Loners, Vagrants and Deserters – The Port Hills Cave Dwellers

Since early European settlement, the caves that honeycombed the Port Hills, from Sumner to Lyttelton, have been used by all manner of loners, vagrants and deserters as places of escape or retreat

Pitched into the rocks, a cave-dwelling can just be seen in this early image which appeared in the Weekly Press, May 8, 1912. Source: Christchurch City Libraries.
Pitched into the rocks, a cave-dwelling can just be seen in this early image which appeared in the Weekly Press, May 8, 1912. [1]
One Sunday in July 1863, a party of men employed in the tunnel, while on an excursion to Godley Head, discovered an old man in a cave. He was in the last state of exhaustion. ‘Having administered some food and a stimulant to the sufferer’, the old man recovered enough to speak. He told them his name was Miller, and that he had been working on a neighbouring farmer. Three weeks earlier he had taken ill, and gradually getting worse, he had sought refuge in the cave where he would, he believed, spend his last days before death.[2]

Just over twenty years later, in August 1884, an elderly woman by the name of Gallagher, apparently ‘suffering from some mental disease’, was found by two Constables hiding in a cave located in ‘one of the highest of the Port Hills’. She had been missing from her home in Salt’s Gully for two to three days, and had sought shelter in the cave from the severe frosts. She too was found in an emaciated condition. There was little doubt she would have perished had she remained in the cave another night. [3]

The Sumner drowning catastrophe

On the afternoon of Sunday, 11th September, 1892, four men hired a boat and sailed down the Avon to Sumner, supposedly intending to make for Lyttelton. Only one of the men had any sailing experience.

They were sighted crossing the Sumner bar, but shortly after disappeared and were never seen again. [4] A large search effort followed. A detachment of the Kaiapoi Rifles searched the mouth of the Waimakariri. ‘A’ Company Volunteers scoured New Brighton, the estuary, and the Avon and Heathcote rivers. Another detachment searched from Sumner to Godley Heads.

Two men, who were part of the search effort at Sumner, discovered a cave in the hills beyond Taylor’s Mistake. In it they found two swags or bundles, apparently of clothing or blankets, and some boots, knives, forks and spoons. The cutlery was covered in rust, so they supposed that the articles had been in the cave for some considerable time. There was, however, no sign of the owner of these possessions. [5]

Whilst exploring Taylor’s Mistake in December 1895, some young boys claimed they had found at the entrance of a cave a fishing-rod, a pair of trousers, and other articles of clothing. This was  reported to the police, and Constable Hayes, who was at Sumner, went to investigate. [6]

A deserter hides out

At 3pm on the afternoon of April 23, 1899, the barque Lock Linnhe, sailed in to Lyttelton harbour under the command of Captain Philman. On board was Otto Jorgensen, and he had just one object on his mind – to jump ship. Escaping Lyttelton, he made his way over the Port Hills to the Sumner side where he hid out in a cave for some weeks, supported himself by fishing. His freedom did not last. He was soon captured and, in late May, he was charged with deserting his ship. A sentence of three months imprisonment followed, which would have conveniently had him miss the departure of the Loch Linnhe homeward. After a stint in the graving dock in Lyttelton, having her rivets tightened and a spruce up of the hull below the water line, she sailed for Falmouth, at 2pm on June 19th, short one Scandinavian seaman. [7]

A home for the homeless

Ellen and Robert Croton, an old couple who were well known to the authorities, set up home in a cave located a little above the artillery barracks, during the winter of 1901. Many years previous the cave had been used to store blasting powder when the road over the hill was being made. The couple were no strangers to living rough, and had turned the mere hole in the hillside into a filthy hovel. [8]

Cave Dwelling Taylor's Mistake
A family pose outside one of the cave dwellings at Taylor’s Mistake in 1924. [9]
“I’ve run away from home,” was the explanation given by a 12 year old Sumner boy found sleeping in a cave on the hill at Sumner in 1927. Mr Crawshaw of Scarborough was taking a shortcut from his home to catch the tram one Saturday morning, when he came across what looked like a bundle of clothes. It was a lad, starving and cold from a night spent in the cave. He was handed into the custody of the local constable, but because the boy could not remember where his house was, he was taken to the police station in the city. [10]

