Monday, May 20, 2013

Auckland's First Houses for the Admirals

I recently bought the above colourised postcard on TradeMe, one showing the Glenalvon boardinghouse, formerly Admiralty House. I hadn't realised until looking further into the story of the building that it wasn't the only Admiralty House Auckland had had. There had been a first. But the second was always the grander edifice. In order that Auckland should have a better traffic route, it was demolished in 1915.

The first Admiralty House was actually a house for a commodore, Sir William Wiseman, commander of the Royal Navy's Australian squadron. He was based at Sydney, but it was hoped that a purpose-built house here in Auckland might entice him to change bases. The house, at the western corner of Jermyn and Short Streets, was completed in 1864 by builder William Cameron. 

 The first Admiralty House (left), up on the slopes overlooking Official Bay and the harbour, before rail lines and factories blocked the view. Ref 4-2641, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

It was described as a large 14-roomed dwelling for the commodore "and others". The house was apparently built under the orders of the Auckland Provincial Superintendent. Members of the Council though questioned the Superintendent into the early part of 1865 as to how this project actually came about. It came out that it resulted from a verbal agreement between the Government and the Superintendent, and had cost a total of £1738 5s 10d.

Trouble was, Auckland by that time was no longer the capital, and the commodore seemed vastly more interested in Sydney, so right from the start the Superintendent's house for the commodore seemed doomed to be a white elephant. By now, the building was called Admiralty House, and at least it proved to be living quarters for naval officers stationed here.

By the mid 1870s, the building began to fall into decay. The Colonial Secretary asked the city council in 1879 to put the building back in repair, as it was thought the commodore might stay there again. It was indeed renovated in 1880. Temporary use of rooms there was made by the University College from 1884. By 1890, however, the old building once again showed its age, run down and occupied only by a caretaker. Auckland offered the building back to the colonial government, so that they could do it up this time, making it fit for naval accommodation. The government fobbed it off, first by saying there were no funds for repairs, then by saying more or less "We'll wait to see what the commanding officer of the squadron wants." By January 1892, agreement had been reached, and the building was being spruced up again. In 1894, however, an impasse was reached in terms of funding furnishings at the house (the government wanted Auckland City Council to contribute). The government gave up on the idea, and decided to lease the building instead. From 1904, the building was used by the Public Works Department and the Department of Agriculture.

The first Admiralty House, 1909, when in use as a government departmental building. Ref 4-2687, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

In 1897, there were complaints as to inadequate accommodation for naval personnel at Auckland. Despite the difficult experiences with the first Admiralty House -- plans began in 1897 to have a second house built. Whereas the instigator in 1864 had been the Provincial Superintendent -- now the Auckland Harbour Board led the way, contacting the government directly. A special Admiralty House Bill was drafted up in 1898, to enable the Harbour Board to build, furnish, and provide the house as naval accommodation. The bill passed in November 1898.

Property further down Jermyn Street was purchased by the Harbour Board by early 1899. Architects were invited to submit sketches of proposed designs in early 1900, and those of Charles Le Neve Arnold were accepted in February.

The siting of this new Admiralty House was questioned as being unwise by some commentators. Too close to the train lines for noise, too close to traffic, surrounded by factories ... The Harbour Board called for fresh designs in April 1901. Arnold resubmitted, along with Keal and Jacobsen. After all the fuss, the Harbour Board and C R Vickerman for the Public Works Department went for Arnold's design. The builder John Jenkin was awarded the contract for £4995 in June 1901. It was completed by early 1902.

In June 1902 -- the Harbour Board began to worry if this was going to be another white elephant of a project. As with the first house, there were disputes as to furnishing costs. In March 1903, however, Admiral Fanshawe "plainly and emphatically stated that he cannot live in Admiralty House himself, and that he does not see how the naval officer commanding on the New Zealand station could live there either." The NZ Herald called it the "Admiral-less House." The Admiralty House Act 1898 was repealed in November 1903.

"Willie Napier Shows the Admiral over Admiralty House and comes a Cropper," The Observer, 3 May 1902.

An advertised tender in April 1904 for a 14-year lease of the building attracted no offers. The Harbour Board were probably somewhat relieved to receive two offers in July for 5-year leases, however: from a Mrs Boult, £300 per annum plus rates and taxes to set up a "ladies' residential club", and for £312 per annum plus rates and taxes from Mrs Margaret Douglas Scherff, widow of Auckland merchant Franz Scherff, to set up a boardinghouse there. Mrs Scherff's offer was accepted.

