Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pistons and Hoofbeats …

Story of the South St Judes Street Block (Part 2)

Former hotelkeeper James Palmer sold Lots 8 and 7 to James Forsyth of Whangarei on 16 January 1886. It’s doubtful that Forsyth did anything with the land, except tenant it out to others for income. One of these may well have been William Myers, who came to New Zealand c.1895, starting up a family blacksmithing business on Blake Street (now St Jude’s) that was to continue until the early 1960s. In two separate transactions in 1903, the Myers family bought Lots 7 and 8 from James Forsyth: on the 8th of August Thomas and Burton Myers purchased Lot 8 for £47 10/-, while two days later their father William bought Lot 7 for the same amount. They may already have been tenants of Forsyth’s, but with the price of the land so cheap there may not have been much in the way of buildings on the site at time of purchase.

The Myers family

The Myers smithy was not the first on this block. The 1884 subdivision map clearly shows a forge marked on Lot 6, present-day site of General Equipment. It is uncertain exactly who that early blacksmith would have been.

In 1908 William Myers was joined in the business by his son Thomas (1881-1967). Thomas Myers’ was more than simply a farrier (Thomas wouldn’t do a lot of work for the Jockey Club, his son Roger told me in 2001, as he considered thoroughbreds as “too flighty, a young man’s job”) – he also did a lot of work for market gardeners, both in Avondale and as far afield as Oratia and Henderson. He’d do repairs to plows, disks, and harrows. Farmers would bring up to the shed 3 or 4 spades at a time, to have handles repaired. In land transaction records, he’s referred to as a carriage builder, but he also made up wheelbarrows. As a wheelwright, he would repair wagons, virtually anything that could be drawn by animals, so his son says, including drays and milk vendors carts.

William Burton Myers (born c.1882), his brother, was a carpenter and builder by trade. He lived for a time in Blockhouse Bay, on the corner of Terry Street and Blockhouse Bay Roads, then shifted to live in St Heliers by the late 1930s. His nephew Roger Myers recalls that at one time Burton jointly owned the Allely Building in the Avondale shopping centre possibly with his brother Thomas and sister Louise, and that Roger did some painting for his uncle around the back of the building. He would often be given painting jobs to do by his uncle.

Possibly in the early 1920s, the original smithy building burned down. There had already been some close calls before this. Around Christmas Eve 1915 there was an apparent arson attempt made to destroy the property in a period of suspicious or mysterious fires on the block. From the mid-1920s until around the time of William Myers’ death, Lot 7 was shared by the Myers’ with Joe Willoughby, recalled by Roger Myers to have been associated with the Avondale Jockey Club, possibly even as a Clerk of the Course.

William Myers died in 1927, leaving his properties on Blake Street, Roberton Road and in Blockhouse Bay to his sons Thomas and Burton, and daughter Louisa Binsted. Thomas Myers already had full title to Lot 8 (13 St Judes St) from 1925 (after the two brothers sold the lot to their father in 1920 for £150, who then sold it back to Thomas for £170 in February 1925), and was a co-title holder of Lot 7 (11 St Judes St) with his brother and sister from 1939 until 1947, from which date he had sole title over both lots. Before William Myers’ death, however, he apparently rented or leased Lot 8 out to a number of occupiers right from 1911 at least, so a building or dwelling of some type must have existed there from that time. And then, around 1925, there appears on the local postal directories for that address - the Avondale Service Station.

Avondale Service Station (c.1925-c.1939)

In 1994, Challenge of the Whau referred to the owner of the Avondale Service Station, a garage “situated below the railway crossing on the hill above Avondale on the road to Mt Albert”, as a “Mr. Bamford.” His name, however, was Harlan F. Bashford, and as at 1925 date he was one of the earliest service station proprietors in the Avondale area. His only competition would have been Triggs’ and Stuart’s establishments on the Great North Road. For those travellers heading straight through to Mt Albert one way, and New Lynn and Henderson the other, he was the most convenient of the three. He didn’t time the emergence of his business well, for in March 1925 that the Great North Road was concreted. This would have severely diminished the trade to his premises, drivers being more likely to travel along the new road.

