Friday, September 1, 2023

"With intent to injure or annoy ..." The 1949 Blockhouse Bay milk poisoning case


Highlighted in this snip from a 1947 White's Aviation aerial photo is the house where Gilbert and Adrienne Honey lived with their children. Donovan Street at the bottom, right is Blockhouse Bay Road. WA-10778-G, National Library of NZ

It was around 5.30 in the quiet of a still-semi rural Donovan Street, Blockhouse Bay, on the morning of Labour Day, 24 October 1949. At a gate at the end of a long pathway, which led to a simple house at the rear of the section, a woman stopped, lifted the lid of a billy can, and dropped barbiturates, broken drugs capsules, and ground glass into the milk that had been delivered there an hour before. Then, replacing the lid, she headed down the road to her own home, and waited for the results of her early morning’s work.

Her name was Una Jean Riga Corin, born Una Brasting in 1916, the youngest of nine children. Her father Jānis Brastiņš or John Brasting as his name was Anglicised, was born in Riga, today in Latvia but when he was born, it was still part of the Russian Empire. Brasting arrived in 1892, became a naturalised British subject in Christchurch in 1899, and died in Auckland in 1937.

In 1936, Una married a builder named Kenneth Noel Corin, and together they would have three children, living in Hillsborough, Auckland. But, the marriage didn’t last long. In 1941, a neighbour of the Corins showed Kenneth letters written by Una to another neighbour, with whom she was having an affair. Una admitted it all, and the marriage dissolved into separation. As a result, Una tried to kill herself. For that, she was convicted on 4 August 1941, but discharged without penalty.

Just over a year later, in October 1942, the uncontested decree nisi was granted, and the Corins divorced. Una had custody of the three children. By 1943, she had moved to a house on the northern side of Donovan Street, before settling in a house further along on the road almost opposite Whitney Street by 1946. By that stage, she was receiving a regular monthly supply of pheno-barbitone on prescription, as well as dilantin, an anti-convulsant.

Around 1946 was when the Honey family moved into two small houses off Donovan Street, near Blockhouse Bay Road. Today, the local supermarket carpark lies across where the family lived and their children played, set against the backdrop of the pine plantation at the Avondale South Domain. Gilbert Hartley Honey (1924-2010), a carpenter, his wife Adrienne (died 2012) and their children lived in one house, while Hartley’s brother Leonard (1923-1995) and his wife Cora lived in the other. Gilbert and Leonard’s parents, George James (1881-1947) and Hannah Honey (1881-1962), lived just across the way at 4 Donovan Street.

Another newcomer couple to Blockhouse Bay around this time were the Mittons, Harry (c.1888-1957) and his wife Letitia Mary. Harry, born in England, came to New Zealand at some point before 1911 as a jockey, and lived initially in Northland. Also at some point, he had to have his left arm amputated at the elbow – at least before 1913, when this distinctive feature appeared alongside his occupation still as a jockey in the NZ Police Gazette report on his conviction for theft in Kawakawa with a sentence “to come up if called upon.”

By 1919, Harry had shifted to Fairy Springs near Rotorua as a farmer, and married Letitia Mary Scott in 1924. Then in 1927 he was fined £5 in Putaruru for attempting to bet with a bookmaker. Letitia meanwhile set up an accommodation house at Whakarewarewa in 1930, and Harry ran a store – but in 1932 both Harry and Letitia were fined for brewing without a license and selling sly grog. In 1944, one-armed Harry Mitton was fined £10 in Rotorua for “mischief.” After that, he and Letitia moved to Auckland, and settled at Blockhouse Bay.

Harry, noticing that the Honey’s property had lots of pine needles from being so close to the domain, called upon them to pick up the pine needles for his wife’s strawberry patch. Through this, he came to know Adrienne Honey, but they remained simply casual acquaintances. When asked later, Harry denied ever entering the Honey family home during his visits to the property.

Soon after, Una Corin came to live on Donovan Street, and she “became quite intimate” with Harry Mitton around June 1948, according to him. Around this time, he began to have marital problems with Letitia, perhaps due to the affair, and they separated. Harry was now living in a house on Blockhouse Bay Road near the school, just around the corner from Donovan Street, his wife Letitia on Matata Street.

In March 1949, Harry was prescribed 30 nembutal tablets, and later said these were in his room when Una came to visit him. He denied, though, giving any to her. She may have simply taken them.

In June or July of 1949, Una started her jealous fixation on Adrienne Honey. She accosted Adrienne in the street, accusing her of “having associations with Harry Mitton,” which Adrienne firmly denied. Later Una told Adrienne that “detectives were watching her,” and that she knew she (Adrienne) would be going to Rotorua with Harry. Adrienne and her husband went round to Una’s house so she could make the accusations in front of him – but Una said then she was unwell, so things went no further.

Twice though, Una was seen entering the Honey’s property, heading for the pine trees at the back, standing there for a time, watching the house, then disappearing into the bush. Another time, Una sent one of her sons around to the Honey’s home just to see if Harry was there. One Friday, Adrienne returned home from shopping to find Una just inside the front door, agitated and saying she was looking for Harry, while pushing a piece of paper into an overcoat pocket.

Una took things a step further though, when she headed to Gilbert Honey’s mother’s home in late August. There, in front of Gilbert, she told his mother that Adrienne was “having an affair” with Harry Mitton. She added that she didn’t want trouble, but that Gilbert should “watch his wife.”

Two weeks later, in September, Una was still apparently “worrying” and pestering Adrienne. Gilbert and Adrienne went to Una’s house again to see her about this and tell her to stop the nonsense. There, it was Harry who opened the door, and talked with them for around 10 minutes. Una, according to their later testimony, briefly “came out, appearing to be half dazed as if sick, and went back again.”

Three weeks after that, possibly early October, Una and Harry turned up at the Honey’s house. Gilbert Honey later told the court he thought Una and Harry may have had an argument about the whole situation just before they decided to go to the Honeys . Once there, however, Una started up yet again about her belief that Adrienne was seeing Harry behind everyone’s back and sleeping with him, and Gilbert angrily ordered Una and Harry to leave.

Then came the morning of Monday, 24 October 1949.

One of the Honey’s sons went down the path to the gate around 7.30 am to retrieve the milk billy can and carry it to the house, for the family breakfast. There, Gilbert poured some into a jug – and noticed a “yellowish substance” (also described as a brown colour, part red and green) floating at the top and “sediment” at the bottom of the can. He scraped at the sediment, and found that it was glass. Together with “another substance” he put both into a jar and took it to the police. The remains of a capsule was floating in the milk.

Later, a government analyst would testify as to finding pheno-barbitone and nembutal (from Mitton’s prescription) in the milk sample. Samples of soil taken from around Una’s Donovan Street home “contained pieces of glass of a specific gravity identical with that of the glass found in the milk.” The analyst doubted though that the ground glass would have been deadly, although it might have penetrated the walls of the stomach and intestine “especially of a young person.” The amount of drugs present in the milk would have been harmless to a healthy adult, and in his opinion its bitterness would have put children off from drinking much of it.

Una Corin was arrested and charged with attempted murder on Monday 5 December. At that stage, it was believed that there was enough barbiturate in the milk to kill the Honey family. Una freely admitted to tampering with the milk. In her written statement, she said that she had indeed put “some of the nembutal capsules and 40 or a dozen pheno-baritone tablets and some ground glass” into the milk at the Honey’s gate at around 5.30 or 6 am on Monday 24 October. “When I put the stuff in the milk I had not the intention of killing or doing serious injury to anyone. I just thought that if they found that their milk had been interfered with it might stop Mitton associating with Mrs Honey.

“I did not put all the nembutal capsules in the milk. I emptied about four of them into the billy and threw the capsules away in the grass and placed two of the capsules in the milk, so that they would be seen. My intention was to let the Honeys know there was something in the milk and it would probably frighten them.”

