Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Marching feet and pounding drums: the Auckland City Drill Halls (1867-c.1968)

This was written in 2009, with the intent of putting it together in a print publication. I might still do that, but -- time stands still for no man, and my research never quite seemed to find the light of day. And more on the old drill halls is still coming in. So -- I'll publish what I have here for now.


The inspiration was a chance meeting with Peter Cooke around that time at Archives New Zealand in Mangere. He commented that there didn't seem to be much done on Auckland's drill halls. Which surprised me (and he was indeed correct) -- for the drill hall keeps popping up in news items all over the place for a hundred years of our city's history. So, I let my curiosity take over, and now I have a rather bulging manila folder of news items, and this text.

"Unsigned drawing by P J Hogan of Albert Barracks, looking north east from the vicinity of Hobson Street," 1852. Reference 4-1288, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

The Drill Shed is established 
The first of the drill halls in Auckland City began as an iron store on the Albert Barracks Reserve used by the Commissariat department of the colony’s defence forces from the date of its construction, 1864, until the last of the Imperial regiments left Albert Barracks in 1867. It cost the princely sum of £2991 to build – an indication, even given the often-inflated prices the Government would have paid for facilities during wartime, of the substantial nature of the structure. A later plan of the future Albert Park area and surrounds shows that it was located just outside the main gates, around 133 feet from the barracks wall, along the south-eastern side of the Military Road leading directly from Princes Street and Waterloo Quadrant toward the barracks. It is likely to have been intended as an integral part of the logistic supply lines required to sustain an army deep into enemy territory in the Waikato; instead, soon after it was completed, the war was over and so was its prime purpose.

Still, it would have remained in use as a storage area, a place where the Government sold unused stock and equipment. But its redundancy, along with the rest of the Albert Barracks on the hill, was looming.

On 26 May 1866, a letter was published in the Southern Cross from “A Naval Volunteer”, in which the writer gave written voice to the concerns many amongst the volunteers had regarding the future of their organisation now their own redundancy loomed as well.

Soliciting space in your valuable columns, I beg to offer a few remarks concerning the volunteer movement, which is assuming anything but an active shape, which is much to be regretted, because the young men of Auckland and its suburbs do not look at the movement in the light that the Government have meant to place it. … The Government are determined to have men for the required defence of the country, but it matters little to them whether they are volunteers or militia. Doubtless they would prefer us all as militia, because we should be more immediately under their control, and subject to the stringent measure of the Militia Bill. However, the volunteer system is held out, first, more to induce young men to join, freely and voluntarily, with certain advantages, placing them on a footing with their brethren in arms at home, to enlist them as drilled and trained bodies for the defence of themselves, their hearths, their homes, their friends, and adopted country…
Surely then, in order to make the movement successful in Auckland as it is amongst our brethren in the South, we must exert ourselves; we must be attentive to our drills; the services of a good band must be obtained; the generous support of the citizens of Auckland must be requested; and lastly, though not least, the ladies must be enlisted under our banners, to assist in the defence of our tight little island in the same manner as their sisters have so nobly done at home by patronising all the endeavours of the volunteer companies to promote public good and public amusements; and then we shall have good loyal battalions of volunteers, who can again stand against the foe under fearful odds, and endure the hardships of a campaign, if it is required even, as they have done so before upon various occasions in our out-settlements.
We are the first of her Majesty's volunteers who have fought side by side with the Imperial troops, and we cannot, and must not, be the first to throw our arms away, and show the white feather. We cannot forget we have the eyes of England upon us; and let us be worthy of the thanks and praise her Majesty and her representatives have bestowed upon us for our past services. With such assurances let us swell our ranks daily; and with the assistance, and patronage of our townsmen, who are as much interested in the defence of the place as we are, we will not be afraid to say that Auckland shall possess volunteer corps, who, if properly treated, will, for daring and deeds, be second to none, and such that our province shall be proud of.

Amongst the many things necessary for a successful issue of our cause, I may mention a Rifle Association for the distribution of prizes; and good rifle butts are amongst the first of our demands, and will ensure the return of the champion belt to our province, which, under all our disadvantages, we have held before amongst us. Next, we want a good drill shed for evening drills and gymnastic exercises, which I think the Provincial Government could easily provide us with, if they were only made acquainted with our requirements. These and many other things are actually necessary to encourage the movement, without which we cannot hope to be able to cope with our brethren in arms either in England, Australia, or in the Southern provinces. Let us hope that all these things will be accorded to us, in due time, and then we shall feel proud to know that the devotion of our time and services is not altogether unacknowledged by our fellow settlers and countrymen, and we shall prove ourselves not unworthy of their assistance and patronage.

