Tuesday, March 24, 2020

William Edgcombe, and his Northern Hotel at Western Springs




William Edgcombe (inset) and the Northern Hotel beside Great North Road (right), Western Springs. 
Detail from 5-209, and 7-A3076, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

William Edgcombe was a man who took up the opportunities in life when they presented themselves, cannily invested in property and built up his income from rental housing and other land use, and successfully ran first a farm on Avondale’s Rosebank Peninsula, then a hotel on scoria-strewn grazing land at Western Springs. He should, by rights, have been as successful as the likes of Patrick Dignan, or John Logan Campbell, and be as well-known today. Instead, his final years were a haze of hallucination and paranoia, his rights to run his estate taken from him due to mental incapacitation, and the tragic circumstances laid bare after his death by an unseemly squabble in the courts over his last will.

He was baptised in 1814 at Milton Damerel, Devon, the son of Roger Edgcombe and Ann Hockin, but always claimed to be four years older, naming his birth year as 1810. He married Mary Ann Andrew in 1838, and the couple had a son, James, in 1839. In July 1840, the New Zealand Company began to promote “free passage to the intended settlement of New Plymouth, New Zealand” for “Agricultural Labourers, Shepherds, Miners, Gardeners, Brickmakers, Mechanics, Handcraftsmen and Domestic Servants, being married and not exceeding 40 years of age …” The Edgcombes took this offer up, made an application to the company, and joined nearly 200 others on the Amelia Thompson, sailing from Plymouth on 25 March 1841. On the way, young James Edgcombe unfortunately fell ill and died before they reached New Zealand, on 7 June 1841. It would be 13 years before William and Mary Ann would have another child.

Arrival in New Zealand

The ship arrived in Wellington halfway through August, and reached New Plymouth either 3 or 5 September 1841. We don’t know much about what Edgcombe did while he was there, although he appears to have been involved with the local Wesleyan church. A family history recounts that he took up farming, which would fit his later career elsewhere. It does appear that, like many others who took up the Plymouth Company’s offer of free passage to the new colony, they struck trouble when Maori landowners disputed the company’s “land purchase” from only a few members of the iwi, and so the government under Governor FitzRoy had to step in, purchase other land in the “FitzRoy Block”, and then encourage the settlers on the disputed area to swap over for the other land. Edgcombe did this, then in 1846 offered up five acres of the land he’d taken in the swap for a hospital site for the township. William and Mary Ann reached Auckland in 1846, and decided to settle there, offering up the remainder of his New Plymouth land to the government. William and Mary Ann reached Auckland in 1846. He set up a business in Mechanics Bay as a butcher by 1847, then the Edgcombes left New Zealand in March 1850 bound for San Francisco. Their time away wasn’t long. The Edgcombes arrived in Sydney in December 1851; William was back in Auckland from Sydney in February 1852, while Mary Ann Edgcombe followed in April.

The intervening time was probably when William Edgcombe made his plans for resettlement, and purchased land on Rosebank Peninsula (May 1852), stretching from present day Riversdale Road to Mead Street. In 1854, he was elected as one of the Wardens of the Hundred of Auckland, therefore one of the first of our local representatives on a territorial authority, even though Hundreds then were very limited to simply maintenance of roads with funds gained from grazing leases on Crown lands. On his Rosebank farm, he successfully demonstrated that the ground could be used for raising crops, such as turnips, and he and Mary Ann had two children there: William in 1854, and Mary Jane in 1856. In 1858, he sold his 200 acre Avondale farm, and shifted his attention and his family to Western Springs. I've previously written about his Avondale years.


The extent of Edgcombe’s 110 acres at Western Springs, made up of Allotments 173, 174 and 175 (white circles). 
Eden Roll 46 (c.1890) Land Information New Zealand.

