Saturday, April 11, 2009

An “Unsavory Locality”: Rokeby Street, Auckland

This is a name, now, which has been expunged from Auckland’s street maps. Rokeby Street, between Queen Street and the southward curve of White Street, near the oh-so-steep Liverpool Street, is today known as Waverley Street, and the 1908 City of Auckland map by the Council reflects the change. It dates from 1865, and appears to have been part of a subdivision of property along what was once known as the “useless” Upper Queen Street (due to the extreme gradient to Karangahape Road, its mud, and the slopes on either side leading to deep gullies) perhaps organised by Reverend Thomas Buddle, who was at that time secretary of the local Wesleyan Mission movement, and connected with the nearby school. In March 1865, he advised the Auckland City Board that Rokeby Street has just been dedicated. (Southern Cross, 4 April 1865)

Why Rokeby? I can’t be sure at this stage, but its proximity to Marmion Street leads me to surmise that there may be a Sir Walter Scott connection, author of the works Rokeby, Marmion – and yes, even Waverley.

It appears that Rev. Buddle used the subdivision, and the rents from leases taken out by those wanting a relatively convenient place to live close to the city centre, as a means to provide funds for the mission. This was a fairly common practice – the Anglican Melanesian Mission Trust the best known example. However, by the early 1880s, this started to go wrong in Rokeby Street.

Property owners in Rokeby and Queen Streets petitioned Police Superintendent Thomson in January 1885:
“We, the undersigned residents and property-owners … beg to draw your attention to a very serious nuisance and annoyance, not only to ourselves, but to all those who use Queen-street between Alexandra-street [Airedale Street] and Karangahape Road. We refer to a nest of brothels, three being within a few yards of each other, and the most prominent of which, known as the White House, fronts on Queen Street. These are a constant source of annoyance and disturbance to the neighbourhood by reason of the almost nightly rows and constantly recurring scenes of indecency, and so great is the nuisance that property is materially depreciated in value … We respectfully ask your protection, and trust you will give our position your prompt consideration.”
(Star, 23 January 1885)

Just as an aside, there is still a “White House” in Queen Street – at No. 371, on the other side of the road in the old Theosophical Hall, and billed as an “entertainment centre” including striptease performances. Were the owners of the latter White House aware of the earlier, 19th century version? Who knows?

Back to the 1880s …

The petition, signed by 25 property owners and residents, gave cause for Superintendent Thomson to direct Detective Hughes to give the proprietresses of the brothels notice to clear out, under the 26th section of the Police Offences Act. The proprietresses, in response, consulted solicitors, and declared that under the Act, “disorderly conduct and importuning of passers by must be proved; indeed, the Act affords them a protection that was not afforded to them by the old Vagrant Act. They also claim that as long as they act in accordance with the Contagious Diseases Act, and refrain from breaking the provisions of the Police Offences Act, they should not be interfered with by the police.” (Star, 22 January 1885) Such would seem to have been the case: brothels in early Auckland were legal, to the extent that the workers there had to be certified and regularly checked for diseases under the Contagious Diseases Act, and as long as none of those associated with the brothels actually solicited in public. The editors of the Auckland Star, however, were quite clear as to their opinion of the situation.
“If the law, as it stands, will not meet the case, the Legislature should certainly next session cause the necessary amendments to be made. The scenes enacted in the thoroughfares near these houses baffle description. A few Saturday evenings ago, the prostitutes from Newton drove down to one of these Rokeby-street brothels, and dropped out a young man, whom they proceeded to belabour. The language used was dreadful. On a recent afternoon, as a ‘bus laden with ladies was proceeding up Upper Queen-street, a semi-nude harpy might have been seen leaning out of one of the windows of a house fronting Upper Queen-street, and with the greatest possible effrontery, conversing with a cabbie whose vehicle was stationed at the door. The owners of these three brothels derive handsome rents therefrom. One of them, it is said, recently presented £10 towards the funds of a country church, and shortly afterwards raised the rent of the brothel to £3 10s per week, presumably for the purpose of making up for his liberality to the church.”
(Star, 23 January 1885)

This reference to associations with men of the cloth may have been just hearsay to titillate the readers of the newspapers. I haven’t gone too deeply into research on this part of Auckland’s story, time and money being impediments at present, but the Observer made some observations which could be worthy of further investigation.