Hobson's Cave Whare Moki
Interior of a cave hut at Taylor’s Mistake, used by young men on weekend summer trips, 1910. It was known as Hobson’s Cave House, or Whare Moki. [11]
Weekend Retreats

A number of ‘Christchurch citizens took possession of portions of the foreshore in the neighbourhood of Taylor’s Mistake’, in places where the erosion of the sea had formed the rocks into caves. The caves were located right in the hills, under the cliffs, and were inaccessible from the shore, except by boat. In some cases the occupants had boarded the caves in, and in others, huts were erected inside the caves.

In the early days, the ‘Cave-dwellers’ had approached the Marine Department who had allowed them to stay. [12] In February 1897, Messrs J. W. Kerr and others asked permission of the Harbour Board to use a cave near Taylor’s Mistake. The Board replied that they had no jurisdiction above high water mark. As far as the Harbour Board was concerned, the matter ended there. For the future ‘cave-dwellers’ there seemed to be no immediate impediment to their occupation, other than what nature provided. [13]

Targets for vandals

At 6.15pm on the 11th September 1898, Taylor’s Mistake was ‘enveloped in smoke’. One of the caves, which has been turned into a ‘seaside residence by some school teachers, who resided there frequently, and who have all the fittings to make it comfortable,’ was in flames.

The cave had the appearance of the mouth of a furnace. It was used by Messrs Lawrie, Wilson and Wallace, who jointly had possession – for the benefit of wives and families – over the previous three years. They had walled in the mouth of the cave with stone, at a considerable cost, and fitted a substantial floor. The party also maintained a good sea-going boat at the place, and at least on one occasion had used it for rescue work.

When members of the party returned to the cave they found that the door had been broken open, that gear and tools had been destroyed, many articles had been removed, and the place had been set on fire. A reward for the discovery of the offenders was offered by the families. [14]

In July 1903, a cave occupied by Richard Scott and others, which they used as a fishing retreat, was also vandalised and set on fire. The internal fittings of the cave and the contents were burnt, and the front of the ‘whare’ had fallen out. [15]

A party of campers at Taylor’s Mistake had an unpleasant experience, which might easily have ended fatally. One Saturday evening in December 1908, they had set their fishing nets and retired to their bunks in one of the caves to rest, when a bomb was thrown into the opening of the cave and exploded. One of the party was hurt, and clothes and rugs were much damaged. The culprit was never caught. [16]

The cave abode of Mr J. H. Morgan, known as the ‘Hermitage’ at Taylor’s Mistake, was broken into in 1919, and a small quantity of tinned food and biscuits was taken. The thief gained entrance by means of breaking a large sheet of glass in the door. The same dwelling had also been broken in to twelve months previous and the offender, on that occasion, had been apprehended by the police and convicted. [17]

Sometimes the vandal was Mother Nature herself

On arriving at his cave dwelling at Taylor’s Mistake on Saturday afternoon (30 August, 1926), one Christchurch cave-dweller discovered that his dinghy, together with his boathouse, had been reduced to matchwood by falling rock.

Huge masses of rock, some of the pieces being over a ton in weight, had completely demolished the boat and boathouse. The rock had come downhill for a distance of about a quarter of a mile, and from a height of about 700 feet. Apparently it had fallen during the construction of the road which at the time was being formed between Evan’s Pass and the lighthouse. [18]

During high seas and south easterly gales, huge breakers dashed against the rocks at Taylor’s Mistake sending spray to the top of the cliffs and causing some of the huts on the lower levels to receive severe treatment. During one heavy storm in 1918, over half a dozen huts had been completely washed away, littering the beach with hut furnishings, clothing and timber. [19]

Cave dwellers vex the Sumner Borough Council

The Lyttelton Harbour Board had informed the Sumner Borough Council that it had no power to deal with the cave dwellers at Taylor’s Mistake, so the Sumner Borough Council sought to bring the cave dwellings under their jurisdiction. As far as the authorities were concerned, those who had erected houses at Taylor’s Mistake, without the necessary permissions, we’re contravening the borough-by-laws. [20]

