Monday, October 24, 2022

The Riversdale Road gas emergency, 1975


Detail from 1957 Whites Aviation image, showing the large glasshouses complex at 5-7 Riversdale Road. Today, this site is now housing.
National Library of New Zealand, WA-43771

Just before 11 pm on 19 January 1975, residents living near to a set of three large glasshouses on 5-7 Riversdale Road in Avondale began to smell the acrid stench of a gas that had wafted up unto the night air, but failed to dissipate. The gas started an emergency that only lasted a matter of hours, but which emergency services took with absolute seriousness and caution. The gas, chloropicrin, was deadly if breathed into the lungs at quantity – and since World War I had a nasty reputation.

Chloropicrin was discovered in 1848 by Scottish chemist John Stenhouse. Considering Stenhouse became known for his work in developing respirators, that he came up with the lung-damaging chloropicrin in the course of his work as well is something of an irony.

The gas unfortunately came into something of its own when its disabling properties when applied to human beings was recognised and used on the battlefields of the Western Front during the First World War. It was said in 1918 that “the inhalation of ten cubic centimetres of chloropicrin gas makes a man sicker than Neptune at his worst, or than any other known emetic.” (Manawatu Standard, 5 November 1918)

This “tear gas”, however, revealed a benefit to the agricultural sector in the mid 1940s, when experiments showed that it destroyed fungi, insects, and halted the wilting of tomatoes grown under glass. The DSIR carried out experiments at their Mt Albert research facilities in Auckland in the 1947, and these produced good results.

In 1950, the substance hit the New Zealand market as “larvacide,” but the local press did advise caution.

“A product called “larvacide,” now being marketed in New Zealand for use in both soil fumigation and rabbit destruction, consists wholly of the poisonous chemical liquid chloropicrin. Damage to the lungs is the most important and most serious effect of chloropicrin vapour, and it is this property which makes it poisonous and ultimately causes death if enough of the vapour is inhaled. The lung-injuring properties of chloropicrin vapour led to its use as a war gas during the First World War.

“Fumes from “larvacide” are considerably less poisonous than the gas given off when “cyanogas” comes into contact with water or moist air, but it should be handled with the same care as “cyanogas” and all other poisonous materials.”

Putaruru Press, 2 February 1950

Accidents, though, with any dangerous substance, will happen.

“Poisonous chloropicrin or larvicide gas filtering through the Owaka Football club pavilion on Saturday night quickly put an end to a social function when guests had to evacuate the building. Complaints of sore eyes began about 11.30 and some were forced to go outside. Then everyone was cleared from the hall. The gas, which is nearly odourless, caused sore eyes and later severe headaches among many of those present. “Larvicide gas was widely used in the district for rabbit control before rabbit boards took over, and many farmers still have supplies of the gas capsules on their properties. Constable I Blue was called. He recovered part of a capsule which had apparently been broken into a drain that led through a shower room, from where the gas spread into the main social hall. The function was a farewell one for five members of the Owaka Football Club who will leave on Wednesday for a tour of Australia with a South Otago colts team.”

The Press (Christchurch) 15 March 1966

Another incident took place in an area similar to Riversdale Road, where residences and horticultural land by the 1970s were increasingly becoming close neighbours.

“Occupants of some houses on the outskirts of Havelock North left their homes; last night when a pungent, gas drifted over their properties. Some residents awoke with streaming eyes and sore throats. The gas was chloropicrin, or tear gas, used by fruit growers to fumigate soil. Mr M Mitchell, a poultry farmer, said his production was down and his fowls were spluttering and coughing. He had awakened coughing, at 3 am. Mr Mitchell said some of his neighbours had left their homes. Mr P Hawley said the gas was used by fruitgrowers to kill root fungi. It was applied by a contractor. “Because of the calm night, the gas just hung in the air,” he said. “Usually the wind blows it away and there are no effects.”

The Press (Christchurch) 31 March 1973

The incident at Avondale in January 1975 led to the temporary relocation of 30 people from the area immediately affected, some still in pyjamas and dressing gowns, many taking shelter in the school hall at Avondale College for the rest of the night.

Riversdale Road was cordoned off, and emergency services soon identified that the source of the gas was the three large glasshouses at 5-7 Riversdale Road, leased by Peter H Hilford. He had spread chloropicrin on the soil inside the glasshouses on Sunday 19 January, just hours before the emergency began. The Deputy Medical Officer of Health, getting to the scene just after midnight on 20 January, ordered that firemen hose down the soil, stopping the leakage.

Near dawn, at 5 am, the emergency was declared over, and the residents began to make their way back to their homes. An early morning wind helped disperse the last of the fumes, but people were asked to stay well clear of the glasshouses.

Hilford had done nothing wrong. Under the regulations of the time, all he had to do was follow the instructions on the chemical packet. But the incident helped impress upon the Government that there needed to be stricter restrictions on the use of the chemical, and that included watching the weather for any conditions which could cause the gas to collect in a cloud closer to the ground. Warm, still conditions on the night of 19 January helped keep the gas low enough to affect the surrounding area.

Accidents involving the chemical, though, were relatively rare, even though in 1975 authorities counted around 240 glasshouses in the Auckland area, and the chemical was used on an annual basis inside them. Chloropicrin is still in use today, usually on soil that is then covered in plastic sheets to prevent leakage. Its use is heavily regulated, with a number of steps that need to be taken by registered users.

No one wants another nasty surprise from that particular First World War reminder.

Green Light Mystery: the 1952 Kaukapakapa Rail Accident


A 1966 view of Kaukapkapa Railway Station and surrounds, showing 1. the West Coast Road (SH 16) level crossing; 2. the site of the impact of No. 76 and No. 77 trains; 3. the main Kaukapakapa station building. This site all now cleared. Via Retrolens.

Train No. 76 from Maungaturoto reached Kaipara Flats around 10 pm on the evening of 5 December 1952. It was a goods train, hauling cattle trucks bound for Auckland. At Kaipara Flats, a crew change meant that acting fireman Charles Harold Riley (from 1652 Great North Road in Avondale), guard Robert Arthur, and driver Charles Henry Coggins (also from Avondale) climbed aboard. At around 10.15 pm, the train proceeded cityward from Kaipara Flats, shunting onto a siding when it reached Tahekaroa. While there, and picking up the tablet for the next section of the line, the crew were told that there was a crossing at Kaukapakapa. This meant that, while the train had the main line between Tahekaroa and Kaukapakapa, at the latter place there had to be another shunt to one of the three sidings and off the main line, in order to allow a passenger train bound for Northland to pass. Riley put the tablet in a cane sling, for the hand-to-hand exchange at the sidings at Kaukapakapa, and No. 76 left Tahekaroa around 11.06 pm.

