Brain Watkins House

Willie Watkins & Elva Brain
c. August 1965
The Brain Watkins House is a unique historic property located near the central business district of Tauranga city.  Built in 1881 by Joseph Brain, it is registered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category II Historic Place. Occupied by one family for nearly 100 years and filled with original contents, the house offers an insight into the life of a middle class European family of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has many stories to tell, from the horse given shelter in the hall during the Tarawera eruption to the young couple separated by the First World War reunited and married in their 70s.

“High cultural significance”, “unique”, and “intact” are some of the words used by conservation architects to describe the Brain Watkins House. It is one of six surviving single-family homes in New Zealand with the original contents predominantly intact that functions as a house museum.

Gifted to the Tauranga Historical Society by Elva Brain Watkins in 1979, and today the Society is responsible for the management, preservation and display of the Brain Watkins House Museum. A team of volunteers maintain the house and open it to the public each Sunday from 2-4pm.  Admission for public viewing is $4. Private group tours may be arranged on request.


As a house museum it represents the lifestyle of a middle class family in Tauranga over 100 years, as most of the families possessions remain in the house. Like any home, things were cast out and others bought, so the collection includes items from throughout the century.

The House

The house is a square villa, a popular style of its day, and is built of kauri. A tiled path leads from the gate to the verandah steps and the front door. Rooms open off a central hall through an archway. On the left is the parlour with original wall paper still surviving. The fire surround is made of timber and decoratively finished to appear to be made of marble. The bedroom on the left is a treasure trove of textiles, a selection of which are always on display. The large lounge at the rear has a decorative pressed metal ceiling and an elegant chandelier. 


Joseph Brain, 1920

The Brain Family


Joseph Denham Brain was born near Ventnor on the Isle of Wight in 1841 and was sailing the Pacific before arriving in New Zealand in the 1860s. A boat builder he served as a ship’s carpenter and mate on the “Rangiriri” and the “Pioneer” during the New Zealand Wars. In 1871 he married Kate Bishop and had five daughters.
The Brain family moved from Auckland to Tauranga, and Joseph Brain built the property in the early 1880s from a shipment of kauri he received in 1881. Brain not only built and repaired boats but also operated a local shipping business. He was a major contractor in the district building bridges, The Strand sea wall, the Durham Street fire station, the first Mount wharf, and the Memorial Gates at the Tauranga Domain. He died in 1924, and his wife Kate lived in the house until she died in 1933. After Kate’s death the two youngest daughters, Bessie and Elva lived out their lives in the house.





Elva Brain Watkins, c. February 1965
The Gift

In 1979 Elva Brain Watkins gifted the Tauranga Historical Society the Brain Watkins House. Elva was born in the house built by her father in 1881 and saw her three older sisters marry in the garden. From the back fence she practiced her shooting and in the summer her nephews and nieces would stay and hear stories about treasure buried under the house.

On the death of Elva’s mother the property was shared between Elva and her sister Bessie, the two unmarried daughters. Elva became the sole owner of the house in 1957 when Bessie and her friend Alfred Byron were struck and killed by a car outside the front gate. A few years later Elva, aged 72, married Willy Watkins.


By 1977 Elva would have witnessed her neighbour’s properties transformed into car yards and offices. It is easy to imagine the worry she would have felt for the home she was born in 86 years prior. By generously bequeathing 233 Cameron Road to the local Historical Society, of which she was a member, Elva ensured that it will always remain part of Tauranga’s built heritage.