Today we know the Ilam Homestead as the University of Canterbury’s staff club and for its connections to the Parker-Hulme case, but another house existed on the site and burnt down in 1910.
This wooden house was built in the 1850s for the Hon. J. C. Watts Russell, a prominent early settler. It changed hands several times and in 1910 was owned by the Countess Reina Ruys Fortega de Fresnedo. The Free Lance newspaper of 5 October 1907 tells us that she is a lady of ‘Spanish birth and estates’ and that she is a ‘countess by her own inheritance’. In 1907 she was making her first trip to the colonies, having done much travelling in the Old World.
The Countess is something of a mysterious figure and I haven’t (so far) been able to find out much about her, such as where she came from and what happened to her after the fire. However, the New Zealand Truth, a good old fashioned scandal rag, reveals that she was sued by her gardener in early 1910 for non payment of wages. (What ever did we do before Papers Past?)
Reports on the Press and the Lyttelton Times, both on 23 August provide quite a lot of detail abut the fire. The Countess was away in Australia, leaving the caretaker, Mr H. J. Croker as the only occupant. He escaped, but rather stupidly went back in the retrieve his gold watch (do not do this!) Thankfully the house was insured (for £2000) but the contents – which included some splendid furniture, silverware, and a new piano and pianola – weren’t.
Fortunately the cats and dogs managed to save themselves, but sadly a number of guinea pigs and canaries were not so fortunate. There were also two caged parrots (or possibly cockatoos). The fire seems to have destroyed or melted the cage and one of the parrots didn’t make it, but the other one did, albeit in a singed condition.
The Press reports that the ‘origin of the conflagration is a mystery’ but the Lyttelton Times suggests that there could have been sinister motives afoot:
Mr Crocker states that his opinion that the fire was willfully started is strengthened by the fact that some months ago the Countess received an anonymous letter stating that she would see Ilam burnt down.
Might this possibly be a case of a disgruntled gardener? I’m presuming that there must have been some kind of inquest, but I’m yet to track that down…
Do you know anything more about this fire or the mysterious Countess Fresnedo?