Editorials flowed from the newspapers of the day. This, from the Southern Cross, 18 February 1867:

If we must depend upon the people defending themselves, we must at least teach them how to do it. People have latterly run away with the idea that there is no drill required for Maori warfare, because the soldier’s drill has always stood in his way of success; that, therefore, our Militia and Volunteers are quite fit to take the field at a moment’s notice. This is erroneous, however …

Without making of man a machine, you can teach him how the machinery of war is to be handled, and harmoniously brought into play. To that end, “order” is required; -- system, though not that of the regular soldier, whose system, being useless in broken country, leaves the individual in a worse plight than the veriest recruit who has yet not forgotten to think for himself …a great many of our Volunteer corps and bodies of Militia want bodily raining to enable them to do a day’s work in the bush with any credit whatever …

To accomplish all this, however, with our Militia and Volunteers we must have a great change in their regulations. There must be a staff appointed fit to teach something else besides the goose-step. An intelligent explanation of what the art of fighting really consists in this country, will take from the occasional musters that feeling of utter mockery which is now destroying the very core of the Volunteer movement in this island. To the practical inhabitants of a colony, the bait of parti-coloured raiment is perfectly innocuous, and it is no wonder that people get sick of learning what everyone knows will be of no earthly use. Change this, and the Volunteer movement will become popular …

Show to the Volunteers here that you really improve the individual and make him up to work, and he will be anxious of securing that advantage.

Into the story at this point stepped Major Michael Tighe.

I have only been able to piece together fragments of his career before he took over command of the Auckland Volunteers. Michael Tighe initially served with the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment of Foot, and later (after 1858) the 70th (Surrey) Regiment of Foot. He rose in rank from Colour-sergeant to Ensign in 1845; to Lieutenant by 1853; to Captain by 1860; and from 28 October 1863 he held the rank of Major. His regiment had come to New Zealand in 1845, taking part in the fighting at Okaihau, Ohaeawai, Ruapekapeka, Boulcott’s Farm, Horokiri, and St. John’s Wood. The 58th left in 1858 – but Tighe remained. He was in charge of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers in early 1862. In March 1865 Tighe was the only member of staff of Militia and Volunteers to be retained (as Major Adjutant of Militia and Volunteers) when new regulations came into effect. He remained in the colony at war’s end, taking command of the Militia and Volunteers from early 1866. By 1867, he was in command of the Auckland Rifle Volunteers.

Before July 1867, the volunteers gathered at whatever building was offered to them which was large enough, or nearly so, for their purposes. Both the Auckland Rifle Volunteers and the Auckland Naval Volunteers met regularly either at Samuel Cochrane’s or Edmund & Jakin’s stores in 1867. On the 12th of June that year, Major Tighe wrote to the Superintendent for Auckland Province, John Williamson, making the suggestion that the Auckland Provincial Council could take over the Imperial Commissariat Store, seeing as the last of the Imperial troops was due to leave at the end of that month, and there were 548 volunteers in Auckland who needed a space to drill, practice and have a base of their own. Williamson took up the suggestion within days, writing to Colonel Gamble, Deputy Quarter Master General in Auckland on 18th June and applying for the building. Major T. D. Baker replied on the 28th of June on Col. Gamble’s behalf, advising the Superintendent of the original cost of the building in 1864, that as at 1867 such a building would have cost £1600 (another indication of the inflated prices during the war’s height) and, taking into account a 25% deduction for deterioration in the building, naming a price of £1200. Maj. Baker gave the Provincial Council two options – an outright purchase right then and there, or a lease agreement, based on 5% of the value or £60 per annum on the following conditions:

(a) That the building was inspected periodically by the Royal Engineers Department, and any repairs thus noted to be undertaken by the Provincial Council.
(b) That, should the building be required again by the military authorities, it was to be surrendered on 2 months notice.
(c) However, should the Imperial Government require an urgent sale, the Provincial Council would be able to purchase the building for the original offer of £1200, less rent paid and cost of repairs.

Dr. Daniel Pollen stood in as Deputy Superintendent for the remainder of the correspondence which opens the story of the Princes Street Drill Hall. He wrote to the Deputy Quarter Master General on 6 July, advising that the Provincial Council were prepared to lease the building. The military responded with approval of the lease on 15 July, “with the undertaking that the folding doors at the south end remain closed and that the small door at the east side be not used for any purpose by the Provincial Authorities.” The Province was to be responsible for all reinstatement in the case of fire – five days later, they would be informed that fire insurance was mandatory.

