Friday, April 19, 2013

Please, no "fallen women" here, thank you

In 1899, a retired publican, hotel-owner and land investor named Michael Corcoran bought pieces of land in the Royal Oak-Epsom part of Mt Roskill, and settled down on the resulting farm called "Milton", fronting onto Pah Road, down to Mt Albert Road. Milton Road, later put through his farm, is today Rewi Road in Royal Oak.

He'd led an active life, had Mr Corcoran. Born c.1828, he left his home in Roscommon, Ireland, in 1855, a miller journeying to become a gold digger in Melbourne's fields of promise, having considerable success by 1860. Then, when news came of the finds at Gabriels Gully, he came across to Dunedin, added to his wealth at the Otago diggings, before giving up the digger's life in 1863 to travel to Auckland. In 1868, he obtained the Greyhound Hotel, and was proprietor there until 1876. He had a few run-ins with the law, mainly over his Sunday trading habit. He purchased the Clarendon Hotel in Napier in 1877, then returned to Auckland, trying unsuccessfully for the license for the Thames Hotel in 1878. The police were not in favour of his application. A little later that year, he took over the Metropolitan Hotel. By 1882 he was running the Star & Garter Hotel in Coromandel. He retained ownership of this hotel into the 1890s. 1885, he took over the Flagstaff Hotel on the North Shore. After more accusations of a Sunday trading breach, he left the Flagstaff and took over the Hikutaia Hotel in 1888, then the Northern Wairoa Hotel in Dargaville, 1889. From 1899, he retired from all but his land holdings, some of which was valuable Queen Street property, to his 17 acre dairy farm in Royal Oak.

In October 1901, through a city land agent, Corcoran sold six acres of his land holding to a man named G Rainger. It seemed like any other transaction. Except that the following month, on 1 November 1901, the land was transferred again, this time to the General Trust Board of the Anglican Church. It was intended to serve as the new site for Women's Home started in Parnell in 1884 by Mrs Eliza Jane Cowie, wife of the then-Bishop of Auckland.

Eliza Cowie became well known for her social and welfare work among the less fortunate in Auckland at a time when social services for women were almost non-existent. In 1884 she founded and was superintendent of 'a retired and peaceful' women's home in Parnell set up 'to receive young women desirous to return to virtuous living.' The home provided shelter and the opportunity for single mothers (some as young as 15) to be reinstated into society 'without the ineradicable brand affixed'. They were expected to remain for six months, the intention being to change their living habits and to teach skills of sewing, laundry and household work.

The Women's Home, Parnell, which was begun by Mrs Cowie in 1884, continues its good work, under the wise management of Miss Birch. The Synod will be glad to know that a large bequest, of which £3500 has already been received by the Trustees, has come to the Home by the will of the late Mr Arrowsmith, of Waiuku. As the present site of the Home is too limited for the purposes of the institution, and is in other respects defective, a larger and more suitable site has recently been purchased, and it is hoped that commodious buildings will soon be erected thereon.

Auckland Star 22 October 1901

The total bequest was some £10,000, to be used only towards the Women's Home.

A resident named Frank Hull, at some point before the middle of November, acquired a "private note" about the transactions, and the Anglican committee's intentions with regard to setting up the new home in what was then Mt Roskill's prime area, during a period of subdivision between 1890 and 1920 which would see it lead the way in the near future in terms of water and gas reticulation, as well as public transport via Manukau Road in the way of the advent of electric trams. The six acres were relatively close to two schools: the public one at Three Kings, and a boy's school at the Pah Homestead run by Anglican minister Rev. Percy Smallfield. To have a "home for fallen women" right there seemed unconscionable. An informal meeting of residents was called by circular in the district, and was held 18 November 1901.

The Chairman of the Mt Roskill Road Board, Charles Bagley, referred during the meeting to "a transaction so discreditable to the persons concerned and the more so as in this case they were clerical gentlemen." He was particularly concerned as to the "vile diseases" from such an institution, in a district which at that point had no drainage. Corcoran informed the meeting that Rainger "got the land from me by misrepresentation, he appeared to have been an intermediary in its purchase, the real purchaser unknown. I had no idea the land was to be used as a home for fallen women, I am satisfied it will be detrimental to the district, and am prepared to refund the purchase money, and to cooperate cordially in any action that may be taken." Lawyers were to be consulted, and the Anglican authorities asked not to put their women's home in that particular district. By the time of the Road Board's formal meeting in 27 November, it all seemed to be sorted out. With the Board's lawyer Samuel Hesketh, Bagley, Hull and Rev. Smallfield met the Bishop, "who without giving any guarantee led us to expect another site would be selected and was to reply early."

The Observer was not impressed.

The letters that Mr Frank Hull is pouring into the papers against the proposed Women's Home at Epsom are surely a waste of ink. Apart from the fact that Mr Hull lives a mile, or nearly so, from the sight of the Home, and therefore is away from the influences he trembles to think about, it is worthy of remark that the neighbours in close vicinity are making no complaint at all … Besides, the population in the neighbourhood is not very close, and the Home will have six acres all to itself, which will give it about the same exclusiveness as the wilds of Waitakerei … Mr Jesse King is another gentleman who is drawing his virtuous skirts close to his virtuous ankles lest they should, figuratively speaking, be soiled by contract with vice. Both these gentlemen have our sympathy. It is very sad indeed that they should he condemned to breathe the same air as these indiscreet young things whom it is proposed to reform. They have sought retirement in the virtuous and aristocratic seclusion of Epsom, where vice is unknown, and illicit amours were never heard of. Therefore, it is undesirable that the pure atmosphere by which they have surrounded themselves should be tainted by the presence of young women who have tasted the delights of love unsanctified by the rites of the church.

