Holly Lea – a Rich Man’s Folly?

An elderly man, dressed in a plum coloured suit and bow tie, stands gazing at his nearly completed home. It is September 1900, and this is no ordinary home, it is reputed to be the largest wooden residence in Australasia. This 23,000 square foot, fifty three room Jacobean inspired mansion stands on five acres bordering Manchester and Colombo Streets.

The building has been designed by Christchurch born architect Robert William England,[1] who has trained in England. He and his brother Eddie, who is also an architect, have between them an impressive portfolio of commercial buildings, grand homes (including Riccarton Bush) and churches they designed in Christchurch in the early 1900s. Rennie and Pearce Builders were given the contract to build the house, assisted by Taylor & Walker Plumbers and the skills of an ornamental Plasterer.

The ground floor consists of the central entrance and verandah, and twin rooms – one a Dining Room the other the Drawing Room – that mirror each other. Each has a ‘Nook’ and is joined by a central lobby and outer hall. There is an inner hall around the central staircase, with a library and smoking room on one side, a breakfast room and office on the other.  Servant areas extend down to the back of the south facing wing, consisting of servants hall, butlers pantry, lavatory, three WCs, glass and china room, pantry, store room, kitchen, scullery, servants room, and separate wood and boots rooms. In the north facing wing there is a bedroom, dressing room, bath room and separate WC – close enough to the busiest part of the house to be used by the housekeeper, Mrs Philips.

Allan McLean of Holly Lea
Wealthy run-holder and philanthropist, Allan McLean

On the first floor a suite of rooms that reflect each other sit behind the front balcony, separated by a small lobby and passage. The rooms consist of a large bedroom, large dressing room, bath room and toilet on each side. A large double staircase sits in the centre of this floor, with mirror rooms on each side consisting of two large bedrooms and seven smaller bedrooms (four of which are for servants), two shared bathrooms and WCs each side, which extend down both wings of the building.

The front of the house it crowned by two cast iron topped ‘Tower Rooms’, each of which is accessed from its own stair case and passageway off the first floor.

A woman’s touch is necessary to complete the interior furnishings, and as there is no lady of the house, the trustworthy housekeeper, Mrs Philips has been charged with travelling to England to personally select the best fabrics and furnishings, as nothing suitable has been found locally.

Allan McLean, for that is the owner’s name, has called this grand new home “Holly Lea” after the McLean clan’s signature plant. Over the years the building will become more commonly known as ‘McLean’s Mansion’.

Crofters from a Scottish Isle

McLean reflects on his 78 years which has changed dramatically since his simple childhood. The son of a fisherman and farmer, the first eighteen years of his life were spent in a small stone croft on the Isle of Coll in Scotland. He realises now that his father’s death in 1836, from a fishing accident, was the turning point for his family. His widowed mother had worked hard to keep the farm and family together, but her decision to leave in search of a better life for her family in Australia had proved to be insightful. After working hard on the land, Allan and his brothers had been able to establish themselves as successful merchants and gold buyers, prospering from the Australian gold fields.

Holly Lea under construction
Workers are dwarfed by the towering timber framework of Holly Lea during its construction in 1900.

However, they had not been a family to rest on their good fortune, they had continued to look for opportunities elsewhere. With cattle sales on the increase in Canterbury, they had been drawn by the potential of the area. By early 1853, the entire family had emigrated again, this time a mercifully shorter journey. The brothers took up farming on a large scale. They had spent twenty years and large amounts of money taking the  land from ‘a state of nature’ and turning it into ‘one of the finest properties in the South Island’.[2]

McLean built a large, twenty roomed homestead, called ‘The Valley’ on his 48,000 acre station ‘Waikakahi’, located to the south of Waimate.  It had been surrounded with five acres of orchards, 30 acres of specimen trees, expansive lawns and an ornamental lake. The grounds required nine groundsmen and gardeners to maintain their condition. This well-to-do bachelor was happy to see his days out there, living in grand style.

