Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Auckland's theatre on the Haymarket -- His Majesty's Theatre and Arcade (1902-1987)

His Majesty's Arcade in Queen Street, 1970s. 435-B5-239, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

Updated/edited: 24 October 2015

A number of vanished landmarks in Auckland’s history come up as examples of what we have lost over time. Many, with the mere mention, still raise passions. One of these is Queen Street’s His Majesty’s Theatre and Arcade (1902-1987). 

The land on which the arcade and theatre were once situated comprised part of two of the original Auckland land sale sections from the 1840s. Lots 15 and 16 of Section 16, City of Auckland, were bought in 1842 by one David Guillan. But this is about the only reference Guillan has in our history. He subdivided and sold his 2 roods 24 perches of land completely by 1848, and was not heard from again. 

The Haymarket 

By 1860, Alfred Buckland, the renowned stock agent and auctioneer from Newmarket, had
possession of a large part of both 15 and 16. He set up first his Bazaar Sale Yards from August 1859 (mainly taking over Henry Hardington’s horse sales business), then from October 1860 he took the Queen Street to Durham Lane operation a bit more further – and renamed it the Haymarket, building offices at the Queen Street frontage. 

That name is an old one. The original Haymarket is in London, a street in the City of Westminster, part of the West End, and was used from Elizabethan times through to 1830 as a place for farmers to sell fodder (hence the name) and produce. 

Buckland’s Haymarket here in Auckland was to last from 1859, as the Bazaar, through to the beginning of 1902. He subdivided around 2/3 of the Queen Street frontage in the 1860s and transferred this to Bishop John Coleridge Patteson. On Patteson’s death in 1871, killed on the island of Nukapu in the Solomon Islands, his estate went to the Melanesian Trust Board (who still retain ownership of that part of the former arcade property to this day.) 

As with many other land holdings Buckland had in Auckland, mortgages caught up with him by the late 1880s and from 1887, his Haymarket passed to the ownership of the Bank of New Zealand, and their Assets Realisation Board ten years later. They leased the property back to Buckland, his son, and his son-in-law Henry Thomson Gorrie, and the Haymarket continued for a time.

(Image above: NZ Graphic 20 June 1903, NZG-19030620-1737-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections)

The fact that His Majesty’s Theatre existed at all really is due to two men. 

The businessman: Robert Henry Abbott 

The spokesman for the syndicate, and likely organiser of the project Robert Henry Abbott (1861-1927) was born in North Molten, Devonshire, son of Richard (a farmer with 140 acres according to the 1871 English census) and Elizabeth. According to his obituary, he was apprenticed at the age of 15 to a soft goods house in London, took up studies at King’s College at 19, then entered the civil service with the Admiralty Department for about 18 months. Then, he embarked on a “tour of adventure around the world” in 1882, visiting France, Spain, Portugal, Rio de Janeiro, South Africa, Australia, and finally New Zealand by 1884. 

Here, he stayed, setting up his business from 1885, retailing soft goods for 6 years, then formed the warehouseman and wholesale merchants firm of Abbott, Oram and Co, then some years later R H Abbott & Co. He retired from business in 1911, erected blocks of retail premises around the city, and served on boards of directors, including as Chairman of the Waiatarua Drainage Board, purchasing 100 acres of the reclaimed area around Mt St John and presenting it to Auckland City as a sports park. He bequeathed £1000 to the City for either a set of entry gates to the park, or a drinking fountain there. Abbotts Way, from Ladies Mile to Panmure, was named after him. He died on Saturday evening, 23 April 1927, after being in poor health for some time. 

Neither of the obituaries in the Herald or the Star referred to his connection with His Majesty’s Arcade and Theatre. 

Buckland’s Haymarket site was formally sold to Abbott in June 1902 (who immediately put the property in the name of the His Majesty’s Arcade and Theatre Company Ltd, of which he was chairman), but Abbott obviously had a firm agreement with the Assets Realisation Board by December 1901. A 50-year lease was taken out with the Melanesian Mission Trust Board for their land just in front of the theatre site, to form the bulk of the arcade, from 1 April 1902.

