News, Events and Culture

14 Ward Street - House and fence

14-Ward -Street

Building Details

Address: 14 Ward Street, House and garage
Construction date: 1916
Architect/designer: Robin Hood and L Baker
Architectural style: Bungalow
District Plan Category: 2
Building number: 78
Heritage NZ Category: Nil

Physical and Social History 

The original plans for this house are held in PNCC's Building Permit section. These are undated, but state that the plans were drawn up by Robin Hood and L Baker, for CH Withers. They showed a two-bedroom residence with stairs going up to a box room in the attic. There was also a basement under the bathroom containing the laundry and toilet.

The prior CT for this property was WN445/165. This was issued on 1 August 1935 to the Native Trustee. This covered about three acres (1.5431 hectares) of land at the Featherston Street end of Ward Street, being Lots 128-147 of DP8236. The leaseholds within this block date to 1915 (according to information on this CT), and possibly this indicates the age of the subdivision.

This property consists of Lot 134 and part of Lot 133, and its 20-year lease began on 1 August 1916 (other leases issued in 1915 were for full 21 year terms). This one was issued to Charles Herbert Withers.

Charles Withers had married Amy Beatrice Heaton, the daughter of one of Palmerston North's earliest setters, in December 1911, and the birth notice for the first of their two sons appeared in October 1912.[1] As their second child was not born until about 1920, it seems likely that Charles had seen military service during World War One. As he was keen enough to drive to Wellington and back over a weekend to show his young sons the American Fleet, perhaps he had served in the Navy.

Charles was a plumber's merchant, and his business was in Rangitikei Street. At about 9:30pm on Sunday, 16 August 1925, he and his family were driving homeward through Rangiotu in their new 5-seater Chandler car, along what is now SH56. They had been to Wellington to see the American Fleet in Wellington Harbour, having travelled down as far as Plimmerton the previous day. On Sunday morning they visited Wellington Harbour and had then begun what will have been a long, slow and apparently rather cold journey back to Palmerston North.

They were following a friend, William Kilpatrick, an engineer, who business was next door to Withers', who was accompanied by his wife and some friends. The previous night Kilpatrick had had a near miss with the Rangiotu road bridge, through misjudging the approaches to the nearby railway bridge (part of the Foxton-Palmerston North railway system), as being the ones to the road bridge. By the time he had realised his error and braked, the car had halted with its lights touching the palings of a picket fence that overlooked the Oroua River.

The Withers family were not so lucky. Amy Withers and her sons Leonard, known as Len, (5) and Jack (12) were in the back seat of their car at the time, and the two boys, at least, were asleep. At the inquest, Charles Withers said that he had previously driven over the bridge, but not at night. On this occasion though, he was travelling at about 15mph when his headlights picked up the railway bridge - which was situated about half a chain from the road bridge. As he approached, he believed the railway bridge to be the road bridge, until he also suddenly found the picket fence directly in front of him. He braked, but was too close to the fence to stop in time and the fence could not stop the car.

The car then plunged through the fence, down the bank (a drop of about 18 feet) and into the river, which was in flood and in this spot some 12 feet deep. Charles Withers managed to extract himself from the sinking car, which by then had passed under the road bridge. He was found clinging to willows about 15-20 feet from where the car went into the river. However, neither he nor the local people who rushed to help, could find his family, and these people had to struggle with him to keep him from re-entering the water to try to find them himself.

It took until 11:30pm to find the car and it was impossible to extract it from the river at the time. It was empty by the time it was recovered the next day. Ironically its lights were still burning when it was pulled from the river.

His friend William Kilpatrick, had soon realised that the Withers' car was no longer behind him after the bridge, and had turned back to see what had happened. Kilpatrick became involved in a systematic search for the family that went on for the next several weeks. This incident, and his experience the night before the accident, had presumably helped inspire the local community and/or the local authorities to remedy a particularly dangerous situation.

The Manawatu Times reported that the relatively new concrete road bridge was about ten yards from the railway bridge. Previously a wooden road bridge had crossed the river in the space between the concrete bridge and railway bridge, and due to the changed position of the new bridge, drivers were now required to make a slight turn onto it.

The book A History of Rangiotu records that the railway bridge had been built well above the riverbanks, to ensure that it was clear of floodwaters. This meant that the approaches were relatively high above the surrounding terrain[2]. Possibly the road bridge followed a similar practice. Furthermore, for a time road and rail traffic had shared a single bridge at this site. This was built sometime after 1889 and possibly even was the aforementioned demolished wooden bridge.[3]

The Manawatu Times reported that the problem was that when approaching the bridge at night, the car lights shone on the upper structure of the railway bridge, making it appear as if the crossing was straight ahead. This was accentuated by the fact that the sides of the new bridge were very low, and almost invisible until they were very close.

Charles had clearly been driving for many hours, including some four hours after dark, in what by modern standards must have been extremely uncomfortable conditions. He said that he had been completely deceived by the optical illusion created by the railway bridge. When he realised his mistake, he attempted to stop and at first thought the picket fence would hold the car. It did not. A newspaper report two days after the tragedy recorded that it had "cast gloom over the town and country."

