The Old Sumner Road Cave Dweller

A Pitiable Case

As a man was walking around Sumner road, in October 1901, a lady passed by and drew his attention to a small cave in the side of the hill where she said an old lady and her husband were living. He was rather taken back, even more so when he went inside the cave, which was located just off the road, a little above the artillery barracks. It was a mere hole in the hillside – 14 ft long, 10 ft wide by 11 ft high – which years ago had been used to store blasting powder when the road over the hill was being made, and later as a forge-shop.

In a letter to the ‘Press’ the man describes the place as ‘in a fearful mess’. It was full of smoke, stuffy and dirty – and smelt awful. The only ventilation was the doorway, in front of which was hung a piece of sacking to keep out the cold. An improvised bedstead occupied about a third of the space, made from the door supported on cases to form a bedstead, and was covered only by a single dirty blanket, old clothing, and some dirty sheep skins. A wooden seat, a fire place and some cooking utensils completed the furnishings.

Cave abodes
The abodes of some of the cave dwellers set into the cliffs around Taylor’s Mistake, 1924. [1]
Filth and Disorder

He estimated the couple living there were in their 80s. In actual fact they were in their mid 60s, but years of hard living had aged their appearance.[2]

In response to the man’s letter and pleas for attention, the ‘Press’ sent out a reporter in search of the cave and the couple living within. The correspondent met an ‘old woman shuffling wearily along and bending beneath the weight of a Maori kit.’ Assuming she was the ‘old lady’ referred to in the letter, he asked if she would have any objections if he were to inspect her abode and tell her story. “Oh no, no objections at all. Ours is a hard lot – a deserving case – and I don’t care who knows it.” she replied.

His inspection revealed the same ‘filth and disorder’ the letter writer had told of. The floor was littered with ‘broken food and debris’, and some partially cooked meat lay in a flying pan. “Whay d’ye think o’ it?” the old woman asked the ‘Press’ correspondent. “Ain’t it a fine dwelling’ for me as is the mother o’ twenty one children, an’ all reared respectable like.”

She told the reporter she was Ellen Croton – although her name was left out of the subsequent article, – and she was aged 65. Her husband, Richard, was the same age and worked on the wharf in Lyttelton. Both were natives of Stalybridge in Lancashire, and she had five sons living in the colony. Where the 15 other children she claimed she had bore were, she did not reveal, but Ellen had a history of exaggeration when it suited her needs.

The track to Godley Head Lighthouse, 1908. Source: Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 01 OCTOBER 1908 p010. Image: Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19081001-10-2.
The track to Godley Head Lighthouse, 1908. [3]
Always Respectable

Asked how her sons could allow her to live in such a place, she claimed they did not know, as she was ashamed to tell them. “And then the old dame wandered off into a rambling statement to the effect that she didn’t want money, but that people were cruel to her, and would not let her have a cottage to live in in Lyttelton.” She claimed she had been falsely imprisoned, was persecuted because she was a Wesleyan, was annoyed by larrikins and by ‘strange things that came to her cave at night and made fearful and horrid noises.’ At the end of her ‘long and muddled story’ she concluded “I was allis respectable; I’m respectable now.” Presumably she had forgotten the numerous times she had been before the magistrates on various charges over the years, including threatening to strike a bailiff, illegal trespass, ‘haranguing the House of Representatives’ – which earnt her at short stint in Wellington Asylum – vagrancy and abusive language.

But there was no doubt that the family’s lot was a hard one – though evidence would suggest it was as much their own making as circumstance. Emigration to Canterbury had not brought for them the elevation in situation that many dreamed of and some achieved. Robert worked as a labourer, sometimes in partnership, performing such services as lighting the gas lamps at Lyttelton, carting rubble or cutting gorge. He struggled to manage his finances, and was declared insolvent in 1879. The family was often estranged, some of the children were sent to the Burnham Industrial School, whilst the boys, were old enough to abandon their parents and strike out on their own. Robert, working elsewhere, was sued by his wife for failing to provide for her – as were her sons – but he was often destitute himself. The family, including Ellen’s mother, Ann Greenwood, relied heavily on charity.

They would live anywhere they could find – an empty house in Lyttelton, in St Asaph street, Sydenham, and in Heathcote Valley. Prior to their occupation of the cave, they had slept on the wharf amongst the timber. They had been recipients of private charity on a number of occasions. Local authorities had also placed them in the Salvation Army Home and the Samaritan Home, amongst others, but they would not stay long in these places.

They had lived in the cave for six months, all through the winter. Ellen said did not want to go into a home. She had been in St. Mary’s for a few days but told the reporter they were no place for a respectable old woman like herself. She preferred a cottage in a respectable neighbourhood, where she could ‘pay the rent’. [4]

Lyttelton Railway sidings and wharfes 1909
Railway sidings and wharves at Lyttelton, amongst which the Corton’s made their home before setting up in the cave in 1901. [5]
Well known to the Court

Dr. Symes, the Health Officer, followed up the letter and ‘Press’ report, visiting the cave in the company of the Mayor, Mr Field. He talked with the clerk of the court, Mr Shanaghan, who knew the history of the Croton’s well. In a follow up letter to the ‘Press’ he explained that the Croton’s had resided in Lyttelton since the late 1860s. Robert was currently employed as a ‘coal lumper’ at the time, earning on average £2 a week – some weeks he earns as much as £4 to £5, other weeks he earnt nothing.

Both Ellen and Robert drank beer freely, but Symes was careful to point out that they were not drunkards. However Ellen was addicted to chlorodyne – a patent medicine made from a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), tincture of cannabis, and chloroform – which she spent 21 shillings a week to purchase, and drank at a rate of a 3s bottle each day. They had lived in various houses in Lyttelton, practically rent free, after being admitted from charitable motives, but they were ejected because of their living habits.

Never the less, the authorities were determined to do something for the old couple. Symes meet with the committee of the Lyttelton Borough Council to decide on a course of action. They decided to provide the couple with a tent located in a sheltered spot on reclaimed land. The couple’s bedding and old rags would be incinerated and clean straw would be provided weekly. As the cave was unfit for human habitation, they undertook to close up the entrance of the cave with a stone wall. [6]

A tent was an inappropriate choice as it eventually was ‘blown away’. Afterwards Ellen was said to have ‘wandered about’ and had to be taken in by the Samaritan Home for a time. By 1903, still chattering meaninglessly from the effects of her chlorodyne addiction, she was charged with vagrancy and remanded for a week of medical treatment whilst a home was found for her. She died the same year. Robert joined some of his sons in Wanganui, were he continued to work as a labourer until his death in 1908. [7]

  1. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 19 June 1924 p040. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19240619-40-3.
  2. ‘A Pitiable Case’ Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 11099, 18 October 1901, Page 2.
  3. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 01 OCTOBER 1908 p010. Image: Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19081001-10-2.
  4. ‘Cave-Dwellers near Lyttelton. A Queer Abode.’ Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 11099, 18 October 1901, Page 2.
  5. Taken from the supplement to the Auckland Weekly News 10 June 1909 p015. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19090610-15-1.
  6. Letter to the Press from W. H. Symes, October 18th, 1901. THE CAVE-DWELLERS OF LYTTELTON. Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 11100, 19 October 1901, Page 8.
  7. Star , Issue 7740, 25 June 1903, Page 3.
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