Page 1: Biography
Stonemason, builder, sculptor
This biography, written by Geoffrey W. Rice, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in September, 2021.
William Brassington, Canterbury's most notable early stonemason and craftsman, was born at Nottingham, England, in 1840 according to family information, the son of Mary Walker and her husband, mason William Brassington. After apprenticeship to a stonemason in Nottingham, he married Ellen Hickling at Radford, Nottingham, on 27 December 1859. They emigrated to New Zealand with two young daughters, one of whom died on the voyage, landing at Lyttelton from the ship Brothers Pride on 10 December 1863; eight children were later born in New Zealand.
Brassington set up his stonemason's yard at the south end of the Anglican part of the Barbadoes Street cemetery. His talent as a headstone carver was noticed by Benjamin Mountfort, architect of the provincial council chamber in Christchurch, and he was commissioned to complete the decorative stonework, comprising dozens of foliated capitals and corbels. These remain Brassington's finest work. Of the richly decorated corbels which terminate the ceiling arches and adorn the windows, no two are the same; a few are simple, but most are intricate clusters of fruit, flowers or leaves, similar to the medieval carvings at Lincoln Cathedral. Many varieties of leaves are depicted, including olive, oak, ivy, hazel and fern. Ten faces also appear, high above the great hall, including Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Florence Nightingale, George Canning, Lord Salisbury, David Livingstone and Gordon of Khartoum. (Brassington family tradition has it that an unidentified female face is that of a well-known Christchurch barmaid of the 1860s.) Beneath the press gallery is a series of larger capitals, including a portrait of J. C. St Quentin, the artist who painted the vast ceiling in 1867; another is Brassington's self-portrait, squatting, bearded, chisel in hand – recalling the self-portraits of medieval cathedral masons.
Other carvings from this period include the pulpit in the church of St John the Baptist, Latimer Square (April 1866) and the font in Flaxton Church (March 1867). Brassington also supervised the installation of the statue of John Robert Godley in Cathedral Square in September 1866, constructing the pedestal in dressed bluestone from the Ellis quarry at Hoon Hay. Although the foundations of Christchurch Cathedral had been completed by 1865, the project remained suspended for lack of funds; without further scope for decorative carving, Brassington turned to stonebuilding. Private commissions at the head of Lyttelton Harbour included stonework on houses at Teddington and Allandale; he was probably also responsible for the central stone portion of Ohinetahi, T. H. Potts's residence at Governors Bay (built in 1866–67).
His first major project as a builder in stone was for J. B. Acland at Mt Peel station – the exquisite Church of the Holy Innocents (probably designed by Edward Ashworth), opened in May 1869. This was a laborious task in a remote location; although the timber was pit-sawn at Mt Peel, lime had to be brought in bullock drays from Mt Somers, and much of the stone was shaped from boulders dragged from the bed of the Rangitata River. The success of this project undoubtedly contributed to his selection as builder of the rear extension to the Canterbury Museum in the early 1870s; he was responsible for the impressive 1876 portico. The legend over the entrance, chosen by William Rolleston ('Lo, these are parts of his ways'), was carved some years later by his son and apprentice, Claudius.
Brassington and John Kennington then put in a successful tender of £1,590 for the construction of the Lyttelton time-ball station, which he built to the design of Thomas Cane. This very notable Canterbury building, superbly sited like a 'castle on the hill', was opened in 1876 and remains the last of its kind still in working condition anywhere in the world, 'a gem of mechanical Victoriana'. The red volcanic scoria chosen for the walls weathered badly, however, and had to be covered with stucco within a few years.
Nothing is known of Brassington's work in the late 1870s, but as the nave and tower of the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral were being built under Mountfort's supervision between 1873 and 1881 it is probable that he was largely employed here. He was later described as 'an earnest, simple but able craftsman'.
About 1889 Brassington went to visit his eldest daughter in Melbourne, Australia, and was attracted to the Warrandyte goldfields in Victoria. While working there he developed cancer of the tongue, and died on 3 March 1905 at the Austin Hospital, Heidelberg, Melbourne. He was buried in the Footscray cemetery.
His son Claudius became a lifelong member of the Canterbury Society of Arts and a well-known Christchurch sculptor, specialising in children's portrait heads, some of which were exhibited overseas.