Monday, January 26, 2009

Auckland's "Noah's Ark" on Morton Street

It's Auckland Anniversary Day today (the relocated anniversary, when really our city's "birthday" is in September, but that's a story in itself). 35 years after all the celebration on Point Britomart, young Auckland had the social problems it was supposed to have left behind in the Old Country, and one case gave rise to an article of descriptive social comment from the Evening Star.

Today, judging by what Google's street view shows (a wonderful tool for days like today when I'm watching the pennies but would still like to see the sights), Morton Street is more-or-less just a service lane off Cook Street in Auckland's CBD. It curves around, just a road leading from the back of buildings and carparks, a bit of grassy area left, some buses and trees on a grassy knoll sculpted by landscape designers, or possibly left when a carpark was carved out just behind it. It stops abruptly, where once it continued on and became Baker Street, which in turn emptied into Nelson Street -- today, Baker Street has vanished (gone in 1955), and buildings, row on row, are between the end of Morton Street and the Skytower.

In 1874, a woman named Elizabeth Macfarlane died. She apparently lived on Morton Street, then known as Moreton Street and Norton Street. Her last year wasn't pleasant. Having no visible means of support and with previous convictions "as an idle and disorderly person", she was sentenced to three months at Mt Eden gaol. She was fined 10s and costs in August for allowing the chimney of her house in Morton Street to catch fire (although how she could be a vagrant, yet have a house is mysterious). Then, in September:
A shocking case is given by the Auckland Star, in referring to a recent inquest on the body of one Elizabeth Macfarlane, was disclosed by the evidence of Eliza Rice, a companion of the dead woman. The wretched woman had led a life of immorality and sensual indulgence, and the termination of her existence was m keeping with her miserable career. The jury returned a verdict of death from exposure and excessive drinking.
(Marlborough Express, 26 September 1874)

The Star must have dispatched a reporter within days to investigate Morton Street and an old dilapidated and abandoned house there called "Noah's Ark". This is the resulting article, via the North Otago Times, 15 October 1874.


When Charles Dickens described a rentable locality in the purlieus of Bermondsey, known only to a few as Jacob's Island, Sir Peter Laurie said that the place had no existence save in the author's imagination. And so persons might say of Noah's Ark, the dilapidated theatre of human degradation which has “a local habitation and a name" in the western part of the city of Auckland.

We have not been able to trace the origin of "Noah's Ark," which is evidently deserted by its comfortable proprietor and left to the storms of time and the rude hands of local mud-pudding manufacturers. This vestige of past days occupies a rustic site in Moreton-street, and commands pleasant views of Freeman's Bay, St. Mary's Orphanage, and the pretty respectable uphill thoroughfare known as Baker-street, celebrated for its white bead and quiet inhabitants. Occasionally a constable may be seen striding down Baker-street where his help is never wanted, and where his presence causes no surprise, as it is understood that he is on a visit to Noah's Ark. The old building is in a melancholy state, indicative of the moral condition of many of the moonlight sleepers who find cold, gratuitous rest on the odorous boards of the windy, unfurnished rooms. Moreton-street otherwise would be a pleasant retired place. The half-dozen cottages hare scanty slips of gardens, with here and there a creeper twining round a window or curling over a doorway. Along the green space at the back of the houses there runs a kind of rivulet near a hedge, where neither primroses nor cresses grow. A group of well fed cows are sometimes found grazing on the open green spaces in the immediate locality, but never without a mill-boy in attendance.

We understand that the city missionary rarely steps within Noah's Ark, or the very spot might be suggestive of a lay sermon on a passage in scripture history, and the story of Noah might be amplified and applied with advantage. Noah's Ark is empty through the day, and in the evening it is occupied by the sportive ragamuffins of the neighborhood, who make wild music on old bones and bottomless saucepans, and who occasionally display their histrionic abilities in an original version of "Jack Shepherd." About midnight, or in the early morning before daybreak, the shadowy forms of homeless women may be seen there stupefied with drink; women that once were fair and innocent, and whose welfare formed the burden of the prayers of pious parents, but who through misfortune and unhappy unions have cast off self-respect and abandoned themselves to vice and despair. Such individuals may be seen wending in uncertainty towards Noah's Ark for such shelter and repose as they may find in that almost hopeless home. A few rags may be noticed in the corners of rooms in lieu of beds. We saw a portion of "Saturday Night” lying on the floor, containing a Hendersonian essay on "Conversation lollies," in which some inmate had probably felt temporary interest, and then thrown it aside.

And so these daughters of night struggle on, between Noah's Ark, Mount Eden, and the intervening Police Court, until their sad career ends, it may be, like that of Elizabeth Macfarlane, in a pauper's grave, unhallowed and unblessed by the voice of the preacher.

The end of Noah's Ark here.


  1. Great post, I love the small details and stories like these :)

  2. Thanks, Jayne. I like this kind of writing too -- the details described and the way it's written was just too good not to post. Cheers!