“Auckland is not free from men who will scale any heights or descend any depths to make money. I can quite understand a man of the world in this respect, because mammon is the god before whose shrine he bows down and worships. But when a "good" Presbyterian has no qualms of conscience, and is content to make money by moans legitimate and illegitimate, no matter how vile the latter, it is sufficient to make the hair of a virtuous man stand erect … Not a person in Auckland is unacquainted with the rumours, founded on fact that have floated about in reference to the disgraceful proceedings that nightly have been gone on at the brothels in Rokeby-street, and yet we find a professor of religion, and, above all, a Presbyterian, aiding and abetting these debaucheries by lending money to a prostitute to purchase a house which she lets to another frail sister, therein to carry on the purposes of her licentiousness. I cannot find fault with a radical man of the world making the most of every wind that blows, but when a "saint”' does such a thing, and at the same time palms himself off as a model of piety, no language is too harsh to denounce him. By this I am forcibly reminded of the chorus of a very old song—
" 'Tis a world of flummery.
There's nothing but deceit in it—
The same we ever find
As we travel on."
(Observer, 7 March 1885)
Rokeby Street was not densely occupied, even in 1885, and being so close to the city centre. One reason might been its less than salubrious reputation by the middle of that decade, but I’d put money on the real reason being that the levels between Upper Queen Street and both Rokeby and Marmion Streets were so different, it was difficult gaining access to already narrow roads. Back in 1866, residents from Marmion Street appealed to the City Board.
“At present the only outlet from the street is by climbing the embankment, which is not only an inconvenience to the ratepayers, but tears away and seriously injures the embankment itself. We would suggest that a flight of substantial wooden steps might be erected on the slope of the bank that would serve as a temporary accommodation until Marmion-street can be raised at the junction to a level with Queen-street. The total cost would be only about £5. The undersigned would engage to erect steps to the satisfaction of your Engineer, provided your Board supply the requisite timber.”
(SC, 28 June 1866)

The levels may have been altered enough that wheeled traffic could wend its way carefully through the narrow streets, but in 1885 the Herald still termed Rokeby Street as “one of those narrow abominations left as a legacy to the city by the greed of uncontrolled land speculators.” (2 March 1885)

Rev. Thomas Buddle had built a wooden house, possibly two storeys in height, called Paddington Villa on Rokeby Street. It stood on the north side, opposite a brick house owned by Charles Burnes and his wife Polly (Polly is called “Polly Barnes” in the newspaper accounts), and a bit further down the slope towards White Street was the house of Thomas Quoi and his wife, restaurant owners. While Rokeby Street had started out in the 1860s-1870s as upper middle-class, with a resident then advertising for servants, by the mid 1880s, just before the bite of the Long Depression, it was definitely working class. Buddle sold Paddington Villa in August 1882 to architect William Henry Skinner who, in turn, sold it in May 1883 to a “Mr. Collins”. This was probably Frenchman Victor Collen who, at that time, was intimately associated with one Valentine Becquet, known as “Madame Valentine”. In 1883, she operated a brothel in Wellington Street known as the “Stone Jug”, another elsewhere called the “Hermitage” (operated under lease by “The Mermaid”), and the Rokeby Street house, operated under lease as well by Julia Wilson, known as “Black Julia.”

“We are glad to learn that the police are carrying on a vigorous campaign against some of the most notorious and abandoned of the brothels that infest the city. There is one in Wellington-street, presided over by the notorious Madame Valentine, which has lately been subjected to domiciliary visits. The lady in question is distinguished by a waywardness and instability of affection that leads her to adopt one protector after another, very much in the same way that some other women become attached to pet dogs. Her latest weakness was a Frenchman named Victor Collen, formerly of Wellington. This gentleman took up his permanent residence on the premises, known as the "Stone Jug," and became the guide, philosopher, and friend of the other inmates, but having received a hint from the police, he has promised to shake the dust of this city from his boots, and seek other pastures. That Madame is well able to indulge in the luxury of a protector is evident from the fact that she receives a rental of £6 a week from " The Mermaid " of the " Hermitage," and £7 a week for the house in Rokeby-street, tenanted by "Black Julia." Not long since an old Waterloo veteran was sent to gaol for no other crime than poverty. Probably it was thought that he ought to have died long ago, if only to relieve the public mind from the suspense and anxiety of waiting for the last Waterloo veteran to disappear. There is an irony about our boasted modern civilization which would be wonderfully amusing, if it were not saddening and shocking: While an old soldier who helped to save thrones and empires is allowed to perish miserably in a gaol, sleek landlords live on the gains of vice, and Jezebels flaunt in silks and satins. Well, if there isn’t a hell, there ought to be.”
(Observer, 29 December 1883)

Prior to this, Madame Valentine was arrested in 1882 on a charge of stealing £30 from a drunken bushman named Harry Collins. She was later acquitted.