A correspondent in the Southern Cross at the time expressed appreciation.
Let the Provincial Government go in the way it has at last begun to move in; but it must be prepared to spend thousands of pounds before the [volunteer] force will acquire a status and efficiency commensurate with the requirements of the province. We Volunteers are not a grumbling, unsatisfied set, and I think we all feel grateful to his Honor the Superintendent for having attempted to meet the case by supplying a place for drill.
Perhaps the establishment of the Drill Hall came just in time, before the reputation of the Volunteers descended into comedy. A circus touring at the time staged, as part of its performances in Auckland, a mock “Battle of Waterloo” in which members of the Volunteer force, complete with uniform, arms and accoutrements, performed for the audience. They were sharply reminded by Major Tighe, in public announcements in the newspapers, that such a display without the sanction of the Government was illegal, and would result in expulsion from the Force. Just as the notices appeared, however, the show came to an end. The Auckland Rifle Volunteers, however, were able to assemble for drill on 25 July “in the Iron Building outside the Front Gate of Albert Barracks.” The Herald reported the day after the parade:
The whole of the companies of this corps paraded last night in the iron store near the Albert Barracks, about 150 of all ranks being present, under Major Tighe. The companies were put through the manual and platoon exercise and companies’ drill, and at the conclusion of the drill the men were cautioned against using their arms and accoutrements for any other purpose than regular parades. The arms were also carefully examined and found in serviceable order … The next parade will take place on Tuesday evening next.

Layout of the Albert Barracks area, 1873. The drill shed is in the centre, on (now vanished) Military Road. Detail from NZ Map 4475-22, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

The availability of the iron building on the hill was soon extended to the wider community. In December 1867, the members of the drum and fife band belonging to the Auckland Band of Hope Union met for practice there, directed by John Chilman, the bandmaster of the Naval Volunteers. After a couple of hours’ practice, “they fell in and … marched round the town by way of Princes-street, Symonds-street, and thence by Wakefield-street into Queen-street, playing a good selection of lively airs, which conferred the highest credit on their instructor and the Union at large.” (Southern Cross 14 December 1867)

From 1872, the Auckland Horticultural Society held their annual exhibition shows there, following on from earlier shows the Society held in the late 1850s in the adjacent gardens of Government House and “on the open space of ground adjoining the military road to Albert Barracks” which would later be occupied by the Drill shed itself.

As for Major Tighe, he died suddenly at his home in Wellington Street in 25 June 1868. His funeral cortege was viewed by crowds lining the streets on the way to the Roman Catholic cemetery at Symonds Street.

The shift from Princes Street to Rutland Street 
By 1871, the military reserve in the heart of the city of Auckland became the topic of discussion and claims from the Auckland Provincial Council, the new Auckland City Council, the Domains Board and the Auckland Harbour Board. Each viewed the vast reserve as a source of endowment income, providing needed finance for improvement projects. The city council and the Provincial Government, however, were just as interested in maintaining the central Barrack Reserve as a public recreational area as they were in the development in terms of roads and subdivisions for that part of the city. The Auckland Harbour Board already had Fort Britomart as endowment land. Eventually, that headland would disappear due to reclamations and in order to create a connection between the end of the railway line at Mechanics Bay and the central wharves.
This same land was claimed by the City Board as an endowment; by the Domain Board, to be expended upon that reserve; by the School Trustees, for a Grammar School and other educational purposes; for waterworks for the city of Auckland; for sewerage purposes; to assist the Parnell Road Board to form the road across Mechanics Bay; and as a means of assisting the Harbour Board to build a graving dock in the harbour of Auckland …

“It is certain that the land forms now, and has ever since its foundation formed, part of the city. It was only loaned to the Imperial authorities; but, as they have expended large sums of money upon it, and had it in possession, they are competent to suggest how the proceeds are dealt with; and we suspect that, when this matter comes up for discussion, they will offer, through his Excellency the Governor, some propositions that possibly may solve these questions in dispute.
Letter from S. J. Stratford, published in Southern Cross, 1 February 1871, p. 3

Right down to November 1871, it wasn’t certain what the reserve’s future would be. Finally, in December, the Albert Barracks Reserves Act of 1871 established a board of commissioners made up of the Provincial Council Superintendent, the Mayor of Auckland, the Speaker and the Secretary of the Provincial Council, along with James Farmer, Judge Francis Dart Fenton, Theophilus Heale, James MacKay junior, William Thorne Buckland and Thomas Macready.

A second act in 1872 officially vested the Albert Barracks Reserve lands in the Provincial Superintendent, who in turn appointed commissioners to manage the property. This was the beginning of the City Improvement Commissioners who first met as a body on 2 December 1872, made up of the Superintendent, the Mayor of Auckland, Judge Fenton, G. M. O’Rorke, Provincial Secretary H. H. Lusk, W. T. Buckland, J. M. Clark, T. Macready, and Stannus Jones. A third act in 1873 vested the reserve with the Commissioners directly. Judge Thomas Gillies, who was also Superintendent at the time, opposed this third Act however, expressing his personal concerns that the Commissioners were being given too much power.

The barracks wall began to come down from February 1873, when Judge Fenton moved during a meeting of the Improvement Commissioners on the 12th of that month that tenders be advertised for the removal of the wall, except for the northeastern part from the main gate to Symonds Street. Part of this section remains today in the University of Auckland grounds. Around this time, the Commissioners also issued notices of their rights to the parade grounds around the drill hall. In response, Major William Gordon, commanding the Volunteers, annoyed the Commissioners by issuing notices of his own in the city newspapers, forbidding all parades on the grounds because of the Commissioner’s edict. Judge Fenton, of the Commissioners, thought that Gordon’s action was “childish”, and his fellow Board members felt that Gordon had only to ask for permission to use the grounds for parades. Such permission, they said, would not be refused.