Front of Hobson family cave
The front of the Hobson family cave. [21]

The Cave Dwellers

Charms of Taylor’s Mistake
Leading the Simple Life

Dotted round the cliffs of Taylor’s Mistake, near Sumner, are a number of cave dwellings, the abode of weekenders, who prefer to break away from the rigid conventions of society and lead the free and simple life for a small portion of the week. Several of these caves have been occupied for many years. No rent or rates are paid by the occupiers, and until recently they have never been interfered with by anybody.

The position is this:

All the land round the cliffs of Taylor’s Mistake belongs to the Government, who let it to the late Mr R. M. Morten [22] some years ago, and his trustees subsequently sub-let it. But by ancient law all the land for one chain above high water mark is the King’s highway, free of access to all, and so long as a person is not blocking or hindering such highway, or creating a nuisance, he has a perfect right to remain on it. Some years ago some of the cave-dwellers approached the Lyttelton Harbour Board with a view to paying a pepper-corn rental for their abodes, but received the reply that the Board had no jurisdiction whatever over the caves, nor had the Sumner Borough Council, the controlling body was the Marine Department.

Sumner Council’s Action

Taylor’s Mistake, with its beach and its rugged cliffs, has of late years proved a popular holiday resort and picnic ground, and recently a movement originated in the Sumner Borough Council to secure that body’s control over the cave-dwellings. With that end in view, the Mayor (Mr E. Denham) had an interview with the Prime Minister recently, and asked him to place the dwellings under the control of the Council. As a result, the Mayor subsequently received a letter from the Under-Secretary of Lands, stating that the Government proposed to make the strip of land on which the cave-dwellings are situated, a road reserve, and then to place it under the jurisdiction of the Sumner Borough Council.

Speaking to a “Press” representative on the matter, Mr Denham said that once the jurisdiction of the reserve was vested in the Council it was for the Council to consider what regulations were necessary. At the present time, the cave-dwellers were governed by no regulations at all, and they were also paying no rent.

A complaint had been received from Christchurch that the cave-dwellers ought not to be allowed to continue possession of the caves at all, because it deprived the public of shelter in the event of rain. He had been told that as many as 500 or 400 people went to Taylor’s Mistake on a Sunday. He believed the cave-dwellers were very kind to visitors to the place, supplying them with water and helping them with afternoon tea. The Sumner Borough Council, however, foresaw the time when it might be necessary to interfere actively with the cave-dwellers. He was to interview the Commissioner of Lands as to how soon the Government could commence operations


Taylor’s Mistake

Yesterday a “Press” representative visited Taylor’s Mistake, and under the guidance of Mr T. J. Archbold, one of the pioneer cave-dwellers, visited many of the habitations. Taylor’s Mistake is a bay between Sumner and Lyttelton harbour, Whitewash Head being on one side and Godley Head on the other. In the centre is a fine sandy beach of about four chains in length, and rising precipitously on either side are the cliffs, many hundreds of feet high. Dotted all around these cliffs from Whitewash Head almost to the Lyttelton lighthouse are the cave-dwellings. The path leading to those on the Godley Head side is a narrow, dizzy one, with sheer perpendicular cliffs stretching down to the angry breakers far below. Anyone troubled with giddiness is advised to keep away. Again, to get to many of the dwellings in the cliffs one has to grasp a rope in one’s hand, and pick one’s way gingerly down the cliff till the comparatively safe position of the cave is reached. Whatever may be the merits or demerits of the shelter question on the Whitewash Head side, there is no doubt whatever that very few of the general public would ever venture to find their way to the caves on Godley Head.

The Simple Life

The principal recreations of the inhabitants of Taylor’s Mistake are fishing and shooting, but fine surf-bathing can be had, the beach being quite safe at full tide, and when the water is smooth, boating, and even canoeing, can be indulged in, many of the weekenders possessing boats. Altogether, the cave-dwellers lead the happy, healthy, free and easy life, that proves so attractive to many town-dwellers. All of the cave-dwellers are weekenders, there being no permanent inhabitants. Provisions are conveyed to the caves by means of fishermen’s boats.