The buildings on the site may both date from this mid-1920s period. To the rear, tucked in out of sight behind the present-day Darby & Helm workshop, is an old bungalow, not painted for years, and only really visible from the section presently used by the used car parts dealers next door. This building seems to have been number 15 St Jude’s St. According to the postal directories, number 15 appeared to be occupied from c.1924, although there is no separate subdivision on Council’s cadastral maps. First occupier appears to have been Ernest H. L. Von Sturmer, a paper merchant, then Lawrence W. Bougher, a fireman (1926/1927), and finally Bashford.

The larger building on the site may be a slightly enlarged version of the original service station from 1925. Certainly, the layout is similar to that of another former service station of the period that still exists (Trigg’s Garage, now part of the Avondale Spiders showroom on Great North Road) and Stuart’s Garage which burnt down in the late 1920s (but which can be seen from contemporary photos). Bashford may have had a simple footpath bowser type of operation, given the narrowness of the section, with possibly vehicle servicing in the main workshop.

Bashford wasn’t in Avondale very long. By c.1931, he was no longer living in the rear bungalow at no.15, and by c.1932, the Avondale Service Station had been renamed Avondale Motors, managed by Bert Ivil. Around 1937, the manager was an L. J. Preston, who seems to have only operated for less than two years before the workshop was empty. Roger Myers recalled that for a couple of years the building was unused, except as a storage area, “chock full” of vehicles belonging to a repossession company in the city.

Then, around 1941, Ossie Darby and Dick Helm came to Avondale, and started the business of Darby & Helm.

Darby & Helm (c.1941-2007)

According to John McIntyre, they met during the building of the Arapuni Dam (completed 1929). Ossie Darby was a master mechanic, clever with steelwork; Dick Helm was a storekeeper-cum-photographer employed by the government. He was also a very clever and competent welder, according to Roger Myers.

During the Second World War, they specialised in fitting “gas producers” to cars, in the time of petrol restrictions and rationing. These were “retorts”, cylinders mounted on the front fender of the car, used to burn char or charcoal to produce gases which were conducted to another cylinder on the other fender, cooled, mixed with air, then burned to power the engine. Darby & Helm tried convincing their landlord Thomas Myers to convert his Essex to the gas producer system, but he declined. It’s no wonder he did – with Ossie Darby’s descriptions of his trips down to Arapuni from time to time. He would stop along the way to stoke up the gas producer with coke, pulling out the embers as he did so; thus accidentally setting fire to the grass beside the road.

Darby & Helm are also said to have designed and built a muffler, built from a heavier gauge of steel than normal ones. When this was shown to wholesalers in the City it was agreed that the muffler’s design was so good it would probably outlast the rest of the car. But there was the rub: what good was that? Such an innovation, without the same obsolescence, would mean they’d sell less replacement mufflers. The deal fell through.

Roger Myers worked for Darby & Helm from the late 1940s. He described them as being great to work for – they weren’t just the bosses, they were part of the workforce, too. During his time they also specialised in building trailers and caravan chassis, as well as car towbars.

Lots 7 and 8 was finally purchased from Thomas Myers by Darby & Helm in 1962, when Thomas Myers retired. They must have leased Lot 7, number 11 St Judes Street, out to Mervyn C Hardy between 1962 and 1965. He was a car wrecker, part of the continuing 20th century heritage of light industrial land use on the block (with Darby & Helm to the east of him, and General Equipment to the west). John McIntyre recalls that Hardy had an Austin 7 up on a pole outside his business for some years.

Ossie Darby had a stroke and died, sometime around 1980. Dick Helm maintained the business for a while, but then sold everything to Pierre Halvic Piper in March 1982. Piper is the landowner of both Lots 7 and 8 today (2004).

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