Researched and compiled by Charles Collins, with assistance from Ian Jeffery and Gordon Hasell.
In 1941 the late Dan Bryant, proposing the toast of “The Club” at its Jubilee dinner, said he hoped that the Club would sometime establish its own Alpine Headquarters. During the years of the war this suggestion was in abeyance, but with the return of members from overseas and anticipating an upsurge of mountaineering activities, the Club drew up a post-war policy that anticipated the erection of a permanent headquarters in the central area of New Zealand climbing.
Finance was the main consideration, but as a preliminary step, the Club in 1944 secured from the Crown Lands Department (the Mount Cook National Park was not yet in existence) a license to occupy an area of forty acres beside and below the main road to the Hermitage, immediately north of Sawyer Creek bridge, surrendered by consent from the “Glentanner” leasehold. A Headquarters Memorial Hut Committee was set up and in 1945 an army hut was acquired in Timaru that members of the South Canterbury Section painted and lined. In September it was placed on site at Birch Hill where they also planted about 450 trees as future shelter and firewood. Unfortunately, the trees did not survive the hazards of hares, sheep and climate. The initial working party consisted of: Walter Anderson, Fred Chapman, Des Granger, Harry Sievwright, John Rolleston and John Stockwell.
In December 1945 there died in Timaru, Dr W H Unwin, a keen mountaineer and member of the Club whose enthusiasm had led to the formation of the South Canterbury Section in 1936. He was its first Chairman and was in that office again at the time of his death. (Mt. Phyllis at the head of the Murchison is named for his wife.) His photograph and one of the Jungfrau, his last climb in Switzerland, were presented by his family and are on a wall of the hut living room. He left a bequest to the section that decided, as his memorial, to make this the nucleus of a fund to build a hut in a reasonably accessible area as a training ground for young climbers. To this fund were added donations from his family and Section members, along with a subsidy from the Club. The Ben Ohau Range near “Glentanner” and the Macaulay Valley, amongst other possibilities, were considered as suitable areas for a modest objective of this nature. The driving force in the scheme was Fred Chapman, who succeeded Dr. Unwin as Chairman and in some capacity, was closely involved with the Section and the Club until his death in 1977. It was he who, almost by sole efforts, conceived, organised and directed the completion of the original hut.
Meantime, doubt had arisen as to the safety of the Club site at Sawyer Creek and a report by two engineer members of the Club, E W Newton and C Clark, recommended an alternative, much smaller area up the road close to the Hermitage electric power house, which has since been demolished. After negotiation with the Department, the license was transferred to the new location, but some bureaucratic problems arose and the Club decided that no elaborate scheme for club Headquarters should proceed while the Government persisted with its policy for exclusive development in that area. The Tourist Department had just resumed control of the Hermitage after a long period under the Mount Cook Tourist Company and had its own scheme for the use of facilities in the locality. This, however, did not preclude the building of a small hut for climbers and the Club gave permission for the Section to build its hut on the newly acquired site. Work began at Easter 1949 when the army hut was moved, the building site levelled and foundations laid. The old hut, until recently, was still in use as a coal shed and junk room. The party on the job were: Rex Bonnington, Fred Chapman, George Curry, Maurice Burt, Ian Chalmers, Colin Don, Jack Kerr and Alan Shrimpton. John Arthur, who was also involved sixteen years later in planning the enlarged hut, prepared the plans and specifications.
After enforced winter inactivity, a party at Labour Day weekend built a shed for accommodation and storage to supplement the army hut and put down the plates of the main hut. From then, parties of up to a dozen, on alternative weekends in often-unpleasant weather, erected the framework, rafters, sarking and started on the weatherboards. On 27 December a Timaru party of five arrived in pouring rain just after “Glentanner” homestead had been burned to the ground through a lightening strike on its telephone wires. The next day a Wellington Section party of ten, retreating from an attempt to build its Murchison Hut foundations, volunteered to help at Unwin, making this the largest party to work on the hut at one time. For shelter they had to walk a further three miles down the road to a decrepit, old, Birch Hill hut. They returned to Unwin next day and after shovelling six inches of snow from the sarking, the aluminium roofing was put on to make the building weatherproof, which enabled them to doss down inside on the floor.