The Pioneer Cave Dwellers

The pioneer cave-dwellers were Messrs Kennedy and Bickerton, who pitched a camp under the cliffs on the Godley Head side twenty years ago. Others followed, Mr Archbold, who is now practically the oldest inhabitant, having come fourteen years ago. The place has grown more and more popular year by year, until now there are thirty dwellings, no less than a dozen new ones having been started last year. The great majority of the weekenders are respectable married men occupying responsible positions in the business world, and many of them bring their wives and families over for the week-ends. Several of them denied indignantly that they ever created a nuisance or that anyone, particularly Sumner people, could make any complaints against them. Of course, they said, as in all communities, there was a certain small irresponsible section, mainly youths, who might not altogether have properly behaved themselves, and it was these, particularly the owners of one hut, that had probably been the cause of the present trouble.

Weekend cave dwellers gather outside 'Pilgrim's Rest', the cave belonging to Osborn. Source: Weekly Press, 12 April, 1911, page 40. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.
Weekend cave dwellers gather outside ‘Pilgrim’s Rest’, the cave-dwelling belonging to Alfred Osborn, who was known as ‘The Pilgrim’ on account of having been one of the early cave dwellers. Osborn was responsible for the improving the track from Taylor’s Mistake to the lighthouse. He was also a founding member of the Surf Lifesaving Club. [23]
Not caves in the proper sense of the term

An inspection of several of the cave dwellings was decidedly interesting. The caves, with one or two exceptions, are not caves in the proper sense of the term. They are really enlarged holes in the rock boarded in front with boards, like the front part of a house, with windows and a door. The writer was informed that many of the caves were very shallow structures, and had to be scooped out considerably to provide for their present use. The interiors of the dwellings looked most comfortable. The majority of tho dwellings have concrete floors, whilst the rocky walls and ceiling are painted white. Fire-places and chimneys have been installed, bunks fitted up, and altogether most comfortable habitations provided. In Mr Archbold’s cave is a telephone connected with Mr Osborne’s cave. Mr Arcbbold has also water tanks, a swimming pool and many other conveniences.

The finest dwelling of the lot, however, is Mr Cameron’s, on Godley Head. Entered by glass door, it is the largest cave at Taylor’s Mistake. It is handsomely fitted up, and “sports” an acetylene gas plant, a pair of lamps rising from a pillar of concrete. The thanks of the Godley Head care dwellers are due to Mr Osborne, of the Pilgrim’s Rest, who cut the Pilgrim’s track round. The cave of this gentleman boasts a camera obscura.

The Cave-dwellers side of the Case

The cave-dwellers’ side of the case in regard to the Sumner Borough Council’s action is very interesting and has much to justify it. They say that until they came to Taylors’ Mistake no one ever visited the place, and that it was their inviting friends over that made the place popular. The caves were absolutely useless before they came over and cleaned them up. They farther say that the three or four hundred people who come over Sunday come over to visit the cave-dwellers. So that if the cave-dwellers are forced to give up their caves their friends will not come over, and the place will become deserted again. They say that there are several caves still left where the public can shelter in the event of wet  weather, but to provide shelter for the public they are prepared to put their hands in their pockets and erect a rough shelter. The idea of the cave-dwellers is that the Sumner Borough Council is only taking its present action in order to raise revenue. The Sumner people, they say, are opposed to the Council on the matter, and the Council has only been moved to take the action it has through the solicitations of two or three of its members.