Once the walls of the old barracks were gradually disappearing, the Commissioners looked to what buildings remained of the military facility. Discussions between the Commissioners and the Government began in July 1874 regarding removal of the building from the future Albert Park. Major Gordon by this time probably welcomed such considerations.
The drill shed,” he wrote in a report to the Government, “has been practically useless for twelve months or more, the supply of gas having been cut off, and the approaches to it rendered highly dangerous by the excavations etc. of the Albert Barrack Improvement Commissioners in the prosecution of the works. A large proportion of the shed had also been fitted up for the reception of the immigrants, and occasionally so occupied. Added to the annoyance is the circumstances that no where in the city is there a piece of ground available for outside drill. If it was not for the assistance which is given me by the others of the various corps in holding them together, the force here would have collapsed long since.
Southern Cross 27 August 1874

The short-lived newspaper The Echo, so it was reported in another newspaper from outside Auckland, provided a chiding description of the immigration barracks which used part of the drill shed site.
“ … a crowd of immigrants now occupy a wretched old building which at one time formed a portion of the Albert Barracks, Auckland, and are huddled together in a most inconceivable state of misery and discomfort. The old shanty has been roughly divided into apartments by a few boards, which lie upon one another to a height of eight or nine feet. These partitions are not even planed, and the gaps between the boards of such dimensions as to make the whole area, to all intents and purposes, one vast bedroom. And this room is inhabited not only by human beings, but by members of other branches of the animal kingdom, which prey upon the higher organisations, and tend to their intense discomfort. The whole fabric is in a most abominable state of dilapidation.”
 Grey River Argus 27 December 1874

In January 1875, the Commissioners decided to enter into negotiations with Sir Donald McLean, Minister of both the Native and Defence departments, regarding their proposal to remove the drill hall from Princes Street to a site “near the recreation reserve … perfectly suitable for the convenience of the Volunteers.” This was to be the Rutland Street site, in the middle of the block bounded by Rutland, Wellesley and Abercrombie Streets, a rough and uneven piece of ground that may have ordinarily proved expensive to turn into saleable subdivision sites. McLean agreed, as long as the Board contributed £400 to cover the expenses of removal, and the re-erection of the building. Tenders were advertised in March that year, in conjunction with Major Gordon. In early April, however, there was a hiccup to the plans.
A letter was read from Major Gordon [at an Improvement Commissioners meeting], stating that the lowest tender received for the removal of the drill shed exceeded the amount he was authorised to pay for the work by nearly £280, and that he was not empowered to take any further action in the matter – The secretary was instructed to write to the Government urging the immediate removal of the building, and informing them that the Board were prepared to carry out their part of the agreement.
 Southern Cross 8 April 1875 p.3

That month, the tender from John Harker, Archibald Tudehope and William Gill was accepted by the Commissioners, based on a plan drawn up by the City Council’s surveyor William Anderson. In May, as the Commissioners put the sections around the Rutland Street site on the market on 99-year lease terms, Major Gordon finally accepted the Harker-Tudehope-Gill tender. Later that month, the Commissioners set in motion an application to the General Assembly for an amendment to the 1872 Act for, among other things, “to vest the site of the Drill Shed, near Princes-street, in the city of Auckland, in the Commissioners, and to enable the Commissioners to carry out an arrangement which has been made with the Government for providing a Site for a Drill Shed near Rutland-street, in the said city…” 

(Public notice, Southern Cross, 15 May 1875, p.1)

In June, George Augustus Avey built his two-storey Park Hotel on the corner of Wellesley and Rutland Streets (initially using it as a boarding establishment, before it opened with full-license in January 1876). This was to become, from 1909, the Auckland lodge for the Girl’s Friendly Society. In behind the hotel, Harker and his partners re-erected the drill hall in early June – along with other buildings from the old barracks site across the road. To the astonishment of the Improvement Commission.

Robert Huntley Stephenson, Improvement Commission Secretary, spotted John Harker dismantling and removing from the barracks reserve not just the drill hall outside the line of the old barracks wall – but also the Artillery drill-shed within the area of the old wall and a stable beside the drill hall. Incensed, he told Harker that the latter buildings were the property of the Commissioners, and that removing them was theft. Harker ignored him, and Stephenson sent for a constable, who stopped the removal. A little later, Harker’s men came again and removed the remainder of the two buildings, as well as an iron fence between the barrack wall and the drill hall. All these buildings and the fence were re-erected across the road at Rutland Street.