The next day, Una appeared at the Auckland Magistrate’s Court, charged with attempting to murder Mrs Adrienne Honey. Her counsel applied for her to be remanded and released on bail, and her name to be suppressed as “she is living apart from her husband and has three young children.” The remand was granted, but no bail was set, and no order granted for name suppression. Her three children were placed in the care of their father.

Two weeks later, on 20 December at the Police Court hearing, the police downgraded the original charge of attempted murder. It became that Una “with intent to injure and annoy, did attempt to cause to be taken by Adrienne Honey a noxious thing.”

Finally, on Friday 17 February 1950, Una was found not guilty at her Supreme Court trial. It came down to the jury deciding whether or not “these drugs comprised the use of a noxious thing in a noxious way,” as the judge summed up, and clearly they did not think Corin actually meant to injure or harm Adrienne Honey. Doubt would have been there as to whether the relatively harmless pheno-barbitone and nembutal was actually “noxious,” but the judge did have his doubts as to the “harmlessness” of the ground glass.

Una remained in her Donovan Street home through to her death in 1964. Harry’s divorce from Letitia was finalised around 1952, but by then Una seems to have moved on from him. Around 1954 she had married an Australian WWI veteran 21 years her senior named Ernest Joseph Ross, who died in 1961 leaving her a widow. Harry Mitton died in 1957 at the age of 70.

The Honeys lived at their Donovan Street home through to around 1963, when they moved away from Blockhouse Bay to Mt Eden.

And today, after more than 70 years and changes to the landscape all the participants would have known as their neighbourhood, the rather odd incident where imagined jealousy led to tampering with the contents of a billy can at a gate has been long forgotten.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The disappearance of Walter Ashton, 1948


Portrait of Walter Ashton by Clifton Firth, 21 April 1941. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 34-A32.

Walter Ashton disappeared from Piha one night in 1948.

He was described, according to Graeme Hunt in his book Spies and Revolutionaries (2007) as "a happily married man in his forties" and by the Communist Party of NZ as "an outstanding trade unionist with a remarkable record of consistent service." Also described as stodgy and solid, according to Hunt: "he had the name of a wowser, almost puritanical in his attitude towards drinking, and appeared meticulous in his handling of money."

Ashton was considered a rock-solid bloke among the local communists. National committee member since 1938, candidate for the Auckland Hospital Board in 1941, parliamentary candidate 1943, and was elected secretary of the Auckland Trades Council that year.

Then in April 1948, the communists lost control of the Trades Council. Ashton had an appointment with his replacement to hand over the books -- he didn't show. His car was instead found abandoned at Piha, then a two-hour drive from the CBD, containing "a quantity of Communist literature", a book called Flowers in the Dust, and his diary, with no recent entries.

Over the next few weeks, with records at the Trades Council examined, £521 of union funds was found to have either been stolen or misappropriated by Ashton, along with £1623 in money raised during a 1943 "Sheepskins for Russia" appeal.

As Hunt put it: "He had cheated not only rank-and-file unionists but Moscow as well."

A warrant was issued for his arrest. It was found that stodgy and solid Ashton had falsified accounts at the Trades Council for two years, assisted by another office-holder's habit of signing blank cheques. Months after his disappearance, the Auckland Woollen, Hosiery and Knitting Mills Employees Union instructed their solicitors to have the missing Ashton declared bankrupt in order to seize assets to distribute among the affected union organisations. There was a court hearing over the abandoned car, claimed both by Ashton's brother Alfred Charles Ashton, who paid the last installment owed on it of £35 and therefore claimed it for the Ashton family, and the president of the Auckland Trades Council. The judge hearing the case ruled that the car be sold, and money lodged with the Public Trustee, less £35 to be given to the claimant brother.

There were even rumours Walter Ashton been smuggled across the Tasman. Some stories drifted back of a man depositing large sums of money in a bank in Sydney. Then there were theories put about that he'd been picked up by a Soviet sub offshore.

But with no real traces found, the verdict came down that Ashton had simply parked his car, and walked into the surf, knowing that his dealings would be discovered in the transition of power.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

The battle for "Wolverton Park"


The Avondale side of Te Kōtuitanga Olympic Park, briefly known as “Wolverton Park” during the 1970s bureaucratic stoush. Google street view from Wolverton street, 2023


The Whau River begins with two streams flowing together: Te Waitahurangi Avondale Stream from the Waitakere Ranges foothills to the west, and the Whau Stream from the deeply water-carved country of New Windsor, and the uplands in Mt Roskill between Richardson, Dominion Extension and White Swan Roads to the east. Where the streams meet is Te Kōtuitanga, the tip of land between the waters. For nearly 150 years of the post-Treaty of Waitangi era though, the approximate triangle between the Avondale and Whau streams and what is today Wolverton Street was mainly a wilderness of gorse, brush, wattle and not much else. Much of this, in the late 20th century, was dubbed Wolverton Park in the 1970s. 

At least until around 1856 when the Great North Road through Avondale had been laid out, and likely the first Whau Bridge built alongside the present version, there was no formed crossing over either the Avondale or Whau streams. But on a map drawn up c.1850, a rather broad “Whau Bridge” was drawn, along with a curving line of road that would have linked the approximate line of Wolverton Street where it ended at the Whau Stream, with the approximate area of Clark Street. This idea may have between the reason behind the drafting of North Taylor Street and North Dilworth (later Ulster) Street through the area. Unlike the main part of Taylor Street and Ulster Road today – the parts of those roads north-west of Wolverton would remain unformed. 

The Whau Townships North and South were surveyed in the 1850s, Whau Township North included Wolverton Park. Sales in both areas were less than successful for the Auckland Provincial Council, Whau North least of either. Lot 3 of that township (northern most part of the park) was set aside as a “Provincial reserve”. Below it, Lot 4 was a school reserve, as well as a triangle between the future “Ulster Road” and Wolverton Street, Lot 41, and Lot 9. Lots 5, 10 and 43 were set aside as religious reserves. Lots 5 and 10 however had a different fate. 

Lot 42 was conveyed by Crown Grant to Bishop Augustus Selwyn in 1860, possibly with the idea of providing land for a church for the intended streamside village, but no one really knows for sure. In 1868, Selwyn placed it in trust with Sir William Martin, William Henry Kenny and George Patrick Pierce. All three men were long dead before the turn of the 20th century, but when the Anglican Diocese sought a title in 1940, their names remained, through to 1958. Beside Lot 42, Bishop Selwyn was also granted Lot 43 by Crown Grant in 1867. His name remained on the title through to 1955. 

The school reserves Lots 4, 9 and 41 formally were conveyed to the Provincial Superintendent in 1861. These would remain so until 1878 when they were transferred to the Auckland School Commissioners, and then in 1910 back to the Crown as endowment land for primary school purposes, administered by the Lands Board. 

The land history of the Avondale side of today’s “Olympic Park” is a complex one. Here, I’ve used a 1910 map to overlay the streets (Dilworth and Taylor above Wolverton only unformed paper roads), the site of the Auckland City Council depot (now the ambulance station and esplanade), the Anglican Diocesan land (church symbol), and the Crown land as at 1958.

The old Whau Township North was resurveyed in 1884, as the Crown tried again to attract interest from settlers. They were more successful this time, and the Land Board contemplated a new name for it. For a short while “Gordon” was considered, after General Charles George Gordon who had been killed earlier that year at Khartoum in the Sudan. But as there was already a Gordon Settlement elsewhere, the Land Board chose “Wolseley,” after another prominent general, Sir Garnet Wolseley, who had attempted to relieve Gordon. The road leading to the township was thus dubbed Wolseley Road (and another leading up the hill on the other side of Blockhouse Bay Road was named Garnet Road). In 1929, Bancroft Street was suggested by Auckland City Council as a new name for Wolseley Road, but three years later “Wolverton” was chosen. Dilworth Street (both north and south of Wolverton Street) was changed to Ulster Road in 1932 as well. 