The second Admiralty House, renamed "Glenalvon" (during the period when my postcard was made), narrowly escaped destruction for fire in November 1906. But it couldn't escape the plans for the realigning of Jermyn Street from 1915, the street almost totally replaced by Anzac Avenue which emptied straight out onto Customs Street, instead of using the dog-leg into Emily Place (that dog-leg, the surviving part of old Jermyn Street became part of Emily Place). Both Admiralty Houses were in the way. By the end of 1915, both buildings were gone. Mrs Scherff shifted to Waterloo Quadrant and the former home of David Nathan at number 16, "Bella Vista", renaming that building "Glenalvon". That name lasted through to the mid 1940s, until that building became part of the Catholic Diocese of Auckland in 1947.

Looking from the northern tip of the garden triangle between Emily Place and Shortland Street. The second Admiralty House on the right. Check out Map D14 of the 1908 City of Auckland maps on the Auckland Council Archives pages. Ref 4-182, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.


  1. In the 1860s, the first Admiralty House must have been fantastic, spacious inside and well located outside. Imagine the view up on the slopes overlooking the bay and the harbour *sighs happily*.

    But I suppose living conditions for senior military men must have been a bit rough at first, so the commodore Sir William Wiseman really needed something special for his visits in 1864. What about military men who were not as senior as the commondore - I bet they weren't offered palaces.

    Despite many changes, the views in your last photo were still fantastic. That is how I would like to live.

  2. I agree with you, Hels. That whole area looked wonderful.

  3. I think it's very good of you to scan the post-cards. In the ancient pre-digital days, things like postcards ended up in collections or stuck together with rubber bands in a drawer. With digitisation, they can be made available to everyone who can google.

  4. Yes, that's part of the reason why I chase down postcards in TradeMe, Ebay and the odd antiques shop. The wider images are available, the better we'll understand our past. Thanks!

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  6. Well, the boarding house option offered more, but yeah -- what you're wondering had crossed my mind, Darian ... ;)

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  8. Or ... the boarding house offered more for the lease, as I said. If the Harbour Board were at all concerned, they'd have said so.

  9. Thanks for the most interesting story of the Admiralty Houses. Your caption for the photo is premature in referring to the "garden triangle which once existed." Emily Place Reserve is still a garden triangle but no longer surrounded by the white picket fence. It is possible that road widening has somewhat reduced the area of the Reserve since the photo was taken.

    In 1872 the railway reclamation involving the removal of Fort Britomart began. By 1883 the most of Point Britomart was gone and the railway extended from Parnell to the now level reclaimed land along what is now Customs and Quay Streets. A tremendous landslip, at the Lamb's mill site, of the remaining Pt Britomart stub and the west side of Emily Place prompted calls for more earth works. The stub was removed and the rise at the top of Shortland Street and Eden Crescent was reduced.

    By early 1885 Auckland's first Anglican church, Saint Paul's erected in 1841 at Princes Street and Emily Place, was demolished as well as the nearby Jewish synagogue. The Old Saint Paul's site became an eyesore waiting for development. Dr John Hay Hayman and his Uncle John Hay, formerly partners in a successful draper's shop, purchased the land in 1892 announcing their intention to gift it to the City Council as Emily Place Reserve after improvements being made. The Council received the deed of gift in July 1894.

    Landscaping was begun to the design of William Goldie, Superintendent of Parks, in April 1895. A surrounding picket fence was put up in 1896 but by late 1899 the Council decided to throw open the gates to Emily Place Reserve. In 1908 the Churton Memorial was restored to the Old Saint Paul's location within the Reserve.

    Today the picket fence is gone, the Pohutukawa trees are spread large and Emily Place Reserve is the focus of my central city neighbourhood. - Michael

  10. Excellent! Thanks, Michael -- I'll adjust the post. I did wonder about that bit. Cheers!

  11. 31 May 1899 my great aunt Mary Ann Brown was married at Admiralty House Jermyn Street stating that that was her home - do you know who might have had the lease at that time

  12. You would need to see if any files exist with Archives New Zealand as to who the Government leased the old Admiralty House to.

  13. Thank you Timespanner and Michael for this info. I live in Emily Place and really enjoyed reading this. My great great grandfather was married in St Pauls and my great grandfather was christened there. I can see St Pauls in the background of the first admiralty house picture.

  14. Good historical information on Auckland's first houses for the Admirals. People who are looking for such information would find it useful.