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Tunnelling, and saving our history

house stout
Photo from Sir Robert Stout, by Waldo Hilary Dunn and Ivor L.M. Richardson.

by Nicola Koptisch
As the Transport Agency develops its plans to build a second Terrace Tunnel, there should be questions about protecting and saving the last remaining group of hundred-year-old villas near the Salamanca Road end of the Terrace, under which the new tunnel will be excavated.

The Agency’s predecessor the Ministry of Works did not prove to be a responsible guardian of similar houses when it was building the first Terrace Tunnel.

Using compulsory acquisition, it became the owner of Stout House, a grand two-storey villa at 238 The Terrace that had been built in 1900 for the former Premier Robert Stout and Lady Stout. Demolition did not prove to be necessary, but the Ministry allowed the house to decay after the tunnel was opened in 1978. It was left empty and then became occupied by squatters, till it burnt down (arson) on New Year’s Day of 1983 – the destruction of an important part of New Zealand’s history.

As work progresses on planning the duplicate Terrace Tunnel, such careless treatment would not be acceptable for any of the remaining century-old homes. The Agency should be engaging with the community (as it was advised by a visiting London professor last week) to give assurances that it values the old surviving homes and will ensure they are protected.

Who was Sir Robert Stout, whose house no longer exists? Born in the Shetland Islands, he immigrated to New Zealand in 1863, became a teacher in Dunedin, and then qualified as a lawyer, and lectured in law at Otago University. Less than ten years after settling in Dunedin, he was elected to the Provincial Council, and in 1878 he was appointed attorney general in Sir George Grey’s government. After a year he resigned, and returned to his law practice. Then in 1884 he was returned to Parliament as member for Dunedin East, and in August he became New Zealand’s 13th Premier when he formed a ministry with Julius Vogel as colonial treasurer. Stout and Vogel were returned to office, after a failed challenge, in September. But in the general election of 1887, Stout lost his seat by 29 votes and decided he could be of more use to the liberal cause outside Parliament.

After the death in 1893 of John Ballance, the Liberal premier since 1891, Stout was his preferred successor. From November 1893 to 1898 Stout was back in Parliament as one of the members for the City of Wellington. In 1895 he and his family moved from Dunedin to Wellington, where he started the firm of Stout, Findlay and Company. In 1898 he retired from politics, citing financial pressures and family responsibilities. In 1899 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held till 1926.

David Hamer writes in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:

Every spell in Parliament left him adversely affected financially and obliged to retire to the law in order to recoup his finances. He found increasing difficulty in pursuing this dual career, and usually the law prevailed when he had to make a choice. The dilemma was not to be resolved until he accepted the chief justiceship which, while being the top legal position in the country, also gave him a platform for continued influence in public affairs.

Throughout his career Stout maintained a strong practical interest in social and educational issues. He was an influential champion of equal rights for women, and in 1878 introduced the Electoral Bill which made woman ratepayers eligible to vote and to stand for Parliament. In 1887 he supported Vogel’s Women’s Suffrage Bill. He won for women the right to vote for licensing committees, and was largely responsible for the Married Women’s Property Act 1884, which declared a married woman capable of acquiring, holding and disposing of property in her own right.

The Stout house could have been as important to Wellington as the Katherine Mansfield house in Thorndon. Its loss is a reminder that houses of a similar vintage need to be given an assurance of their survival, as the Transport Agency develops its plans for tunnelling, again, under the Terrace.

Nicola Koptisch is the owner of a 110-year-old house on the Terrace, with a heritage covenant recently approved by Heritage New Zealand.