Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Queen Street Riot of 1905

Many will have heard of Auckland’s Depression-era riots, 1932. There was also the Mt Eden Prison Riot of 1965. And, then there was the 1984 Queen Street Riot. But, how many have heard of one in 1905? Smaller than the others, yes, and it caused far less damage in those far-off Edwardian times. Still, it rattled the police on duty that day, led to several court hearings, and it’s doubtful anyone was ever found guilty.

It began on 30 December, a Saturday night in downtown Auckland. It started, apparently, with a shilling.

At around 10.45 pm, a customer at the Zealandia Restaurant and Oyster Bar got into a dispute with the Greek proprietor of the establishment, Andrew Gabriel, over whether the customer had paid his shilling for the supper he had just had. The restaurant was apparently on two levels; as the young man came up from below and was asked for payment, he claimed he had paid downstairs. The waiter denied that, and the customer struck him in the face, whereupon the waiter struck him back. The dispute then became a scuffle, and the customer was thrown out from the premises. Some of those in the vicinity later told the newspapers that the customer’s hat was either taken by the restaurant owner or was left behind, and that he had in fact actually paid for his meal. His name remains unknown.

A crowd then gathered outside the restaurant. The United Press Association, telegraphing the news nationwide, reported numbers of two thousand gathered in Queen Street outside the Zealandia – this seems a lot, even if it was a Saturday night just before New Years’ Eve. A stone was thrown; it was thought to be been flung by the customer at the Zealandia’s windows. Whoever threw that first stone escaped custody and disappeared in the melée that followed.

The rowdy crowd were led by those aged 18 to 25, according to reports. The police were called, they then called for reinforcements, the crowd got larger and the Greek staff at the restaurant were pushed back inside. Then, the business came under bombardment from stones from all directions. The police made an arrest, and two constables proceeded to take their prisoner to the police barracks in Princes Street. As they passed under the verandah to Smith & Caughey’s drapers shop, a bottle of beer was flung, striking one constable on the shoulder, grazing the prisoner, striking a blow on the side of the head of the second constable, and smashing against the shop window, cracking Smith & Caughey’s big plate glass display. The policemen continued on their way with the prisoner, with the crowd following, howling, “Rush them! Charge them!”

At the police station, those on duty there were prepared for the onslaught. Once the prisoner had been taken inside, the constables prepared a powerful water hose. In response, the crowd began pelting the station with more stones, one shattering the window of the Sub-inspector’s office. The hose was then instantly turned on the crowd, but not before another thrown stone smashed the station’s large gas lamp, casting the scene into shadow. The water divided the crowd, some heading up Princes Street, threatening to attack the barracks, but more police reinforcements gradually scattered the group.

Thwarted, the crowd then surged back to the restaurant, where they were strengthened by more numbers. “The street,” according to the Weekly News, “was packed with people from the door of the restaurant to the doors on the other side.” Now, the police infiltrated the crowd, both in uniform and plain-clothes, to try to sort out who the ringleaders were. However, they were powerless to stop the rest of the damage as beer bottles and more stones flew, smashing all of the restaurant’s windows, and two or three more in a shop across the street. It was mainly all over by midnight.

Six arrests were made that night. “Some of the oldest members of the police force stated that it was the worst disturbance of the kind they have ever seen in Auckland." (Weekly News)

The court cases continued into the first part of February 1906, but in the main there was a lack of witnesses, so all were released either at the Police Court stage or by the Supreme Court. It isn’t very likely that Mr. Gabriel was ever paid for the considerable damage to his store.


  1. One of the interesting aspects of this research is that Auckland had an "oyster bar" at the turn of the 20th century! What will you turn up next: tapas in Freemans Bay in 1910; sushi in the Meadowbank hinterland ...? The saying about there being nothing new under the sun comes to mind.

  2. It's amazing that the "oh so properly behaved" Edwardians exhibited such behaviour!

  3. Oyster bars in Auckland go back to at least the mid 1860s, Phil. There's images of them on the Auckland Library's Heritage Images Online database -- like this one. Some day, I'd like to find out more about them -- but the subject is quite involved.

    The oh-so-proper Edwardians, Jayne? Aye, but Aucklanders can be a bit of a noisy lot. Just found out today that there was a mutiny at Mt Eden gaol that year as well. The stars can't have been in a good alignment or something ...

  4. 1905 was one year before the death of Dick Seddon. This was God's Own Country. Some might unkindly describe N Z then at least in the North Island as the wild West. Forty years before, Auckland was living in terror of a Waikato led genocidal massacre. How genuine that was we will never know thanks to the invasion by the British army for which we continue to apologise for. Auckland has always been full of bored young men looking for excitement. Was this riot, xenophobic? It seems not. Foreigners were funny then with funny accents.