The Auckland City Council works depot 

In 1872 Lots 1 and 2 of the Whau North Township, to the east of “Taylor Street,” were placed in the name of the Provincial Superintendent under the Public Reserves Act 1854, for educational purposes. This meant that funds from leasing the land were to be used to support the province’s schools. A few years after the Provincial Council ended, Henry James Bell and George Hemus of the Riversdale Tannery syndicate leased the two sections in 1883 for an unknown period, but not for long as the firm faded out from 1885. The wattles that were spread throughout the area and surrounds probably originated from the plantings undertaken by the firm while it was in operation. Bell & Gemmell had a lease for the land immediately on the other side of the Whau Stream (Allotment 101, 6 acres) from John Buchanan from 1879. This lease was transferred to Bell & Hemus in 1881, then to the Riversdale Manufacturing Company Ltd in 1882. The company bought Buchanan’s freehold in 1883, but it was subdivided, interests were sold, and the last shareholder sold up in 1893. 

The land on the Wolverton Park side of the Whau Stream may have been used by the Avondale Borough Council as a rubbish tip during the 1920s, as there is a description of their tip being in Taylor Street, and affecting the Whau Stream, but this ceased in 1926 when the New Lynn Town Board complained. However, tipping at the site continued under the Auckland City Council. The “educational purposes” reservation on the site was revoked under the Lands Disposal Act 1942, and Lots 1 and 2 were vested in trust to the Auckland City Council, now set apart for “municipal purposes.” This was expanded by both the later closure of the unformed section of Taylor Street (Council had buildings on the paper road by 1961, obtaining clear title as a Local Purpose Reserve in 1981), and the purchase of part of the Anglican Diocese land on the other side of the road in 1965 for a hydatids testing strip. A 1980 aerial shows Council depot buildings already on site, including the closed part of Taylor Street. 

In 1991 local residents campaigned for part of the Council works depot site to be turned into a reserve. This became the “Wolverton Esplanade” strip – but it still showed signs of being a tipping site: “small amounts of glass and metal are sticking out of the ground, with rubble and metal exposed on side slopes.” The Council proposed covering that over with 300mm of topsoil and clay. In 1993 the Auckland City Council land was divided into part leased for 30 years to St Johns Ambulance, and the Wolverton Esplanade along the foreshore.

The old Council depot, repurposed as an ambulance station. St John's have always called this "New Lynn" even though it clearly is on the Avondale side of the border. Probably they got confused with being west of the Whau Stream, when really New Lynn starts west of the Avondale Stream. All part of the confused site history here. Google street view, 2023.

The New Lynn Domain 

Now directly administering the education reserves since the 1910 Act, the Commissioner of Crown Lands put those in the Wolverton Park area up for 21 year renewable leases in 1912. At least one part, Lot 5 at the northern-most point, was leased by 1917, but the lease was surrendered when the Crown land is in the process of being vested in the New Lynn Town Board. 

New Lynn Town Board had started to make moves to have the Crown’s reserve land between the unformed part of Dilworth Street and the Avondale Stream vested in them as a recreation reserve and domain from 1916. They succeed in 1921 when the 4¼ acres was vested with the Town Board and became part of their New Lynn Domain on the other side (later known as Olympic Park). Then, for much of the next 45 years, the New Lynn Town Board and later Borough mainly forgot about the small Avondale part of their administrative area. 

From SO 20070 (1918) LINZ records

Rupert Frederick Double of 26 Taylor Street leased the Avondale side of the New Lynn Domain from them for grazing in 1936. In return for a “peppercorn lease” Double offered to “fence, clear and grass” the area “for purpose of grazing cows.” He applied for a renewal of the lease in 1941, and asked for it to be extended to three years. In response, he was told he needed to comply with the terms of the lease, and completely clear the land of gorse, before a renewal could be considered. Double replied that through illness he’d had to dispose of stock, so was not able to carry out the terms of the lease. He advised he would be removing the fence. 

The New Lynn Borough then advertised tenders for grazing there in 1942. Oddly, they didn’t seem to realise that they had control over all the land west of the domain’s part of Ulster Road up to the point, instead thinking that the former education reserves bookended their part. So, when they advertised the lease, they only referred to the middle portion. 

The lessee was required to remove all noxious weeds and undergrowth in the first year, and only then might an extended three year lease be considered. The Borough retained the right at any time to enter the ground to plant trees. There is no information on the Borough’s file about any other leaseholders for the land than Double. 

Prelude to the battle – the Lands Department’s subdivision idea 

Things seem to have started to change for the Avondale side of the New Lynn Domain in 1958 when complaints were made about land that wasn’t actually part of it. There was a quarter-acre triangle of Crown Land that remained after roads, the domain ground and the Diocesan-owned land had been surveyed and disposed which had a 12 foot high gorse fire hazard problem. Auckland City Council found that this was an issue, and so served notice on the Department of Lands to fix the problem. This was sorted at that point by the Field Officer arranging with Crum Brick and Tile for the bulldozer they had working across the road to come over and sort out the gorse. The company quoted £12 to crush the gorse, and another £3 to heap it up and burn it. They went ahead and did the job. 

The germ of an idea at the time from Lands Department perhaps to permanently sort the problem by subdividing and selling that quarter-acre was shot down by the City Council who said the subdivision should be for all the surrounding vacant land as well, even that owned by the Diocese. 

So, in 1959, the gorse started to grow back. This time though, as the Diocese were spraying their own gorse, they were paid £10 to spray the Crown’s gorse as well. 

Come 1960, the Lands Department took up the idea of dealing with things once and for all. They prepared a subdivision plan proposal which included a part of the Diocesan land, as well as the adjoining Avondale part of the New Lynn Domain. The New Lynn Borough Council were approached to see if they were agreeable about releasing this back to the Crown for housing. Which they were, as they really didn’t know what to do with the Avondale side (they really had not spent any money on improvements there), and wanted to get the sale proceeds instead to improve their own part of the Domain. The plan included closing the unformed part of Ulster Road, forming a new cul-de-sac off Wolverton Street, and dividing the site into 20 sections. Lot 19, at the tip, was to be vested in Auckland City Council as a reserve and made part of a permanent metal dump site, along with the closed Taylor Street and a strip of the Diocesan land, which would take care of City Council demands for compensation for the closed Ulster Road. In exchange, the unformed part of Ulster Road would be added to the subdivision. 

Wolverton Street was expected to become a secondary highway and widened 12 feet in the 1962-1967 period, so Lot 9 alongside the road was left off the subdivision plan. This also meant that if the plan was sorted and approved by the time the work on Wolverton Street was complete, it would make the actual work on the subdivision easier. There were those within the Department who backed an idea to have an industrial subdivision instead, rather than a residential one, but this went against City Council zoning, and the Council declined to change. 

By 1962, the Lands Department expected to realize £14,000 from the sale of the land, of which £3,750 would be deducted and given to New Lynn Borough as their share. Information about this figure though was not given at the time to the Borough Council. £7440 was allowed as an estimate for Ministry of Works (MOW) expenditure in laying out the new road and underground utilities. 

In 1965 Ministerial approval was formally received for revocation of domain status for the Avondale part of the domain, and for its subdivision for residential sites and ultimate disposal. So in 1966 the Avondale part of New Lynn Domain ceased to be a recreational reserve by gazette. It reverted back to the Crown. 

In that year of 1966, it looked like the Lands Department could have gone ahead with their plans. All that was required was a change for the former domain ground to residential use under Auckland City’s operative Town Plan, and Avondale would have had a brand new subdivision there at the end of Wolverton Street. 

But … Lands still couldn’t quite let go of the more lucrative idea of an industrial park. They kept asking the City Council, and the City Council kept on saying no (there was already the industrial development at the old Glenburn brickyard site on St Georges Road, so they had no interest in another in the immediate area.) 