At the same time, the reformation of these women is a matter of more consequence than the Pharasiacal self-complacency of Mr Frank Hall or Mr Jesse King. Their reformation can best be accomplished in a pure and virtuous atmosphere such as that of Epsom, where the men are moral and high-minded, and where the repentant sinners will not be tempted to stray from the paths of rectitude. Therefore, it is very desirable to establish the reformatory at Epsom, notwithstanding the hostility of Mr Frank Hull and Mr Jesse King. Wherever it is placed, there will be protest from some smug, self-sufficient Christian who will object to the presence of erring womankind in his neighbourhood, no matter how anxious those erring women maybe to retrieve the past and regain a footing of respectability. The reformation of the women is the paramount consideration. The objections of irreproachable virtue are of lesser consequence.
Observer, 14 December 1901

The following year showed that things were far from sorted for the opponents of the Home.

It seems by July 1902 that there were definite signs that the Anglicans would go ahead with building the new facility at Mt Roskill, despite all the protests and letters. The Road Board called for a public indignation meeting on 26th July at the Board's offices. Bagley informed the meeting, "When first the scheme was heard of by the Board in November last, the Board protested to the trustees of the new home, and Archdeacon Calder replied that the institution to be erected would be called a "laundry," and that it was not proposed to import an army of prostitutes in the district, but that they proposed to help those who, for the time being, were unable to help themselves. The Archdeacon, continuing, said that the Trust Board had managed a laundry in Parnell for many years, and had not found that the morals of the borough suffered in consequence, nor did he anticipate that the Epsom district would suffer from the advent of the home." 

Canon MacMurray couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about. The Board apparently interviewed him on the matter, and came away with the impression that the Home was going to go ahead anyway, Rev. Smallfield, at the protest meeting, assured those there that "it was not the Church that was responsible for this, but a committee" (this despite the fact that the committee reported to the Synod).

The Road Board, however, declared on 12 August 1902 that the matter was (again) all sorted, satisfactory arrangements made, and "the proposed building was abandoned." This was cause for much congratulation, and motions of thank-you letter writing, including to Mrs Worrall who had canvassed the area with a petition.

Then, on 21 August 1902, Michael Corcoran died. His executors weren't at all interested in handing back the money paid by the Church for the land, so things were back in limbo.

The Women's Home.—Thanks to the bequest of the late Mr Arrowsmith, the committee of the Women's Home have been in a position to prepare for a great enlargement of this important branch of the Church's work. The committee have met with difficulties as to the site of the future home, which as yet have not been overcome. It is earnestly to be hoped that the new home will be completed before the next session of the Synod.
 Auckland Star 17 November 1902

WOMEN'S HOME. The Standing Committee reported re the Women's Home, that a site of six acres at Epsom was acquired for the erection of the home. Owing to the protests of many persons living in the neighbourhood it was agreed to re-convey the land on repayment of the purchase money and expenses. The question was asked as to whether any site had yet been secured? Canon Mac Murray said that the Women's Home Committee found difficulty in securing a suitable site. Opposition having been raised to the site secured at Epsom, they agreed to go elsewhere, provided the sale was cancelled. That was really settled, but a death since had altered the position of affairs. The executor refused to take back the land, so the sale had not been cancelled. The Trust Board had given fair notice to the persons who objected, and if they did not move to get the sale cancelled, then the committee must reconsider the position. He hoped they would have the Women's Home erected before next Synod. (Applause.)

Auckland Star, 21 November 1902

Some time ago it was decided to erect a Women's Home at Epsom, and a site was purchased from the late Mr M. Corcoran for that purpose. Residents in the district, however, raised much opposition that the General Trusts Board decided to allow them to re-purchase the site plus the expenses already incurred. This offer has been accepted, and no doubt the re-purchase will be completed shortly.

Auckland Star, 23 December 1902

 On 11 September 1903, finally, the General Trust Board were able to sell the property to John Peet (who would go on to serve in the district on both the School Committee, as Road Board Chairman, and die in office in 1922. Peet Avenue, now through the site, was named after him.) The Trust Board had purchased 7 acres at Otahuhu, which became the site for the well-known St Mary's Home, still in existence and a fondly admired part of the Otahuhu district.

Update, 28 April 2013: In a bit of a twist of history, Rev. Percy Scott Smallfield later became known, after the closure of his boy's school at the Pah on amalgamation with  King's College from 1912, as chairman of a committee leading the way towards fundraising for the St Mary's Home established at Otahuhu. He can't have seen anything wrong with it then, as long as it wasn't in his neighbourhood.

Deeds indexes, Auckland Star, Observer, various Papers Past references for Michael Corcoran's career, including his obituary (Star, 22 August 1902), John Peet's obituary (Star, 15 November 1922), DP 19029 (LINZ records), Mt Roskill Road Board minutes, MRB 100, Auckland Council Archives.

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