Stephenson claimed during the later numerous court hearings from June to October that year that he didn’t know what the Artillery Shed was used for.
I know there were horrible sounds occasionally proceeding from thence. The office I occupy (the Commission’s office at the reserve) is within 25ft. of these buildings. I cannot say that the Volunteer band occupied the gun shed. I know there were discordant sounds coming from it … The Colonial Government occupied the gun-shed. Sergeant-major Broughton kept the key. I do not know his occupation, but I have seen him working in the armoury. I don’t think his working caused the discordant sounds. It was called the Artillery Drill-shed. … I have heard that the noise was made by lads practising the bugle-calls; probably they were cadets. I have never received any rent from those premises. I have never asked for any.
Stephenson’s testimony, reported in Southern Cross, 15 July 1875, p. 3 
As far as Major Gordon and his Volunteer Force was concerned, however, all three buildings made up “the Drill Hall”, comprising a collective facility under the contract with Harker, Tudehope and Gill. The Commissioners’ attempts to sue the contractors for £160 damages failed, as first one district court judge (who died during the course of the hearings) and then Judge Fenton himself, expressed their surprise that the Commissioners were even bothering to lay charges over some bits of old wood and tin. In the end, the case was dismissed, with the Commissioners receiving nothing in the form of damages. The final court hearing was before Judge Thomas Gillies – the same man who had opposed the increase in power granted to the Commissioners by the 1873 Act.

Court cases aside, the Drill Shed (and the other buildings comprising same) were successfully re-opened for the use of Auckland’s volunteer companies by July 1875.


Three details from "Plan of New Drill Shed", 1875, NZ Map 4474, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
To the Editor : Sir,—It is very pleasant and amusing to spend an hour in the evening, watching the evolutions of our Volunteers in the Drill-shed, cold though the place may be and somewhat dreary. On Monday evening it was especially interesting and unusually exciting. On this occasion, the Victoria Company, A.R.V., under the command of Major Gordon, assembled for the monthly inspection, and right well did these spirited young fellows go through their arduous task. There was more than the usual number of spectators that evening, most of whom were ranged along the sides of the building.

It happened that Major Gordon determined to put the company through what to them was a new piece of drill, and what to the French was always a source of great terror during the continental war— namely, the bayonet charge. Now, whether these gallant A.R.V.s’ breasts were fired with an unusual amount of energy and warlike determination —thinking at the same time that a savage enemy really confronted them, whom they were in duty bound forthwith to annihilate and make them trophies of their prowess—I cannot tell. This I know: that, when the gallant Major gave the word "Charge bayonets!" these fine fellows went at it with such an apparently murderous determination—their countenances bearing also such marks of real earnestness to stand or fall in the supposed deadly conflict, and rushing in one firm compact line at a tremendous pace towards the spectators, till they came actually within a few inches of them —that the sight was, indeed, one of no ordinary interest.


Detail from James D Richardson photo, 1870s. George Avey's Park Hotel on the corner of Wellesley and Rutland Streets, right of photo, and the drill hall just in behind (centre). Reference 4-148, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.
"Halt!" cried the Major, who really seemed to enjoy the scene, and who could hardly give the word of command, for laughing. The spectators, in the meantime, were positively terrified, and seemed as though they expected actually to be impaled by the murderous-looking steel against the side of the building. Several seemed ready to drop with fear and turned frightfully pale; one actually fell flat on his face through terror. Nothing short of' instant death, as he thought, was his doom; while the Volunteers really enjoyed what to these poor terror-stricken mortals was anything but a joke. Peal after peal of laughter burst from the Volunteers, when, at the conclusion of the exercise, many of the spectators (in spite of the remarkable scene which occurred) declared that they were not at all frightened. So be it; but the charge was by no means agreeable to any person who, like myself, was only

A LOOKER-ON.
Southern Cross, 17 June 1876, p. 1 

The first Drill Hall at Rutland Street 
The second version of the Drill Hall was wider than the original at the Albert Barracks, and boasted asphalt flooring. The Herald on 16 July 1875 heartily approved of the new site.

Site of the Drill Hall at Rutland & Wellesley East Streets, August 1882. SO 3005A, LINZ records, Crown copyright.

As far as the present situation of the building is concerned, it is a great improvement on the former one, being more central, and also more convenient for those “gallant” Volunteers who attend to their duties.

The “more central” location wasn’t such an improvement to at least one neighbour in the-then residential streets of Lorne and Wellesley.

