150 years of news - Island Bay hermit's cave a worldwide attraction

Schoolboys of the 1890s explore the famous hermit cave, which was located between Island and Houghton bays.
ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY Ref: 10X8-0024-G

Schoolboys of the 1890s explore the famous hermit cave, which was located between Island and Houghton bays.

A recluse once known around the world is now forgotten, his cave in Island Bay destroyed to build coastal road The Esplanade.

The hermit's cave was the No 1 destination for Wellington tourists in the 1880s and 1890s, situated at the point where Island Bay meets Houghton Bay.

"All over Australasia, the first question any one from Wellington is asked is, 'Have you seen the Hermit's Cave?' Its fame has spread to England and America," a letter writer told The Evening Post in 1894, when the cave was under threat of demolition.

Island Bay's famous hermit, thought to be wealthy Irishman William Perssee, pictured in 1890.

Island Bay's famous hermit, thought to be wealthy Irishman William Perssee, pictured in 1890.

"Few visitors to Wellington in his day went away without making a pilgrimage to see this extraordinary personage," the Post recalled in 1936.

The hermit would spend his days propped on his elbow, answering in a bored manner all sorts of questions from visitors. He would refuse offers of money or food, although gifts left outside his cave would soon be taken in.

"When an inquisitive person questioned him as to why he lived alone in his cave, he would promptly put a match to some dry seaweed in an old oil drum and smoke his questioners out of the cave," another correspondent remembered.

When asked why he did not fish, the hermit replied it was too dull.

"As if anything could have been slower than his miserable and lazy existence in that dreary abode," the Post said.

"There was something more than a suspicion that he was a pensioner of the keeper of the nearest hotel, who provided him with food as an 'attraction' to the district."

Wellingtonians were outraged when city planners decided to demolish the cave and extend Queens Drive from Lyall Bay, a scheme that would destroy the road's chief attraction, the 1894 letter writer pointed out.

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A few frequent visitors got to know the hermit, whose name was variously given as Charles or William Perssee, Percy or Pearsee. He was an educated man from a banking family in the north of Ireland, who had become estranged from his relatives. He sailed from Wellington to Queensland once to visit a cousin, and a fellow passenger described him as well-informed on topics of the day.

Living in the cave was a good rent-free option when he had come to New Zealand in about 1878.

"He told me once during a conversation in the cave that he did not consider himself a hermit, and he had no particular love for caves," the passenger told the Post.

Perssee's damp living conditions led to bronchitis and hospitalisation in 1898, and he went to live with relations in Ireland. There he was hauled before lawyers every day by a brother convinced he had title to a family property.

After 18 months, family shipped him back to Wellington, where he was refused a place in a convalescent home because he had £5 in his pocket.

Perssee eventually drifted to Australia, and his cave was demolished by 1905.

 - Stuff

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