As the train approached Kaukapakapa however, the lights to a semaphore-style signal seemed to contradict the earlier instructions. The lower signal light was seen by the crew as red, while the upper showed green. This indicated that No.76 had the main line and didn’t need to use a siding, which seemed odd; the crew expected a “stop” signal, in order for the tracks to be switched so that they’d proceed to one of the waiting loops. Still, Riley took the tablet out of the cane sling, and inserted it into the iron one for the automatic exchange at the station platform on the main line.
Unfortunately, train No. 77, an Auckland to Opua combined passenger and goods train was at Kaukapakapa Station, and on the main line, waiting for No. 76 to divert to the sidings so that it could proceed. At around 11.30 pm, No. 76 collided with No. 77, just north of the Kaukapakapa station building.

Just before the imminent collision, Riley leapt out the driver’s side of the cab, and Coggins leapt out to the left. Unfortunately, one of the cattle wagons telescoped and tipped over toward the left, crushing Coggins where he lay on the ground. His spine fractured in multiple places, he was killed instantly. He was the only human fatality, although the fireman for No. 77, Terry George Stanaway, was injured with a severe cut to the neck. He was taken to Auckland Hospital. Twenty head of cattle died immediately, while another ten were humanely shot by a local farmer.

The accident would kick off investigations, questions and legal action that only came to a conclusion two and a half years later.

Charles Coggins was a third-generation railway man. His grandfather George Coggins immigrated here in 1874 as a farm worker, but took up work as a ganger on the railways, spending around 24 years in the Rukuhia Swamp between Frankton and Ohaupo. When he retired on railway superannuation in July 1903, George Coggins was fêted by his fellow gangers. In all, he worked 40 years as a railway ganger. He died in 1920.

George’s son William left home in 1881 at the age of 19, and became a railway platelayer. William’s first wife died in 1899, leaving him a widower with five children. He remarried in 1900, to Emma Edith Wilcox, and in 1905 Charles Henry Coggins was born, probably in Parnell. By 1908, William’s family were in Te Kuiti where he still worked as a railways platelayer. He retired in August 1928 and was presented with a “well-filled wallet” at his own presentation at Te Awamutu.

The house at 21 Glendon Ave, Avondale, former home of the Coggins family. From Google Streetview, 2022

William’s son Charles started out as a cleaner with the Railways department at Te Kuiti in the 1920s, and married Gladys Millicent Foster in 1932. Around that time, Charles and his bride came to live at 21 Glendon Avenue in Avondale, renting the property from hairdresser Peter Luke Currie and his wife Annie. By the late 1940s, Charles had progressed in his career in the department to becoming an engine driver, earning £880 per annum by 1952. His father and mother, William and Emma, purchased a property at what is known today as 30 Mead Street in 1928, so those in that branch of the Coggins clan lived close to one another. William died in 1948, but Emma had the Mead Street title in her name through to her own death in 1961.

The effect of 47-year-old Charles Coggins’ death on his immediate family that December night in 1952 was profound for his widow and his son. Charles’ funeral costs came to £50 and five shillings. Gladys Coggins was 40 years old, and had gone from receiving £12 per week from Charles for maintaining the household, to a railway superannuation of £20 10 shillings per month. Their son Charles Barrie Coggins was 16 and still at school when his father died. He left school and became apprenticed in March 1953 to an engineering firm. By 1955 he was earning £4 10 shillings a week and studying for a Marine Engineer’s Examination, but after paying weekly transport and other necessities, he couldn’t afford to pay his mother any board. Along with this, Peter Currie had sold the Glendon Ave property to the State Advances Corporation in 1950, so Gladys was paying £1 seven shillings rent per week. Their daughter Edith Marion Coggins was 19 at the time of the accident, just shy of her 20th birthday the following January, but was already employed, earning £7 per week, in December 1952. She paid her mother £2 per week board. She was not financially affected by the accident.

The Railways Department, however, refused to accept any liability, and therefore any idea of paying compensation to Gladys Coggins and her son Charles. The department instead claimed that Charles Coggins senior had been in breach of his duty; first, by driving the train past red danger signals, colliding with the stationary train at the Kaukapakapa station, and by jumping from the engine and thus being struck by the overturning wagons.

In terms of the claimed breach regarding the signals, the department maintained that the signals at Kaukapakapa that night were with both boards up, showing two red lights indicating danger, and that Coggins should not have proceeded along the main line. The official conclusion reached was that Coggins had mistaken a mercury vapour streetlight at the road which crossed the rail line just north of the station (then known as the West Coast Road, today part of State Highway 16) for the green light of the railway signal. Mercury vapour lights in the 1950s were often used, and shone with a blue-green light. This particular one was situated just to the right of the railway signal, the latter sighted by No. 76’s crew as their train started the long straight approach into Kaukapakapa Station, the signal near the road crossing just before their destination.

Coggins, according to Riley, saw the distance signal, the first one passed, at read, and the home signal, the one nearest the station at green. This meant they had permission to proceed along the main line into the station after all without a stop, then diversion to a siding. Coggins, though, did think it was odd. They’d been told earlier that the other train, No. 77, would be there at the station. He had wondered if he’d perhaps mistaken the street light for the signal, but as he talked about it with Riley he came to the conclusion that, no. It was definitely the signal, not the streetlight. Riley as well was sure that the green light was the railway signal.

However, nearer the road crossing, Coggins spotted the local station agent waving a red signal light in his hand where he stood beside the No. 77 train. He gave “three sharp blasts of the whistle” and put on emergency brakes. Just past the crossing Coggins dived out of the cab past Riley’s position, yelling for Riley to jump as well.

The guard in the rear van, Robert Arthur, testified that while he didn’t see the signal indication at the start of that straight run into Kaukapakapa that night, “On looking out of the van window I observed a green light on the Main Home signal, the indication on the signal post was green over red. It was a complete green. I was pretty close to the Home signal post when I observed these indications and was looking up when I observed the light. This struck me as odd.” Arthur was aware of the instructions and advice given at Tahekaroa, and a “caution” signal made no sense at all in that situation. The train “drifted” towards the station, at a slow speed, before braking, and then the collision.

Arthur later checked the signal an hour and a half after the accident. It was then showing red-red.
Matthew Pettigrew Scott, the station agent at Kaukapakapa, testified at the inquest that “both outer signals on the northern approach” had been set to “danger” – two red lights, semaphore boards up. “Until I had changed the points to allow No. 76 into the loop [the siding] the signals could not be operated otherwise.” Scott maintained that from where he had stood, the signals showed white from his vantage point beside No. 77, which meant they would have been both red for Coggins. He maintained that “It has been my experience that these signals are foolproof. I have had 15 years’ experience on the Railways.”

