Friday, November 13, 2009

Wharf Memories

The following was written by Peter Hjorring, a good friend of mine and ardent family historian. He found this blog, I invited him to contribute -- and here is the result: a glimpse into life on Auckland's wharves. In the course of looking for ways to illustrate his article, I found an online version of the 1922 Auckland City Municipal Handbook. The King's Wharf generators image comes from that.

The Auckland City Council burnt rubbish near the city centre at their destructor facility, saving transporting to a 'tip' in the suburbs. This facility led to what is now the Victoria Park Markets. The idea of using the energy produced to power the ever growing need for electricity for trams, water pumping, street lighting etc. eventually lead to the construction of the King’s Wharf power station, opened in 1913.

My grandfather was an engineer from Glasgow. He worked in the late 1920s in Newmarket at an engineering firm somewhere then obtained a position in the King’s Wharf power station and then shifted the family to Devonport. There was a good ferry service for him and the children to the city. The extended family home was where I spent the first year or so of my life. In fact being born nearby in Pentlands Hospital in Buchanan Street below the Victoria picture theatre. Dad was with the RNZAF in the Pacific then. Later he became unwittingly involved with the Wharves. He was part of Sid Holland’s defence force personnel to break the 1951 strike. They barged them down from Hobsonville.

We moved after the war for a short period to the city, to the Council’s old motor camp in Motions Rd which was a transit camp by the Zoo waiting for a state house. Then in 1947 to 56 Fir Street in Waterview. My elder brother Brian served part (6 months) of his electrical apprenticeship with the Auckland Electric Power Board at the wharf in the late 1950s in the station. It also powered the wharf's freezing storage handling warehouse etc. for AFFCO. This was an ammonia based refrigeration unit during WW2 and before. My father in law Jack Robertson worked as an engineer there during and after the war.

Some memories I had on the waterfront are next. There was a large number of employees of the Auckland Harbour Board. Those used to repair mainly damaged wooden pallets crates etc were called “chippies”. My Uncle Alex William’s son was one. Those concerned with electrical lighting, power winches etc. were called “sparkies”. There were also many tally clerks inside the sheds and at the gates/entrances in little wooden boxes/offices by the red wrought iron fences. Many of these fences are still there -- and possibly will be preserved?

And then there were the “seagulls” (as well as the feathered variety). Around the wharves of course these were the casual wharfies on high hourly rates. They were on hourly notice to go with this! Picking up what work was left. The number depended on work to be done after the permanents; they were very good hourly pay rates especially for poor University students. All the wharfies received high rates of pay I think in those days. It was those first there at the Stevedore's offices in the morning that got the work.

However the reality was that those with permanent positions were taken on first, many ex war veterans. At that time often there was no work for our trucks. If there was no ship in port we mainly unloaded bananas, fruit and veges etc, from the Pacific Islands and other places. We were told to get 'lost' but still hung around as we were on call over the ‘RT.’ We were on a wage so we would park up on the end of a wharf, say at the end Princess Wharf reading a book with the steam ship tugs like the SS Daldy for company. The SS Daldy likewise was waiting for their services.

Alternatively, there was watching the draw bridge for the Viaduct basin being hoisted up and down for water fishing boats and road traffic. There was a cafeteria above Princess Wharf for Harbour employees mainly, now part of the Maritime Museum.

There was a fumigation station on Queens Wharf mainly for pineapples, grapes, mangoes, and other exotic fruit and veges from Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa,and Tahiti. The boats Matua and Tofua were frequent Island trading boats. Fumigating for mealy bug spiders and other nasties the fumigant Methyl Bromide (CH3Br) was used in the fumigation shed on the wharf (Queens). This was a carcinogenic substance frequently used then but now banned. They were subject to at least 24 hours exposure and resting periods.

 Left: the Tofua.

Another event on the wharves was the so called “Six O'Clock Call”. I think it worked like this: the wharfies worked in gangs, piece meal, being assigned say two or three gangs for a ship to unload a ship or part of it for that day. Turn around time for the ship was important, many pounds in berthage fees etc. which they would be paid for the full day so often in the heat of the day in the hold or wharf's siding shed things were done slowly. Time for a game of cards, reading or what ever. Hence the apparent lazy cushy number they apparently seemed to have. A misconception of them by the public in those days. Then when the day’s target was given, usually around or after meal time say 6.00 pm things speeded up very quickly so they could complete the day’s work and get home. Often we might also need a number more of say banana cases unloaded so we could finish up our day by getting a full load for the day as well. Then, within a short time by 8-9 o’clock I guess? We had all we needed.

One other thing: the truck drivers and other cars and pedestrians shared the wharf’s entrance on leaving where the trains in those days used or straddled Quay Street too (there were rail lines in the middle and along of the street blocking say from Queens Wharf to the Queen Street Ferry buildings!) Mainly goods wagons before being shunted to the nearby Inwards and Outwards covered terminal. We would get stuck not able to get across Quay Street back to our destination.

The ripening cellars for bananas were below the floor of the city markets and produce for the market floor. They used Ethylene CH2=CH2 gas to speed up the process, I understand from a vege buyer. I know they still do this.

By Peter Hjorring.
{Based on my experiences as an occasional flat top truck driver for Turners and Growers Auctioneers produce suppliers at the Auckland city markets in the1960s.}

1 comment:

  1. It is great to read personal acounts such as above. Wharves always seem to be very interesting places. I recently listened to a podcast from ABC Radio about Milsons Point wharves in Sydney. Fascinating.