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Fyffe House
Fyffe House was literally built on the back of whaling – the initial single-storey cottage, which became the wing of a larger home, rests on piles made from the vertebrae of a mighty Tohorā (Southern right whale). 
Fyffe House Boat

George's Boat

George’s boat – still displayed with pride; just not in the parlour… 

George Low’s boat wasn’t built for speed – it was built more for stability according to his own exacting specifications. It also enjoyed a pride of place that many might find somewhat unusual.

The youngest son of George and Maude Low – who lived in the historic Fyffe House in Kaikoura – used to keep his boat in the parlour of the house where it took pride of place. Today Fyffe House is cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

“George’s mother Maude would have shook her head in disbelief I’m sure,” says Fyffe House Property Lead Ann McCaw.

“George was an eccentric recluse and a bachelor, so for him storing his boat – his most prized possession – in the best room after he retired from fishing made perfect sense.”

The boat itself is still carefully stored – these days you’ll find it sensibly tucked behind the pink shed of Fyffe House and available for visitors to have a look at.

“The boat is believed to have been built by Ernie Lane of Picton in 1935, and was one of a new style which – instead of being long and narrow for ease of rowring – were wide and stable allowing a full range of fishing activities,” says Ann.

“As a ‘broad of beam’ boat it provided a stable fishing craft that allowed George to pull up his nets, fishing lines and craypots.”

According to Ann, the boat harks back to a time when fishing was undertaken by many men in small boats supporting their families. Today large fishing companies with a few large boats ply their trade in local waters. George’s small but extremely well built dinghy reflects changes in human perception and economics.

“This humble boat is representative of the broader story of human interaction with the sea and local settlement – ranging from the waka who brought the first ancestors of today’s mana whenua into this area over 900 years ago – to the first Europeans with their sailing ships and whaling boats,” she says.

“It also reflects fishing and farming history – both of which relied on boats for travel; and looks forward to today where sea and sea-based activities commercial and recreational are so important to our coastal community. George’s little boat is not as simple as it may look – it speaks of much bigger things.”

Above all else, the boat represented livelihood – particularly for fishing families like the Lows for whom times could be tough. Hard work and initiative countered any lack with the cultivation of land around the house and the raising of a few sheep and cows – supplemented by their catch.

According to local boatbuilder and outfitter Gordon O’Callahan, the methods used to construct George’s boat required a good knowledge of wood and its properties. As well as these, basic wood working such as steaming were also employed to curve timber.

“We’re very proud of George’s boat. Besides being a thing of functional beauty it reflects change in a community and craftsmanship from a bygone era,” says Ann.

“The fact that we know the history of who owned it, used it and built it increases its heritage value and its ability to reflect change nationally as well as locally.”

Become a Time Traveller – visit Fyffe House.

Whalebones at Fyffe House

Fyffe House Whalebones

Fyffe House – a building with great bones

Historic Fyffe House – which is almost 180 years old and was once at the heart of Kaikōura’s whaling industry – is a house with great bones. No doubt about it.

And in that regard it’s the foundations of the oldest part of the house itself which often causes many visitors to do a double take.

“Fyffe House is  built upon foundation ‘stones’ made from whale vertebrae which for us today is almost unthinkable. But for Robert Fyffe, original builder of Fyffe House and owner of the Waiopuka Fishery in what is Amers Beach today, it made perfect sense,” says Fyffe House Property Lead, Ann McCaw. 

These days Fyffe House is cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, but when the first part of the building was erected in about 1844 by Robert Fyffe, life was very different.

“Timber was scarce on the peninsula – partly because of the 700-year history of settlement by Wai Taha and Ngāti Mamoe in the area; unsurprising given the more-than-abundant fisheries here, including of course the kōura (crayfish) which gives Kaikōura its name,” says Ann.

“Whale bones were relatively plentiful, however – thanks to the success of Robert’s first whaling season during which he took in a staggering 19 adult whales. The bones lay in the bay as the carcases rotted after the blubber was removed.

“Once completely rotted, Robert retrieved some of the vertebrae from what had beome a kind of whale urupa, and began construction.”

The building he constructed was the oldest part of Fyffe House. The original whalebone foundations supported what was known as the Coopers Wing – a structure that housed Thomas Howell’s crucial barrel-making enterprise.