Rapid progress was made with the interior fittings, doors and windows and completion of the weatherboarding. When the Wellington party dispersed after New Year, in another attempt to reach its Murchison goal, it was looking like a hut. The Wellington members were: Charlie Collins, Mavis Davidson, Kirk Johnson, Rod Litt, Bill Wilson, Campbell McAllister, Jack Matthews, Bill Murray, John Pauling and Arthur Pearson.
Tempo slowed for the rest of the year with work restricted to completion of kitchen and bunkroom fittings and painting the interior. In October the North Otago Section organised by Bruce Gillies, Harry Stevenson and Brian Patterson arrived fully equipped to build the chimney of the living room fireplace and quickly put up the Oamaru Stone structure as its contribution. Altogether, about sixteen working parties had gone up to the job since it was started and members who participated were: Arthur Begg, Arthur Braithwaite, Rob Cole, Murray Cassidy, Norman Chapman, Fred and Phyl Chapman, Gordon Clark, Bill Cliene, Len Home, Chas Cunningham, Jack Keen, George Kerr, Tom Lamb, Ted Limbrick, Jim McFarlane, Charlie Reid, Dick Speechly, Doug Surridge, Derek Trigg and Alan Williams. Rex Bonnington, building inspector at Timaru Technical College, and weekend parties of his apprentices who were completing their courses at the College, where Fred Chapman was a Senior Master, gave considerable assistance. The total cost amounted to £1,241.
The hut was in use during the summer, but it was not until 5 May 1951 that it was officially opened. In addition to a large Section contingent, other visitors from Timaru, the Hermitage and “Glentanner” were: Desmond, Biddy, Basil and Bill Unwin, Mick Bowie, Pat Walmsley, Jocelyn Bueling, Nellie and Murray Douglas, Geoff Milne, Ivan Brealey, Bert Barley, Duncan Darroch, Harry Stinson, Tom Woods, Hans Bohne, Stein Lundberg, Geoff Pike, Roland Guinness and Keith Stirling. After some speeches, scarcely audible because of the exuberance of the gathering, the hut was declared officially opened by Desmond Unwin, the son of Dr. Unwin, and a dainty supper of saveloys, bread and butter and beer was served. The party concluded with a search party for a wandering member, who eventually returned under his own power about 1am after a sobering encounter with the Power House Creek.
By the mid 1950s it was clear that the accommodation and facilities were inadequate for the ever-increasing use being made of the hut. Even in the preceding few years, the army hut on the old site was a steady source of income at the unbelievable rate of one shilling (10 cents) a night. At the same time, the thought that the status of the Club warranted a permanent home was revived and a suggestion to this effect was endorsed at the Club annual meeting in 1956. Timaru members continued to oversee and maintain the hut. Many improvements were made and water tanks were provided when the water supply from the Power House Creek ran dry, after the Hermitage was connected with the main electricity grid in 1958. The hut was originally oiled, not painted, and this involved annual oiling parties until the building was finally painted in 1962/63. From the beginning it was recognised that wardens in residence during the holiday period were desirable for collection of fees and general management of the flow of visitors. Many older members will remember with affection, the kindly presence in the early 1950’s of Walter and Elsie Wendelken. By 1958 the Section was giving thought to extensions to the hut.
The Mount Cook National Park Board was established in 1955 and with the transfer of policy decisions relating to huts in the park from the Tourist Department, and briefly the Tourist Hotel Corporation, to the Park Board, the idea of a mountain headquarters revived and the Club received provisional endorsement from the Board for the site at Foliage Hill. The Club was again faced with most of the contentions of ten years earlier, complicated now by the existence of Unwin Hut. Tentative investigations were made as to the nature of the building, means of financing and a prospective date of completion. In 1960 the Club came up with a proposal, which was heatedly debated at the annual meeting of that year. Some members considered the scheme too elaborate and expensive and others, including the South Canterbury Section, were strongly against any plan that involved the abandonment or disposal of their Unwin Hut. A specially appointed sub-committee examined the possibilities thoroughly and presented a comprehensive report to the next annual meeting with a definite preference for a new building at Foliage Hill for living, cooking, dining and ablution facilities with three detached bunk rooms. This would leave Unwin Hut on a limb and its sale was proposed.