So, by 1970, nothing had happened at the site. The MOW estimate had now risen (as at late 1969) to $16,500, covering section clearing, road formation, and installation of sanitary, stormwater and water mains. Some delay was due to MOW negotiations with Auckland City Council regarding certain works. By now, Lands Department were also considering provision of underground electricity reticulation as well, and a total of three out of the 20 residential sections in a revised subdivision were to be reserved for Auckland City Council municipal purposes – part of the now defunct Ulster Road (18), Lot 20 at the tip, and Lot 1 down near Wolverton Street. 

Almost the fullest extent of the intended subdivision — the Church of England Trust Lands (Anglican Diocesan) would be added after this 1970 plan was drawn. Archives New Zealand file, R3950418

On top of this, they needed a new Ministerial approval for the increased costs, plus the amount of money to be paid to New Lynn also needed revision. As for the New Lynn Borough’s share of the proceeds, it was proposed by Lands Department that, once everything had been completed, they would seek an application from New Lynn Borough providing details of their development proposals. This would have been a ministerial refund, not a fixed set sum. Instead, the Director General decided to set a firm figure of $7,500 which was fairly well the same amount as from 1962 (the actual increased figure at the time, taking inflation into account, would have been nearly $11,000). Financial authority was duly granted for $19,780 for the subdivision costs, and the earthworks on the site went ahead. 

But there was yet another delay. It wasn’t until late 1972 or early 1973 that Auckland City Council made the proposed rezoning public and open for submissions, and New Lynn Borough now objected. Yes, after agreeing happily to the idea of a residential subdivision on the former domain land in the 1960s, they’d had a change of mind in the 1970s. They were also listening to the concerns from their ratepayers. According to retired Police Chief-Inspector Henry Edwin Campin (1901-1985) who spoke at the Borough Council’s meeting on the subject “… until someone went mad with bulldozers there it was enjoyed by local children and residents … it had been covered with willows and wattles before it was bulldozed.” Campin was later reported as saying “We can’t just allow it to be taken. The western districts is starved of recreational land and we certainly can’t afford to lose what we have.” 

In May the same year Rev Doug Kidd of St Judes Church in Avondale wrote to the MP for New Lynn, Jonathan Hunt (the start of a number of years Hunt would be involved with the Wolverton Park issue). In 1964 the Anglican Diocese had surveyed Lots 42 and 43 for subdivision. Three lots fronting Wolverton St are leased to Constance Costello March 1965 for 21 years, and these were leased in turn to contractors Michael and Kevin Patrick Sheehan in July that year. By 1971 the lessee of the Diocesan land had however abandoned the land and failed to pay any rent for years. A new lessee had been found who was prepared to pay for the land – but only if it was zoned industrial. The Lands Department and two other Wolverton Road landowners objected. Now, Kidd asked Hunt to let him know what the Crown intended to do, in order for the Diocese to apply for a rezoning of their land. 

In July 1973, in response to New Lynn’s objection to the rezoning of the former Domain land from recreation reserve to residential, Lands considered a re-survey (again) to increase the area that would remain as a reserve alongside the Avondale Stream (originally limited to 10 feet wide, as they considered the stream would not be a recreation feature for the future residents.) The Department proposed to purchase the Diocesan land as well, and add that to their site – but while the Department was now dealing directly with the Diocesan office, Rev. Kidd kept on writing to Hunt, which sparked yet another ministerial inquiry seeking information from the Department, now to do with Rev Kidd’s suggestion of the Diocesan sites being used to provide housing for Pacific Island families. To that end, Rev Kidd also wrote to the Maori & Island Affairs Dept, claiming that “the Parochial District of Avondale” had the three sections. Which were all in the name, actually, of the General Trust Board of the Diocese of Auckland. 

By October, Rev Kidd’s approaches to the Maori & Island Affairs Department had brought the negotiations Lands Department had been engaged in with the Diocese to purchase the land and add it to the subdivision to a screeching halt. Lands Department decided to just go ahead with the original subdivision, and leave Rev Kidd and the Diocese to their own negotiations regarding Pacific Island low cost housing on their land. The Maori & Island Affairs Department were still investigating, starting their own involved processes to determine whether the Diocesan land and Kidd’s proposal would suit their needs. They eventually said no. 

In 1975, the Diocese offered to sell the Diocesan land to the Crown for $26,500. The Lands Department came to an agreement with the Maori & Pacific Island Department that several of the now 24 planned residential sections could be made available for Maori housing. The Land Settlement Board approved the purchase, which was made in May 1975. 

The battle for Wolverton Park begins 

The delays, though, were ultimately to prove fatal to the Lands Department plan for a residential subdivision at Wolverton Park. The delay in the 1960s while some in the Department refused to let go of the idea of an industrial site, and the bureaucratic jamming in the 1970s while the future of the Diocesan land was sorted out, meant that there had been time for the local community’s attitude toward the development to change, and for a new but very persistent opposition to appear. In September 1973 the Avondale-Waterview Ratepayers & Residents Association (AWRRA) was incorporated. The Society’s best-known member and Secretary, Kurt Brehmer, was to gain a local reputation for his persistence for local environmental causes for the rest of the century. 

In AWRRA’s second year of incorporation, in June 1975, Auckland City Council advised Lands that (whoops), due to an oversight, they still hadn’t changed the zoning for the former domain from recreational to residential. They now started the public consultation process again. This was AWRRA’s opportunity. In October 1975, they lodged an objection to the Auckland City Council’s proposed zoning change from Recreation 1 to Residential 2 for the former domain land. The signatories to the formal objection were AWRRA Chairman J F J Clarke, and AWRRA Secretary Kurt Brehmer. Their grounds were: (1) there was a shortage of recreationally zoned land in Avondale, (2) the location adjacent to the Whau River made the land suitable for recreation, and (3) a recreation area would complement New Lynn’s Olympic Park. Clarke also went further, writing to both a New Lynn councillor, offering to have a meeting between the Borough Council and AWRRA, and also to Matiu Rata, then Minister of Lands, expressing the deep concerns of AWRRA. AWRRA were joined by first Avondale’s Community Committee, and soon after that of Blockhouse Bay, in opposing the proposed rezoning. 

In November 1975, the Community Committee were advised by the Minister of Lands that joint discussions were taking place between the City Council, the Auckland Regional Authority, and the Lands Department “in regard to the future utilisation of the land concerned.” As a result, the reserve area beside the creek was enlarged, reducing the subdivision, but this still did not appease the protestors. 

By January 1976, with the Housing Corporation slated to be the developers of the site, the City Council had received 10 objections to the zoning amendment. In September, the Land Settlement Board lodged a cross-objection, stating that the City Council didn’t have the legal authority to maintain the reserve designation unless they were prepared to purchase the land to retain it. They reminded the City Council that the underground services already installed were done so with their municipal consent. On 2 November, the City Council compromised, allowing all the objections and cross-objections in part. The land proposed to be rezoned was reduced, but that the rezoning would still proceed. 

That year Auckland City Council obtained freehold title of the ends of the unformed Ulster Road as Allotments 81 and 84. The remaining cul-de-sac was later absorbed into the park in 2009. 

The AWRRA were not about to give up. Having known Kurt Brehmer, I can personality attest to his tenacity, let alone that of his fellow campaigners. They appealed. In September 1977, the Town and Country Planning Appeal Board heard their appeal against the City Council’s decision, and stated that they would refuse it. However, they held off from officially deciding to refuse the appeal at that stage, though, because “two local committees” had not received a reply from the City Council regarding their suggestion the City Council buying the site to set up a swimming pool complex there. In April 1978, when the City Council still declined to purchase the site, the appeal was dismissed. 

Still, AWRRA fought on. Now a “Wolverton Park Action Committee” was been formed, with Brehmer as their Secretary. They campaigned for all the land to be recreation reserve, with a swimming pool, skateboard park, adventure playground and picnic areas. In response to the appeal dismissal, the Action Committee launched two petitions, one of which to the City Council ultimately gained 3000 signatures. 