Scott was working as a porter at Kaukapakapa Station in 1949, so had been at the station for around three years at least, probably still in that capacity at the time of the accident. But, he’d also travelled around and worked at a number of various stations in his career. He hadn’t had all his 15 years’ railways experience with the Kaukapakapa signals.

Nevertheless, Rees Elllis, an “automatic signal maintainer” with the department, also stated at the inquest that he had examined the Kaukapakapa signals the day before the accident, and found them to be in perfect working order.

Constable Robert Alexander Archibald who arrived at the scene at twenty past midnight, said that he made a survey of the scene (and drew a map that was included with the coroner’s report) and saw that the top semaphore board of the railway signal was pointing down – but concluded that this could have been the result of the signal system wires which had become fouled by the derailed wagons. Coggin’s body was entangled in these wires.

The coroner, Carl Gustave Sandin, found simply that “Charles Henry Coggins was killed when he was crushed under a loaded railway wagon as a result of a train accident at Kaukapakapa.”

The Railways' own enquiry board considered that there was a possibility that the street light at the road had been mistaken by Coggins for the green signal light. The department successfully asked the Waitemata Electric Power Board to deal with the matter by putting a shield around the light, and the conflict between the street light and the signals seemed to have been resolved by March 1953.

However … despite Matthew Scott’s assertion at the inquest that the railway signals in service, installed at Kaukapakapa in 1921, were “foolproof” – they were not.

December 1947 – Down distant repeater signal showing “out of order.” A number of faults noted over some weeks. The controlling wires shown to be affected by varying temperatures. Fault put down to operator’s lack of knowledge of ways to compensate for this and use a wire adjusting apparatus.

December 1952 – Six days after the accident that claimed Coggins’ life. The home signal showing a faulty indication. Even after a number of goes with the controlling lever, the signal failed to return to “Danger” (red) but remained at “Clear” or halfway between. The Signal Adjuster from Helensville put it down to “too much tension on the wires.”

April 1953 – Up Main Line Points failure at Kaukapakapa Station. The Station agent failed to adjust the signal wire tension.

July 1953 – Signal wires were suspected of having frozen in place due to water leaking into a conduit under the roadway north of the station. After a severe frost, the signal jammed at “Clear.” The abnormality was fortunately spotted by train crew at the station. This, though, wouldn’t explain the December 1952 accident at the beginning of a North Auckland summer.

April 1954 – Fault in the siding points. Before the reason could be found, the fault corrected itself.

June 1954 – Another fault, northern siding points.

September 1954 – Eerily reminiscent of the December 1952 incident, the Home signal once again jammed in the “Clear” position, just after another No. 76 train, Maungaturoto to Auckland, had left Kaukapakapa. In this case, ballast and scoria were found to have accumulated in the conduit piping under the track where the wires crossed from one side of the track to the other. The District Engineer’s office found that “it can be assumed that under certain conditions the scoria ballast that had accumulated in the pipe would retard the free return of the wire to normal when the lever was restored to normal.” Constant, regular vibration from the rail transport operations directly overhead can’t have helped.

January 1955 – The signals were reported to be functioning only “intermittently.”

March 1955 – Another signals failure. This time attributed to a faulty plunger.

Before most of these mechanical faults had taken place, Gladys Coggins and her lawyers filed a claim for compensation in the Supreme Court in September 1953, seeking a total of £8000 for herself and her son. In January 1954, the department responded by saying that they believed Charles H Coggins’ death was his own fault. In May 1954 Robert Angus Hamilton Russell, Assistant District Engineer with the department, submitted his views on the case. He felt that the complexity of the issue meant that “only men qualified by training or occupation or otherwise to determine difficult questions in relation to technical matters will be capable of sufficiently understanding and appreciating the same.” In other words, best of luck finding a set of jurors with the capability of understanding all the technical details.
Gladys Coggins called a halt to proceedings at that point, but with the option of continuing later. Then, there came the September 1954 incident, and the discovery of the ballast in the conduit.

In May 1955, the Railways Department essentially reached an out-of-court compromise with Gladys Coggins, who agreed to a £5000 compensation settlement, £500 for her son Charles, £4500 for herself. Doubtless, this sum helped her purchase her home from the State Advances Corporation. She retained ownership of the Glendon Ave property through to 1998, and died in 2003, at the age of 90.

Charles Coggins isn’t completely forgotten, even today, 70 years after the accident and his death. His membership and associations with the Royal Antediluvian Order of the Buffaloes, serving as a Grand President in 1947 and 1948 on the New Zealand Sub-Council. He was one of the founders of the Point Lodge No 28 Lodge City in Point Chevalier in 1946. That Lodge had their own hall from the 1950s, but declining numbers meant a move to Mt Eden in 1984, and it has now been closed. But a Sir Charles Coggins Lodge was opened in Glen Eden on 13 June 1955, and still operates from the Avondale lodge building on Great North Road, Suburbs 40 Lodge Hall, not too far from the Coggins’ home in Glendon Ave.

Auckland Star, NZ Herald, The Press (Christchurch)
Archives NZ files: Coroner's inquest, Gladys' compensation claim file, files on the Kaukapakapa signals
Land records

Monday, August 29, 2022

Toroa, the last steam ferry

 The steam ferry Toroa on the Waitematā harbour, 1950s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections T0470

(Guest post from the Toroa Preservation Society)

A brief outline of the history of Auckland’s last surviving steam ferry, and a resume of the restoration work to date. For more detailed information visit

Built and launched in Auckland in 1925, the Toroa was the last of the wooden-planked double-ended ferries. She remained in service until 1980 when her survey certificate expired. There were eight ferries of this type, specifically designed for quick travel between relatively close destinations. The double-ended arrangement with a propeller and wheelhouse at bow and stern saved manoeuvring at each wharf or jetty. The fate of each of these vessels was as follows:

Albatross (1904)     Diesel conversion 1952     Laid up 1959     Broken up 1968
Kestrel (1905)         Diesel conversion 1951     Refit 1982         
                                To Tauranga as floating restaurant 2002               
                                Return to Auckland 2010
                                Sank at mooring 2016 |
                                Broken up 2022
Pupuke (1909)        Laid up 1959     Beached Ponui island 1962 and broken up
The Peregrine (1912)      
                                Laid up 1959     Buried at Westhaven 1981
Ngoiro (1913)         Laid up 1959     Restaurant in Viaduct 1982
                                To Tairua 1999 where she sits in a backfilled sand berth
Makora (1921)        Laid up 1974     Buried at Westhaven 1981
Takapuna (1924)     Laid up 1967     Buried at Westhaven 1981
Toroa (1925)           Laid up 1980      Under restoration

Proposals to save at least one of these iconic ferries eventually resulted in the Toroa Preservation Society being established in 1985 at the instigation of Jim Mason of the New Zealand Maritime Trust. This group, with the intention of returning an operational historic steam excursion ferry to the Waitemata Harbour, continues today with one or two early members still involved. A floating restaurant has never been part of the plan.