The Hotel at the Springs

In 1855, William Edgcombe purchased nearly 71 acres opposite today’s Motions Road, forming around half of the area of the Chamberlain Park golf course. He also obtained another nearly 25 acres off Great North Road, to the east of the old alignment for Western Springs Road, and a month later around 15 acres in between the two sites, giving him a land holding opposite today’s park and MOTAT of 110 acres. He may have started building the 17-room stone house around 1858, two years after one of his children was born. Certainly by September that year he put his Rosebank Peninsula farm on the market, and in April 1859 applied for a new license for his “Northern Hotel” on “Cabbage Tree Swamp-road”. His was the only new application to succeed that year. The advertising campaign for his “large and commodious Scoria Inn” began in earnest from July 1859, offering well-enclosed paddocks for horses and cattle, and “wines and other liquors of the best quality.” At the time, apart from what scattering of buildings may have existed on the Arch Hill-Surrey Crescent ridge, and the flour mill run by Low and Motion over to the north-east at Old Mill Road, Edgcombe’s hotel was the only significant structure along the Great North Road from what would become Grey Lynn to Waterview. 

Due to the fact that it was such a substantial, landmark structure, from 1859 through to the 1880s the Northern Hotel was the location chosen for community meetings, from political get-togethers to choose candidates for provincial council elections, through to ratepayers meetings over the issues of road board boundaries (first Mt Albert in the late 1860s, then Arch Hill in the early 1870s, and finally Pt Chevalier from 1874) and general matters of concern in the area. Its proximity to the military target range and camp site leading toward Meola Reef, and the barracks on the Point Chevalier peninsula itself, meant that the Northern Hotel would also be closely associated with both the militia troops during the Waikato War of the early 1860s, and local volunteer corps formed in the 1870s.

In December 1864, Edgcombe transferred the licence to Jeremiah Bainbridge, who had another business as a carter. Around the same time as he was taking over the hotel, Bainbridge was in court over trouble with carting rejected bricks that had been made by John Thomas (of Star Mill fame) from the Asylum to Newton. His lease with Edgcombe expired in November 1866, and Edgcombe reassumed management of the hotel. 

James and Sarah Ann Woodward lived somewhere close to William Edgcombe’s hotel, at Western Springs. In July 1868, a scuffle between James and Sarah, and an old woman named Mary Cameron at Edgcombe’s hotel ended up in the courts. The case was dropped, but the judge warned all parties against such behaviour in future. 

Edgcombe and a number of his neighbours, it was a meeting place for the movement that, at first, set up the replacement Arch Hill Highway District from 1871 (taking in the hotel and Point Chevalier land south of Great North Road), then with a further shift of boundaries the Point Chevalier Highway District from 1874.

In 1871, the hotel was still surrounded by mainly open spaces. Edgcombe thus probably thought that letting his customers have a drink on the premises on a Sunday wouldn’t do any harm. That was, until Mary White went looking for her husband, and found him at the hotel, “lying on a form,” obviously the worse for wear. She went up to Edgcombe’s bar, ordered a glass of wine, paid for it, then “I drank the wine purposely to lay an information against [Edgcombe].” The following month, the court took a very dim view of this breach of the licensing act, Mary White further testifying that she’d begged Edgcombe not to sell her husband any drink. Edgcombe was fined £20. This led, in turn, to his licence not being renewed the following year. Edgcombe protested, saying that White’s action against him had been done “out of spite”, but the committee would not reverse their decision. 

Edgcombe’s licence became a cause célèbre in the district. Opinions were expressed in the newspapers that closing the hotel down was a blow against the working man, and that there was an additional injustice in both cutting off the income of the ageing William Edgcombe, and sharply reducing the value of his land. Two-thirds of the adult population of the Arch Hill district signed a petition calling for the ruling to be reversed. Another petition of 300 signatures, included the names of those who were members of Parliament and the Auckland Provincial Council at the time. The Arch Hill Board also added that, they needed the hotel for their public meetings, but now faced the dilemma of not being able to do so if the hotel was no longer a public house. At the review in June 1872, Edgcombe’s licence was restored. 

His son 19 year old William had an experience of the exotic natural history kind at the hotel, one night in 1873, according to the Southern Cross, and previously referred in an earlier article

“Strange bedfellows are sometimes met with. This was exemplified the other night in the Northern Hotel. A son of Mr Edgecombe, the proprietor, went to bed as usual in the upper story— three stairs up— but during the night, or early in the morning he was awakened by more than ordinary warmth on one side of his head and near his throat. He felt something unusual beside him and was slightly alarmed. However he got up and lighted a candle. On examining the bed he discovered an opossum lying coiled up in the bed, under the bed clothes. This is the first occasion on which such an animal has been seen in the neighbourhood, and how it got there is at present a mystery. Some time ago, however, an animal having the appearance of a cross between an opossum and some other animal was shot amongst the scoria rocks near Mr Edgecombe's hotel. Some people entertain the idea that opossums exist in the locality in a wild state, but this has not yet been proved. The animal was captured, and is being well cared for by Mr Edgecombe. The family were once of opinion that the opossum found in bed may have been the one belonging to the Acclimatisation Society's gardens, but it is stated that they have since learned that such is not the case, and the whence of the opossum at Mr. Edgecombe's hotel still remains to be answered.” 