The other player in this story was “Black Julia”, sometimes also known as “Dark Julia”. Described as a “voluptuous Creole” with “Nubian hair” (Observer, 20 June 1891), Julia makes an appearance in Auckland as early as October 1876, already in charge of a house to which gentlemen of all manner of sobriety (or insobriety) came calling. (SC, 5 October 1876) As with many of the brothel-keepers of the time, her house was officially a “private boarding establishment”. In August 1883, her Albert Street house was burned to the ground while she was in Sydney and had left one Mary Bowen in charge. The house’s actual owner was a Mrs. White of the City Club Hotel. (Tuapeka Times, 15 August 1883)

This fire led Black Julia to enter into business with Madame Valentine, and find herself a new installation, this time at Paddington Villa in Rokeby Street. By March 1885, Julia also ran the White House on the Upper Queen Street frontage.

In mid February 1885, Superintendent Thomson issued notice for the brothel keepers in Rokeby Street to clear out. Word reached Madame Valentine in Sydney, and she returned to look after her interests there. She stopped by Paddington Villa, and apparently had a row with Julia there, before heading to Wellesley Street and another house of hers operated by Minnie Williams where one of Valentine’s former Paddington Villa girls lived, Nellie Brehmer. She testified that Valentine said, “…if the girls were not out of the b ---- house by Wednesday, she would either sell the house or burn it.” At 10 o’clock p.m., a fellow met Valentine there at Wellesley Street, and the two headed into another room for an hour. Then Valentine returned to Paddington Villa.

There, another witness, Lillie Cash from the White House, said she heard Valentine say to the girls, “they would not care if she was dying; no one cared for her. She was angry; stamped her foot on the floor, and went hastily into her room.”

At 1 a.m., Julia checked the house, looking at all the doors and fastenings, before heading to bed.

The fire which later consumed the building was noticed just on 2.30 a.m., and at 2.40 a.m. the fire alarm was sounded. Lizzie Hennessey was the first to see the fire, and banged on Julia’s bedroom door to wake her up. All the women were evacuated safely; their gentlemen callers legged it as fast as they could, many without their proper dress, over the back fence. Paddington Villa burned completely to the ground, despite the best efforts of the firemen who made their way with difficulty into the narrow street, and fought not just the villa’s fire, but that of a fence across the road which also caught alight.

Julia’s girls sought refuge with the Quoi family down the road, and across at Polly Burnes’ brick house. Madame Valentine fled further than that, located and eventually arrested by the police at a Nelson Street house. South British Insurance, faced with paying out on a £300 policy held by the architect William Henry Skinner on the house (as mortgagor), as well as £100 for furniture etc. held by Madame Valentine, declared “foul play” and so Madame Valentine was charged with arson. After a two day police court hearing, the charge was dismissed.

The fire, however, had a greater effect on the girls of Rokeby Street than any police notices or newspaper editorials. The brothels there, it was reported, were abandoned; however, Rokeby Street and Julia Wilson were inextricably linked even down to 1891, when a letter to the Observer noted that she was in charge of a house called “Pearlshell Villa”, where there were her “lillies”, “who toil not neither do they spin, and of whom it is reported that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Observer, 20 June 1891)

In 1904, the name of the street was officially changed to Chamberlain Street (public notice, Observer, 14 May 1904); by 1908 and the compilation of the Auckland City Council map, it was Waverley Street.

After the Rokeby Street fire, nothing further is known about Madame Valentine. Black Julia continued in the profession until at least 1892 here in Auckland. She may have travelled south to Wellington later, although madams and prostitutes those days changed names readily, so it is difficult to be certain. An Annie Smith in Wellington was said to have had the alias of Julia Wilson (Evening Post, 4 July 1903); she was found guilty of importuning in Ghuznee Street, and later for importuning again in 1912 (EP, 18 January 1912).

Image: Auckland Regional Council website. Waverley Street, 2001, centre.

Today, Rokeby/Waverley Street is mainly commercial offices and carparks. There’s one interesting building there at No. 4, a brick building which may date from the time after the 1885 fire (rebuilt with the insurance money?) and could be around where Paddington Villa once stood. Just down from that building, at no. 8, an escort agency and massage parlour is advertised (as at today’s date, online).

Sole survivors, apparently, from the days of Rokeby Street’s “unsavory” 19th century reputation.

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