Land for new Settlers and a large sum of Government money for McLean

In 1898, the New Zealand Government had come knocking. No longer content to see large stations in the hands of one family, they were advancing plans to subdivide Waikakahi and lease smaller holdings to new settlers. Their offer was persuasive, and by late 1898 McLean was making his way to Christchurch with one of the largest Government land settlements, around £365,000, “a quarter of a million of the purchase money in debentures, and some £70,000 in cash.”[3]

McLean Mansion
McLean’s Mansion was such a novelty that postcards were produced. Top: Muir & Moodie, Dunedin. Bottom: G & G Series No.146

Whilst there is still work to be done on Holly Lea, it is now ready for occupancy, and Mrs Emily Phillips is to be installed as housekeeper, taking control of the huge 23,000 foot residence. As he stands admiring this magnificent monument to the years of hard work and good fortune, Allan McLean is no doubt aware the building will outlast him. Plans must be furthered for its future once he is gone.

McLean is acutely aware of his own humble beginnings. He knows how hard life can be for a widow struggling to provide for her family once the breadwinner has gone. He has a generous nature, never shying away from providing hospitality to those whose lives had turned out less fortunate than his.

When his life draws to a close on 12th November 1907, only seven years after the completion of Holly Lea, his estate valued at over £500,000 is generously distributed amongst his immediate family of nieces and nephews, as well as to friends, staff and charity.

From Housekeeper to Wealthy Widow

An annuity of £3000 was to be provided for his long-standing housekeeper, Mrs Emily Phillips.  She was also to have the use, occupation and enjoyment of Holly Lea for her life time so long as she remained a widow. Women servants in his employ are left money for each year they had been in his employ.  After individual endowments had been made to family and friends, the remainder of his estate is set aside for “the maintenance of the McLean Institute for Gentlewomen”.[4]

“The mansion became the endowment of a home for indigent gentlewomen and their young children. The will makes special provision for the selection of women whose education and upbringing make them congenial companions in an institution intended solely for gentlewomen” wrote the Hawera & Normanby Star on 16 November 1907.

Image: McLean Institute Christchurch FGR 6704. Source: Auckland City Libraries.

In 1913, Mrs Philips surrenders her tenancy of Holly Lea. As a result of her former employer’s generousity, she too is able to retire in style, building her own impressive but much smaller, two storey turreted home on six acres in the Hunter Hills of Waimate, which she has called ‘Te Kiteroa’ – wide ocean view.  She is now a lady of means, able to afford her own gardener and chauffeur, and also build the two detached cottages necessary to accommodate them.

What to do with such a large building

Suggestions are made by a prominent businessman that Holly Lea be secured for a Vice-Regal residence, becoming Christchurch’s Government House.

The Evening Post writes “…it is maintained that “Holly Lea” is a much finer property than either of the Government Houses at Wellington or Auckland”. “it was remarked that it was reproach that the Governor, on visiting Christchurch, should have to accept private hospitality”.

It was considered “suitable in every respect, with large grounds. The furniture was complete in every detail, and the house was ready for immediate occupation. The conservatory was unique, and ripe bananas and pineapples were growing in it at the present moment.”[5]

These ideas were never to eventuate and Holly Lea’s future takes a less glamorous path but one that Allan McLean would probably be no less happy with; as a dental nurses’ hostel, a Salvation Army rest home, and for a time leased to the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Holly Lea Winter Garden at the Domain
The Winter Garden, late of Holly Lea, now in place in the Botanic Gardens next to the Townsend Conservatory. Image: Private Collection.

The contents of the Winter Garden and Conservatory were purchased by the Domain Board for the city. The curator of the gardens, Mr James Young and his staff undertook the job of uplifting the plants, which included palm trees of various sizes, orchids and subtropicals, and transporting them by trap along Colombo Street to the Domain on 30 July 1913, much to the interest of those who witnessed it.

The 76 x 36 foot conservatory, which had grown pineapples and bananas at Holly Lea, was also transported to a new home in the Domain gardens.[6]

A Rich Man’s Secret

Allan McLean’s wealth was so great – over half a million pounds – that extensive interest was shown in the contents of his will, not the least because there were so many benefactors.

