Highfield Cob Cottage



Highfield Cottage is situated on a gentle slope of a river terrace near the outflow of Firewood Creek into the Opihi River. It is situated on the Southern bank and faces north. It is visible from the access road to Mt Dobson ski field just prior to the creek crossing. It is about two hundred metres from the Horwell Downs homestead. The paddock surrounding the cottage has a significant mature redwood tree about 20 metres in front of the front door and remnants of an early homestead garden including mature rhododendrons, trees of various species and in spring the slope is covered by daffodil bulbs and primroses.



The parcel of land is Rural Section 28756, comprising 41 hectares. The original certificate of title was dated 24th December 1886, C/T 128/24 and the purchaser was Donald Bain of Ashwick near Timaru, farmer. This small holding was reportedly taken up in 1875 by Donald Bain and was a subdivision of Ashwick Station and named ‘Highfield’. On the final division of Ashwick Station in 1911, a part of Ashwick was put into this holding, and was taken up by A.B. Smith. Mr Saville, a subsequent owner, changed the name to Horwell Downs. (‘A Slice of Mackenzie Country History’ by W Struthers)


Date of Construction

This is not known but likely to be during the 1870’s.





Highfield is built of cob that has been built up using a rammed clay technique using moveable shutters and is called pise. This is the same technique used in several other buildings locally in the Burkes Pass Valley. The mixture includes mixed clay, manure and chopped tussock.

The cottage consists of 3 cob rooms each with a set of small 6-paned double sash windows. The floors were wide T&G. The rooms are arranged in a row. The central room has a cob chimney. During the 1930’s and subsequent years several modifications were made:

1)      An additional room built of timber in a vertical board and batten bungalow style was added onto the western end.

2)      An enamel coal range installed into the cob chimney and this room has been used as a kitchen/dining room.

3)      The eastern room has a cement chimney with a small open fireplace. It appears to have been used as a sitting room.

4)      At the back of the cottage a small scullery with a sink bench and a bathroom both rooms clad in corrugated iron.

5)      A small pitched roofed room used as a dairy constructed of corrugated iron containing shelves and a hinged window. A porch roof was created between the back door from the scullery to the door into the dairy.

6)      The exterior cob surface was covered with pebbledash stucco and painted a deep cream colour with green trim on the woodwork.

7)      The floor in the central room had rotted and was replaced with narrow T&G. A drain was placed under the floor so water catchment outside the back of the building drained under the cottage to the front.

8)      The wide T&G ceilings in the cob rooms that are coved in shape were covered with ivory board and battens. Evidence of several layers of wallpaper can be found in the central dining room.


History of Use

The obituary of Helen Bain published in the Timaru Herald in December 1916 gives us some information about the Bains and was transcribed by Nina McIntosh: “ She was born at Conchura, Ross-shire, Scotland in 1826 and came to New Zealand with her family in 1874 in the ship Pleiades. Some of the passengers had a narrow escape from drowning while landing in Timaru from surfboats. Mr Bain was one of the original selectors of land in the Burke survey district where he resided until his death at Highfield in April 1904. Mr and Mrs Bain’s hospitable home at Highfield was a welcome shelter for many a weary traveller….Mrs Bain performed the duties of a maternity nurse for the whole of the Mackenzie Country for a great number of years….she had often to ford flooded rivers on horseback and travel many miles over snow covered tracks…. Two sons and a daughter predeceased her; they were Tommy, Johnny and Mary Anne. The surviving members of the family, Mr W illiam Bain of Fairlie, Mr A Bain of Auckland, Mrs McMaster of Cave and Mrs M McLeod of Timaru…. (She was buried in the Burkes Pass Cemetery). Mrs Bain died suddenly at the Temuka Railway Station December 1916.”

Nina also records an entry in the Council minutes recording that at a meeting on 9th May 1887 Donald Bain requested two planks to cross Firewood Creek. It was apparently not granted.

Tony Barron has photographs that record his parents Alan and Cath outside the cottage about 1938 when he was a baby and the Burkes Pass Heritage Trust holds copies of these. They show the stucco surface and west end of the cottage prior to the wooden addition and also feature a small porch added onto the front door which has since disappeared. The cottage has been used to house seasonal labourers and as additional accommodation

A second house was built near the cob cottage about 50 m west along the bank. It has been said that this was a converted stable and possibly built of stone. This building has since been demolished although the foundations are still visible.

The building featured in September 2003 in a short film called ‘Embers’ that was about a returned soldier coming home to his wife from the 2nd World War after fighting the Japanese.



In the 1997 the cottage had a serious problem with a large crack and slumping of cob in the wall in the eastern end that backed onto the dairy behind the cement chimney and fireplace. The cause of this was build up of debris and hence water in the guttering in the valley between the two structures and rotting out of this gutter. The water then leaked through and wet the clay and over time caused major damage. Graham and Jane Batchelor were invited to take an interest in this building and with many other volunteers demolished the unsound portion of the wall that was most of it and rebuilt it using the original technique and materials, repairing other parts of the cob structure as well. A large hole that gave access to possums was filled. This has taken several work parties over several years and is ongoing.

Poor drainage from this V-gutter has also led to rot in the nearby floorboards.

Roof leaks have also been filled as much as possible but probably the whole roof needs replacing. The building has been fenced to keep stock out and a picket front gate and wooden gate at the rear added in sympathetic style.




Compiled by J Batchelor, 2006.