Nevertheless, on 16 June 1978, the part of the domain land still required for the subdivision was duly rezoned as residential. All this had left the Crown with an 18-section subdivision, around half of the total original area, the rest potentially to be set aside as recreation reserve. 

”After a lengthy and confused debate,” according to the NZ Herald on 30 June 1978, “the Auckland City Council last night again decided not to buy land in Wolverton Road, Avondale, for recreational use.” Councillor Jolyon Firth, a member of the Auckland Regional Authority as well, did not like the ARA getting involved, calling meetings with the Waitemata County, New Lynn Borough and Auckland City over the matter a case where the ARA, “lowered its standards and conduct to the level of a local pressure group.” The Mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, “said he would strongly protest to the ARA for poking its nose into a local issue.” 

In 1981, after another grinding series of objections, appeals and dismissal of appeals, resulting in an even larger area now set aside as foreshore reserve, there was a new Crown proposal simply to transfer the remainder to Housing Corporation in return for $60,000. Housing Corporation in turn expressed interest in transferring a large part of this to a private development company for a 40-bed resthome. 

Continuing their changed public attitude, the New Lynn Borough Council in 1982 were “convinced that the development of Wolverton Park as a recreation reserve is an inevitable and necessary adjunct to its own reserve, an essential solution to the demands for recreational facilities in the surrounding area.” They entered into talks along these lines with the Auckland City Council. Yet in a case of mixed messages via a phone call to the City Council’s planning division in August that year, New Lynn’s borough engineer, Garth Freeman, was reported as saying that “he was satisfied that the land area presently available to Olympic Park is sufficient” to meet both present and future recreational needs in the locality. 

By September 1983 though, worn down after eight years of hearings and appeals and petitions, the Lands Department had had enough. They asked New Lynn Borough if they were interested in acquiring the land. By 1985, the answer came back – yes. Four years later New Lynn Borough agreed to pay the Crown $80,000 for the former New Lynn Domain land (Lot 88), the vestige triangle of land (Lot 86) and the remainder of the former Diocesan land (Lot 87), leaving only the paper cul-de-sac (sorted this century). Waitakere City Council as the territorial authority after the 1989 amalgamations finally obtained title, as a recreation reserve, in 1999. More land was gifted, for a token $1, by Auckland City to Waitakere to increase the size of the Avondale part of the now enlarged Olympic Park, and by 2007 the enlarged park was completed. 

To this day, part of the paper Taylor Street still has no title attached to it, but is part of the park, just down from the northern-most point. Someone may sort that out, if they need to, in the future. 

Otherwise – perhaps best to just leave things be. Apart from reinstating the name Te Kōtuitanga to the park.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Albert Graven and his Avondale Central Service Station

Detail from JTD-24A-03278-2, December 1967, J T Diamond, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Published in the June 2023 issue of The Avondale Historical Journal as "The Golden Investor: Albert Graven."

Avondale is a place where people tell stories, stories which I’ve always called the Avondale Lore. Some of them true, some of them probably fanciful (the one where dentist Cecil Herdson from the 1920s and 1930s gave his beloved hunting dog a set of gold teeth is a doozy), and some with hints of the truth mixed in with speculation. The stories hang around for a bit, told and re-told by the generation who were once youngsters going to Avondale Primary School before World War II, then as memories fade and the story tellers pass on, the tales slowly vanish. 

Back in 2001, chatting with those same folks around tables in dining rooms and over cups of coffee in cafes across Auckland, I heard the last whispers of some of the tales before they faded out into time. One topic of those stories was Albert Graven. 

Some said that he got his riches from winning the Irish Sweepstakes, and thus paid for the landmark Central Service Station that stood for five decades at the junction of Wingate Street and Great North Road. Some said that, later on, he committed suicide. And, according to the late Ernie Croft whom I visited and interviewed back in 2001, Albert Graven’s original name was Albert Grubnitz (Ernie wondered if that was perhaps changed due to WWI anti-German feeling). He’s appeared in references at least twice before now in the Avondale Historical Journal, and of course in Heart of the Whau from 2003, to the extent that I had access to information on him up to that point. 

While working on an index for the Journal (still in progress) I decided to take another look at the Albert Graven legends. So now I know a lot more about him than I did. 

According to family history sources, his birth name was Albert Heinrich Knowles Von Graevenitz, born in Paeroa in 1897 to Albert Frederick Ludwig Von Graevenitz, and Millicent née Atherton. The story has to start further back, though. Back to 27 years before Albert Graven’s birth, to 25 May 1870 when Von Graevenitz snr, then 20 years old from Dortmund in western Prussia, deserted from a ship that had sailed from Bremen to New York City. In America, Von Graevenitz slipped into the background, until resurfacing in October 1874, charged before the Auckland Police Court for assaulting the infant child of a woman he lived with, Susannah Wilkinson, née Craib. 

Married to Richard Wilkinson in the Bay of Islands in 1860, Susannah left her husband to live in Auckland with Von Graevenitz. For his part, Von Graevenitz was said to have been in employment (as a seaman aboard a whaler), but spent a lot of his wages on drink. It appears that, in return for Richard Wilkinson’s hospitality to him in Northland, he’d said that as he had a considerable sum of money coming to him in Auckland, he offered to take Susannah and her father to the city with him for a bit of a trip. It ended up being more than that. 

Von Graevenitz served two months in Mt Eden Gaol with hard labour. Soon after he returned to Susannah and her father in the Chancery slums, the young baby died. He wasn’t blamed however, as the child had been ailing for some time and had simply died from natural causes. No inquest was held. I couldn’t find the death registration for that child, but another, Amelia Wilkinson, died in 1878 at the age of 5 months. 

By then Von Graevenitz had altered his identity, now calling himself Francis Rappart (Von Rappard being his mother’s maiden name), taking up employment working on railway construction projects. In November 1879, he was charged with intention to desert his illegitimate child, the mother referred to in the news report as “Sarah Craib.” “Sarah” (Susannah) withdrew the charge and the case was dropped. By 1885, he and Susannah, along with their children, were living in Mt Albert, and by 1888 he was described as a platelayer (still with the railways). 

Then, in 1892, an abrupt change. 

Albert Von Graevenitz married Millicent “Milly” Atherton of Waikomiti (Glen Eden), at All Saints Church in Ponsonby, and the happy couple went to live in Enmore, near Sydney. Not for very long though, for they were back at Waikomiti by late 1893. Meanwhile, “Susan Rappard” was managing on her own, appearing in a court case report regarding a cow taken from her. 

By 1896 Albert and Milly were living in Paeroa, Albert working as a wood splitter. By 1900, the family had moved to Dublin Street in Auckland – but by 1905, Milly was on her own with three young children: Albert aged 8, Thelma aged 5 and Millicent aged 3. Milly would later have another daughter, Arthea, in 1912. 

Young Albert, known then as Bert, attended the Unitarian Sunday School in Ponsonby in 1910, and did well, performing in a play called “La Mascotte”. But in 1914, Milly was caught shoplifting boots, using a pram to push young Arthea but also to hide the boots she was pilfering, and accompanied by her eldest daughter Thelma. Milly called herself Milly Graevenitz, and was fined £3 and costs. 

Meanwhile, Susannah’s son Albert Rappard, railway hand, was in Drury, living with his wife Maud in 1905. Susan Rappard was by herself in Drury, a “widow” in 1911, then moved to Takapuna. Confusingly (nothing new for this family’s story) she died in Lyttelton Hospital, but was buried at O’Neil’s Point Cemetery. 

Albert von Graevenitz senior seemed to follow his own path, seeking assistance in vain after the First World War from the Government for passage back to Germany to settle some affairs there, then returning to take up a life on the North Shore where he died in 1956 as Frank Albert Rappard. 

By 1916, Albert von Graevenitz junior had changed his own name to the less German-sounding Graven, working as a salesman and living in Herne Bay. He was apparently involved with the Territorials from 1911, and during the First world War tried to enlist three times – but was eventually accepted only for Home Service in 1916. He lived with his mother Milly at Islington Avenue. 