Details of the will were printed in newspapers up and down the country, under such headlines as ‘A Rich Man’s Will‘ and ‘Munificent Bequests to Christchurch‘. Amongst the details of bequests made to nephews, nieces and staff, there was one mystery name; Miss Mary Alexandra Henderson, who would receive £5000 in trust. In 1907 this was a large sum of money, but well short of the £50,000 left to each of McLean’s nieces and nephews. Yet it would be argued that if anyone was entitled to McLean’s money, it was Mary Alexandra Henderson.

"Hunger and privation she has tasted to the dregs; bearing the cross of a sick husband who was unable to work, she has been driven by start necessity to sell the oilcloth on the floors of her home in order to provide food and clothing for her three children." "And while she was fighting her bitter fight with poverty and want, indigent gentlewomen were living in comparative affluence in the institutions her wealthy father had provided for in his will.' NZ Truth, Issue 1171, 10 May 1928, Page 1
“Hunger and privation she has tasted to the dregs; bearing the cross of a sick husband who was unable to work, she has been driven by start necessity to sell the oilcloth on the floors of her home in order to provide food and clothing for her three children. And while she was fighting her bitter fight with poverty and want, indigent gentlewomen were living in comparative affluence in the institutions her wealthy father had provided for in his will.'[8]
Mary was born on 13 July, 1886, the daughter of Margaret Dixon and an unnamed father. Allan McLean would have been around 64 at the time. Margaret was the wife of John Henderson, whom she had married in Oamaru, in 1874.[7] She came to Christchurch from her home in Redcliff, in Waimate, for Mary’s birth and christening eight days later at St Luke’s Church by Rev. Lingard.[endnote Christchurch City Libraries Church Registry Transcripts Index] From birth, Mary had been given into the care of Mary and Thomas Morrow, a Christchurch labourer, who brought her up like she was their own.

What became of Mary’s mother is unclear, but a Margaret Henderson came into possession of two Town Sections at Glenavey in 1886, the year that Mary was born. Glenavy was not far from Allan McLean’s property Waikakahi, in South Canterbury. There were about half a dozen men called ‘John Henderson’ in Waimate around this time so it is difficult to find exact connections. The Glencoe hotel was run by John Henderson and his family. His youngest daughter, also called Margaret, married one of McLean’s shepherds at Waikakahi in 1898, the same year he sold out to the Government.

In 1928, over twenty years after Allan McLean’s death, a public hearing was given to a previously private matter by one disgruntled member of the McLean Institute Board of Trustees. By this time, Mary Henderson was the widowed Mrs Heasley, with three children to provide for. She had married William Heasley in 1910, but he’d had problems with his business, and been declared bankrupted soon after their marriage. Mary had assigned over the income from her Trust to cover her husband’s debts until eventually all the money was gone. In 1915, William had gone to war, sent to Samoa, where he contracted dengue fever. Ill health dogged him and he died aged 46, on 5 May 1927.

Mrs. Heasley
Declining to pose for a picture, “N.Z. Truth’s” cameraman managed to snap Mrs. Heasley when leaving home on a shopping expedition. [8]
Mary was destitute. Rather ironic that the daughter of one of New Zealand’s most wealthy men should end up in the same state as those her father’s estate sought to provide for. For Mary Alexander Henderson was said to be Allan McLean’s illegitimate daughter.

Although Mary lived apart from her father for all of her life, her existence a secret to all but a few people, McLean visited her regularly and ‘lavished upon her every luxury’. According to Mary, he loved his daughter and would not allow anyone to adopt her. At the age of six, she was sent to convent school, but it was not to her liking and she ran away. Her father indulged her, and she was not made to return. Later she was educated at Cranmer House School and then Girton College. As a child, she and her father had been close, but as the years went by, the visits became less frequent until they ceased altogether.