(Image above: NZ Herald 29 April 1927)

In December 1901 Abbott made a statement to the newspapers about the project: 

It was announced in the Herald several weeks ago that a syndicate had been formed in Auckland for the erection of a new theatre, since when the matter has been quietly pursued until at the present moment the arrangements are complete, plans of the new playhouse well in hand, and the erection of the building within an appreciable distance of being commenced. Until details had been definitely settled the members of the syndicate and others concerned maintained a proper reticence, but now we are able to place full particulars before the public relative to the entire scheme by means of an interview granted to a Herald reporter yesterday by Mr R H Abbott, a prominent member of the syndicate, who, in reply to our representative's queries, gave the required information. 
"I fancy," said Mr. Abbott, "that there is an idea abroad that the scheme had been abandoned. I assure you it is nothing of the sort. We (the syndicate) have secured three-quarters of an acre of ground behind and alongside of the Metropolitan Hotel in Queen-street, and we intend building a handsome block at a cost of £20,000 or more. This will contain a row of shops facing Queen-street, suites of offices, a commercial travellers' club, additions to the Metropolitan Hotel, and a wide avenue or arcade running from Queen-street to the theatre at the back. 
“I have gone to very great trouble to ensure the theatre being a thoroughly up-to-date playhouse, and with that object in view I went to Australia to consult the leading theatrical managers and architects. Whilst there I inspected the various Sydney theatres, and then went on to Melbourne. In the latter city I was shown round the different theatres by the Hon Wm Pitt, the celebrated architect, who is, I might explain, the only one in Australasia who has successfully constructed theatres. Messrs J C Williamson and Harry Rickards, the leading theatrical managers, will not look at a theatre unless it has been either constructed by or improved by Mr. Pitt. Therefore you will see that I was in the best possible hands, and in the best position to secure what I went over for. Mr Pitt chaperoned me through all the theatres, both in front of and behind the scenes, and I learned that in his opinion the best theatre in Australasia is the Princess, Melbourne. After considerable thought, and after discussion with numerous theatrical managers, we have therefore decided to build our new playhouse on the same lines as the Princess Theatre. 
“From this plan," continued Mr. Abbott, producing a detailed sketch, you will note that "we are building His Majesty's Theatre (by which name our new playhouse will be known) with two tiers. The ground floor will be occupied by the usual orchestral stalls, stalls and pit; the first tier will comprise the dress circle, and above that will be the family circle. Also there will be six private boxes, three on either side of the proscenium, one above the other. The theatre will seat 1700 people, but its construction is so well designed that it will look comfortably filled with half that number. All Pitt's theatres have a considerable slope in the floorings. The seating accommodation is so constructed that absolutely every position in the auditorium will command an uninterrupted view of the stage. The dimensions of the latter will be 50ft by 60ft (the same as the Melbourne Princess), being extra large so as to admit of Bland Holt's spectacular productions, his horses, Derby and regatta scenes, being properly staged. 

Auckland Weekly News, 25 January 1906, AWNS-19060125-11-2, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

“We have arranged for the latest patent sliding roof, which on the hottest summer day or night will most effectually ventilate and cool the theatre. We have also entered into arrangements for beautifully decorated metal ceilings, dome, proscenium, and balconettes of the latest type. Mr Phil Goatcher, the great scenic artist of Australia, has been engaged to come over and superintend the decoration of the entire theatre, including the scenery. 
"There will be six entrances to the building, one each to the stalls and pit, and two to the family circle from Durham-street, and one each to the orchestral stalls and dress circle from Queen-street, by way of the arcade. At the back of the dress circle there will be a Deluxe lounge fitted with luxurious ottomans, etc., and also a commodious crushroom, 30ft by 40ft, with up-to-date cloakrooms attached. There will also be a handsome glass-roofed promenade for the occupants of the dress circle and orchestral stalls, situated at the end of the arcade from Queen-street. Patrons of these seats will be accommodated with the very latest type of imported iron swing chairs, upholstered in peacock-blue plush, whilst for the cheaper parts of the house plain, but comfortable, seating will be provided. We are also importing a specially manufactured rich peacock-blue drop curtain, embroidered with gold fringe and a centre motto. For the act-drop we are seeking a suitable subject depicting New Zealand scenery. 
"We have gone to very great pains also to study the comfort of actors and actresses, and intend constructing roomy and well-appointed dressing-rooms both on and beneath the stage fitted up with all the latest appliances. Everything will be of an up-to-date nature in connection with the facilities for scene-shifting, including a well-fitted and lofty grid over the stage. 

