Standing out as boldly different from all its Mt Victoria neighbours is No. 46 Roxburgh Street. Not only is it brick, when every other house in the suburb up until then had been built of wood, this unique combination of Italianate and Palladian styles has a distinctly foreign cast. With these European styles, it combines decorative iron work and leadlight windows of a more New Zealand character.
The house was designed for M G Treadgold by James Bennie in 1904. Bennie was a Scot who emigrated to New Zealand in 1880 and settled in Brunnertown near Greymouth. In the early 1890s he went to Melbourne to study architecture at the Working Men’s College. In 1903 he came to Wellington and went into practice with E C Farr before establishing his own practice in 1905. Some of Bennie’s other designs which still exist include the Albermarle Hotel (1905) and the Paramount Theatre (1917).
It’s not clear exactly when the house was constructed, but the first residents appear to have been James Robin JP, his son Alfred Wm Robin (Col. CB, Chief General Staff Defence Forces), and probably Alfred’s sister. They lived here from 1909-1916.
Alfred was born in 1860 in Australia, where James worked as a coachbuilder. The family moved to Dunedin about 1861, and James established what eventually became a thriving coach and carriage building business. James proved successful in public life, too; he was chairman of the Otago Harbour Board and, on the inception of the first Hospital and Charitable Aid Board, became a member and then chairman for a number of years. He was also a member of Dunedin City Council for two years. James came to Wellington at the end of 1907.
When he left school Alfred had joined his father’s business as an apprentice, and later became a working partner. From a very early age, though, he was fascinated with military affairs. He was battery bombardier in his high school’s artillery cadet corps, and between 1878 and 1883 served with voluntary regiments. From 1891 to 1898 he commanded the Otago Hussars, regarded as the most efficient volunteer corps in the country. Alfred Robin was considered the ‘smartest Commanding Officer in the Colony’.
In early 1897, he was appointed to select, train and command the mounted section of the Maori and Pakeha military contingent sent to Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebrations. In London he was chosen to command the colonial section of the bodyguard escorting the Queen on her return to Windsor after Jubilee Day. The following year he resigned his partnership in the family business, was promoted to major and given command of the newly formed Otago Battalion of Mounted Rifle Volunteers. He accepted a commission in the New Zealand permanent forces in September 1899 and, as instructor to South Island mounted rifle units, established a tactical school for officers. He then commanded the First Contingent, which was dispatched to the South African War in October 1899. Over the next few years he was promoted a number of times and on three occasions was mentioned in dispatches for his leadership and personal exploits. He was appointed a CB on 19 April 1901 and became a national celebrity, his portrait being included on commemorative medals, post office stationery and Christmas cards. It was in 1906 that he was appointed to the newly established Council of Defence as chief of the General Staff, the position he held when he took up residence in 46 Roxburgh Street with his father and (probably) sister. This made him the first colonial to hold the country’s highest military position and in this role he helped to implement the system of compulsory military training which was introduced in 1909.
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Robin offered to serve overseas. The government, however, considered his experience too valuable at home and appointed him commandant to the military forces within New Zealand. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1915 and in this capacity organised reinforcements and training for the Expeditionary Force.
In 1916, Alfred Robin, Commandant of the New Zealand Forces, was knighted – “a first tribute to the splendid work done by Sir Alfred Robin and the General Staff in the making of a New Zealand Army”. He was also promoted to major general.
Alfred never married and his sister accompanied him to many official functions in Wellington. He was noted for his dedication, enjoyment of working long hours and his thorough understanding and knowledge of military affairs. He was idealistic and patriotic but modest, and immensely proud of having risen from the ranks of the volunteers. An accomplished artist who had exhibited at the Otago Art Society between 1885 and 1906, this talent was apparently also demonstrated in his military plans and maps.
After the Robins, Thomas Burt of the firm A&T Burt occupied the house for two to three years but by 1929 it had become a boarding house; a fate suffered by many of Mt Victoria’s larger houses.
A more recent famous resident has been writer, Marilyn Duckworth. A long time Mt Victorian, she lived here from 1984 to 1994. The photograph shows her standing in the entrance hall of 46 Roxburgh Street, framed by the impressive leadlight windows.