the New Zealand Farmers' Cooperative Assn of Canterbury with managers in place, including the Needhams, until in 1948 when the title records show the property was transferred to William Augustine Smith, who came from 'Upton Down' in the Awatere Valley, Marlborough.

At that point there were 1655 hectares (4089 acres). Then began a long period of almost 50 years when the Smith family lived in the homestead and developed the property. They introduced and completed the first large-scale border dyking project and in the homestead the gas generator was replaced by electricity. In 1985 the property was sold to Sholto Holdings and in 1989 the property was subdivided into 16 lots. In 1990 the homestead lot with 34.73 hectares was sold to Merino Fields Rakaia Limited. In 1996 it was sold to the Fords. In 1999 the homestead and 3.7 hectares was further subdivided and in 2001 purchased by the current owners. The garden and homestead are gradually being restored and the development of a new orchard with hazelnuts and walnuts under way.

This provides a curious footnote to the story of Northbank. The name Heslerton, given by Kynvett to the area in the mid-19th century, in old English, means "farmstead where hazels grow" and ... now over 100 years later, in the 21st century, hazelnuts are planted and growing at Northbank. 

contributor, Roger Gilbert Source: Ellesmere Echo, 15 December 2004

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