Today The Chronicle takes a walk through the 100-year-old Morgan homestead with the two Morgan sisters, who live there, Mavis Whiley and Davena Murdoch. The present occupiers of Levin’s oldest homestead see themselves very much as guardians of a treasure than dwellers in a house.
Framed with more than 150 rose bushes, established trees and Levin’s suburbia pushing in on all sides, it’s hard to imagine the Morgan homestead in Roslyn Road penned in with kangaroo fences on a 20 acre section.
But soon after the house was built, in 1889, not only were kangaroo fences running around Levin’s newest real estate but also a sole kangaroo, brought back from a trip to Australia by the house’s owner, Peter Bartholomew, was hopping about the section perimeter. And according to a historical account in the book My First Eighty Years by Helen Wilson that single half-grown kangaroo proved a bargain when a little head popped out from the pouch. And in the fullness of time, and disregarding the laws of consanguinity, these two produced a third and so on until the Bartholomew’s had a small herd pounding the section.
However, kangaroos with scant regard for even special kangaroo fences were a nuisance to local dairy herds. In her book Helen Wilson tells of one kangaroo that sprang onto a bull’s back going for a mad ride but unfortunately left the tired and shocked bull seriously hurt while not taming the kangaroo’s appetite for adventure. With a taste for rodeo, the rogue kangaroo even tried horse riding before it and the rest of the herd were destroyed.
And from an Australian association to a Crimean one, the house was sold in 1905 to a Major Liddle who is believed to be the last survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade, at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, during the Crimean War.
Major Liddle sold the house two years later to Thomas and Matilda Morgan, the grandparents of the two women living in it today.
The Major moved to a house to the north of the Morgan house where he lived until 1918, dying at the age of 96.
In 1917 Dave and Charlotte Morgan bought the house from Dave’s parents, filling the bedrooms with their seven children and instilling in the family a love and respect for the workmanship of the home.
It is two of these children, grown, left, married, and now returned as widows to their childhood home, to keep the home fires burning for any of the family or friends who want to visit or stay. Mavis Whiley and Davena Murdoch have maintained the house and preserved the lived-in feel of an old home without letting a musky or museum-like keptness spoil each room’s welcome.
Mrs Murdoch said the children were born in the front room which was a living room but is now her bedroom.
“We called it the ‘la-de-da’ room because it was considered the best room and when my brother was born I can remember a big kerosene lamp with a white and pink china base glowing in the room.
In the days when bassinettes were a luxury and Plunket safety seats unheard of, the baby slept in one of the deep drawers cleared of clothing for the new arrival.
The house spreads over 2500 square feet on solid heart macrocarpa piles which replaced the 100 original totara piles pulled out in 1932.
The sisters said when their father was short of firewood the two foot thick totara piles, left under the house, were dragged out to stoke the fire. And looking at the 12 and a half foot stud, in most rooms, it is not hard to see why the fires often burned short of wood.
The west facing house now has six bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen and service rooms with verandahs on the west and south sides.
A feature of the house are the beautiful, solid kauri doors. All are panelled and glow with the warm rich tones of unstained and varnished timber that has had a lifetime of wear and dents knocked into it but buffered to an almost smooth carved-like finish by years of spit and polish.
The doors have a heavy dependable feel and close with a solid clonk against wide varnished frames. The sisters point out how each door has swung on two metal hinges for 100 years without warping or pulling from the frames. And as if designed for children the handles are low slung on the doors.
The carved ebony handles are fixed on the doors with brass fittings and some have matching ebony panels above the handles to take the wear.
And swinging below the handle are little wooden covers to hide brass keyholes. And built at a time when Queen Victoria was on the throne and modesty and privacy the norm, swivelling above the keyholes are covers on both sides of the door so even if someone dared take a peek from one side the prying eye would be blocked on the other.
Most of these doors lead off a six foot wide passage that runs through the centre of the house from the front entrance to the kitchen area.
A second shorter and narrower hall angles off the main passage serving two smaller bedrooms and a modernised bathroom.
The main bedrooms have carved fireplace surrounds, built-in wardrobes with varnished timber doors, and all are furnished in keeping with the period and style of the house.
Mrs Whiley said each fireplace had a slight variation in carving design.
In her bedroom, heavily carved acanthus leaves curl up to support the wide timber mantelpiece. She said acanthus leaves were a classical Greek design used to decorate the pillars on Greek temples and churches.
The kitchen has been altered over the years but the walls are still six inch tongue and groove. The area where the women now cook is off the main kitchen which they use as a dining room. The original kitchen still has a coal range oven which Mrs Murdoch said still produced the best scones in town.
“I still like to bake sponges and cakes in it and it cooks scones beautifully” she said.
As well as the handsome structural features of the house it is furnished with several elegant pieces.
Davena Murdoch and Mavis Whiley ran along the seven foot three inch timber seat as children and now in their older years appreciate the craftsmanship of the handsome piece which lines the hall. The bench is crafted from one piece of thick plywood which is curved for comfort. Hundreds of holes perforate it and the years have mellowed the varnish to a warm rich glow. The seat was brought to the house by the sister’s father Dave Morgan in 1908 from his hairdressing saloon.
Although there are two pianos in the house the sisters’ sentimental favourite is a German burr walnut piano with a brass plaque dating it to 1877. The piano’s weighty iron frame contrasts with its light high tone.
“Bub, (Davena) still knocks out a tune on it though it was Dad who loved to play it,” Mrs Whiley said.
A small kauri servery opens the kitchen to the original dining room, now used as a lounge. The servery door still springs up and is held in place by lead weights dangling inside the walls. And like most pieces in the house, the ornate clock to the right of the servery, has its own story. The clock was presented to Thomas Morgan in 1907.
But the care and attention of the sisters for their old home is not confined to the building. It spills out to an expansive garden that roams and hides with haphazard beauty.
Mavis Whiley admires a full head of blooms on one of the 150 rose bushes which she tends with care in the extensive garden framing the house. As past-president of the Horowhenua Rose Society, she has an album over-flowing with prizes won by the Morgan homestead blooms.
Davena Murdock stands in front of one of the trees lining the property. She carved the family members’ names into the bark as the family and the tree grew.
The afternoon sun filters through the front entrance windows lighting the six foot wide passage running almost the length of the house. The original dado cladding still lines the passage walls but has been covered in painted ply panelling. And on the floor the floral axminster carpet has stood the test of time and much tread and yet still looks as if it will take future generations to wear the tough pile bare.