The residents of Lorne and Wellesley-streets have had, and do have, their feelings harrowed every Monday and Friday nights, by the indefatigable efforts of the D-- and F-- band, (more especially the individual efforts of one of the fraternity), who discourse sweet musical (sic.) selections at the Drill Shed. The torture commences between 8.30 and 9 p.m., and lasts until 10 p.m., at which time it is presumed they are totally incapacitated from further efforts by sheer exhaustion. During the intervening period that poor unfortunate and long suffering drum gets violently thumped, at the average rate of one hundred and twenty thumps per minute, and allowing fifteen minutes each evening for the total time lost in intervals, has to endure in the said two nights the appalling sum of 18,000 thumps, delivered apparently with ungovernable ferocity, making every particle of air reverberate like small thunderclaps, and fairly astounding the feline portion of the community, themselves professionals in the disturbing art of night music. Can nothing be done is the groan, to prevent this barbarous and vindictive bi-weekly attack on the drum of the Drill-shed, and on the ears of the residents?"
Observer 30 October 1880


Parade at the Drill-shed. "Too many under sized Boys." Observer 26 October 1889

Sunday School “Industrial Exhibitions” were held in the hall from November 1876, St Benedict’s Church held a “Fancy Fair” there in February 1886, and the Auckland Poultry, Pigeon, Canary & Dog Association’s second Annual Show was held there over two days in November 1888. But, the Drill Shed was certainly an ugly duckling of a building. A letter writer to the Observer, 18 January 1890, was scathing in his condemnation of the building’s aesthetics.
“As an outsider only I write this, for I confess that I have attended one of these displays [horticultural displays for the Jubilee in 1890], simply from the reason that I cannot reconcile the gems of nature with the ugliness of shed buildings such as the Drill Shed. Such appears to me acts of vandalism as bad as exhibiting jewels in a blacking box … the grim Drill Shed must appear as attractive as a vault on such occasions. This building is very useful for the purpose it was erected for, but for a display of nature’s jewels such as the occasion will call forth, a better arrangement is necessary.”
Perhaps not pretty enough for displaying Auckland’s prize blooms, the Drill Shed served as central Auckland’s principal polling place during the historic 1893 election (when women joined men in universal suffrage, and queued up alongside them outside the Drill Shed), and was so again in 1896 and 1899. Voters were carefully instructed in the polling notices to enter from the front and exit from the rear only.


Showing women voting at the Drill Hall in Rutland Street in 1899, reference 7-A12353, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries


Showing crowds outside the drill hall on voting day in Auckland, 1899, reference AWNS-18991215-4-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

The Drill Shed, however, wasn’t just an ugly, utilitarian building. As a hand-me-down from the days of the Auckland Barracks, it was old and in ill-repair for much of its span at Rutland Street. It was described as “wretched,” a “miserable headquarters” and news that it had been repaired somewhat by December 1894 was greeted by the Observer with the comment: “This means a much smaller tailor’s bill for the companies to pay.” In 1895, the Auckland Drill Shed was vested in a Committee of Officers, to control the Drill Shed, as well as “levy and collect all monies due by Volunteer Companies for the use of the Shed and pay all outgoings (including Gas) in connection herewith.”

In 1899, however, the building’s associations in the public mind shifted from that of the limited interest of the old volunteer companies and their drills and meetings, to that of war once again – this time, the 2nd Boer War in distant Africa.



South African War Fund. Great patriotic meeting, Drill Shed, Wellesley Street. Tuesday, January 9th, 1900. [Programme cover]. Reference Number: Eph-B-WAR-SA-1900-01-cover, Alexander Turnbull Library.

The fire of 1901 – and the Drill Hall’s restoration 

The end for the first old drill hall came in March 1901. This from the Auckland Star, 25 March.
Aucklanders were considerably surprised this morning to learn that the Volunteer Drill-Hall, off Wellesley-street East, had burned down, but the general opinion was that it was “a good job”, as far as the building was concerned. The Drill Hall caught fire in some mysterious manner shortly before five o’clock this morning, and in less than an hour it was almost completely destroyed. To-day all that was standing was the outer shell of the old building; the whole of the interior was practically gutted, and a large amount of valuable arms, uniforms, etc., was destroyed.

The fact of the Drill Hall being on fire was first noticed about a-quarter-to-five o’clock this morning by one of the people in the Park Hotel, at the corner of Wellesley-street and Rutland-street, close to the Drill Hall. A glare of fire was noticed in the front of the big building, and Mr. Walker, licensee of the hotel, ran down the street and gave the alarm. The fire spread very rapidly; flames burst through the roof and ran along the woodwork with destructive quickness. By the time the Auckland Fire Brigade got on the scene, the building was a great mass of flames, which lit up the whole city.

Mr. Edwin Lee, the caretaker, and his family, who lived in the rear part of the building, had a narrow escape. Mr. Lee was aroused by a police constable, only just in time, for the flames were bursting through into the girls’ bedroom. Mr. Lee promptly got his family out, and then, with the assistance of some others, set about saving his household goods and effects. He got his piano and other belongings out safely, and managed to save most of his property. The fire was arrested just at the rear of the Drill Hall, by great efforts on the part of the Fire Brigade, and part of the corner where the caretaker lived was saved, but the other side of the shed and the whole of the interior was destroyed. Mr. Lee and his family were kindly taken in and given shelter by Mr. Walker, of the Park Hotel.

The fire burned very fiercely, having got a good start, and all the efforts of the firemen to save the building were helpless. There was a great draught through the big hall, and the flames made quick work of the roof, the floor, and most of the orderly rooms.