Built at St Mary’s Bay at the yard of George Niccol, the Toroa was, unlike the first of this design, of composite construction. This means the ferry has steel frames and bulkheads giving shape and strength to the timber planked hull. This method of construction was used for a time in ship building when all the nearby timber had been used and large baulks became expensive due to transport costs. It was also found that a composite hull gave more internal space for cargo and machinery due to steel or iron frames being smaller than the timber equivalent.

Toroa’s triple-expansion steam engine and coal-fired boiler remained in use all her working life. Other ferries were converted to diesel because their compound steam engines were of less power and efficiency. A stoker was also not needed on a diesel ferry so labour costs were reduced. It is most unlikely that coal will fuel the Toroa in the future and alternatives are being explored.

If the Toroa had been slipped and repaired to meet survey requirements in the 1980s then the subsequent history would have been different. As it is today, time on a large commercial slipway was then costly, and unknown costs and timeframe meant this did not happen. The machinery, although operating, was tired, at least four ribs in confined spaces needed replacing and all the sheathing would have had to be removed to inspect hull planking. Under pressure from the Auckland Harbour Board, the Preservation Society members maintained Toroa while afloat as best they could, all the time trying to devise a way to carry out major repairs. Berths were made available at the cement wharf and later Birkenhead wharf.

Although Birkenhead wharf was not ideal for shelter from wind and tide, it was good for public exposure. This was a good time for fundraising to cover engineering and superstructure restoration. For a while the TV soap Shortland Street used the ferry as a set, with many activities on board.

To be able to carry out hull repairs a floating dry dock of eight ferro-cement pontoons was professionally designed and built, with the support of New Zealand Lotteries Grants Board and North Shore City Council. In 1998 just as the dry dock was nearing completion, Toroa sank alongside the wharf at night, during a severe storm. The high-water-level alarms and pumps operated but were overcome.

The first attempt at salvage failed and it was a month before success with air bags and floating crane. Damage was extensive, with much of the upper superstructure destroyed by wave action, and corrosion of all steelwork accelerated. The Toroa was slipped and temporary repairs made, while a site was found for the floating dry dock. Approval had been given to site the pontoon system at the western side of Stanley Bay wharf, but after local protest the Devonport Community Board and the Auckland Regional Council reversed their decisions on occupancy and non-notified resource consents. A berth on the eastern side was made available with tight time and fundraising conditions.

During the launching of the last pontoon, contact had been made with Radio New Zealand over submarine cables, and an offer of land at the Selwood Road transmitter site was made. By this time it had become obvious that the dry dock pontoon system was untenable in the inner harbour, so plans began for a land based restoration. The planning, design work and supervision of the hauling out operation was done by society volunteers. It is not known if a larger vessel has been taken from the water anywhere other than on a commercial slipway elsewhere. A search of You Tube under "Toroa Hauling Out" shows a video of the operation.

In December 2001, the Toroa arrived in a very fragile state on a bare gravel site with no buildings or services, let alone working drawings of the ferry. The first few years were spent in the establishment of storage and workshops, along with the major task of accurately measuring the hull. From these measurements, accurate plans were drawn and submitted to a naval architect for modern statutory design approval. Original machinery plans were found in Glasgow archives. Now that the society knew more accurately “what they had” a restoration plan was made and an update to an earlier conservation plan. No planking could be removed at this time due to the very fragile state of the steel framing.

With a grant from the Waitakere Licensing Trust, an order was placed with Dent Steel in England for enough bulb angle to replace all the ribs. Expressions of interest were sought locally for the bending of this bulb angle, but an accurate assessment of costs was not forthcoming. As a result a volunteer resigned from his employment and became a steelwork contractor for several years. Only one or two alternate ribs could be removed at a time and with great ingenuity new ribs were created using local heat and a bending slab from the Navy Dockyard. Some ten thousand rivets were used in the restoration of longitudinal and transverse bulkheads. This work was funded by stage-by-stage grants from NZ Lotteries and the ASB Community Trust. Since the preservation society was founded, the number of individuals who have undertaken the huge and onerous task of these grant applications can be counted on one hand.

New bulb-angle ribs and rivetted bulkheads in the after void of the hull. Photo supplied by Toroa Preservation Society

The ribs had almost all been replaced when an opportunity to purchase large long kauri timber arose. Funds remaining from a steelwork grant were diverted to the purchase of this kauri, enough to replace all major timbers: keel, garboard- and sheer-strakes, and covering boards. More steelwork has been carried out, as always with volunteers acting as labourers to assist skilled contractors. All the new steel main-deck beams are in place and stringer plates at each quarter almost complete. Some planking has been removed and butts in ribs made accessible and now fully welded.

Other than steelwork, both wheelhouses have been restored, cabin walls have been sanded back and painted, and a replacement condenser and boiler located, paid for and transported to site. One forklift has been worn out and a replacement purchased and a band-saw mill for processing large timbers purchased by way of a donation.

The refurbished Ladies Cabin on the main deck. Photo supplied by the Toroa Preservation Society.

Fundraising is ongoing and successful, but the hurdles for heritage funding on a large scale are much higher than in the past. One contributing reason for this is that ‘movable heritage’ is given a low priority in local and national funding guidelines. Some polite lobbying is planned on this front when the time is right. Another requirement is evidence of wide public support, and social media seems to be the best way to gain this. The ‘Likes’ will be counted.

Unfortunately there are sometimes ill-informed and negative comments about a perceived lack of progress, general deterioration or any work being done at all on the restoration. Because all the work to date has been inside Toroa’s hull and not visible from the street, it has been suggested that ‘THEY’ have not been doing anything and nothing is happening. Sure the old planking does not look good, but from early on it became obvious that there was deterioration of the timber around all the fastenings and against the steel ribs, to the point where none can be used as planks again. For most of her time at Selwood Road, there has been a large purpose-made cover over Toroa’s promenade deck, keeping almost all of the weather out. A large roof over the whole ferry was explored but site conditions and cost made this unfeasible.

 The vision is to have the Toroa back on the harbour, working as an excursion steamer and providing a link to the vessels that carried millions of passengers and were a large part of Auckland life for over 100 years. There is a limit to what ‘THEY’ can do on their own, so, more than ideas, people are needed to take on the vision and translate the ideas in to actions. And actively help to bring in the essential funding so that the Toroa can steam again.