Come 1923, Albert Graven was now a grain and produce broker. Four years later he started his Avondale story in 1927, taking up a lease of part of Charles Pooley’s property at the triangle between Great North and Old Windsor Road in Avondale. There, he built the Central Service Station. In 1928 he married Gladys May Sullings, and they were living at the service station in March 1929 when one night thieves blew off the safe door at the Hellaby’s butcher shop across the intersection. “The noise of the explosion was heard by Mr Graven, of the Central Service Station. He was awakened at 2.30 o’clock this morning by a rumbling noise and got out of bed to investigate. There was no one about, and after looking round Mr Graven went back to bed.” 

How did Albert Graven finance the service station and adjacent car sales yard, and the extensive tours of the European continent enjoyed by him and his wife in 1930? It wasn’t through the Irish Sweepstakes, although in 1933 Graven did draw a horse in the British and Foreign Concessions Danzig Sweepstake. 

No, Albert Graven was an investor, and a canny one at that. He had interests in Canada and Britain, possibly due to his brokerage experience, and after crossing paths with one Henry Theodore Castaing, took things even further in the 1930s, a period where for most life was a challenge during the Great Depression. 

Between 1930 and 1942, Graven was fundamentally involved with 10 gold mining companies, nine of which were subsidiaries or indirect subsidiaries of one company, Mining Trust Ltd. The companies were involved in the Coromandel district and in the South Island, and consistently made financial headlines describing their operations and success during the decade. 

Graven also dabbled with rental cars. In 1935 he set up Drive Yourself, Limited in Lower Albert Street in the city, advertising “Cars for hire without drivers” from 6/- per half day and 10/- per full day. He hired his sister Arthea as a secretary there. His friend Castaing also invested in the enterprise. The company, though, parted ways with Graven in 1939 after it came to light that he had had the company buy a car that was not only not brand new, but was in fact one of his own. 

The golden ride may have come to an end for Graven in 1942, but by then he had more than enough of a personal fortune to be able to retire. In 1940, he brought in Walter Frederick Arthur (who lived in St Georges Road) to run the Central Service Station, while Graven and his family shifted to Remuera. It was at the new home, during the 1950s, where their son Ian Albert Graven shot himself; news that probably percolated back to Avondale and later formed the suicide legend. 

On the night of 21 April 1942, the service station was burgled, the safe removed and the door blown off near Waikumete Cemetery. Around £200 in cheques and cash, mostly the former, was taken. 

In 1946, Charlie Pooley sold the land Graven had been leasing to Barry Bernard Cleland, a market gardener living near today’s Cleland Crescent off Blockhouse Bay Road. This caused Graven to look at ways to secure his rather valuable Avondale investment, so he put in contingencies in case his Central Service Station was shut down. On the other side of Wingate Street, he bought the Waygood’s service garage, while across the five roads intersection he made an even larger purchase. There, he bought the quarter acre corner from R & W Hellaby’s, leasing the company’s shop back to them through to the mid 1950s. If his service station were to shut down at the triangle, Graven’s intent was to open up another one at the Hellaby’s corner of St Jude St and St Georges Road. 

As it turned out, Graven needn’t have worried. Despite a legal dispute over the lease between Cleland and Graven, the service station remained right where it was, and Cleland later transferred the title to Central Service Station Ltd in 1961. This remained as a service station site until taken over by Mobil which then shifted across the road in the 1980s, although the old Central Service Station was demolished earlier and the business modernised. 

Meanwhile in 1958, Graven developed the Hellaby’s corner into a block of eight shops which still exists. 

June 2022.

“Man behind the scheme,” so the Avondale Advance tells us, “is Mr A Graven, a well-known local businessman, who told the Advance, “The new block will certainly be an asset to the area, and with the adequate off-street parking which it incorporates will allow housewives to buy many of their household needs in the one block, free from parking worries.” Hellabys were to reopen in a new butchers shop at the corner, with the rest of the block including “a grocer, greengrocer, home cookery, fish shop and dairy.” 

Albert Graven died after a heart attack in July 1967 at the age of 70. While it remains, that corner block of shops is his legacy, with or without the convolutions of his family’s story here in Auckland, or the legends around his name that still come to some minds on hearing his name.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Alfred Ramsden and his hotel


The New Lynn Hotel, 1890s.  JTD-11A-04959, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

The old New Lynn Hotel at 3178 Great North Road exists only in memory. Normally, things start at beginnings. Here, I’ll start at the end.

It was demolished in January 2009. It had been owned by the Waitakere City Council from 2005, after the last private owners, the Bartulovich family, had applied for resource consent in 1995 to have the old building knocked down. It had been targeted by arsonists in 1972. It would be again in 2002. The council refused consent, slapped a heritage order on it instead in 1999 – and after legal proceedings the family agreed to sell the building to the council. 

The council also bought two adjoining properties for a reported $650,000. There were hopes the old hotel could be restored for around $250,000, and perhaps sold to a private operator. There was talk it might even be a character restaurant. 

But … no.

Structurally, it was cracking, toppling, needed to be bolstered up to prevent collapse, and was beyond repair. In the end, what the Bartulovich family had in mind in terms of the building’s fate, happened anyway. The demolition cost around $150,000.

Today, it’s an early childcare centre’s carpark. The Bartulovich family acquired the building, and nearly seven acres of surrounding land, via a mortgage default sale in 1940. Most of the extra land was subdivided during that decade. 

Before them as owners was Reginald Frederick Collard from 1929, who ran a bakery in New Lynn shopping centre. We shift backwards to the previous title, back to the original five acres around the hotel. There was an intermediary owner in 1923, then we come to dairy farmer William John Pugh from 1913. So, during the First World War, Jersey cows would munch their grass contentedly in the vicinity of the old hotel, now a converted residence. 

Pugh had purchased the hotel from Hancock & Co, the old brewing firm. They’d had the hotel under that name from 1907; before then, it was the property of the Captain Cook Brewery Ltd (another name, same firm), and before that, Moss Davis owned it until 1904. Davis, for Hancock & Co, purchased the property for £65 in 1891 from George Westcoat Wyman, formerly of Mangere but at that time living in Portland, Oregon in the US. This was just a concluding transaction; Wyman had already involved that company with the hotel, selling part of the property to Hancock’s founder Samuel Jagger back in 1886 for £1090. 

Wyman himself had given a mortgage to Alfred Ramsden back in August 1882, but Ramsden had defaulted within a year; so Wyman obtained title via the Supreme Court, in August 1883. 

It operated as a hotel with a license to sell alcohol from 1882 through to 1906, when it was decided that the New Lynn Hotel’s right to that license had to cease. The voters in the vast Eden electorate had chosen the reduction path, so the licensing committee decided the 24-year-old hotel had seen its last pint served. It had gone through a number of proprietors over that run. 

1882 Alfred Ramsden 
1882 William Amos Clarke 
1883 Walter Caddy 
1884 Frederick Harris Clements 
1886 Robert Tyler Penk 
1887 John Stuart Milne 
1889 Richard McVeigh 
1890 Elizabeth Patterson 
1894 Mary Dickson 
1899 Louisa Hertz 
1902 Robert Cartwright 
1903 Ellen Jane Featon (the last New Lynn Hotel publican) 

It had a brief revival, in another fashion, as Charles Shaw’s Temperance Hotel/Boarding house from 1907, but that venture didn’t last long. 

So now, we’re at the beginning, really. A man named Alfred Ramsden, who decided that a spot on the main road above New Lynn, on the way to Henderson and the Waitakeres, four years before Waikumete Cemetery and before there was much in the way of townships at New Lynn and Glen Eden – would be fine to build a hotel. 

Alfred Ramsden is said to have been born in 1847 in Lancashire, England, but “Ramsden” wasn’t the name of his unmarried mother, Mary Ann Ramsdale. In 1851, Mary was a weaver, lodging in Preston with three-year-old Alfred. A year later, she married Johnathan Sommersgill, and Alfred would come to have seven half-siblings, all bar at least one surviving to adulthood. 

