Support the Guardian

Available for everyone, funded by readers

Henry Stephenson, the man behind Bleak House

Henry Stephenson, the man behind Bleak House

Once one of Ashburton’s most recognisable residences, Bleak House, which originally stood at 31 Winters Road, Allenton was originally built for Mr Henry Leonard Stephenson, a well-known local auctioneer.

Stephenson’s five acre property boasted a ten roomed house, complete with indoor sanitation, hot and cold water, electric lighting, stables, a hot house, and an aviary. Of his five acres of land, two were taken up by established gardens. The property became a popular venue for entertainment, fundraisers, and hospitality in general.

In 1922, an enthusiastic Ashburton Guardian reporter questioned the name of the property. He contended that the description ‘bleak’ may well have been appropriate when it was first built in 1899, but it now exuded charm, colour, and was the envy of other gardeners. In other words, the property was anything but ‘bleak’.

However, there may well have been an ironic twist to the naming of Mr Stephenson’s beautiful home.

Naming origin

The novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens describes England as a ‘bleak house’, devastated by an irresponsible and self-serving legal system, where patriarchal institutions like the courts make orphans of society’s children, enable slums and disease to flourish, and suppress individual autonomy by a “philanthropy” that makes dependents of its recipients.

It was common knowledge that Mr Stephenson was an avid admirer of Dickensian literature, and it was naturally assumed this was the reason for the name of the house. What the community may not have been aware of was that his life in Ashburton was in actuality a second chance after a major skirmish with the law as a 12 year old boy in England.

In 1872, following the death of his mother Isabella and his father’s return to India as an engine driver on the new railway based in Trichinopoly, Henry was living with his paternal grandmother in Newcastle. The family were well educated with twelve year old Henry considered a promising scholar and talented member of the local boys’ choir.

Despite his good reputation, Henry and a friend embarked on a significant crime spree which included breaking and entering, destruction of property, and burglary. It was considered that the methods he and his partner-in crime had employed were sophisticated, demonstrating “skill and ingenuity as much beyond the years of the juvenile burglars and the daring nature of the career of crime in which they had entered” according to the Newcastle Journal. Apparently, the youngsters’ motive was more about emulating the crime fiction they were reading at the time, rather than financial gain.

The sentencing magistrate decided that the pair required a harsh punishment to ensure they realised the error of their ways. Henry was sentenced to two months hard labour with two days solitary confinement, after the judge was assured he would be sent to live with his father in India following his incarceration.

A new life in Ashburton

By 1896, Henry was living with his father and stepmother on the other side of the world, in Ashburton, New Zealand. He was employed as a clerk by local auctioneer, Alfred Harrison, and took ownership of the business upon the gentleman’s retirement.

The auctioneers were well known for their Saturday Market, providing a 19th century version of Trade Me at their premises. Each week brought a new and eclectic array of items to be auctioned. Henry also facilitated clearing sales, deceased estates and real estate. The business was so successful that the premises were expanded in 1899 to accommodate the large and varied amount of stock being accrued.

He was vehemently opposed to the move to make Ashburton no-license in 1902, which would have resulted in the sale of alcohol being banned in the township. He contended that many of his customers enjoyed a Saturday trip to town, where they could combine the enjoyment of a drink in the hotel with visiting his market and other commercial premises. By denying the opportunity to visit the hotel, there was a strong possibility that customers would opt to travel to Christchurch instead for their Saturday leisure, where they could continue to enjoy the best of both options.

Henry’s boyhood love of music stood him in good stead. He was an accomplished pianist, who also sang at many concert performances in the town. His interest in music carried him into amateur theatricals and he took part in a number of productions.  He was an enthusiastic member of the Ashburton Savage Club, and was a Life Member of the Ashburton Club and MSA. His only reported run-in with the law in Ashburton occurred in 1892 when he was fined for riding his bicycle on the footpath.

Henry was married twice, first to Martha Permain, with whom he had five children, and after her death, to Alice Watts. As the unmarried daughter of a hotel-keeper, Alice’s competence in hospitality was put to good use in her new home in Ashburton.

He was survived by four of his five children. The house he built and nurtured remains intact, now situated in Auckland after being moved to Timaru. Bleak House is a testimony to a man who transformed his bleak boyhood experience into brighter horizons in Ashburton.


Material for this page is co-ordinated by the Ashburton Art Gallery and Museum. Articles from other organisations are welcomed, as is any feedback on what appears.

Email: [email protected]

Phone: 307-7890

Copies of the photos on this page may be available from the Ashburton Art Gallery and Museum.