Breen Partnership with Old Cromwell Inc

June 18, 2021

There are many interesting stories circulating about Old Cromwell Town from during the Goldrush.The board set up to help preserve and redevelop the heritage precinct (Old Cromwell Inc), has spent hundreds of volunteer hours working to ensure those memories are not forgotten.

Breen Construction was commissioned to help with the restoration of many old buildings - from mid 2000, and that work continues today after the recent completion of McNulty House.

Cromwell’s thriving main street Melmore Terrace once had a butcher, a baker and most probably a candlestick maker back in the late 1800s. There were also blacksmiths and bankers and plenty of places selling liquor - a plethora of eight hotels to be exact.  The gold mining village was full of life.

But one hundred years later all that history was threatened, with big plans for hydro generation and the building of the Clyde dam. The demise of the original Old Cromwell Town to make way for the lake fill in 1988 was described by a long time opponent Joy Chapman as “water under the bridge.” This phrase has quite a poignant twist, for shortly after the filling of the lake the old bridge disappeared underwater, completely out of site.

The reconstructed buildings in the Cromwell Heritage Precinct are now some of the only reminders of the town’s past.  But many of the original schist stone walls and fences remain, and plenty of old treasure has been salvaged from the ruins.

Breen Construction’s first project was planning the rebuild of Scott’s Bakery, following on from the hard work already carried out by Old Cromwell Inc. Project manager Paul Hucklebridge said Breen was involved with the bakery project right from inception through to completion, which included the entire rebuild as well as the replication of the ovens inside. Then the construction team moved over the road to salvage what they could of the old Blacksmith’s shop, as the building was in ruins.

Under the watchful eye of many a historian, they rebuilt Wisharts (Blacksmiths and Motor Garage) and then moved onto the Globe Hotel, followed by the Tent House in 2008 and 2009.

Stories from the Goldfields included many drunken drownings - so many in fact it was nicknamed ‘the New Zealand disease’ in the late 1800s.

The first Bank of New Zealand building on Melmore Terrace was so small the manager had to cut a hole in the wall for this feet, so he could sleep full length in his bed behind the counter. But by the 1930s everything had changed - the community had a more stable social structure and new buildings were constructed bigger and stronger.

Breen Construction’s work in the precinct also involved strengthening the site with new retaining walls, a precast panel lakeshore erosion wall, and future-proofing the existing schist stone fences bordering many of the sites. A new toilet block facility was hunkered into the bank - complimenting the existing wharf structure already in place. The rebuild of the Old Cromwell Post Office was next in 2010 and then in recent years Murrell’s Cottage (Armando’s) after the devastating fire in 2017.

Old Cromwell Inc came an incorporated society in 1986 and the board has been working on rebuilding and restoring the site for more than 30 years. It now looks after 17 buildings, as well as the grounds. Long-serving member Barbara Emmitt said the fire that severely damaged Murrell’s Cottage was the biggest challenge to date, because it seriously impacted two of its tenants.

Nowadays the precinct features two cafes and a restaurant, several art galleries within an artisan hub, retail shops as well as an employment agency. Where once the old main street was filled with pubs, and traders supporting the Goldrush, it is now used by picnickers, pétanque players and also for the annual cherry spitting competition.  

The memories are gone but not forgotten, but the sense of community and social structure remains.

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