Toroa passing under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, Waitematā Harbour, 1960s.
Hooker Bowden, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections D-TWF-0006

Friday, August 5, 2022

An ordinary family: the Crees in Avondale and Waterview


One of the overdue projects I’m working on during this continuing pandemic is an index of all the issues of the Avondale Historical Journal, with the aim to put it online at the Society’s website. Going through Issue 60 from 2011, I came across a photo sent in by the late Rich Afford of children that performed in a pantomime at St Judes of “Princess Chrysanthemum” in December 1932. Above is a detail from his photo, with this bit of Rich’s letter catching my eye 11 years later:
“Centre of the three pixies: Peter Crees (killed in the war).”
This had me wondering, first, what happened to Peter Crees?

According to aviation historian Errol W Martyn in For Your Tomorrow, Peter William Crees was born in Swindon, Wiltshire in England 14 June 1923. He was still a baby when first his father William Hugh Crees arrived in New Zealand in October 1923, then Winifred Caroline with Peter and his older (three years old) sister Leila Doris in mid 1924. William Crees who had been a farmer back in England secured a position as a medical attendant at the Auckland Mental Hospital in Pt Chevalier. The family lived initially in Fir Street, Waterview, then at 153 Blockhouse Bay Road by the early 1930s.

Peter went on to study at Seddon Memorial Tech in the city as a motor mechanic, and became an apprentice at T S Sampson’s on Richardson Road in Mt Albert. He joined the Army in 1940, then switched to the RNZAF at Levin in January 1943 as an Aircrafthand, becoming a Flight Mechanic on 5 July 1943. He was sent to the Pacific theatre of the war in February 1944. Based at Pallikulo on the island of Espirito Santo, Vanuatu, Crees was on board a PV-1 Ventura aircraft returning from Vila in the afternoon of 8 August 1944. He and three others in the crew had just delivered spare parts for a grounded Corsair. They failed to arrive back at base, and a search over the next two days proved fruitless. Six weeks later, some information came through from locals on Malekula Island that they had seen the plane. The wreckage was found on the island, having crashed on a hill in poor visibility, exploding on impact. All four were buried on the island, and were commemorated on the Bourail Memorial in New Caledonia.

According to Errol Martyn:

“Investigators considered that unserviceable radar equipment was a contributory factor, and that an erratically behaving artificial horizon may have been a further contributory cause.”

At this point in the research, I thought I would simply be writing a brief piece just about Peter Crees, the young pixie in Rich Afford’s photo, and the story behind Rich’s comment about Peter’s death in the war. I looked into what happened to Peter’s parents, and something unusual cropped up.

William Hugh Crees died aged 62 in 1953. He was cremated at Waikumete Cemetery, but his cremains were laid to rest at Purewa Cemetery in Meadowbank. Nothing really unusual there.

His widow Winifred Caroline Crees died in May 1968, aged 78. I found her listed both by the NZ Society of Genealogists in their transcription from burial records, as well as the more modern online Auckland Council database for burials, at Waikumete Cemetery. Not just cremated at Waikumete and then her cremains laid to rest, perhaps, beside her husband at Purewa. Oh, no. Both the NZSG and Auckland Council have her sharing a plot with a stranger, a Mr Lionel Francis Henderson, who died a day later than Winifred, on 8 May.

Not what you may be thinking, either — for it turns out that Winifred’s remains are listed in her own plot … at Avondale’s George Maxwell Memorial Cemetery on Rosebank Road, Avondale.

John Russell from St Judes Church who maintains an excellent website devoted to the cemetery at Avondale, with detailed lists of burials including photos etc has confirmed that Winifred Crees’ final resting place is indeed here in Avondale. The Waikumete Cemetery entry could have come about, perhaps, because of the funeral director at the time booking in a plot at Waikumete, only to have someone change their mind and take up a plot at Avondale instead.

Whatever the reason, Mrs Crees is now recorded in two cemeteries, several miles apart, and that will probably remain the case to confound future family historians who are related to her. 

John Watson’s trees: the Boy Who Ran

At 63 Riversdale Road in Avondale, there stands a protected, heritage scheduled Norfolk Pine. About 80 metres away in Riversdale Reserve stands another Norfolk Pine that isn’t heritage scheduled. Both, though, appear to be linked to a single story. One man owned the land on which both trees now stand, from 1907 through to 1919, when the part now included in Riversdale Reserve was sold to another owner. It is possible that both trees are over 100 years old. The one at 63 Riversdale Road, at least, is definitely connected with the man I’m about to talk about, seeing as he died in 1929, and his family finally relinquished the rest of his property in the late 1940s.

That man was John Watson, born 4 August 1845 at Llanbryd (now Llanbryde) near Elgin in Morayshire, Scotland. He was the eldest son of John Watson and Margaret née Proctor. In 1859, John Watson senior left his family in Scotland to take up a job as farm manager for an Auckland merchant named James Burtt, on Burtt’s farm near Paerātā (now 77 Burtt Road), north-east of Pukekohe. Margaret and the rest of the family arrived aboard the Black Eagle in November 1861, and settled with him on Burtt’s farm.

The early 1860s was a traumatic time for the area around Pukekohe, with the simmering forces boiling over to all-out war in the Waikato, following on from the Taranaki conflict in 1860. The Watson family, and the name Burtt’s Farm, are now part of New Zealand Land Wars history. One of the iwi with mana whenua at Paerātā are the Ngāti Tamaoho, whose pā tauā, Te Māunu a Tūmatauenga, stood atop a high ridge of ground. It had been a place of many battles over centuries. The site would see another battle in September 1863, due to the fact that when the Crown had taken over the land in the 1850s, selling it to local farmers and city speculators, the ridge and the pā site became part of Burtt’s farm, and there he had a house built, up on that same ridge, for his manager, John Watson and Watson’s family. The ridge became known to settlers as Burtt’s Bluff.

What exactly triggered the attack on the farmhouse on 14 September 1863 is still not absolutely clear. Most of the information about that day, during which a church at Pukekohe East was also attacked and besieged, with a number of deaths on both sides, comes of course from the narrative of surviving settlers and later commemorations in the media. According to a report prepared by Ngāti Tamaoho themselves from February 2021, their papakāinga and maara kai had been looted and destroyed back in July 1863 by “colonial militia from Pukekohe, Patumāhoe, Mauku, Paerātā and the surrounding lands” so the attack on Burtt’s Farm was in response to that action. Another report, by Te Tupu Ngātahi claims that “the battle began after the farm manager Mr Watson was spotted erecting fences on Ngāti Tamaoho land.”

