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Larnach Castle. The story of a tragedy.

Updated: May 6, 2020

Continuing the theme of man-made attractions in New Zealand, today we will tell you about the only castle in our country – Larnach castle. It is located in the city of Dunedin, the capital of the Otago region (the south-eastern part of the South Island) and bears the name of the banker and politician William Larnach, who built it for his family - his beloved wife Eliza and his six children. The tragedy that broke out in this castle at the end of the 19th century is the main thing that attracts tourists from all over the world today to this beautiful, but sad place.

William Larnach, who came to New Zealand from his native Australia in 1867 on the wave of the gold rush that swept the country, chose this site for his future castle personally, and he chose well. The castle stands on a hill across the bay from the city of Dunedin and Port Chalmers, and it offers stunning views across the bay and out over the ocean. Larnach was a shipowner himself and could see all his vessels entering and exiting the port. It is worth mentioning, that the first refrigerators, which finally allowed New Zealand meat to be exported to Europe were installed on Larnach’s ships.

The construction of the castle lasted three years and was completed in 1871, but its interior decoration undertaken by master craftsmen from Europe lasted another 12 years! Materials for the construction and decoration were brought from around the world: marble from Italy, slate from Wales, floor tiles from England, glass from Venice and France. Many New Zealand native woods were also used - kauri ceilings, rimu floors and honeysuckle panelling. In 1885 a 280 square metre ballroom was added. No expense was spared in creating Larnach's dream home! William himself called it The Camp. This name is tiled into the lobby of the castle.

William Larnach was an influential politician and successful businessman. He moved to New Zealand from New South Wales, to take up the position of manager at the Bank of Otago in Dunedin. Larnach's brilliant career encompassed his merchant empire Guthrie and Larnach – banking, shipping, farming, landholding, politics and... speculation. He travelled extensively and was a cabinet minister in the New Zealand Government, holding various portfolios over a period of twenty-five years. He was an MP with progressive views. For example, he supported Kate Sheppard’s struggle for women's suffrage. Her portrait is depicted on today’s New Zealand $10 banknote.

New Zealand $10 banknote, New Zealand travel blog, New Zealand tours

Eliza, William’s first wife gave birth to six children, and died in the 1880s at the age of 38, when their youngest daughter Gladys was still a baby. Two years later, William married Eliza’s half-sister Mary, but she too died five years later also at the age of 38. On January 27, 1891, William was married a third time to a woman from the noble and influential Wellington de Bathe Brandon family. The groom was 57 years old and the bride Constance de Bathe Brandon was 35. William’s youngest son, Douglas Larnach, was only 7 years younger than his new stepmother, so it is not surprising that Douglas and Constance soon fell in love. Their stormy romance developed in the castle and its beautiful gardens. Constance became pregnant but was about to get rid of the child without revealing the secret to her husband. However, Douglas wrote a frank letter to his father. On October 12, 1898, William Larnach shot himself in his office in Parliament House. He did not leave a note. The official reason for suicide was a threatening bankruptcy and the possible removal of his parliamentary seat, however, the author of the novel “The Larnachs” Owen Marshall insists on a more romantic version - the connection between his wife and son. Be that as it may, the truth is forever hidden in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery in a crypt built in the form of a miniature replica of Robert Lawson's First Church, Dunedin’s pre-eminent architect of the times.

Larnach's mausoleum, Dunedin, New Zealand travel blog, New Zealand tours
Larnach's mausoleum

William Larnach died intestate (without a final Will and Testament), which is strange given his position and suicide. After his death, a struggle began between his children, and the eldest son Donald did everything to deprive his brother Douglas, who he considered a traitor and "father-killer", of any inheritance. In 1906, the Larnach family sold the castle to the government of the Otago region for 3,000 pounds. Since then, the castle has been used as a hospital for mental patients, and during the First World War for shell-shocked soldiers. From 1918 to 1967 the castle was passed from hand to hand and was brought to a deplorable state. When in 1967, Barry and Margaret Barker from the United States bought the castle, it was almost in ruins. The Barker family did a great job of restoring the castle building and its interior. Today, Larnach Castle is one of the main attractions of Dunedin and is a beautiful and interesting place to visit. The Barkers bought and reinstated the once-sold Larnach furniture, paintings and utensils, so visitors today can see the original items and furnishings of the late 19th century. The gardens of Larnach Castle are a work of art by landscape designers, both old and new. In fine sunny weather, the castle gardens turn into a true paradise. While walking along the intricate paths overlooking the bay, scenes from the past appear in front of your own eyes. While walking along the intricate paths overlooking the bay, scenes from the past appear in front of your own eyes. Here is William Larnach walking to the castle tower to peer at the ships calling at Port Chalmers. Over there, Eliza in an elegant dress is walking arm-in-arm with her eldest daughter Kate. In the gazebo over the cliff, Douglas and Constance are passionately kissing ...

P.S. Constance gave birth to a child in England, where she left him in an unknown foster family. She returned to Dunedin and never met Douglas Larnach again. She died in 1942. Douglas Larnach passed away in 1949.

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