Auckland Weekly News 28 September 1905, AWNS-19050928-10-1, Sir George Grey special Collections, Auckland Libraries

"The theatre will be bounded on three sides by streets, and the utmost precautions will be taken to provide ready exits from all parts to obviate danger in case of fire or alarm. The lighting of the theatre will be in gas though it will be wired ready for the installation of electric lighting if that can be arranged. 
"Mr Pitt is supplying all the plans and details of the new playhouse, and these will be carried out in conjunction with Mr Mahoney, the well-known local architect. The plans are on the boards and rapidly nearing completion. I expect to receive them on Monday next, and anticipate that we shall be calling tenders for the theatre in two or three weeks. At the latest it will be available for theatrical productions by December, 1902. 
“We think that on completion the theatre we are aiming at will altogether entrance the Auckland public when they set foot in it.
"I may say" proceeded Mr Abbott, “that what induced us to think of a theatre was an offer we received from Mr P K Dix, who has agreed to take it on lease for 10 years. In this matter Mr Dix has shown very commendable enterprise, and will now command the leading theatres in the four principal cities of the colony. It is solely due to his enterprising spirit that Auckland is to get a thoroughly up-to-date theatre, equal to any existing in Australasia. In the details of the theatre construction we have received very valuable assistance from Mr Dix's Auckland manager. Mr C R Bailey, whose extensive knowledge of theatres and intimate acquaintance with all details in their construction have considerably aided us. Mr Bailey has been of still greater assistance to Mr Dix, who in his agreement with us, thanks to his manager's influence, has stipulated for the most modern and up-to-date equipments and appointments in every direction. 
“An important point I wish you to note," said Mr. Abbott, "is that it is a distinct understanding between lessee and owners that Mr Dix shall sub-let His Majesty's Theatre to all first-class theatrical companies visiting the colony. At the same time the best class of variety business is now highly popular in Australia, and is likely to develop in public favour to such an extent that Mr Dix, who is in the front rank of this class of entertainment, will easily fill his new theatre between whiles, as his position as a leading impresario is fully recognised not only in New Zealand, but in Australia.” (NZ Herald, 12 December 1901)

Contractor J D Jones was tasked to dismantle the old Haymarket structures by the middle of February 1902. His tender of £20,499 to erect the His Majesty’s Theatre and block of shops on Queen Street and Durham Street West (the arcade) was accepted on 11 March 1902. The theatre was to be completed in six months, and the shops in seven months. 

I do wonder whether it was coincidence or not that the Auckland His Majesty’s Theatre was built on the old Buckland Haymarket, while the one in London was built on the Haymarket Road. 

The impresario: Percy Reginald Dix 

The second man with primary responsibility for His Majesty’s coming into being, as Abbott
mentioned in his 1901 interview – was theatrical entrepreneur Percy Reginald Dix (1866-1917). According to the entry for him in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, he was born in Launceston, Tasmania, the son of chemist Richard Porrett Dix and his wife Emma Elizabeth Nelson Thame. Dix’s initial ambition was to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a chemist as well, even passing his first examinations, but then flagged it away for a move to Melbourne, and employment in the tea industry. He shifted to Auckland in 1891, setting up his tea merchandising business. 

In 1895, Dix began leasing the City Hall theatre, staging popular concerts. When Fullers brought in bijoux vaudeville (at the Agricultural Hall, then City Hall), Dix followed suit in 1899 with his “Dix’s Gaiety Company”. As Fullers gradually shifted away from first Auckland, then their next base in Wellington, ultimately heading over the Tasman, Dix seems to have taken the opportunity to fill the void, and in July 1901 established a business relationship with the entrepreneur and comedian Harry Rickards, another name referenced by Abbott in his interview with the Herald reporter. 

