This was the question posed in The Press on 23 December 1982 regarding a “shabby and time-scuffed” property called Oak Cottage situated at 198 Milton Street. Once owned by Samuel Smart (1822-1897, opens a new window), an asphalt contractor and builder from Nottinghamshire, the cottage became home to three generations of the Smart family.
Samuel, his wife Catherine and children arrived in 1858 on the Zealandia, reputedly with the pre-cut oak timber which was used to frame and floorboard the property. Although some suggest the Smart family home was built in 1860, sources such as land deed records show Samuel purchased the 9 and ¾ acre site in 1865.
His first contract was to build the Government wharf at Lyttelton but the “black art” of asphalting became the mainstay of his business. He won contracts across New Zealand to asphalt roads and footpaths using his brother’s innovative metal and coal tar method. Samuel went on to own a stone crushing factory at Hornby, opens a new window. Highly mechanised for the era, it dispatched 18 railway wagon loads of prepared shingle every day. Smarts Road in Hornby is named after Samuel, and Smart's former factory site is now Kyle Park.
Oak Cottage, part of rural section 238, with its multi-gable design, veranda, plaster ceiling roses, arches and ornate fireplaces was fondly remembered by Harold Smart, a grandson of Samuel. Harold was born in one of the bedrooms in the “east wing” in 1900 and was one of 11 children surviving children born to William Smart, Samuel’s son, and William’s wife Lucy Ann. The children had access to a tennis court, a croquet lawn and a two-acre orchard and vegetable garden. Both horses and cattle were grazed on the land.
The family lived here until William’s sudden death in 1917, opens a new window. His son Leonard was then a P.O.W. in Germany and another son William was on active service. His daughter Minnie had been widowed the same year aged only 26. Lucy Ann died in 1929 at Lower Riccarton.
Behind the Milton Street cottage, covering 5 plus acres, were gravel pits used in Samuel’s asphalting business. Shingle was removed and then washed using water from specially sunk wells. When the shingle was depleted in the 1880s, Samuel retained the water filled pits and instead stocked them with a variety of fish including perch and trout. The perch flourished, as did goldfish. Even as late as 1925 local boys were busted trying to sell goldfish netted from Smart’s pond, opens a new window. Swans and ducks were plentiful, and black shags rested in large macrocarpa. A flat bottomed punt took intrepid voyagers out onto the pond, in the winter the frozen surface was used as a skating rink. Not everyone had fond memories of Smart's pond, Mayor Beanland called it a "stinking hole" but others rushed to its defence, opens a new window.
Purchased for £700 in 1922 by Christchurch City Council, the pond was gradually filled in with roadworking spoil and domestic rubbish. In 1930 the site was renamed Bradford Park in memory of F R Cooke, opens a new window, a member of council and native of Bradford, England.
Oak Cottage was featured in a 2001 Press article titled “Time Capsule” which compared the house to a time-machine, returning us to a world long gone.The cottage was then on the market for $165,000. It had previously been owned by a Christchurch builder who, intrigued by its oak construction, had started researching the history of the house.
With a distinctive circular driveway the house survived the earthquakes and was still looking cheerful and well maintained in 2017. Sadly the house was demolished in 2019 to make way for multi-occupancy townhouses, an acknowledgement of the property's past is indicated by the naming of a new lane within the complex "Shingle Lane".
It is highly unlikely that Oak Cottage was the oldest house in Christchurch but its association with the Smart family and their part in Sydenham and Christchurch’s early history make the loss of 198 Milton Street poignant.
Information for this article was sourced from The Press:
- "Oldest house in ChCh?" 23 December 1982 p6
- "Milton Street in its smart days" 11 January 1983 p17
- "Milton Street house" Letters 13 January 1983 p16
- "Time Capsule" 6 June 2001 p43
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More on the history of Sydenham
- Some local histories of Sydenham, opens a new window available at Christchurch City Libraries.
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To research your own home or area
- Take a peek at our recently updated research guide, opens a new window. Lots of tips, tricks and resources to help you uncover the secret history of your home.
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