It was clear however, that members were by no means unanimous on this decision and directed by the Annual Meeting, a referendum was held on the proposal to build a new complex at Foliage Hill to replace Unwin Hut. The result was a definite vote for improvements to Unwin Hut and although Foliage Hill found little favour, there was a strong feeling for a building on the Glencoe Fan near the Hermitage. A formal request was accordingly made to the Park Board for a site on the Fan for a future headquarters building. At last however, all doubts were resolved and the Gordian knot was cut by the Board’s refusal of the application. The Annual Report for 1965 stated that plans were under way for making substantial improvements to Unwin Hut, which although not ideally situated, had a number of advantages which could outweigh any inconveniences. In any case it was the only spot available, and so ended the long saga of the Headquarters’ site selection.
A special appeal was made to members for contributions to a building fund and a Club member, N Y Wales of Dunedin a professional architect, undertook the intricate task of planning the additions to merge with the old hut. To the east of the bunk rooms were to be added the toilet and ablution block and beyond them the new living room and kitchen amenities. Finance was a problem, but this was much relieved by a generous offer by Gilbert and Jose Seymour of “Ferintosh” Station of any number of selected larch trees from their plantations to provide the bulk of the timber required for the additions. South Canterbury members with some assistance from Christchurch, felled and trimmed 153 larch trees to specified sized logs and freighted them to Fairlie for sawing and dressing to the required dimensions. The whole of the framework of the new building and the interior panelling of the main living room consists of larch from “Ferintosh” with the exception of the large main rafter beams for which there was no timber of suitable size. These are of Oregon and were specially processed to match when the larch panelling was stained. The builder was Keith Moffatt of Ashburton who worked on a labour cost contract, with certain material being supplied by the Club. Where appropriate, volunteer working parties were used and a cadre of qualified members was available from Christchurch and Timaru for specialised work such as wiring the building for electric power, installing the septic tank, drainage and plumbing, establishing the water supply, laying the linoleum in the main room, staining, painting and refurbishing the new and old work. The water supply line from an intake near the Sawyer Creek Gorge was mull-ploughed underground using a “Glentanner” tractor, and was originally a ¾ inch alkathene pipe. This proved inadequate and was replaced by a 1½-inch pipe, which provides four times the volume. It has a continuous run to prevent freezing and the overflow discharges into the old powerhouse tailrace bed below the hut.
The architect planned the fireplace as the main feature of the living room, with outside chimney to balance that aspect of the building. The North Otago Section, having erected the chimney of the original hut, again offered the experience and tradesmen for the new one. Harry Stevenson engaged two Oamaru stonemasons, Frank and Ted Hyland and transported them and their gear up to live on the job. A work party assisted in mixing concrete and carting stones from the nearby Worryline Stream. The massive mantelpiece is a Jarrah plank from the decking of the old bridge over the Tekapo River, now demolished and inundated. It was acquired by Harry Stevenson who adzed off the layers of old road seal to achieve its present condition. Originally there was, in the fireplace to support the logs, a pair of firedogs or andirons specially made at Buchanan’s Foundry in Christchurch and given by the Buchanan family who have played a prominent part in the history of the Club. It is hoped these mementoes will shortly reappear.
Members who played a large part in the organisation and execution of all ancillary work over the years 1965,1966 and 1967 included: Norm Hardie, Allan Cookson, Nui Robins, John Harrison, Brian Hearfield and Wyn Croll of Christchurch, and Ian Jeffery, Charlie Reid and Gordon Hasell of Timaru. The special appeal to members for contributions to the building fund was organised by Ed Hillary who was Club President at the time, and Bill Beaven. Reconstruction began in 1965 and except for some official opening at the Club’s 75th anniversary celebrations on 28 May 1966. The new hut was opened completely free of debt, funds coming from donations by members £3,418, a grant from Golden Kiwi lottery funds £1,500, the Brooke Memorial Fund £1,268 and the balance from the Headquarters Building Fund, a total of £6,237.