By-and-bye a series of explosions occurred, as boxes of small-arms ammunition in the Companies’ orderly rooms caught fire, and the popping of cartridge[s] continued at intervals for about half-an-hour. The firemen who worked at the building were in danger to some considerable extent, at times, from the falling of hot sheets of iron and the explosions of ammunition. “The fire did most damage on the south-west or right hand side of the Drill Hall, looking from the front door. It is believed to have started either in the lecture room or the orderly rooms of the College Rifles or the Devonport Navals, in the right hand corner, near the front door. The fire is considered to have spread from here along through the building, burning most strongly on the right hand side of the hall, where all the company rooms were destroyed, the blackened remains of the walls, floors, and some of the fur5niture alone being left this morning to show the extent of the damage, besides the rows of irretrievably damaged rifles, carbines and bayonets. “On the other side of the Drill-shed, next the Wellesley-street school, the volunteer companies escaped much more lightly in comparison, although a considerable amount of damage was done. The officers’ rooms were damaged by fire, water and smoke, but the contents were not destroyed, and the walls were intact this morning. The other orderly rooms adjoining escaped to a considerable extent. The “A” Battery of Artillery sustained about £20 worth of damage through water and smoke in their room (besides the destruction of their cooking equipage in the rear of the hall). A number of uniforms were damaged by water. The Volunteer Bearer Corps had two field chests burnt considerably, and some other property was destroyed, the stretchers appeared to have escaped pretty well.

The heaviest losers were the Auckland Naval Artillery Volunteers, the Devonport Naval Volunteers, Ponsonby Navals, College Rifles, Newton Rifles, and the Auckland Engineer Company. The interior of the Auckland Navals’ orderly rooms was a perfect wreck this morning, with the blackened debris of furniture, arms, etc., lying all over the place. “The Auckland Navals were particularly unfortunate in the matter of losing small arms and accoutrements, as 85 of their Martini-Enfield carbines were stored in the racks and cupboards, together with bayonets, belts, etc., in readiness for the annual inspection of arms …

First of all the party in the Auckland Navals’ room passed out three cases of Martini-Enfield ammunition, in order to prevent an explosion. They then tried to get at the carbines, which were stored at the other end of the room, near the door, but the whole of that part of the room was by this time wrapped in flames, and nothing could be done except to save three of the carbines, which were available, and also some of the company’s historical pictures and the books and records of the corps. All the spare uniforms stored in the room, to the number of over fifty, were totally destroyed, also some of the camp gear and the orderly-room furniture. …

The Auckland Engineer Volunteers are stated to have lost all their new khaki uniforms, lately ordered.

The Ponsonby Navel Artillery Company also sustained a serious loss, having 40 uniforms destroyed, and 30 carbines more or less destroyed, beside the contents of the orderly room … “The heavy showers of rain this morning helped the firemen in the work of extinguishing the flames, and soon after eight o’clock all lingering traces of fire were out. During the day members of the various volunteer corps were busily engaged in ransacking through the ruins and recovering the remains of their furniture, etc., and the damaged Government rifles, carbines, and side-arms, which were returned to the Brigade Office storekeeper. The volunteer companies get credit for all damaged rifles and carbines (barrel or lock) returned to store; but the uniforms are their own loss, which they must make good out of their capitation.

But, perhaps because this happened during the period of the Boer War, there was interest in retaining some kind of military training base in the heart of Auckland city. From the ashes of the old hall at Rutland Street, a new hall arose by the end of 1902.

"Showing a large crowd belonging to Auckland Friendly Societies demonstrating in aid of the Veterans' Home in front of the Drill Hall, Rutland Street", July 1903, reference 7-A12561, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

This from the NZ Herald, 25 October 1902:
The new Volunteer Drill Hall for the use of the garrison corps of Auckland has now been practically completed, and in the course of a few days will be handed over by the contractor (Mr. John Davis, of Mount Eden) to the Government for occupation and use by our volunteers. The building, which is situated on the site of the old hall, in Rutland-street, has no claims to ornate architecture, the general idea when the plans were prepared being utility and the provision of a good, plain, substantial structure adequate to the requirements of an important volunteer centre like Auckland. In these respects nothing should be found wanting, as the total floor space will be more than double that of the old building, while the general arrangements are such as to make it in every way convenient to the purpose for which it has been erected, and the building work has been most satisfactorily and faithfully carried out, the structure being a most substantial one.

Both the Drill Hall and gun shed, the latter on the western side of the main building, are of wood and iron. The Drill Hall proper has a floor space 140ft long by 70ft wide, probably the largest clear floor space in any hall in the colony, inasmuch as there are no obstructions in the way of centre columns for the support of the roof. Every inch of space is available for manoeuvring, and four full companies could be exercised in the hall at the one time without the slightest inconvenience. The flooring is composed of concrete slabs (Ponui red shingle and colonial cement), moulded and made on the job, and round the four walls, running from the floor to a height of about 5ft, is an iron dado, to prevent any possibility of fire in the event of matches being negligently thrown about The walls are painted cream colour, and the room, which contains several corrugated glass skylights, giving ample light during the day, will be lighted at night by means of 14 incandescent arc gas-lamps, each of 80 candle-power. Running down the full length of the right-hand side of the hall are the company orderly rooms, 12 in number, and of ample size, and on the opposite side six more orderly rooms, a maxim gun room, a lecture room for the use of the members of the Volunteer Bearer Corps (ambulance workers), and the caretaker’s quarters.

