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Published: 03 December 2022

By Andy Ross

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The Waiopuka Woolshed

Sketch plan and drawing of the Waipuka settlement c. 1863

Kaikoura nowadays is known for its whalewatching and cetacean experiences with visitors from all over the globe coming to see these ocean mammals.

The offshore underwater world of the Kaikoura Coast is deeply etched and grooved with valleys and canyons, and these, combined with the mountains on the land that send quantities of nutrients into the ocean, offer an abundance of food for sealife. Whales come here on their migration to the north waters where they breed, using this as a place to rest and feed, and fur seals, crayfish and birds make a good living here. This has long been a place for pilgrimage and settlement and it plays an important part in the Maori story of the creation of Aotearoa New Zealand. 

In 1854, George Fyffe, a Scottish immigrant, took over whaling activities from his cousin's estate, the latetr having died in an accident at sea. The whaling though was already in steep decline, whales having been almost fished-out, so George's main work was sheep farming. It appears that he lived in Fyffe House, now a museum, and this house was built on the backs of whales... literally. Their vertebrae formed the foundations for the building.

On the 11th December 1854 George Fyffe wrote in his diary: "After dinner we put a bone floor into the shearing shed- It had become a nasty puddle - The bone floor is formed of the back bones of whales." Intrigued on reading this, two researchers from Canterbury Museum, Michael M Trotter and Beverley McCulloch started to look for evidence of this building with an archaeological excavation started in January 1993. 

In 1855 there were 500 sheep in George Fyffe's holding. By 1858 there were close to 4,000. In addition to those, neighbouring farms sent thousands of animals to the shearing shed so this must have been a substantial building. A hand-drawn sketch map of the area by Joseph Ward c. 1863 shows the whares (houses), wool shed and sheep yard, while a drawing by R H Codrington shows the sheep yard in its background and the wool shed. The exact location of the shed was recoded by Joseph Ward too in his surveyor's field book. Armed with this information the researchers identified and area and started to excavate using trowels. It quickly became apparent that the initial findings of whale vertebrae were too widely spaced and over too large an area to have been set into the ground, as records indicate, in two afternoons in 1854, so the decision was made to reveal the tops of the vertebrae by removing turf, recording the bones' locations with theodolite survey. As the work progressed, cultural material was uncovered from both Maori and European occupation of the site, and the discovery of two broken sheep-shearing shears seemed to confirm that this was indeed the site of the original wool shed. 

There was no floor remaining. Perhaps it was reused elsewhere when the building fell into disuse. It seems not to have disintegrated because there is no record of it remaining but the location of the vertebrae indicate that these were piles and there would have been flooring laid onto them. Large nails were found that, due to their size, were probably used in framing rather than nailing boards - perhaps whale bones were used for this purpose - but some smaller nails were also uncovered, too few to be the result of disintegrating boards but enough to indicate the probability of a nailed wooden floor. 

There remains more work to be done, but this chance reading of a diary entry has uncovered a fascinating and poignant part of the history of sheep farming in Aotearoa New Zealand.