On the morning of the attack, around 10 am (according to the account by Land Wars historian James Cowan, published early 1920s), Mrs Watson was lying ill in her bed in the house, while her husband John was out fencing with another son Robert, and another farm worker named Hugh McLean was ploughing a field toward the west with eldest Watson lad John, aged 18. The attack began with shots fired at John Watson senior and 14 year old Robert at the fence line, mortally wounding the latter. The Maori attacking that day surrounded the farmhouse with a dozen men, cutting it off from both John Watson senior’s party, and Hugh McLean with the younger John Watson. McLean and Watson apparently faced 10 attackers, McLean firing on them.

Young John Watson had left his own rifle at home that day, so taking off his work boots, he left McLean and ran barefoot to get help, finding his brother William working elsewhere on the farm. Together, they reached Drury and sounded the alarm, an armed force quickly setting out from that settlement.

Meanwhile, those Maori who were besieging the farmhouse fired into the doors and windows, Mrs Watson diving under her bed. One of her two daughters there with her, Mary Ann, got away, and freed the family’s dog to rush at the attackers (the dog was killed). Mary then ran to one of the neighbours, but they’d already heard the shots, and were coming with their employees to the rescue, all armed. The attackers were driven off.

The Watson family and their workers were escorted into Drury, where Robert died later in a military hospital. McLean’s body was found later in a swamp. He’d been shot through the heart and his rifle taken. Later, once the war had ended, the Watson family returned to the farm, but in 1874 Burtt sold the property. This is probably when John Watson senior and his wife Margaret moved to Buckland further south, where Margaret died in 1878, and where he died in 1895. James Burtt, the man who probably originally brought the Watsons to the country, died in 1908.

Meanwhile John Watson the younger married Irish-born Bridget Tobin in 1868. While John had been baptised in a Scottish Presbyterian church, from that point on his own family were Catholic. He appears to have settled in Puni, to the south-east of Pukekohe, and lived there through to 1907. One son, William, died in 1891 aged only seven. Another, his eldest son Alexander aged 25, met with a tragic accident in 1894 while driving a wagon along the Piako Road at Hamilton. Something frightened his horse – some reports say it was the sight of a Maori sitting beside the road – and it bolted. Alexander fell, and one of the wheels went over him. He died a few hours later in hospital. Another son, named John, died aged 35 at Puni in 1905.

John Watson bought the Riversdale Road property from the estate of George Willey by April 1907, but the deal would have been finalised months earlier, as he’d sold up his farm goods at Puni in February that year. He would be known to his last days, off and on in the press when someone brought up the siege at Burtt’s Farm, as the boy who ran to get the troops.

In July 1919, he transferred half, seven and a half acres, to Harry McLeod, and that part went to Auckland City Council in 1990 as part of Riversdale Reserve, after being designated in 1977. When Watson died, the remaining seven and a half acres at 63 Riversdale Road was left to his two unmarried daughters, Margaret and Annie Watson. When Margaret, who lived there in the 1930s and 1940s died in October 1946, Annie inherited her sister’s share and in 1949 transferred the land to the Auckland Catholic Diocese. Half of that was taken for state housing in 1950, and the remainder was subdivided by the church authorities in the 1960s.

So, two trees on an Avondale street, one scheduled, and the other not. There’s probably no way of knowing how old they really are, but I do think that if one is scheduled, then the other on the Auckland Council reserve, even more of a streetscape landmark in the neighbourhood, should be protected as well. They are two remaining links we have with both the market gardening and orchardist heritage of Rosebank Peninsula – and with those events in that tragic war that took place on our island nearly 160 years ago.

Cecil Herdson, and his gold-toothed dog

From around 1926 to late 1935, Cecil Hastings Herdson and his dental practice was part of the developing suburb of Avondale. He used the rooms above Arthur Maxwell’s pharmacy next to the police station on Great North Road, taking over from Robert Allely, Avondale chemist-dentist from the 1910s. A breeder of hunting dogs, his name lived on in many of the minds of those who had been in Avondale then as not only the local dentist, but the man who gave his dog golden teeth.

According to the story, related to me by a number of people back in 2001, Herdson’s hunting dog lost its teeth in an accident, so Herdson fashioned and fitted another set of teeth for the dog, made from gold. The story went further that when the dog did eventually pass on, Herdson buried the animal secretly, in case anyone came after the gold in his pet’s mouth.

Did it happen? I doubt we’ll ever know for sure either way. Dentists were, indeed, giving dogs gold crowns over their teeth at the time, filling cavities in dogs’ teeth with gold, and fashioning gold dental bridges for beloved canines. This seemed to have been a faddish trend from the early 1900s to the 1930s, in Britain, Germany and America, and the newspapers reported on it with fascination. If anyone ever digs up a dog’s skull in Avondale or Mt Albert with that certain glint attached — that might be Herdson’s beloved animal.

So, who was Cecil Hastings Herdson?

He was born the youngest of three children at Waiuku on 1 August 1888, to stockman Montague James Dayrell Herdson and Elizabeth Doncaster Herdson, née Oldham. Montague Herdson died at the age of 47 in 1909, and lies buried at Waikumete Cemetery. Elizabeth married again, this time to William Edward Maugham, on 22 December 1909, nearly a month after her first husband’s burial. Two years later, 23-year-old Cecil Herdson was working as a dental assistant in Waihi, then took up working for dentist A E O’Meara in Hastings, just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Herdson enlisted almost immediately, on 11 August 1914 with the B section of the 8th Mounted Field Ambulance, Hastings. This was the first unit to mobilise from the Hawke’s Bay region. Herdson served with the unit at Gallipoli in 1915, and was promoted to Lance-Corporal in August that year. By December, he was promoted again, to Sergeant, and then in February 1916 transferred to the NZ Dental Corps. He worked in Egypt until sent to France at the end of 1916. Another promotion, to Staff-Sergeant, came in 1918. He served throughout the rest of the war, and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 1919, just before he returned to New Zealand towards the end of that year.

It appears that Herdson stayed as a lodger with Mrs Gertrude Duvall at 13 Highbury Street from around 1921 until 1927, when Arthur Maxwell took up the lodging in his place (and remained a friend of Mrs Duvall, living there through to her death in 1967). Herdson had two suburban dental practices at one point. As well as his Avondale one, he had another in the back of Ozich’s block of shops, built 1925 on what is now Railside Avenue. A fire in 1927 destroyed the block.

He was involved in a motor accident in Pt Chevalier one night in 1928, through no real fault of his own, when a motorcyclist collided with the back of his car on a darkened Pt Chevalier road. The motorcyclist later died in hospital, but Herdson, who was driving with friends, was not held responsible.

Herdson was breeding Gordon Setter puppies at Avondale by 1926, and Irish Setters by 1931. His love of the dogs, hunting and fishing were obviously well-known in Avondale, and form part of the lore that led to the story of his golden-toothed dog. One particular dog, an Irish Setter named Lorna Doone from which he bred puppies until around 1934, seemed to be a favourite.