His Majesty’s Theatre, probably Dix’s crowning achievement, opened on 26 December 1902. The first performance was by J S Williamson’s Musical Comedy Company with A Runaway Girl. Dix was set up with a ten-year-lease, and in the absence of Fullers the likely domination of the light theatrical business in Auckland. 

But, Fullers returned to Auckland in 1903, and Dix once again faced stiff opposition. Not even the grandeur of His Majesty’s seemed able to help his financial affairs. By the beginning of April, 1903, four months after His Majesty’s opened, Dix was leaving Auckland and his other venue the City Hall theatre behind him, with his “right hand man” Charles Rauger Bailey left to manage His Majesty’s in his stead for the remainder of the lease (formerly put into Bailey’s name from September 1903). Elsewhere, Dix lowered admission prices, and even introduced short motion pictures onto the bill at Wellington’s Theatre Royal. But by late August 1905, he’d packed up his Gaiety Company and headed back to Australia. He did relatively well over there, tapping into the growing market for “the flickers” – but in 1917, after suffering a stroke the year before, Dix died in New South Wales.

(Image above: via Auckland Art Gallery)

Company letterhead from 1915, Auckland Council Archives (by kind permission). 
HIS MAJESTY'S THEATRE, 1932-1988, Works Department subject file [ACC 219/537c]

A theatre in a changing world 

Any advantages His Majesty’s Theatre would have had in Auckland began to evaporate with the return of Fullers, followed by the development of urban and suburban cinemas and performing halls. The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of the likes of the St James and the Civic Theatre – His Majesty’s, tucked away at the end of an arcade, increasingly became just another venue as the 20th century progressed. As the Herald put it in December 1952: “The glitter of His Majesty’s first 20 to 25 years will probably never return. The motion picture, which developed as a serious rival about ten years after the theatre was built, has steadily gained in public favour, and ahead lies television.” 

Bailey was replaced as lessee by Allan Doone, an Irish singing comedian, in 1915; then J C Williamson Ltd from 1916 until the theatre was purchased by Kerridge Odeon in the 1980s.

The theatre owners celebrated 50 years in December 1952. By then, the interior modelling, after the style of the Melbourne Princess theatre, had been altered substantially through renovations, and the needs of the various productions staged there. The concrete floor had to be dug up for a production of Kismet, for example. The peacock blue of the dress circle seats were long gone. The image on the drop curtain of King Edward VII in military uniform, no longer graced the stage. Much of the scenic art overseen by Phil Goatcher had been painted over. The sliding roof still worked on hot nights, “the top of the dome being opened by hand winch and the roof above slid back by a rope. It has not been unknown for sudden rain to cause the audience to shelter under the programmes,” the Herald advised.

The old His Majesty’s Arcade and Theatre Company was taken over at some point by J C Williamson & Son (files at Archives NZ for the old company go to c.1985), who put the theatre and arcade on the market in 1976. The annual ground rental for the Melanesian Mission property alone was $51,000, but the company earned $10,000 less than this from the shop rentals along the arcade. The City Council responded at the time by setting up a special sub-committee to look into purchasing the site – but the $1.25 million asking price was too steep. The Council at the time advised they were powerless to prevent demolition by applying a special designation to the building, due to the “reasonable development” clause of the then-governing act. The theatre also needed to be brought up to earthquake and fire standards. The council still considered the building to be of significant heritage value, and by then the Historic Places Trust had given it a category 2 on its register. Eventually, Auckland City Council gave the theatre-arcade complex a B on their schedule – but the owners appealed in 1977, and it was reduced to the lower level of protection of C.

(Image above: Auckland Star 22 December 1987)

Williamsons finally sold their property, and the renewed lease (from 1955) with the Melanesian Mission Board, to Kerridge Odeon Corporation in late April 1981. Kerridge Odeon initially indicated keenness to continue to stage live shows in the theatre. However, tenants in the arcade became alarmed once it was realised that their leases, which ran out at the end of 1986, did not seem to be in line to be renewed. Early in 1987, the company admitted that the cost of bringing the old structure up to standard was too high. By then, pigeons roosted in the non-functioning sliding roof, and alterations made for the My Fair Lady stage show in the 1960s had changed what remained of the original interior even more. 