The contribution from the Brooke Memorial Fund came from the estate of Graham Brooke, an English climber and pilot who came out to New Zealand for a season’s climbing in 1952 and stayed in the old hut. Deciding to remain for another year, he joined an aerial topdressing firm, but met with a fatal accident on the “Grampians” Station. The gift was made from his estate by his sister, Mrs V H Stewart for some project relating to the mountains. A plaque in the main room records this contribution to the rebuilding of the hut.
Fred Chapman of Timaru performed the official opening at the Club function and no better choice for the occasion could have been made than this whole-hearted enthusiast who had contributed so much to the building of the first hut on the site. A special Unwin Hut Committee had been established to administer this valuable Club asset and attended to such maintenance and improvements as were necessary. The area held by the Club was fenced by 1969 and a cattle-stop installed at the road entrance with an attractive stone wall, showing the Club logo of twin peaks designed by Club member, John Harrison (who had not long before perished in an avalanche accident in a rescue operation on Mt. Rolleston.) The North Otago Section built the wall and Harry Stevenson welded the ironwork embellishments. In the early days, unsuccessful efforts were made at tree planting and a forestry project was even drawn up by a Club member experienced in that science. When the Park boundaries were extended, the hut area came within its jurisdiction and in accordance with National Park policy, the matagouri has been left to grow high and planting of exotics was abandoned. The site is held under a license to occupy for hut purposes from the Park Board.
When the hut was completed, it was thought that a picture above the fireplace would set it off and the Canterbury/Westland Section provided the photograph that was taken by John Harrison and printed by Guy Mannering. A recent addition is a painting of Mt Cook done for Fred Chapman who was a good climber and talented artist. It is a presentation from Lud Mahan as a tribute to Fred’s part in the history of the hut. The library, known as the Scott-Glasgow Collection, was originally donated anonymously to the Canterbury/Westland Section as a memorial to Jim Glasgow and Harry Scott who died on Mt Cook in 1960. It was in the Arthur’s Pass Hut for a short time, but in the late 1960’s was moved to Unwin Hut, as there it would have a more suitable home and is of wider use to the Club. The Otago Section gave the barometer when the hut was opened in 1951. It is still recording bad weather.
It was realised that with increased patronage, a warden in residence was needed rather than a custodian for the summer only. The old kitchen and lounge were adapted for living quarters and Joan Berry occupied these while also working for the Park Board. To provide additional accommodation, two outside bunk rooms, or “family units” were erected at the western end of the hut in 1967. These were built at St Andrews and freighted up in one piece. About the same time, a proposal for a separate warden’s residence was made by Gordon Hasell, South Canterbury’s Chairman, to encourage a young family to stay on the job for a reasonable period. The cottage was built at Oamaru and also was freighted up complete. The original cost was about $7000 and the quarters have twice since been extended. The first wardens in residence were Stuart and Heather Thorne early in 1970.
The hut has had several brushes with storm and flood, but has been spared the ordeal of fire. One flood came down from Sawyer Creek not long after the hut was built and put water into the building, but did no structural damage. A measure of river control was considered, but the enormous cost put the remedy out of reach and very little was done specifically to protect the hut. Later when the main road was upgraded, the Highways Board and Ministry of Works built vast new protection works for the highway and the Club benefited gratuitously from these works. High winds have always buffeted the hut and a Norwest gale in 1970 cracked the main strut and bowed in the big front window. Brian Hearfield repaired and strengthened it with a solid metal support from the eave to the floor. It was fortunate that the glass did not break. The most disastrous episode was the hurricane of October 1981 that completely lifted the roof from the outside bunk rooms and blew in the plate glass main window of the Warden’s house. Repairs were promptly made before the weather could wreak further damage.
Unwin in 1982
The hut is primarily for the use of members of the New Zealand Alpine Club, but other climbers are not turned away. There is a reciprocal arrangement with UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme) for use of the hut and payment of fees by members of certain overseas clubs. At times when the hut is not in demand by climbers, its use by school instruction and study groups is encouraged and enjoyed by young people who may return to the mountains for recreation and climbing. Unwin Hut has now become an integral and indeed, an essential part of the structure and function of the Club and is likely to continue as the mountain centre of the Club’s activities well into the future.
Posted By: Sefton Priestley