By 1861, Alfred Ramsdale was working as a cotton factory worker in Preston, and married Elizabeth Sparnon in 1866. He and Elizabeth would have 12 children. Then, by 1871, we see an Alfred Ramsden in Dalton, now a brickmaker. 

At the end of the next gap in his life, Ramsden had reached Victoria, Australia in 1879 (according to him) with around £500-£1000 in his pockets. Next, we see Alfred Ramsden in Hawke’s Bay, successfully tendering to Napier City Council for supplying bricks in May 1880. 1881, he was a builder in Carlyle Street, Napier, industriously burning lime and firewood and creating a nuisance as well as mortar. Ramsden in Napier had a pattern he’d repeat elsewhere during his business career – he bought property after property, likely with mortgages, and then moved on. In October 1881, he put up for sale his brickworks known as “the Blacks”, a Temperance Hotel, cottages in Carlyle Street, and two more with a view of the bay. 

By March 1882, he’d reached Auckland. In that month, he paid John Tait £70 for six acres on Great North Road in New Lynn, had apparently set up a kiln, and advertised for men to make and burn 500,000 bricks. Things moved quickly (perhaps too quickly, given the fate of the hotel). Two months later, Ramsden applied for a license for his New Lynn Hotel, which was granted in June. Ramsden leased the hotel to Clarke in July – and that was the end of his involvement. 

He’d already moved on by that stage, living in the central city and working as a building contractor, breaching some by-laws, tendering for contracts. At some point during 1884 though, he shot through to the Australian colonies, carrying (according to him) 10s 6d in his pockets this time, leaving behind him unpaid mortgages. He said that on arriving back in Australia, (he later recalled) he pawned his watch for £1 10s, and paid 7s 6d for a breakfast. 

Another gap, but in April 1886 he re-emerges as the proprietor of “The Great Australian Coffee Palace” in Sydney, a dining room and 60-room accommodation hotel. Which he put up for sale in June that year. It finally went for £3500 by auction in September. In October 1886, Ramsden was bankrupt. He told the assignee that he’d left behind property in both England and New Zealand, but all had been lost due to foreclosures. He was allowed to keep his household furniture and tools, as well as to keep working, and applied for release in 1887. 

He headed south, made a new start in Melbourne – and in April 1888 opened his “Oriental Coffee Palace” there. This business seemed to be much more fortunate for him. Ramsden set his family up in Elsternwick, today a Melbourne suburb south-west of the CBD, and became involved with the local Primitive Methodist Church Sunday school. 

Then in April 1891, Ramsden’s pattern emerged again. There was a sale of a number of properties he owned or had leased. He’d moved his family to rooms at the coffee palace, and tried to placate his creditors. His estate was compulsorily sequestered in October 1891, showing liabilities of £98,000. By now, Ramsden claimed he had bad eyesight “from the heat and from white roads” and said he was unable to read the legal documents put before him at his insolvency hearing, where he recounted his career to that date. 

News of Ramsden’s bankruptcy was reported on both sides of the Tasman. The Otago Daily Times remarked: “The easy way in which the insolvent progressed from half a guinea and the proceeds of his watch in pawn in 1884 to £97,000 of debts in 1891 is remarkable. Surely Mr Ramsden affords another instance of the truth of the distich, which is the only remaining consolation of so many among us:- “Tis better to have boomed and bust / Than never to have boomed at all.” 

By 1895, Ramsden was in Western Australia, writing dud cheques, and being hauled into court by at least one person annoyed that the cheque bounced. In 1897 a four-storey building Ramsden had been contracted to erect in Perth, collapsed. Ramsden adamantly defended his work, but he was on a downward spiral. In October that year, he was arrested for deserting his wife. 

1898 found him in South Australia – where in Perth he filed for insolvency again in 1899. He was jailed as an insolvent debtor in 1900. He was discharged from bankruptcy again in May 1901, and in July, he was charged with being in default of a maintenance agreement for two of his children. 

In 1906, Ramsden went back to Victoria with his family looking for him, and tried starting the “Mount Lofty Brick and Lime Manufacturing Works” in the Snowy River district. That venture lasted to 1907. In January 1908, “of no fixed abode”, he was committed to the Yarra Bend Asylum, suffering from “delusional insanity”. A note on the case file states “mother and sister both said to be insane,” which may have been information from him. “Talks of making money in large sums. Says he has built churches. Says he has £1500 of furniture in the [illegible] Coffee Palace … Talks of large interests he has as a contractor and maintains that now he is defrauded. Says he still has property which is wrongfully in the hands of others … Says he was arrested by the police for entering his own property. Makes rambling statements about owning furniture in a coffee palace … Becomes excited in talking about being defrauded out of his money and property …” He escaped in September 1908, just nine months after his committal. Apparently, he was never recaptured. 

In 1911, there were “lost relative” notices in the New South Wales Police Gazette from Elizabeth Ramsden. In July that year, Ramsden was in court at Katoomba on an indecency charge. As a result, the police declared him “found”. 

In July 1914 at Robe, South Australia, he was arrested for being idle and disorderly, and sentenced to seven days’ gaol, suspended provided he left town. He did. In September he was apprehended as a mental defective at Mount Pleasant, South Australia, but was discharged. In 1915, he was sentenced to an indefinite time in custody as a “habitual inebriate.” He was released in August 1916 on license, but was picked up again, charged not only with being drunk, but for using indecent language. At that point, it was noted he had 11 previous convictions. He was sent back to the inebriates’ home. He was released again, on license, in October 1918. 

It looks like he then took up something of the swagman’s lifestyle; his swag was stolen in 1921. In 1923, he turned up in Victoria again, tried and fined at Melbourne for offensive behaviour. 

His last appearance in the press three months later was truly strange. 

“There were yells, shrieks and screams in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, during the week, as Constable Murfitt was working his beat from Brunswick Street. Farther down the street he saw girls scurrying across the road, and an elderly man waving his arms and giving out Indian war whoops that struck terror into the hearts of the fleeing lassies. “It was the time for the homeward journey for several hundreds of girls employed in the big factories in the locality. The man was making a dart at each group as if he would embrace them, and then would fling his arms up and utter a piercing yell which set the girls going helter skelter. He arrested the man, who gave the name of Alfred Ramsden, pensioner, of Bentleigh, and charged him with having behaved in an offensive manner. “At the Fitzroy court on Saturday last, Ramsden was fined 20/- for what Dr. Wheeler called disgraceful conduct. When Ramsden said he could not pay he was informed that the alternative of three days' gaol would give him a chance to have a good clean up and forget his Wild Indian proclivities.” 

 (Frankston and Somerville Standard, [Vic], 13 June 1923, p.6) 

Just less than two months later Alfred Ramsden, builder, brickmaker, contractor, hotel and coffee palace owner, was dead. He lies at St Kilda Cemetery, Melbourne. 

A man with, arguably, a far more colourful story than the hotel that he’d built in a West Auckland suburb. Like him, now just receding into history.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Howard Nattrass and the "typiste-flapper"


Image: Free Lance, 3 November 1920

This is a story that someone, seriously, should take up and make a doco about. The NZ Truth described it at the time as an "affair-de-lust" with a "typiste-flapper".

Howard Nattrass was born in Blenheim in 1888. By 1915, with a partner named Harris, he had developed a profitable motor importing business in Napier, Natttass & Harris Motor Co. The partners extended their business to Wellington by late 1917.

Sometime around June 1916. Edith Kathleen Strangeman was employed at the firm as a typist. At the time, she was 15, turning 16 in November. In 1918, just after her 18th birthday, she began to have an affair with Nattrass, who was a married man with one child. Edith left her job on 4 February 1919, and was “out all night”. Her parents find out the next morning she had gone to Napier straight from Nattrass’ office. Her father followed by train; Nattrass went up after her by motor, picked up Edith, and took her to Taranaki, then back to Wellington. The father then took possession of his daughter with the police. Nattrass was warned to stay away from the Strangeman homestead.