It was while Curnow had the hotel that it began to be called the “Stone Jug.” There are a few stories that have floated around since the 1880s about the origin of the name, some pointing out that they were sure it was linked to an actual jug made of stone at the hotel, or linked somehow with the militia from the 1860s dubbing it so. The thing is, though – “Stone Jug” in terms of the Northern Hotel only appeared in the newspapers from mid 1881, pointing instead to it being an unofficial name Curnow had devised. He still advertised the hotel as the Northern in September that year, but two months later, came notices referring to the “Stone Jug Yards” around the Northern Hotel. Popular and common use of “Stone Jug” or “Old Stone Jug” were not far off from that point. 

What of the name, then? Well, “stone jug” was slang at the time for Mt Eden Gaol, also built of stone as was the hotel. There is a possibility that a similarity between the two structures may have struck someone’s fancy. 

In late 1884, Edgcombe came to an agreement with the Auckland City Council and sold his Western Springs property to them, including the hotel. The councillors were unaware that Curnow had an existing lease with Edgcombe with still another two years to run – so the council were, briefly, in the unusual and very much publically criticised position of owning the hotel as a going concern. Even so, the council voted to support Curnow’s licence renewal in 1886. By then though, with the rise of temperance movements, the licensing board felt the Northern Hotel, aka Old Stone Jug, was no longer required in the district. Edgcombe’s pub finally went dry, and stayed that way.




“Mount Edgcombe”, off Western Springs Road, in the 1960s. The library notes that it was demolished 1973. 
 255A-9, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. 

The Madness of William Edgcombe

What of William Edgcombe himself?

In 1860 he seems to have entered the real estate field, acting as a leasing agent for landowners in Mt Albert, and in 1862 purchasing ground on the slopes of Ōwairaka / Te Ahi-kā-a-Rakataura / Mount Albert. He also had a large farm at Waiau Pa, near Clarks Beach. He hired an overseer for the farm named William Flinton in 1864, promising him a place to live on the property which turned out to be a sub-standard mud floor hovel. Flinton walked out, so Edgcombe tried taking him to court, but lost the case.

 One of those who testified on Flinton’s behalf was Henry Edgecombe, no relation of William’s. He arrived in New Zealand in January 1864, the same year as the Flinton case. He’d heard on arrival in Auckland that there was an Edgcombe running the Northern Hotel at Western Springs, so headed there to see if they were related. They weren’t, but William apparently “displayed some kindness towards him” and lent him a house in Mt Albert. Henry Edgecombe was there for some time with his three sons, from February to the end of April 1864, and then William tried to sell him 640 acres of land at Waiau, which Henry refused. At that point, things turned nasty, and William gave Henry notice to quit. When talking to a friend at the Mauku Hotel a little later, William described Henry as “a London prig”, a “swellsmobsman … a common thief, and liar …”

William Edgcombe was no stranger to using his tongue to have a go at people. In 1860, George Owen Ormsby accused Edgcombe of yelling abuse at him near the Symonds Street cemetery while out riding on the road there. In 1865, it appears Edgcombe turned on the newcomer Henry, “accusing him of having stolen some cooking utensils and tools, and killed his bullocks,” out at the Waiau, in response to Henry complaining, in Queen Street’s Duke of Marlborough Hotel, about William’s own cattle straying onto his land there. Henry had, after refusing William’s land, bought someone else’s smaller farm. Henry added that he felt William had killed some of Henry’s sheep. It seems that Henry purchased his land at Waiau Pa, he then took on Flinton as overseer, which probably didn’t go down too well with William. When Henry took William to court in June 1865 for slander, the judge and jury found in favour of Henry and fined William £20. William Edgcombe’s behaviour here could be seen as being spiteful, nasty, malicious and childishly petulant – but not exactly evidence of a deterioration in mental health.