The 1930s, despite the Great Depression, seemed to be the decade when Cecil Herdson would do very well in both his life and his career. He got married in 1931, bought investment property in Avondale and elsewhere, his dogs were a success, and his practice profitable. In December 1935, he set himself up with an office in the prestigious Dilworth Building in the city.

Then, in 1937, Cecil Herdson went blind. His dental practice ceased. I don’t know why he went blind, that hasn’t been disclosed publically. It may have had something to do with his war service, but there isn’t anything on the surviving file that refers to an incident or illness that would have clearly led to it. The Defence Department did refer to his death in 1963 as being war-related — but as his death registration shows he suffered from arthrosclerosis lasting years, even that isn’t very clear. But, with his life so drastically altered, Herdson still managed to make the most of things.

This from the Auckland Star, 11 November 1944.

“To men newly-blinded in this war it must surely be encouraging to hear words such as these from a man who lost his sight when approaching middle life: "Blindness doesn't make a lot of difference. One can still lead one's ordinary social life, keep up many of one's old interests, and take up new ones also."

“The speaker was Mr Cecil H Herdson, of Great South Road, who was well known as a dentist in Auckland before he went blind seven years ago. The way in which he has adapted himself to his new world proves the truth of his own courageous words. Moreover, the fact that he has, in the last year, taken up a new hobby—that of making toys—should be an inspiration to younger men compelled through blindness to devote themselves to new careers. “Before he lost his sight Mr Herdson was quite competent at doing odd carpentering jobs about the house, but he had never made children's toys. Now he can display an attractive selection of doll's prams, small wheelbarrows (though one was large enough for a grown person to use with ease), scooters, tip-trucks, rocking horses and little carts, gaily painted in red, green, cream and yellow. “About a year ago he procured some iron and repaired a scooter and a pram. The idea came to him to try his hand at making wooden and iron toys, and four or five months ago he set up a workshop at his home. One of his first efforts was a wheelbarrow, a small, solid affair. Pointing out that it had faults, he said to-day that wheelbarrows were very hard for anyone to make.

“All his toys are solidly constructed with thorough detail that makes one marvel at the seeing fingers that guided the cutting machine. His tools include a drill and sanding machine. Particularly attractive (and for Mr Herdson one of the most difficult to make) is a doll's pram in cream painted wood, with rubber wheels, smooth chromium handlebars and pink lining.

“In his collection are several scooters in red and green-painted iron, and a splendid tip-truck with a jack for changing the wheels, a winder to make a satisfying clanking noise, and bushed wheels with iron axles. The rocking horses are of wood, unpainted as yet, but Mr Herdson is planning to make another type which will fit into an iron cradle and give a lifting motion. This will save wear and tear on carpets.

“The first and sometimes second coats of paint are put on by Mr Herdson, but a friend adds the top coat and two-colour effects. The friend also put the lining in the pram. Mr Herdson said that the Blind Institute had asked if it could take his toys for selling, and commercial firms had offered to buy them; but he had plenty of friends who were anxious to buy the toys for their children. It took him three or four days to make a wheelbarrow. Recently, as a change from making toys, he built a shower box in the bathroom. The job took him about a week, though he did not then have the sanding machine. When his photograph was being taken, Mr Herdson said, with a humorous "crack" at his former profession, "This is a worse ordeal than going to the dentist!" On discovering that a flashlight was being used, he chuckled, "It won't blind me, will it?"

“Mr Herdson said he still attended dog shows, in which he has always been interested, having had his own dogs at one time. He went to dental meetings, and did some insurance work among dentists. Having served in the last war, he now took an active interest in blinded soldiers' activities, he added. “A warm tribute was paid by Mr. Herdson to Sir Clutha Mackenzie for his help when he was blinded. Sir Clutha was the first blind person to visit him at his home, and presented him with a Braille watch, talking book, and a pack of cards, and later showed him over the institute. Mr. James Maguire, teacher of Braille and typing at the institute for many years, and now the teacher at Fairview, for blinded servicemen of this war, had also given him sympathetic help, for which he was deeply grateful. “Modest about his own achievement, Mr Herdson expressed keen interest in the future of blinded men of this war, and said he wanted to do all he could to help and encourage them.”

That certain Ligar Canal image ...

One thing with going back to a research project that's been simmering away for a few years on the ol' back burner, is that things can be looked at again and reassessed in wider context. That probably won't do a lot to get the description changed/altered on the three main sites that use this image, but -- here's a bit of a go.

According to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, who have a copy of the James D Richardson negative photo-of-a-photo image, this is:

"Ligar Canal, a sewer running down Queen St. Photograph shows the Metropolitan Hotel."


That's not too bad, but it can lead folks astray -- and has done. Folks presume that the Ligar Canal, the drain built from 1843 to tap into Te Wai Horotiu at the Wyndham Street junction with Queen Street to take waters from High Street, Vulcan Lane and Shortland Street out to the west side of Commercial Bay ran down the centre of Queen Street. It didn't -- but there is an asterisk to that.

In 1849, a trench was dug diagonally across the width of Queen Street, just north of today's Swanson Street, diverting the drain's stormwater etc into another drain at the Fort Street junction. Seems really odd that they did that, considering this shifted the outflow closer to the original Queen Street jetty, but the intent may have been to allow the further reclamation of allotments on the western side of the bay.

So – the Ligar Canal was primarily along the western side of Queen Street from 1843, with part diverted across to the eastern side in 1849.

Te Ara, run by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, picked up one of Auckland Library’s copies of the image, and put this caption on their site:

“The Ligar Canal was an infamous open drain that ran along Auckland’s Queen Street. This 1860s photo shows it crossed by rickety footbridges and surrounded by rough fences. The presence of raw sewage in open drains not only made early cities stink – it also led to high rates of disease and death.”

Yes, the Ligar Canal is an infamous drain – so infamous, folks back then and now tend to label part of the Te Wai Horotiu watershed flow by that name, even the natural watercourses south of Wyndham Street. “Ran along Queen Street” isn’t a bad description. But then they get to “This 1860s photo shows it crossed by rickety footbridges and surrounded by rough fences.” Yes, the image is from the 1860s, but they’ve missed the point as to what the image actually shows. Nothing to do with “footbridges.”

So, now we have the Auckland Libraries’ images. They have two versions of the same one online, this description is for 4-400 (I’ve used 4-9015 for the image to this post which has a simpler description):

“Looking north down Queen Street showing east side with the Metropolitan Hotel with a group of men outside on the corner of Fort Street (right) and the Ligar Canal, a large portion of which collapsed after heavy rain on 30 March 1866. Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXII, Issue 2719, 4 April 1866, Page 5: 'On proceeding up the main sewer, a considerable amount of timber and other rubbish was found collected at the junction of Fort and Queen streets. This was caused by an iron bar having been built across the sewer. At this place the sewer has suffered considerable damage, a portion of the bricks on one side having been washed out for a distance of 12 feet in length, and 4 feet in height.'”