Other rooms on the ground floor in the front of the building are the engineer’s working room (30ft by 30ft, to allow for the indoor work peculiar to this arm of the service and the storage of paraphernalia), non-commissioned officers and officer’s club and meeting rooms (each 20ft by 30ft), and three spacious rooms to be devoted to the use of the officer commanding the district, Colonel Davies, and permanent members of the Brigade Office staff. The interiors of these latter rooms are varnished, fitted with fire places, and are lofty, well lighted, and ventilated; in fact, the ventilation throughout is excellent, Craig’s Ara ventilators having been used. The upstairs rooms are reached by means of a stairway let in from the outside to the right of the main building. These include a reading room (30ft by 25ft) and a fine, spacious lecture and social room (30ft wide by 70ft long), this enabling the volunteers to hold all meetings of importance and company social gatherings in their own buildings. The flooring in all cases, beyond the Drill Hall proper, is of wood, and the total floor space in the main building is 102ft by 172ft.
The gun shed, as already mentioned, is a detached building, and has a total floor space of 72ft by 112ft. This will be for the sole use of the “A” Battery Artillery Volunteers, who will require a much larger space than any other of the companies, as when fully equipped they will have to house a complete field battery and a large quantity of harness in their quarters, besides setting up a smithy, etc. The main room in which they will hold their regular parades at night and store the guns is 110ft by 39ft, and, as in the case of the main drill hall, is entirely free from the obstruction of centre columns for the support of the roof, thus leaving every inch of the floor space available to them. Other rooms branching off on either side in this building are the harness room (50ft by 30ft), store room (20ft by 30ft), officers’ room (15ft by 30ft), and orderly room (20ft by 30ft), access to the two last-name3d being from the outside of the building. Built in directly over the gun-shed, between ceiling and roof, and extending the full length of the building (110ft), is a gallery for Morris’ tube shooting, an institution long needed by our volunteers and one that should prove of great value in improving their marksmanship during the winter months, when outdoors shooting is impossible. In order that the “A” Battery members may not be disturbed while at their work, entrance to the Morris’ tube gallery will be made by means of a stairway running up from the outside of the building. The gun-shed is also lighted by means of powerful arc lights. “In addition to the buildings mentioned, outbuildings to be used as latrines and stables (looseboxes for two horses) have been erected, and both main and outbuildings are connected with the city drainage. The approaches have been levelled off and covered with a good coating of scoria, and it may now be said that both the new Drill Hall and its surroundings are in every way a credit to the district.
"The citizens' ball to the Governor and Lady Ranfurly: a general view of the interior f the Drill Hall, showing decorations," Auckland Weekly News, 25 June 1903, reference AWNS-19030625-2-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections.


Detail from Henry Winkelmann photo, 22 June 1908. The drill hall (centre) surrounded by its neighbours, including the soon-to-be Seddon Memorial Technical School (then, Auckland Normal School and Training College, now AUT). Reference 1-W1444, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Compulsory training from 1911 probably breathed new life into the drill hall, although it was one of the focuses of celebration during the coming of the American Great White Fleet in 1908. The First World War saw the drill hall become a recruiting station, a function repeated for the Second World War.


Looking southeast showing a close view of the front of the New Zealand Army Drill Hall in Rutland Street which served as the Northern Military District Headquarters, 11 July 1968, reference 7-A13534, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Above is probably one of the last images of Auckland's second Drill Hall, by then (1968) serving as the Northern Military District Headquarters. After this, however, the Defence Department transferred the remaining land surrounding the building, and the building itself, to the Education Department. For a while, it served the purposes of the Auckland Technical Institute which had grown like topsy all around it. Then, sometime around 1969 -- it was demolished.


The site today has no reference to the drill hall, the military past of this part of Auckland, and even the library at AUT had no clear reference as to exactly when the building was demolished. These photos date from 2009.


An interpretive plaque by Auckland Council, I think, would be in order. Maybe some day.

2 comments:

  1. I helped Simon Best do a small test excavation behind the Princess St houses in the vicinity of the military road around 2000 or 2001 for some work the Council parks department was doing (I think). I cant find the report in the HPT catalogue and I cant remember what we found (cant have been that exciting!) but if you want to follow this up, check with Simon. Hes in the white pages.

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  2. Cheers for that, Jono. I love coming across archaeological reports for the central city where I can find them. Might try Voyager to see if anything's in the University library ...

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