He would have been around 51 years old at that stage, and perhaps drank more than he should have done at the various hotels where he seems to have conducted his business, including at his own establishment at Western Springs. He took over the Northern Hotel again in 1866, and continued putting ads in the newspapers regarding land dealings.

Here and there we get some scattered oddities about life in the Edgcombe household. A man named Christopher was taken into Edgcombe’s service in February 1872, at 15s a week plus food, after having been in the vicinity of the Northern Hotel working informally for Edgcombe “for several months previously” in return “for tucker”. He later told a court that he had cured “56 lbs of bacon” for Edgcombe, loaned William Jr £5 (for the Whau races) and gave the daughter Mary Jane £7 to buy a dress and a ring as he claimed “he was engaged to be married” to her. Young Mary denied this, saying the money was “for a Christmas box.” It appears Christopher damaged a strap, was fired by Edgcombe, and thus went to court to seek wages, and the two sums of money given to the brother and sister. In the end, he was awarded 10s for wages, the rest deemed unrecoverable.

In 1873, Edgcombe via an engineer named Peter Joseph Dalton made an offer to Auckland City Council to sell them the springs on his land, plus 10 acres, to serve as the new water supply. After considerable reluctance on Council’s part, this offer was eventually withdrawn the following year, and the Council went with purchasing William Motion’s property instead, setting up the collecting pond, pipework and pumphouse on that side of Great North Road. In response, Edgcombe said he’d sell his land to a wool scouring operation or a slaughterhouse, this risking contamination of the council water supply. He actually did sell part to the Auckland Tallow Company in 1882. This probably sparked Council to agree to buy the rest of Edgcombe’s land outright in 1884, giving Edgcombe a 999 year lease on 10 acres which became known as “Mount Edgcombe,” which was probably already his home since he finally gave up running the Northern Hotel in 1879. The Council bought the Tallow Company’s land as well, sorting that issue once and for all.

In February 1875, William Jr was almost brought up in court on a charge of threatening to kill his father. Three months later, Mary Jane Edgcombe, aged 63, died at the Northern Hotel.

In January 1876, William Jr was found guilty of assaulting his father. He tried to offer an explanation, but the court would not allow him to speak, other than to say he was guilty and that he was sorry. Edgcombe told the court his son William had “on several occasions attempted to strike him.” The son had to come up with £100 in sureties, and promised “to keep the peace for six months towards his father and all her Majesty’s subjects.”

In October 1877, William Jr again assaulted his father, on the Great North Road. He pleaded guilty, saying “he was drunk at the time, and did not know what he was doing.” He was fined 20s and costs, with the alternative being 14 days with hard labour, and again had to come up with £100 in sureties and a 6-month promise to keep the peace.

 In February 1879, William Edgcombe snr remarried, to Mary Tutty, widow of William Tutty of Remuera, and this may have led to him setting up his new home on the other side of his Western Springs property. In March 1879, his daughter Mary Jane married Walter Stimpson. But then his son William died at the Stimpson’s house two months later, and six months after that, his daughter Mary Jane was dead as well. William Edgcombe’s only two children who survived to adulthood were now both dead.

At the age of around 70, Edgcombe was facing increasing memory loss and senility. A grocer named Charles Campbell Godfrey Moore who had known Edgcombe since 1869 later testified that he considered him “feeble mentally and bodily” during the period of this second marriage, especially after a trip to England in 1886. John Bollard spoke of Edgcombe’s “intemperate habits” up to and including the period of his second marriage. A Dr George T Girdler who was a passenger on the Aorangi on the homeward bound journey with the Edgcombes that year later described William Edgcombe as “bright and collected in the mornings, but was sometimes stupid after lunch from drink.”

Job Humphries, a former warder at the Auckland Lunatic Asylum, felt that Edgcombe was “of unsound mind” in 1889, and became worse in 1891-1892. Samuel Finch, a neighbour of Edgcombe’s, said the latter “used to accuse people of stealing his things, and removing his walls, and taking his ground, and … suspected these were delusions … [Edgcombe] said the neighbours wanted to burn his house.”

