A Day Back In Time

Thursday 22nd September 2016 was one of the most memorable days I had researching for “Guinness Down Under”.  It was planned as a visit to see two historic houses in Canterbury that had belonged respectively to Michael Burke jnr and his brother William, the sons of Michael and Maria Burke (chapter 5 in the book). In fact, it was that and more - it turned out to be a journey back in time, to the 1890s, an imaginary look into the mind of a young man who dreamed the dreams of empire, and developed a mindset that would ultimately take him to his death in the horrors of northern France in May 1916.  It was a day that gave me some background to the sad demise of the Burke family.  The ten grandchildren all died without family - five the victims of war - and brought the line to an end. 

First stop on the journey was Amberley House, once the home of William Minchin Burke and his mother Maria Frederica Burke, widowed in 1869 when her husband Michael John Burke died aged 57.

William Burke owned the house for eight years (1892-1900) before selling up and going on a world tour with his mother. Tarapunga as Maria called it has had several owners in the 100 plus years since then, its most notable period being as a girls boarding school from 1920-42. The present owners, Andrew and Angie Mason, explained the changes to the structure since Burke’s time and it is clearly a very different house now.  They have added their touches and Andrew has become immersed in the history of the place. There might be another book to look forward to.


For an urbanite from Wellington Amberley is impressively rural, but much more was to come. The Masons took me further up north Canterbury, and then into the foothills of the Southern Alps, to a station situated between the upper reaches of the Hurunui and Waitohi rivers. Our destination was Waitohi Peaks, the property owned by Michael Burke jnr for 13 years (1893-1906), later renamed Kanuka Downs, and farmed now by Keri and Sam Zino.

Burke’s inheritance from his father was key to his station as landed gentry, but it was his own flair that saw him succeed.  He built the estate up to 17,000 acres, ran 12,000 merino and half-breed sheep, and undertook a successful breeding programme.  Unlike his father - an owner who employed managers – Burke was much more hands-on. He was the manager and employed shepherds.    Home for him, wife Edythe and son Hubert John Burke was a new house, small but two-storeyed.  Three sisters – Mollie, Nora and Marjorie – were later to join the family. Legend has it that the house was built in the wrong place. The timber for the construction was delivered to the property but not to the desired site. On top of that the builder was either not given clear enough instructions or misunderstood them. Instead of being on a more sheltered site the house is on an exposed hillside and right in line for the persistent strong winds of the region.  It stands to this day, though now without two old chimneys, damaged in the Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016, just eight weeks after my visit. Burke’s shepherds lived in a tiny hut 10 kilometres away from their master. It too remains, filled with straw, and close to the old woolshed, looking straight out of the 1890s.  Remarkably, communication to the shepherds was by a telephone system installed by Burke with wires between the two residences, and three transmitters, an innovation well ahead of its time.


Burke followed his father’s example set at Raincliff near Timaru and planted many trees on the land. Thirty paddocks were fenced, and a rabbit-proof fence erected around the boundary.

Unlike his father Burke bedded more into his local community, being a member of the Waipara Roads Board, the Hurunui Rabbit Board, the Canterbury Yeomanry Cavalry, and the Waitohi Gorge Rifle Club.

Later in life, in 1929, Burke described two incidents of bird life at Waitohi Peaks in letters to a friend, renowned ornithologist Perrine Moncrieff.  Muttons birds used to fly up and down the valley between Mt. Noble and Mt. Myholm, often in the fierce nor-wester that blew in the area. Burke had erected a barbed wire fence on a ridge in the valley and on just one occasion two of the mutton birds were caught on the wire. There were no more such deaths in the 11 years Burke lived at Waitohi, which he attributed to the birds’ intelligence and navigation skill.  Three months later he reported back to Moncrieff on the reaction of birds during the Murchison earthquake. The native birds, he said, showed no response to the quake, but small birds in one line of trees near a creek “went for their lives” when the shaking started and didn’t return for several hours.

Back at the main house Sam Zeno had one final surprise. On the walls of an upstairs bedroom under the tattered scrim was a virtual scrapbook of old pictures glued onto the sarking, and judging by the dates on the clippings they were almost certainly pasted there in the early days of the house’s occupation. The room was small, perhaps the bedroom of young Hugh, Michael and Edythe’s only son. The pictures were pages torn from English publications, many from the London newspaper the “Graphic”. They vividly capture the spirit of the 1890s, and it is tempting to think that this is where Hubert John Burke learned what it meant to fight for the British empire. When the call to arms came in 1914 he stepped up. Whether he was inspired by thoughts of glorious victory or afraid of battle, or both, we shall never know, but there were valiant models to follow.


It was after nightfall when Andrew, Angie, and I drove away from Kanuka Downs. There wasn’t a house for miles. There were no streetlights. It was pitch black.  A tunnel from one world to another. One day perhaps Sam and Keri will build a new house at Kanuka. The old one with its scrim and torn relics of glory and death will disappear. But thankfully I have a memory, an image from the faded days of empire, that I will carry for a long time.

© 2021 Eyeglass Press Ltd - All Rights Reserved.