Len's body was found five weeks later on 24 September and Jack's on 26 September, both at Moutoa some 25-30 miles from the scene of the accident. The body of their mother Amy Withers was never found. Her plot at Terrace End Cemetery remains empty between those of her two sons, despite their headstone being prepared on the assumption that one day she would be found.[4]

At the inquest in January 1926, the coroner was relieved to find that steps had been taken to try to prevent another such accident from taking place at this bridge.[5]

Charles Withers renewed the lease on the Ward Street section for a further 21 years on 1 August 1936, but what eventually became of him was not researched. Certainly, the coroner had commented at the inquest on the impact the tragedy had had upon his health.[6]

In 1957 the lease on the Ward Street section was issued to the Manawatu Meat & Cold Storage Company Ltd for 21 years.[7] In 1975 the lease was transferred to John Sampson and then in 1978 it was extended a further 21 years to 31 July 1999. The CT was then replaced in 1979.

CT WN12D/755 was issued in 1979 to the New Zealand Insurance Company Ltd "pursuant to Section 438 Maori Affairs Act, 1953." The property had been leased (No. 27562) for a 21-year period, starting 1 August 1957, by John Sampson. He then extended this for a further 21 years in 1978 - giving an end date of 31 July 1999. However, the lease was transmitted in 1989 to the NZ Guardian Trust Co Ltd, as executor.

The lease was transferred to Rhonda Mary Bachelor, a Senior Lecturer at Massey University College of Education in Palmerston North. It was then transferred to Gillian Mary Yorke in 1999. She then extended the lease for a further 21 years from 1 August 1999.

In 2000, the land was declared to be General Land under Section 135 of the Te Ture Whenua Maori Act 1993.

The lease was transferred to the present owners of the house, Patrick Andrew Murphy and Verity Purves Murphy in 2005.

Architectural Design 

The plan of the two storey house is rectangular with the long elevation facing the street.  The main entrance is from the side of the house leading to a central passage and stair down to the basement level with toilet and laundry.  To the rear of the house on one side of the ground floor are two bedrooms and bathroom with the kitchen, dining room and living room opposite.  Off the centrally located dining room is a wide porch towards the road, while the entire length of the side of the house opposite the entry has a wide Main Porch.  The living room and main bedroom have access to the porch. 

The house maintains the characteristics of the Californian Bungalow with moderately pitched wide and expansive main gable roof over the whole house, with a secondary, lower gable over the smaller porch towards the street. The roofs have wide overhanging eaves, with  exposed rafters and beams, splayed posts supporting the wide porches, curved walls and tall chimney.  Some of the windows also have curved forms.

The house is constructed of exposed brickwork with shingles on the upper half of the walls.  The doors and windows are of timber, with leaded lights to some windows.  The roof is Marseille tile, a common roof for the style.

The house has a wide lawn between it and the street and the boundary fence is of concrete block imitating stonework.  Tall trees are planted along the street inside the fence line.

Statement of Significance 

The house has local significance for its historical and design values, its local representativity of building style and high level of external authenticity.

The house has design values as a large and excellent representative example of the Californian Bungalow style, in a city where there are a number of very good examples of the style.  The house has a high level of authenticity of external design, materials, craftsmanship and setting.

The house has historical values in its association with the original owner of the house, CH Withers and its association with the architect, Robin Hood, a well known architect of the period in the Manawatu area.

This house has social historical significance due to its connection to a tragic car accident at a time when driving cars - especially on rural roads at night in mid-winter - was still relatively new. The concept of driver fatigue was not an issue at that time, but it seems likely to have played a role in this case. The journey between Wellington and Palmerston North, apparently at around 15mph, would have taken some seven hours each way. It would have been the equivalent of driving to Auckland and back - over a two-day period - in freezing conditions, on metal roads, and with no convenient white lines to follow when it got dark.

Additional References
Certificates of Title: WN12D/755 (1979), prior WN445/165

[1]Manawatu Standard 14 December 1911 1(1) & 5(2); 9 October 1912 1(1)

[2] KR Cassells, 'The Tramway and the Railway at Rangiotu', in Maren Dixon & Ngaire Watson (eds), A History of Rangiotu (PN, 1983), p33.

[3] KR Cassells, The Foxton and Wanganui Railway (Wellington, 1984), pp127, 128, 130, 173. By 1956, the concrete bridge the Withers' had missed, had cracked and heavy trucks were required to drive over the railway bridge once again. On the day in 1956 that author Ken Cassells travelled through Rangiotu by train, they followed a large transport truck across the bridge.

[4] Ian Matheson City Archives, NZSG Terrace End Cemetery Transcript No. 4280 - Block 36, plots 47, 49 & 51.

[5]Manawatu Times 17 August 1925 7(4-5), 18 August 1925 7(5), 28 September 1925 6(8); Manawatu Standard 29 January 1926 7(2) Inquest.

[6] The only Charles Withers in the Palmerston North Cemetery records was a labourer of 21 Cook Street, who died on 16 October 1941, aged 60. No relatives were referred to in his death notice Manawatu Times, 17 October 1941, 1(1), both death and funeral notices. This Charles Withers was known as 'Tim'. If this was the same person, one would question why he wasn't buried in the family plot.

[7] The Building Permit records indicate that in 1971 the owner was Mana Meats.