In September 1883, William’s nephew George Edgcombe arrived in Auckland with his wife and family from America, their passage paid for by William. For a while, George Edgcombe stayed at a cottage owned by his uncle, working initially for him, and then for the Tallow Company. He later recalled in court that his uncle had told him “the Edgcombe farm was to be for 999 years in the Edgcombe family”, to be inherited by George’s father Roger and then himself, so he was likely talking about the 10 acre “Mount Edgcombe” remainder that Auckland City Council had leased to William Edgcombe. George also had the idea that the Pukekohe land his uncle William owned would be inherited by himself as well, and for his children. But then, George’s wife died in January 1890, and seven days later his daughter Ann Laura was committed to the Industrial School. Three younger children were sent to the Costley Home, but their father didn’t contribute toward their upkeep, by his own words. This situation apparently did not sit very well with William Edgcombe, who had at least one violent row with George over the matter, and was struck by his nephew. In January 1893, George Edgcombe headed to Taranaki.

Edgcombe’s second wife Mary died in July 1890, aged 75, but in February 1891 he married wife number three, Flora Turnbull, 25 years his junior. In 1892 Edgcombe entered into his last contentious court case, this time against John Swinnerton Duke who had acted as Edgcombe’s rent collector for 18 houses Edgcombe owned on College Hill in 1891, then leased them from Edgcombe in 1892. Duke didn’t keep up with the terms of the lease – paying the rent, and putting the houses into good repair – so the lease was terminated.

Before June 1891, Edgcombe used James P King as his business agent, but after that point the responsibility passed to Flora. Six months after her marriage, Flora later testified that she noticed a difference in her husband, that “he was not so bright or capable as he used to be … He was short of memory, and very irritable.” Over the next year, Flora said, Edgcombe’s memory gradually faded, and his behaviour began to become erratic. “In 1892 Mr Dawson, coal merchant, used to keep his horse in Mr Edgcombe’s paddock, a person named Mitchell bringing it on Saturday night and taking it away on Monday morning. On the last occasion when Mitchell took the horse away, Mr Edgcombe hearing a noise about five o’clock in the morning went out to the balcony and fired off a revolver, being under the impression that Mitchell was a burglar.” Edgcombe told Flora afterwards that Mitchell had no right to be there, but Flora reminded him that Mitchell had collected the horse many times before.

In August 1892, Edgcombe made out the last version of his will, stating that he was, of course, of sound mind and body. This replaced an earlier will from March 1890. Flora later said “he was in the same state he had been for some time previous – forgetful, and a falling away of business capacity – and he changed his mind two or three times about the terms of the will …” Still, Flora attested that “when they reached Mr Burton’s [the solicitor] office, her husband gave instructions to have a will made … he was entirely uninfluenced by any person there.” J P King apparently felt Edgcombe wasn’t in a good state to make the will, however. In response, Edgcombe arranged for a certificate from Dr Arthur G Purchas to the contrary.

Thomas Faulder who lived nearby and had known Edgcombe for 30 years, said that around the time Edgcombe made his will, he’d met up with Faulder but seemed unable to identify him until Faulder provided his own name. According to Faulder, Edgcombe often confided that he was sure he was being poisoned by his second wife. After June 1893, Edgcombe told Faulder he thought Flora was poisoning him as well.

Edgcombe attended the October 1892 jubilee of Scottish settlers in Auckland who had arrived on the Jane Gifford and the Duchess of Argyle in 1842, but the festivities included those who were New Zealand colonists of 50 years or more. Edgcombe more or less did fit the bill. So, he had his photo taken with the rest (including John Logan Campbell) on the steps of the Old Choral Hall in Symonds Street, and a pen and ink portrait appeared in the NZ Graphic.

In June 1893, Edgcombe had a bad accident when he was thrown from out of his trap at Western Springs after his horse bolted. His right arm was dislocated, his nose broken, and he suffered a wound to his temple. This incident seemed to have accelerated Edgcombe’s decline.

