Monday, May 4, 2009

Gas-lit Saturday nights in old Auckland town

Tattoo of Horses’ Hoofs On Roadways of Town

Happy Saturday Nights in “Gas-Lit Fairyland”

(Aged “over 65”)

To me as a boy in the closing years of the 19th century, Queen Street and Karangahape Road seemed gas-lit fairylands on Saturday nights. Horse-drawn trams, cabs, buses, carts and buggies thronged the roadways, the horses’ hoofs beating a clip-clop tattoo on the macadam.

It is strange, in this city of electric trams, motor-cars and trucks, to think back when the city's locomotion was provided by the horse. One saw some magnificent animals toiling in the streets, and there was something vital in the way they stepped out under heavy loads which is missing in the mechanically-propelled vehicle of today.

The shop windows of those days were, somehow, more enchanting than those of today; Saturday night in Auckland was then truly something to look forward to and hoard one's pennies for. A threepenny-piece could buy, from a larger assortment of sweets than is offered today, at least as much as one shilling and threepence will buy now. Even the grocer gave a generous bag of boiled lollies free when the weekly bill was paid.

Plenty to Interest All

There was plenty to interest everyone on those gas-lit Saturday nights when strolling down the city. One could pick up bargains in the city market, which stood somewhere at the back of the present Civic Theatre, and there was much genial banter among the buyers and sellers. No chain stores existed, but there was a Goodson’s Arcade about opposite where the Strand Arcade stands, and this store sold the miscellaneous type of merchandise now so popular.

What would the modern man think after paying 18 guineas for a suit if he could see the window of Dalton the tailor in Queen Street on those days, where suits were made to measure for 50s, plus an extra pair of trousers? Somehow there seemed to be a closer alignment of wages with prices in those times. It was considered that a just rent for any family should be one day’s wages of the breadwinner. Wages were modest, about 8s a day, but so were prices of goods. People did not seem to be cursed with the money itch, neither was so much spent in amusement in proportion to earnings as is the case today.

Vaudeville Popular

Talking of amusements brings to mind the popularity of vaudeville in those days, and many elderly Aucklanders will recall the hilarious shows of Pope and Sayles with their Nigger Minstrels at the City Hall at the corner of Victoria and Queen Streets.

Auckland then was very much smaller, but in real living it seems to some of us oldsters it was greater than today. One enjoyed the simpler things – picnics on the beaches, a ride in a hansom cab behind a spanking horse, climbing Mt Eden on moonlight nights, swaying on the old suspension bridge which spanned Grafton Gully. Many of us took an interest in the volunteers, and I can recall the weekly training in the old drill hall, and the church parades in scarlet tunics and blue, red-banded trousers.

And one more recollection – more people filled the churches on Sundays than is the case today. Churchgoing was a regular routine in most families. Preaching, also, seemed more robust and forceful compared with the present anaemic efforts.

Auckland has advanced immeasurably in population, in commerce and in prosperity since those horse-and-buggy days but it has not the atmosphere of general contentment with life as it is that was so characteristic of those late 19th century times. It may be that advancing age deflects the mental vision, but to me it seems we are too restless, too unsure of ourselves, to achieve that peace of mind which makes for real happiness.

Originally published in New Zealand Herald, c. 1951. From the Otahuhu Historical Society Scrapbooks.

1 comment:

  1. That comment about the wages and price of goods is so true!
    What lovely memories to share :)