Edith was examined by Dr Henry Herbert Arthur Claridge a week later, and found to be pregnant. Instantly, her father sued Nattrass £3000 for "seduction". There's some confusion as to whether at that point either Edith or her parents wanted the unborn child aborted -- Edith would later say one thing, Dr Claridge another. Whatever was really the story, the courts were later told that on the night of 7 March 1919, another doctor, Dr Francis Wallace McKenzie, was asked by Edith to save her from the operation. Dr Claridge & McKenzie arranged to take her to Nurse Vicker’s private hospital in Brougham Street on the pretext of an adenoid operation.

McKenzie took the night nurse into the kitchen for tea to distract her, while Claridge told the daughter Nattrass was waiting outside for her in a motor. She and Claridge joined Nattrass, and drove to Claridge’s house to get her some clothes. Nattrass and Edith went to Waikanae, and stayed there three days. McKenzie returned to the Strangeman’s to report that Edith had gone, but also told them to leave her alone, she was over age. He was then chased down the street by another daughter, but evaded her.

The Strangemans informed the police. McKenzie & Nattrass got Edith away from Island Bay to Picton by motor launch. The father headed there by the Pateena and got Edith. Nattrass went there later, found Strangeman had Edith, chartered a faster boat, and nabbed Edith again in Wellington. Later in April Strangeman spotted Nattrass and Edith with McKenzie coming out of a cinema, knocked down Nattrass (while a friend with him punched McKenzie) and took Edith once more.

Nattrass organised an unsuccessful rescue of Edith from her parents' house on 9 May, involving a man pretending to be an inspector from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Women and Children. Eventually though, when Edith was allowed out to go to church a month later, she made her escape -- and later had her baby in hospital. She never returned to her parents.

Nattrass' wife eventually divorced him in 1925, and Howard and Edith married in 1926. He had by then made his name with motor racing (winner of the First NZ Motor Cup in 1921) and with his Nattrass Tank-Carburettor. He died, somewhere, in 1960.

Bill Tinson image, 1921. "Showing Howard Nattrass winner of the first New Zealand Motor Cup at the wheel of his Cadillac on Muriwai beach. A stripped touring Cadillac in the background entered by Mr Carlyon of Guavas, Tikokino , Hawke's Bay, driven by Mr W Boyle came fourth. This was the first race in New Zealand to be timed electrically, by a rig imported from London by a club official." 7-A7604, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Riversdale Road gas emergency, 1975


Detail from 1957 Whites Aviation image, showing the large glasshouses complex at 5-7 Riversdale Road. Today, this site is now housing.
National Library of New Zealand, WA-43771

Just before 11 pm on 19 January 1975, residents living near to a set of three large glasshouses on 5-7 Riversdale Road in Avondale began to smell the acrid stench of a gas that had wafted up unto the night air, but failed to dissipate. The gas started an emergency that only lasted a matter of hours, but which emergency services took with absolute seriousness and caution. The gas, chloropicrin, was deadly if breathed into the lungs at quantity – and since World War I had a nasty reputation.

Chloropicrin was discovered in 1848 by Scottish chemist John Stenhouse. Considering Stenhouse became known for his work in developing respirators, that he came up with the lung-damaging chloropicrin in the course of his work as well is something of an irony.

The gas unfortunately came into something of its own when its disabling properties when applied to human beings was recognised and used on the battlefields of the Western Front during the First World War. It was said in 1918 that “the inhalation of ten cubic centimetres of chloropicrin gas makes a man sicker than Neptune at his worst, or than any other known emetic.” (Manawatu Standard, 5 November 1918)

This “tear gas”, however, revealed a benefit to the agricultural sector in the mid 1940s, when experiments showed that it destroyed fungi, insects, and halted the wilting of tomatoes grown under glass. The DSIR carried out experiments at their Mt Albert research facilities in Auckland in the 1947, and these produced good results.

In 1950, the substance hit the New Zealand market as “larvacide,” but the local press did advise caution.

“A product called “larvacide,” now being marketed in New Zealand for use in both soil fumigation and rabbit destruction, consists wholly of the poisonous chemical liquid chloropicrin. Damage to the lungs is the most important and most serious effect of chloropicrin vapour, and it is this property which makes it poisonous and ultimately causes death if enough of the vapour is inhaled. The lung-injuring properties of chloropicrin vapour led to its use as a war gas during the First World War.

“Fumes from “larvacide” are considerably less poisonous than the gas given off when “cyanogas” comes into contact with water or moist air, but it should be handled with the same care as “cyanogas” and all other poisonous materials.”

Putaruru Press, 2 February 1950

Accidents, though, with any dangerous substance, will happen.

“Poisonous chloropicrin or larvicide gas filtering through the Owaka Football club pavilion on Saturday night quickly put an end to a social function when guests had to evacuate the building. Complaints of sore eyes began about 11.30 and some were forced to go outside. Then everyone was cleared from the hall. The gas, which is nearly odourless, caused sore eyes and later severe headaches among many of those present. “Larvicide gas was widely used in the district for rabbit control before rabbit boards took over, and many farmers still have supplies of the gas capsules on their properties. Constable I Blue was called. He recovered part of a capsule which had apparently been broken into a drain that led through a shower room, from where the gas spread into the main social hall. The function was a farewell one for five members of the Owaka Football Club who will leave on Wednesday for a tour of Australia with a South Otago colts team.”

The Press (Christchurch) 15 March 1966

Another incident took place in an area similar to Riversdale Road, where residences and horticultural land by the 1970s were increasingly becoming close neighbours.

“Occupants of some houses on the outskirts of Havelock North left their homes; last night when a pungent, gas drifted over their properties. Some residents awoke with streaming eyes and sore throats. The gas was chloropicrin, or tear gas, used by fruit growers to fumigate soil. Mr M Mitchell, a poultry farmer, said his production was down and his fowls were spluttering and coughing. He had awakened coughing, at 3 am. Mr Mitchell said some of his neighbours had left their homes. Mr P Hawley said the gas was used by fruitgrowers to kill root fungi. It was applied by a contractor. “Because of the calm night, the gas just hung in the air,” he said. “Usually the wind blows it away and there are no effects.”

The Press (Christchurch) 31 March 1973

The incident at Avondale in January 1975 led to the temporary relocation of 30 people from the area immediately affected, some still in pyjamas and dressing gowns, many taking shelter in the school hall at Avondale College for the rest of the night.

Riversdale Road was cordoned off, and emergency services soon identified that the source of the gas was the three large glasshouses at 5-7 Riversdale Road, leased by Peter H Hilford. He had spread chloropicrin on the soil inside the glasshouses on Sunday 19 January, just hours before the emergency began. The Deputy Medical Officer of Health, getting to the scene just after midnight on 20 January, ordered that firemen hose down the soil, stopping the leakage.

Near dawn, at 5 am, the emergency was declared over, and the residents began to make their way back to their homes. An early morning wind helped disperse the last of the fumes, but people were asked to stay well clear of the glasshouses.

Hilford had done nothing wrong. Under the regulations of the time, all he had to do was follow the instructions on the chemical packet. But the incident helped impress upon the Government that there needed to be stricter restrictions on the use of the chemical, and that included watching the weather for any conditions which could cause the gas to collect in a cloud closer to the ground. Warm, still conditions on the night of 19 January helped keep the gas low enough to affect the surrounding area.

Accidents involving the chemical, though, were relatively rare, even though in 1975 authorities counted around 240 glasshouses in the Auckland area, and the chemical was used on an annual basis inside them. Chloropicrin is still in use today, usually on soil that is then covered in plastic sheets to prevent leakage. Its use is heavily regulated, with a number of steps that need to be taken by registered users.

No one wants another nasty surprise from that particular First World War reminder.