From AAA Journal, October 1979



The last show in the theatre was Vince Carmen’s magic show, which ended 21 December 1987. Kerridge Odeon advertised the building for sale by auction for the following February. The upcoming opening of the Aotea Centre also meant that any refurbishment costs Kerridge Odeon might have put into His Majesty’s were unlikely, in their opinion, to be recovered. The situation wasn’t helped by comments such as those made by City Councillor Phil Warren, who described His Majesty’s as “a rat-infested dump with no artistic, historic or architectural significance.” Hamish Keith disagreed, saying that the councillors should lead the way and not let developers “walk all over them.” 

Added to this – by then, Kerridge Odeon itself had been taken over by Pacer Pacific Corporation, to become Pacer-Kerridge. Demolition of the building now became imperative. 


NZ Herald, 5 January 1988



Demolition work began on the night of 23-24 December 1987. Protestors gathered, and the Council inspector was summoned, gaining entry at 1am to tell the workmen inside to cease, as the demolition permit, applied for by Pacer Corporation, had only been lodged the day before. The permit was granted anyway on 31 December 1987, and the demolition proceeded in the new year on 3 January with a crane arriving to remove the roof, the stage was demolished 13 January, and the point of no return was reached by around 14 January 1988 when most of the rear of the theatre was destroyed. 29 protestors were arrested for trespass and obstruction at this time.


Both the Herald and the Auckland Star seemed to be partial, in the opinion of many at the time, to the cause of the developers, the Herald even taking Prince Charles to task for speaking out for the theatre’s continued existence. Dinah Holman, with Historic Places Trust, was scathing of the Council processes, claiming that she understood a permit wouldn’t be granted until 5 January (so she had left town to go on holiday). 

The site, when all remains had been cleared, remained empty for years. Kerridge Odeon transferred the land and Melanesian Mission lease to Silversea Enterprises in September 1989. Planning approval was granted in September 1991 for the vacant lots to be used as carparks. The main site was transferred to Pacific Regency (Auckland) Limited in October 1994, who planned a 20-storey development for the site. Today, the main site is a mixture of unit titles, while the Melanesian Property lease was renewed by Dynasty Hotel Investments Limited for a term of 21 years in 1997.

What had been there -- today is just memories, and enduring less-than-positive opinions as to heritage protection in our city.

7 comments:

  1. Living up to your epithet again: a bunch of long-dormant neurons now firing away, with 30 years telescoped to the newly-independent teenage me, roaming inner-Auckland and discovering the mausoleum atmosphere of the HMT arcade with the dormant theatre at the end, brightly lit by the glass roof. Thanks for the extensive history - nothing like finally knowing what we've lost...

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  2. So, so sad this, I remember it happening even though I was young at the time. It amazes me that people were so cavalier in demolishing the past. Much like Partington's Windmill, a feature of the skyline for 100 years and then just wiped out... Crazy.

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  3. Fuller didn't appear to use Abbott's Opera House until 1904 when it was leased, and then subsequently purchased in 1909. The Agricultural Hall seemed to be used by Fuller prior to 1904

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    1. Thanks for that. Yes, Fullers' Bijoux performers were as you say at the Agricultural Hall -- then City Hall in August 1903 when the company returned. I really appreciate the correction and info. Theatrical history isn't my thing, sorry.

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  4. I've been scanning some old photos and came across a few form the theatre's swan song. I found this page searching for info on the theatre so here's the link if anyone would like to see photos:
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10207591762488756.1073741829.1131381099&type=1&l=4fac3c22f0

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  5. 1972, the musical Hair, seventeen, scaling the rear fire escape to see boobies - more than once too

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  6. My brother and I own 2 paintings originally commissioned for the theatre and painted by Bror Gustaf Lindvall 1900, I would like to know more about the paintings and other pieces commissioned by the theatre, please email me if you can help Sean scox.impactfx@yahoo.com

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