Historical Significance
of Cargill's Castle

Cargill's Castle, known as The Cliffs, was built by Edward Bowes Cargill, a member of the founding Cargill family and a prominent Dunedin business man and political leader. It was designed by Frances William Petre, a leading New Zealand architect, and its location on the St Clair cliff tops has ensured that it remains a Dunedin landmark.

EB Cargill and the Cargill Family

Captain William Cargill

"Captain William Cargill may well have found it appropriate that his son's pursuit of wealth produced a ruined castle while the tall spire of the First Church continues to grace the Dunedin skyline."

The Cargill family played a significant role in the founding and early history of Dunedin. Captain William Cargill has long been recognised as the one of the forces behind the establishment of Dunedin and the subsequent colonisation of Otago. Dr Tom Brooking, one of New Zealand's foremost historians, states that:
"Cargill was more responsible than any other individual for encouraging the large-scale migration of Scots to New Zealand, and this was his greatest contribution to New Zealand's history."

Although his obstinacy and conservative views were seen as negative factors, Cargill kept the settlement going when similar schemes failed elsewhere and his strong leadership partly explains why Otago immigrants fared better than those in other provinces. His conservative views included a focus on the Free Church of Scotland as the centre of life in the new community and he was instrumental in the establishment of the First Church congregation.

Edward Bowes Cargill

Edward Bowes Cargill, the seventh son of Captain William Cargill and his wife Mary, was born in Edinburgh on 9 October 1823, and joined the family in Dunedin in 1857, when he was thirty four years of age.

Edward's entrepreneurial skills came to the fore when he joined his brother John and brother in-law Johnny Jones in a general merchant venture. His success in numerous business initiatives and contribution to charitable and voluntary associations won him leadership in Dunedin society. He also had a successful political career at the national, provincial and local levels and was elected Mayor of Dunedin during the city's 50th Jubilee year in 1898.

Edward Cargill's most lasting impact was as a prominent member of the 'new elite', which established Dunedin as New Zealand's leading commercial and industrial centre. His importance is demonstrated by Brooking's statement that he was probably Dunedin's most prominent businessman after William Larnach . At the time of his death in August 1903, the ODT described him as an "old colonist, who has played a by no means small part in the history of Otago, and consequently this colony."

The Cliffs: Design and Construction

Original Construction

In 1876 work began on EB Cargill's mansion on the cliffs above St Clair, which like the homes of other prominent Dunedin citizens, stated in miniature the same themes of certainty and progress that the city's public buildings were designed to convey.

The Italianate styled building was designed by one of New Zealand's most outstanding architects, FW Petre. Petre is best remembered for his superb church architecture, of which St Joseph's Cathedral in Dunedin is an excellent example. Known as 'Lord Concrete' for pioneering use of this building material, Petre constructed the walls of the Castle in poured concrete and the ruins make possible the study of his building methods.

The building had a number of unusual features, incorporating Cargill's original ideas on the subject of house design. All the main rooms faced away from the sun, and there was a toilet by the front door as it was 'a necessary function - nothing to be ashamed The drawing/dining, room was on the left of the main entrance, with the stairs to the right leading to the kitchen and utility areas. The bedrooms were located on the upper floor. In all, the building had twenty one rooms. A semicircular drive enclosed the front lawn, flanked by the croquet lawn to the east and the outbuildings to the West . The spectacular views were offset by the wind, so strong that parts of the shelter belt did not grow straight.

The Ballroom Addition and Lookout

EB Cargill named the structure 'The Cliffs' because of its mock battlements. Local Dunedinites however, quickly named the building 'Cargill's Castle', as it is still known today . 'The Cliffs' was noted for its balls and weekend parties and it was after the Otago Anniversary Ball of 1892 that disaster struck, as a fire in the utility area gutted the entire building. Although Cargill rebuilt, the lavish interior decoration and superb woodwork was not replaced. It was at this time that the ballroom was added and that the original parapets of early photographs were replaced with the present design.

The lookout was also constructed during this period when fears of Russian invasion were prevalent and it was used during both the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and World War One

The Architect and the Owner's Daughter: A Controversial Romance

A small controversy occurred during the construction of the building when Margaret, the eldest of Cargill's five daughters, fell in love with the architect. This caused some consternation, as E B Cargill was a staunch Presbyterian who did not approve of his daughter marrying into a leading Roman Catholic family. It is not known how Cargill's initial opposition was overcome, but Francis Petre and Margaret Cargill were married in the drawing room of the Castle soon after its completion.

Subsequent Owners

The Dunedin Builder

In 1908, Francis and Margaret Petre sold Cargill's Castle to Frederick Lyders, whose twin Harry is traditionally thought to have built the structure. This is in fact a myth, although both brothers were well known Dunedin builders". The Lyders lived in the castle until they sold the property in 1922.

The Restaurateur and Cabaret Owner

In the 1930s the then owner, John Hutton, extensively redecorated the interior before opening a tea-rooms, restaurant and cabaret. The castle became a centre of Dunedin nightlife during World War II as the cabaret was a popular spot for visiting servicemen.

The Evangelical Christian

In 1946, after Hutton made a sudden recovery from illness and converted, the castle became an evangelical Christian centre. However, this use failed and in 1949 the castle was sold. Once again, it became a popular cabaret, primarily entertaining visiting sailors in port.

The Path of Decline

An International, Fine Arts Centre

After a period of decline, Leslie Trawbridge purchased the castle in 1965, embarking on an ambitious scheme to turn it into an international opera and fine arts centre. Despite initial success, the project failed and the building languished.

The First Demolition

The condition of the building became obvious in 1974, when John Simpson was refused planning permission to convert the castle into a hotel due to its structural unsoundness. Simpson began demolition of the building, but halted despite having removed the windows and exposed the castle to the elements.

Unarrested Decay

The path of decline has continued since that time. All that is left of the former mansion is traces of peeling wallpaper and an ornate ceiling attached to the stark concrete walls. The current owner, Mr Dave Collett, demolished the ballroom in 1996 and has a consent from the Dunedin City Council for the demolition of the whole structure.

Action to Save and Secure Cargill's Castle

Community Meeting and Support for Saving Cargill's Castle

The issuing of a demolition order for the castle aroused strong community concern. A public meeting of approximately 80 people was held at the St Clair Surf Club on 13 August 1997. Notice of the meeting had been brief and not well publicised but the attendance was unexpectedly high, reflecting the high level of public concern that had already been noticed in calls to both the Dunedin Visitor's centre and the Regional Office of the NZ Historic Places Trust.

Formation of the Cargill's Castle Trust

After this meeting, the Cargill's Castle Trust was formed and entered into negotiations with Mr Collett in order to retain the castle, which is a significant part of Dunedin's cultural heritage, as part of the future of Dunedin.


 For more information refer to the Trust page