In 1926, the Board of Trustees of the McLean Institute were made aware of Mrs Heasley’s circumstances, and the Board provided her with a home and supplemented her income. They made her an ‘indigent gentlewoman’ ‘thereby bringing her within the scope of her father’s will insofar as the institute provisions were concerned.’ They provided her with a home – ‘Morven’ – and supplemented her income. However G. A. Tapper, the honorary treasurer,  disagreed with the board’s decision and wrote a letter, which he sent to the Lyttelton Times, expressing his views, and bringing the formerly private matter out into the public arena.

Mary, like her father, possessed a strong and resilient character. She was also proud and did not want her personal life given a public hearing. However Tapper’s letter had deeply offended her and, hounded by the ‘Truth’, she eventually agreed to tell her side of the story. In the meantime, the Board of Trustees sought legal advice, which indicated they were within their rights to do what they had done for Mary and his family.[9]

In 1934, a private act of Parliament was passed to ratify and confirm payments by the McLean Institute for the benefit of Mary and her children.[10]

Garden party at Holly Lea, held in connection with the final meeting of debt workers and branch representatives of the Lady Liverpool Fund, 1919.Source: The Weekly Press, 12 Mar. 1919, p. 32 Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0086.
Garden party at Holly Lea, held in connection with the final meeting of debt workers and branch representatives of the Lady Liverpool Fund, 1919. [11]
Holly Lea
Image: Holly Lea, Christchurch, 1956. Taken by unidentified photographer. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library.
Holly Lea
Image: Muir & Moodie Photography Studio, circa 1905. Source: Museum of Ne Zealand. Reg. No: C.011592
Holly Lea
Image: McLean Institute Christchurch FGR 6701. Source: Auckland City Libraries.

For more info:

View Lost Christchurch in a larger map.


  1. Robert and his brother Edward entered in to partnership on 1st July, 1901. Source: “Notice of Partnership” Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 11010, 6 July 1901, Page 1. Robert died of influenza at the age of just 45, on Sunday, 15 November 1908, he is buried at Linwood Cemetery. Edward Herbert England, died in Christchurch, Wednesday, 9 February 1949.
  2. Source: Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XXXII, Issue 24, 21 October 1898, Page 2.
  3.  Auckland Star, Volume XXX, Issue 75, 30 March 1899, Page 2.
  4. Otago Witness 18 Dec 1907.
  5. Evening Post 12 February 1913.
  6. Press, 31 July 1913.
  7. “On the 14th instant, at the residence of the bridegroom, Oamaru, by the Rev. A. B. Todd, Mr John Henderson, youngest son of Mr James Henderson, Fifeshire, Scotland, to Margaret, youngest daughter of Mr Thomas Dixon, Belfast, Ireland. Home papers please copy.” North Otago Times, Volume XX, Issue 938, 22 May 1874, Page 2.
  8. NZ Truth, Issue 1171, 10 May 1928, Page 1
  9. “Faced Starvation though Father left Half a Million’ NZ Truth , Issue 1171, 10 May 1928, Page 1.
  10. McLean Institute Act 1934.
  11. Source: The Weekly Press, 12 Mar. 1919, p. 32. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0086.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarndra says:

    Allan McLean is buried in Addington Cemetery with his parents and siblings. I photographed this pre quakes and i have no idea if it is damaged 😐
    The MCLEAN's are home


  2. Philip says:

    I am currently Doing a 3D rendering of this Building and its my favorite period home in Christchurch


  3. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    If you like to combine geocaching with local history, we have also made Lost Christchurch: Holly Lea into a geocache

    The Groundspeak Geocaching Logo is a registered trademark of Groundspeak, Inc. Used with permission.


  4. Wendy Garland {nee Heasley} says:

    Greetings from Motueka, WOW, I loved reading this article, I found out some bits I didn’t know… I always knew Granny was illegitimate & that Alan McLean was her father etc etc & that Holly Lea was his home for Gentle Women. I have tried to find out if this amazing home was damaged in the earthquakes, no replys. Thank you, Wendy Garland My father was Grey Faulkner Heasley & his mother was Mary Alexandra Heasley, in later years she married an awesome man Shirley Thompson.


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