Mr Archbold informed the “Press” representative that personally he would not mind paying a small rent, but one never knew how far the Council was proceeding with the matter. He did not see why the Council should interfere at all, as the place was supervised by the police, and the majority of the people were respectable. Of course with a crowd like that at Taylor’s Mistake there were bound to be one or two undesirables. If the Council persisted in its action he would call a public meeting of the cave-dwellers. [24]

Weekend retreats hug the cliffs at Taylor's Mistake. Source: Weekly Press, 7 February, 1924, page 34. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.
Weekend retreats hug the cliffs at Taylor’s Mistake. [25]
Some twenty years after the cave-dwellers first set up their weekend retreats, huts and cave dwellings became so numerous that the Sumner Borough Council decided that “for the proper supervision and inspection of this little colony, its authority should be recognised.” In otherwords they wanted them under their control. The Council claimed it was within their powers to issue licenses to the occupiers of the caves and to charge license fees – sighting a right established by the case with Solomon Shah, the Ice Cream Vendor. In 1911 the Council demanded a £1 license fee from each hut owner and cave dweller. Under threat of legal proceedings, some of them paid up.

By February 1918, the Sumner Borough Council had a record of 53 huts located in Taylor’s Mistake. Eight of the owners had gone to war, four owners were in ‘arrears’ and the remaining 41 had paid their fees – some under duress. The Council would continue to battle the cave-dwellers, resorting to legal threats and proceedings, to get some hut owners to pay for what they had for many years enjoyed gratis. [26]

  1. Source: Christchurch City Libraries.
  2. Originally from the Lyttelton Times. Colonist, Volume VI, Issue 597, 14 July 1863, Page 3.
  3. Press, Volume XL, Issue 5893, 2 August 1884, Page 2.
  4. A portion of the remains of John Cockle, a 23 year old tinsmith, was recovered on New Brighton beach, along with the boot and sock belonging to Richard Nuttall. The other men were Richard John Cawood and Paul Pearson, who was employed at Addington Workshops and had formerly been at sea. Source: ‘THE SUMNER DROWNING CATASTROPHE’. Press, Volume XLIX, Issue 8306, 18 October 1892, Page 3.
  5. Star, Issue 7376, 24 September 1892, Page 3.
  6. Star, Issue 5440, 16 December 1895, Page 3.
  7. Press, Volume LVI, Issue 10358, 29 May 1899, Page 3.
  8. THE CAVE-DWELLERS OF LYTTELTON. Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 11100, 19 October 1901, Page 8.
  9. Source: Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 19 June 1924 p041. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19240619-41-1.
  10. Auckland Star, Volume LVIII, Issue 155, 4 July 1927, Page 9.
  11. Source: Canterbury times, 5 Jan. 1910, p. 43. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0080.
  12. Press, Volume L, Issue 15001, 23 June 1914, Page 2.
  13. Star, Issue 5789, 5 February 1897, Page 4.
  14. Star, Issue 6287, 19 September 1898, Page 3. Star, Issue 6281, 12 September 1898, Page 3.
  15. Press, Volume LX, Issue 11624, 2 July 1903, Page 3.
  16. Wanganui Chronicle, Volume L, Issue 12145, 2 December 1908, Page 5.
  17. Press, Volume LV, Issue 16515, 6 May 1919, Page 5
  18. Auckland Star, Volume LVII, Issue 205, 30 August 1926, Page 6.
  19. “Omnium Gatherum’ Otago Daily Times , Issue 17272, 26 March 1918, Page 8. ‘High Seas’ Press, Volume LV, Issue 16628, 15 September 1919, Page 7.
  20. Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXVII, Issue 12305, 16 November 1910, Page 4 and Press, Volume LXVII, Issue 14016, 12 April 1911, Page 11.
  21. Source: Canterbury times, 5 Jan. 1910, p. 43. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0042.
  22. Richard May Morten 
  23. Source: Weekly Press, 12 April, 1911, page 40. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.
  24. Source: Press, Volume LXVII, Issue 14008, 3 April 1911, Page 8.
  25. Source: Weekly Press, 7 February, 1924, page 34. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.
  26. ‘Borough Councils. Sumner’ Press, Volume LIV, Issue 16128, 5 February 1918, Page 2.’Cave Dwellers’ Press, Volume L, Issue 15001, 23 June 1914, Page 2. Press, Volume L, Issue 15001, 23 June 1914, Page 2; Press, Volume L, Issue 14886, 28 January 1914, Page 12.

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