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History of Larnach Castle

The most important figure in the history of this Castle was banker and politician William James Mudie Larnach. In 1871, he commenced building a residence for his family. Larnach came from the Australian state New South Wales and his ancestors were emigrants from Scotland. No wonder that William Larnach decided to build a castle for his family near the city of Dunedin. Dunedin was given the flattering nickname «New Zealand’s Edinburgh». Larnach and his son found this picturesque site on the Otago Peninsula during a horse ride along the South Island. Atop one of the green hills there were breathtaking views over the bay surrounded by mountains, over the endless surface of the Pacific Ocean and the city stretched in the distance; thus there was no doubt that the future Larnach Castle would be constructed here. Before any construction works started, the workers clear-felled the top of the hill for several months and next they levelled the rock on the spot where the Castle was to be built.

Robert Arthur Lawson, a popular architect and creator of numerous buildings in the city of Dunedin, designed the residence for the Larnach family. Basalt mined in a quarry near the city was used to construct the Castle. The four-level castle building with square towers took about three years to complete; it was built in the Neo-Gothic style, which was popular at the time. However, it took much longer to construct the luxurious rooms. European architects and sculptors worked on the sophisticated interior and room decorations behind the walls of Larnach Castle for nearly 12 years. William Larnach spared no expense in completing his beloved wife’s plans and fulfilling her wishes. Most of the finishing materials were brought from Europe: glass from Venice, tiles from England, marble from Italy, grey slates from Wales. The wooden parts of the interior were usually made of expensive species of New Zealand endemic trees.

Skilful sculptors from the Godfrey family created very beautiful wooden ceilings in the Castle. The finest ceiling was in the Main Foyer; it took more than 6 years to complete it. In 1885 a huge ballroom was constructed in the Castle. The opening of the ballroom coincided with the celebration of Kate Larnach's birthday, she was the eldest daughter of the castle’s owner. When the construction work was completed, the Castle contained 43 rooms, including a winery, a stable, barns and other outbuildings. It is noteworthy that at first Larnach simply called his estate "the dacha" or "the country house"; the name "castle" was coined for this monumental building by the local press which first used this term in the articles on the Larnachs’ new house in 1874.

In 1875 Larnach, a happy businessman, farmer and banker, became also a politician. He held various administrative positions for many years. The happy life of William Larnach, however, turned out to be an illusion as his financial situation got much worse by 1877. After several years, being on the verge of bankruptcy, Larnach transferred the ownership of the castle to his wife Eliza to protect it against creditors. The unexpected death of his beloved wife in 1880 was a blow for Larnach, but a few years later he married again with his wife's half-sister, Mary Cockburn Alleyne. History stays silent on whether Larnach did it for love or he simply wanted to regain the Castle. However, Mary Alleyne left this world in 1887. William Larnach entered into his third and last marriage in 1891, taking young Constance de Bathe Brandon for his wife. Unkind rumours confirmed Larnach’s suspicions that his third wife cheated on him either with his own son or son-in-law. As a result of the unstable financial situation (and maybe because of the tragic story of his family), William Larnach took his own life in 1898.


His death made Larnach Castle infamous and additionally – since no will had been made – the heirs fought long legal battles and had to sell the Castle to state authorities. The authorities used the building quite inadequately – a hospital for mental patients was opened behind the castle walls. In 1918 the Castle was left to its own fate. The abandoned building often suffered from «visits» made by thieves and vandals. In 1927 Larnach Castle was bought by businessman Jackson Purdie who restored the building and the surrounding grounds for over 10 years. In 1939 Purdie had to put the Castle up for sale due to his health problems. There were no purchase offers for a long time so the owner even contemplated to demolish the building and sell the construction materials he would obtain in this way. A year later the Castle was sold at auction and next it went through several changes of ownership. Finally Barry and Margaret Barker took it over when it was in a semi-ruined condition. The newlyweds saw the Castle during their honeymoon on the island and decided to buy this magnificent building to restore it to its original splendour.