One castle, and a lot of controversy

 

Just outside Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, is one man’s dream castle. But that dream turned into a nightmare, as David Whitley finds out

You don’t, it seems, need to be a member of the aristocracy to have your own castle. It never stopped William Larnach, after all.

New Zealand may seem like an odd place to find a castle. It has no history of medieval warfare and no reason to assume it will come under siege from trebuchets at any point soon. But Larnach, an Australian-born banker who came over to Otago during the gold rush in 1860s, saw a perfect spot on the Otago Peninsula and decided he wanted to build one there.

Larnach Castle, of course, is suitably ludicrous. Fabric wallpapers and intricately carved wood-panelling were shipped in from England, the supposed verandah was glassed over when they realised that the south of New Zealand doesn’t quite have an Australian climate and a tower was built to ensure they had a prime position to take in the views.

But traipsing through the castle to see the rooms and old furniture is only moderately interesting, despite the extraordinary efforts of the current owner to track down all the original pieces that were sold off when Larnach’s children sold the estate. What really makes the castle worth a visit is the story of the Larnach family. And frankly, you’d not be surprised if one of them was haunting the place.

It all started going a bit weird after a family trip to London, where William’s wife Eliza gave birth to their sixth child, Gladys. When they came back from London, Eliza’s sister Mary joined them and came to live in the castle.

Alas, Eliza had grown to hate the isolation of the place and being left alone while Larnach was in Wellington, strutting his stuff as a power-behind-the-throne sort of MP. So she got a townhouse in Dunedin, where she promptly died at the age of 38.

Larnach didn’t have too far to look for a new wife, and married Mary, promoting all manner of tutting from respected members of society. It also was the start of legal wranglings over Larnach’s will – suffice to say the children didn’t want Mary getting her hands on anything.

But then Mary died, again aged 38, and Larnach took a third wife – Connie – soon afterwards. But there was a substantial age gap between the castle-building MP and his new wife. She was closer to his children’s age than he was.

It seems one of the children spotted this. Rumours started circling that Larnach’s son, Douglas, was having an illicit affair with his stepmother. Keeping it in the family had become something of a family tradition.

The tale goes that Larnach didn’t know about this affair until he received an anonymous letter warning of it. And he shot himself dead inside the New Zealand parliament building the day afterwards.

He died intestate, so this triggered off huge rows about the inheritance. Connie and Douglas lined up against the other kids, who eventually won. Although a fat lot of good it did them, as they inherited a pittance – unsurprisingly for someone who sees fit to build himself a castle, Larnach had been living beyond his means for quite some time and was virtually bankrupt.

The Larnach children decided to get rid of their dad’s castle soon afterwards. Luckily neither it or the story behind it have crumbled into obsolescence.

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

by David Whitley

  

  

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