Larnach Castle – a Celebration of Victorian Excess

I have to admit a fascination for the Victorian era. Industrial innovation, scientific advancement and exploration made for a heady mix of momentous change. And how those successful nouveau-riche Victorians loved to flaunt their newly-minted wealth!

One such man was William Larnach, who built New Zealand’s only castle in 1871. If you are in Dunedin, I’d highly recommend a visit. According to their website (https://www.larnachcastle.co.nz/), “It took more than 200 workmen three years to build the Castle shell and master European craftsmen spent a further 12 years embellishing the interior.”

While the castle is glorious and the location is spectacular, it is all the interior detail I loved the most. Birds in domed display cases, sumptuous furniture and accessories, and totally over-the-top interiors are just some of the delights.

As the website says: “Materials from all over the world were used – marble from Italy, slate from Wales, floor tiles from England, glass from Venice and France. No expense was spared in creating Larnach’s dream home! Many New Zealand native woods were also used – kauri ceilings, rimu floors and honeysuckle panelling. In 1885 a 3,000 square foot Ballroom was added.”

Since 1900, the castle has had many uses, “as a lunatic asylum, a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers and a nuns’ retreat. The Ballroom was once even used as a sheep holding pen!”, before falling into decline. 

Three cheers for the Barker family, for six decades of dedicated renovation to bring the derelict mansion back to its current extraordinary state.

William Larnach doesn’t appear in my latest novel, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, but he does provide some inspiration for the characters and locations.

His own history would scarcely be believed if it was written as a novel. He started as a banker (his bank on the Australian goldfields was “a tent and his equipment consisted of dogs, a gun, and strong boxes”), before moving to New Zealand when gold was discovered in the 1860s. From there he expanded into shipping, farming, landholding, politics, speculation and a career in politics.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end well. Economic depression led to financial difficulties, drinking and depression. In 1898, Larnach locked himself in a committee room at Parliament and shot himself with a revolver. His final legacy to the world of Victorian excess was the enormous mausoleum in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery, a miniature replica of Robert Lawson’s First Church.

Agog as I am at the ostentatious wealth of the era, my own interest is at the other end of the spectrum – the tarnished reverse side of the shiny coin of economic wealth. The machinery of mass production put many skilled workers out of a job or forced them into unskilled labour or, if things got really dire, workhouses. Others took the courageous decision to emigrate to British colonies, like New Zealand – a migration that had profound consequences for the indigenous population as well as the new immigrants.

While the divide between rich and poor persisted in New Zealand (as it still does), the balance of power was tipped towards workers, who were a scarce resource, and women, who were an even scarcer resource.

Thus, the late Victorian era was also a time of great social change here, achieving advances in workers’ rights and women’s suffrage that would not have been possible in other countries.

A great source of pride to Kiwis and, happily for me, a rich vein of background material to plunder for the first three books in the Penrose & Pyke Mystery series. The first book (with a workers’ rights theme) will be released this week. Thank you to all the lovely readers who have pre-ordered it. I hope you enjoy it!

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