“Without having access to suitable barrels, risking your life harpooning, killing and processing a whale would be a complete waste of time, resources and in some cases lives,” says Ann.

“Barrels enabled you to transfer the precious and valuable whale oil to its market. The humble wooden barrel was central to the whole operation, and so not surprisingly the coopers wing was the first structure built.”

Robert didn’t stop at upcycling whale vertebrae however. He also used some of the longer bones as fenceposts around the property, two of which still survive today. Robert’s cousin, George Fyffe, used whalebones to line the bottom of what became his woolshed where he used to shear his sheep. He was also responsible for extending the original cooper wing into the house it is today.

“The Fyffes were very frugal, and definitely had a strong disposition towards recycling and upcycling,” say Ann.

Environmental points would have to be deducted, however, for the sheer devastation visited upon the whale population by the whaling industry, which – with the benefit of today’s hindsight – was truly appalling.

“Whaling was wasteful, with Robert chasing the lucrative lamp oil market which was reliant on boiling the blubber to extract the oil. For Robert there was little use for the rest of the whale’s body other than the baleen from the mouth which was used in many of the ways we use plastics today – most famously as boning for women’s corsets.”

Whaling was also a difficult way to make a living.

“Whaling was dangerous with several ways you could be maimed or killed – drowning being high on the list,” says Ann.

“What made things worse, was that whaling was undertaken during the coldest months of the year when Tohora (the Southern Right Whales) migrated along the Kaikōura Coast. These were big whales which came close enough to shore to be hunted by Robert’s small whale boats launched from the beach. The whales’ appearance coincided with the coldest weather of the year and the biggest seas.”

Tragically, the sea claimed the life of Robert Fyffe in April 1854 when he drowned while trying to escape from the Fidele which had capsized on a voyage to Wellington with a cargo of whale oil.

Although the idea of whaling today is largely regarded with horror by most of us, back in Robet Fyffe’s day it was a perfectly acceptable way to make a living with whale oil being the premium oil used for lighting and other daily household uses. 

“The Fyffe family – and subsequent families who lived in Fyffe House – worked hard to keep their families afloat financially,” says Ann.

“Their lives were difficult and often constrained by lack of money and exposure to danger. In some ways Fyffe House is a memorial to their grit, courage and determination.”

Fyffe House

Fyffe House Teapot

Granny Low's Teapot

Teapot at the heart of Fyffe House family

A humble teapot takes pride of place in the kitchen of Fyffe House, once the heart of Kaikoura’s close-knit whaling industry and today a historic place cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

Although it’s not a particularly unusual teapot, it’s what it represents that makes it very special says Fyffe House Property Lead Ann McCaw.

“The teapot belonged to Maude ‘Granny’ Low – the matriarch of the Low family; the third family to live at Fyffe House,” says Ann.

“Maude was the mother of eight children and the eventual widow of Joseph Low. She ‘ruled with an iron hand’, always wore black and always welcomed everyone with a cup of tea from her yellow teapot that rarely stood empty on the kitchen table.”

Granny Low’s teapot is still there – thanks to a descendant, Matthew Hicks, who decided to return it to Fyffe House in the late 1990s after inheriting it following the death of George Low in 1980, the youngest son and only family member who was living in the house. Matthew was determined to return Granny’s teapot to its rightful place.

When the Lows moved to Fyffe House in the early 1920s it was a bit of a backwater according to Ann.

“Some years earlier, Fyffe House had been the hub of the town with the wharf located close by in the bay behind the house. There were also warehouses on the lawn and a pub, the Pier Hotel,” she says.

“All that changed in 1909 with the opening of a new wharf closer to where town was developing. Even the pub was cut in half and relocated to be close to the new wharf in time for its opening that year.”

Many fishing families still lived near Fyffe House, however, and were known as the ‘east-enders’. Thrift was a common virtue within this community – including the Lows.

“The Lows like the other families were poor, and although they had fabulous fresh food which they either caught or grew, what they never had much of was money,” she says.

“Their belongings were treasured and cared for. Waste was not part of the way they lived – though they were always hospitable. And for Granny Low that meant always having a pot of tea on the go.”

For the technically minded, Granny Low’s teapot is an example of Crown Duccal Ware, produced in England after 1915.

“The important thing, though, is that according to family it was never empty,” says Ann.

Visitors to Fyffe House today are also guaranteed a warm welcome.

Fyffe House