The Sign of the Bellbird

Built 1914 and designed by Samuel Hurst Seager, the Sign of the Bellbird is one of the rest houses constructed as part of Harry Ell’s Summit Road vision.

The Sign of the Bellbird
The Sign of the Bellbird. No known copyright

The Sign of the Bellbird is one of four rest houses planned by Henry (Harry) George Ell, a Member of Parliament for South Christchurch and conservationist. In 1900, Ells envisioned a track which would begin at Dyers Pass, follow the hills of Banks Peninsula and culminate at Akaroa. Along this route he intended to construct rest houses which would provide shelter and refreshments for groups of walkers.

Ell also sought to preserve the remnants of Kennedy’s Bush and its birdlife. With the assistance of a government grant and fundraising, he purchased 50 acres of Kennedy’s Bush from Albert Loe which was designated as a Crown reserve. To oversee the management of this reserve, the Kennedy’s Bush Scenic Board was formed in 1908.

By 1914 the size of the reserve had expanded. To prevent damage, both to the trees and wildlife, the board decided to appoint a caretaker. A cottage, designed by Samuel Hurst Seager and built by J and W Jamieson from local stone, was completed by June 1914. David Potter of New Brighton and his wife were the initial caretakers.

In keeping with Ell’s vision, a tea room addition to the caretaker’s cottage, also designed by Hurst Seager, was completed in 1915 and opened in March. In that year Fredrick and Bridget Charlotte Wilson became the caretakers of the reserve. By 1918 the summit road had reached as far as Kennedy’s Bush from Dyer’s Pass and a post office service (as well as a telephone bureau) was introduced. The post office was discontinued in 1921 while the telephone bureau was discontinued in 1922.

Although Ell originally named the building Orongomai after the Māori name for the nearby Cass Peak, it was popularly known as the Kennedy’s Bush rest house. In 1922 it was renamed, in keeping with the other rest houses planned by Ell, to the Sign of the Bellbird.

In 1923 a three passenger brake transported passengers between the Sign of the Takahe and the Sign of the Bellbird. However, the condition of the road took its toll on the brake, causing the service to cease in 1928.

In 1935 John Gilby and his wife were appointed as caretakers of the Sign of the Bellbird. In the following year a new sign was carved by Noel McCracken to a design by Roy Evans.

The trust transferred the Kennedy’s Bush reserve to the Lands Department in 1941 by which stage the Sign of the Bellbird was in a state of disrepair. The last caretaker, the wife of John Gilby, left in 1942 and without a caretaker the rest house was closed. Following this it was subjected to vandalism. Broken windows let in the rain, causing the woodwork to rot.

Plans to demolish the building and use its materials in the restoration of the Sign of the Kiwi were considered in 1949. However, this did not proceed. Instead, in 1958, the dining room was reroofed while the caretaker’s cottage was dismantled. However, by 1967 the remaining structure was once again in a dilapidated condition and suffered from vandalism.

Since then, the remnants of the building have remained largely unchanged apart from the installation of a concrete slab floor. At some point the dining room roof was replaced with a roof of corrugated iron, but a fire in September 2015 destroyed this. Following the fire, a new roof was installed.