In October 1893, Flora applied to have effective power of attorney, with John Bollard, over William Edgcombe’s affairs, citing mental incapacity. At the time, he held an estate valued at over £9000. Edgcombe was judged a lunatic, and Bollard was authorised to approve expenditure of up to £6 per week to maintain Edgcombe, his household, and the wages of Edward Hughes, a retired police detective who then worked in the household as Edgcombe’s manservant, “employed to take care of the said Lunatic” as the judge described it. Apparently Hughes came to work for the Edgcombes after Edgcombe started to accuse Flora of poisoning him. Hughes had been made redundant from his job with the police before November 1892, and was employed at Mount Edgcombe from 15 August 1893.

Flora described William Edgcombe as “now perfectly childish and unable to transact or undertake any business whatever.” She stated that he “manifests unsoundness of mind by a supposition on his part that persons are present in his room who are not there; that people obtain ingress and egress from his house by secret doors and passages which he alleges that I have caused to be made and which do not in reality exist; that the manservant at my instigation did by some means cause the said accident in order that I might elope with the said manservant in the San Francisco mail steamer; that I am in the habit of encouraging male persons to visit his house and of admitting them and letting them depart by secret entrances …” Flora went on: “… William Edgcombe exhibited a more violent outbreak than usual by picking up a grate and therewith breaking two windows in the dining room situated on the ground floor of his said house and further breaking one window on the first floor … two days after the last … the said William Edgcombe remembered nothing of the said occurrence.”
On December 7 1895, William Edgcombe died at his Western Springs home, aged, by his reckoning, 85. His will was probated on 17 December, and his death was officially registered on 6 January 1896, with cause of death given as “senile decay”. In his will, Edgcombe’s estate was divided between certain members of his family living in England and his wife Flora, so the process of selling his real estate portfolio began in earnest in May 1896, including the College Hill property, two houses in Grey Lynn, around 209 acres at Pukekohe, and land in Hamilton.

Then, in June 1896, his nephew George Edgcombe from Taranaki registered a legal challenge to the August 1892 will and against Flora Edgcombe, John Bollard and Grace Larkworthy (one of the English heirs), on the grounds that William Edgcombe had not been “of sound mind” when he had it made out. George had not been the only relative left out of the will, but he was one with an ax to grind.

The case came down to whether Edgcombe’s senile dementia had been with him from around 1890, or had simply been oncoming senility before the 1893 accident, at which point full-blown dementia, along with paranoia and delusions, set in. After 27 witnesses were called over six days, the judge summed up the case for the jury from 10 am until 2.45 pm on 7 July. The jury came back 45 minutes later with a verdict for the trustees. George Edgcombe tried claiming costs for his case from the estate, his lawyer contending William Edgcombe’s conduct caused the whole court proceedings to take place. This application was refused. He wasn’t alone – Larkworthy, Bollard and Flora Edgcombe all claimed legal costs from the estate as well, as George Edgcombe was unlikely to pay up.


Location of the Mt Edgcombe homestead, Western Springs Road, 1959. Auckland Council aerial.


Flora lived out her days at Mount Edgcombe, dying in 1907. In her will, she set aside £30 for the upkeep and maintenance of the Edgcombe family grave at Symonds Street, which still exists today. The Mount Edgcombe homestead was leased to members of the Riordan family through to the mid 20th century, and the site sold by Auckland City Council, along with the rest of the 10 acres there beside Western Springs Road, in the 1960s.

As for Edgcombe's Northern Hotel, its story from 1886 was that of a series of temporary leases. Samuel Meekan had use of the 100 acres (the other 10 acres was leased to Edgcombe on a 999 year agreement). By the 1900s, the old building was mostly empty, the grounds used for occasional and illegal games of “two-up” by locals. Briefly, a chemist leased it as a chemical factory in the 1920s, and made much of making a historical feature of the interior. But, that didn’t last long. In 1938 Auckland City Council demolished it, as part of their redevelopment of the precinct. Only some of the stones with which it was built remain, as a gateway, and as part of the base of the Horticultural Society building (the former Chamberlain Park golf course rooms).

Demolition of the Northern Hotel / Old Stone Jug in progress, from NZ Herald 24 November 1938.

The only traces that remain of William Edgcombe and his settler's tale are articles like this, for with even the old Stone Jug/Northern Hotel erased, its constituent parts reassembled as a parody of what was there before in the form of the stone gateway — who really gives him much of a thought? As his sanity sadly dwindled away from him, so the memory of the man now fades away into history.

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