Very detailed. And incorrect.

The diagonal diversion across Queen Street collapsed in June 1860 after heavy rains soaked the ground above the trench, which was only covered by timbers right from 1849, causing the heavy soil, mud and clay to make what was described as a gash “resembling an earthquake crack” across Queen Street. (Southern Cross 15 June 1860 p.3) This happened during the construction of the main sewer on the eastern side of Queen Street (that’s the brick sewer photographed at Fort Street corner and almost always mislabelled as the Ligar Canal).

The mess was fixed up, and the Ligar Canal diversion was used as a flush for the sewer. By 1866, the Queen Street Main Sewer had progressed up the eastern side of Queen Street – it reached Wellesley Street by 1865, and all along the way, fresh diversions from both the Ligar Canal drain and the lined watercourse for Wai Horotiu were made, until a diagonal diversion from Victoria Street West in 1865.

So no, this image showing more than just the sewer blown out at Fort Street isn’t 1866 – it’s much more likely to be June 1860, showing the only known event with a contemporary description that matches what we see here.

Really though -- more to do with the Main Sewer works, than the old Ligar Canal.

Mrs Alice O’Shea: the Blind Dressmaker

Once again, a dip into the Christchurch Press snippets online from the 1950s has brought up a snapshot of life in Point Chevalier.

“Mrs Alice O’Shea, of Point Chevalier, Auckland, still cuts out her own dresses though her eyesight was destroyed in a motor accident more than 20 years ago. Before the accident she had earned her living as a dressmaker. She cuts out her dresses to a pattern she has designed herself and sews them on an ordinary sewing machine. The only thing she uses to help her is a patent needle-threader. She puts a pin in the right or wrong side of the work, but sometimes when the pin falls out, she has to ask someone to tell her if the pattern is on the right side.”

(24 February 1956)

There was, however, quite a bit more to Mrs Alice O’Shea than her blindness and her dressmaking skills.

Alice was born Alice Walberg Olsen in 1897, one of the children of Captain Enoch Claus Olsen who originally from Christiansund in Norway. Enoch’s birth surname was Schjelvaag, but when he arrived in New Zealand he changed it to Olsen so people here could pronounce it. In 1882, he married Hermione Woodcock, and had a lengthy career on the coastal trade between Mangawhai and Auckland.

In January 1922, Alice married Samoan entertainer Mayo Hunter, who toured around New Zealand and Australia from the 1920s to 1940s as a “genuine Hawaiian” musician. The marriage was short-lived; after little more than five months, Hunter left Alice and travelled to Australia, failing to return or maintain her. She sought and got a decree nisi divorce from him in November 1925, made absolute in February 1926; before that was finalised, though, Hunter had remarried in Australia.

So, we come to Saturday 23 January 1926. Alice’s sister Bertha had married a motor mechanic named Andrew Mercer, who worked for Gilmour, Joll and Williams Ltd, Coach and Motor Builders of Newton Road. In December 1925, the firm imported and assembled a left-hand drive 7-seater Jordan limousine for a buyer in Taranaki. Mercer had the job, once it had been built, to test run it – this he did, up until 23 January. From that point on, it was garaged and meant for shipment to the new owner within days.

But Mercer decided on that Saturday evening to take it for one last spin, and to invite his friends and family along. Five joined him on the trip out that night south as far as Drury: his wife Bertha, sister-in-law Alice, a fellow engineer at the workshop named Harry Booth, and two others.

Night car-rides along Auckland’s dark and in many cases rough metal roads in the 1920s were very common in that period. Some would “shoot the moon,” driving at speed up Maungawhau Mt Eden, and back down, now and then ending the adventure suddenly with a crash into the crater. Night rides were mixed with the exuberance of youth, the jazz and other trendy music of the time (Alice apparently had brought along a gramophone), spontaneous diversion from dance hall evenings and often alcohol (although there was no evidence of the latter involved with Mercer’s trip).

Out at Drury, around 11 o’clock, the friends stopped and had refreshments by the roadside, listening to Alice’s gramophone. Then, around midnight, it was decided that they should all head back, so Mercer could park the powerful car back where he had taken it without his employer’s permission, and none would be any the wiser. Things did not work out as planned.

Mercer drove at around 30 mph along the darkened Great South Road, the weather becoming windy and “boisterous,” the road’s surface slick with rain. They reached Papakura; then, just a bit further along, at a bend, Mercer felt the right rear tyre blow out, and the car started to skid out of control. He knew not to apply brakes, but did all he could to still try to avoid crashing into a telegraph pole that loomed toward them out of the dark, as the car slid into the gutter, and then hit the pole.

All bar Harry Booth were flung out onto the road by the force of the impact. Booth, found semi-conscious on the back seat, would later die in hospital from head injuries. Bertha Mercer also had head injuries and cuts to her face, but she survived. Andrew Mercer received a cut over one eye. With near neighbours who had heard the crash running over to try to help, along with a local doctor, Mercer did at least try to get things sorted. He called his boss Lewis Joll from the nearest available phone in Papakura (that must have been a really “fun” telephone conversation. Hi Mr Joll, I’ve just crashed the brand new car in Papakura …). He asked Joll to drive there (remember, this is the first hours of Sunday morning) to help him ferry the injured to hospital. Joll passed Mercer on the road, the latter in a lorry carrying some of the injured to Auckland.

Mercer was pronounced liable at the coroner’s inquest, and two court hearings, due to careless driving. He lost his job for taking the car without permission, and causing hundred of pounds in damages to the vehicle. He was sentenced, initially, to a month in prison, but this was reduced on appeal to just 11 days.

But as for Alice …

Alice had landed with such force that her nose fractured, and both her eyes ruptured. There were concerns for days as she lay in the hospital as to how she would recover. In the end, she lived, but lost her sight completely. Her story, of course, continued.

We’ve seen already how, by the 1950s, her ability to refuse to let her blindness stand in the way of her skills as a dressmaker was conveyed as news to the public as far away as Christchurch. But of special interest is that, with her in that car that night was her fiancé Patrick Richard O’Shea, who worked at the time as assistant secretary for the Seaman’s Union. They had been courting for some time before the accident. He’d suffered a broken leg and was knocked out, but what struck me was this – five years later, he and Alice still got married, and they lived together until he died in 1965. Despite her blindness, they still managed to be together anyway.

By 1935 the couple were living at 28 Premier Avenue, then by 1941 they were at 34 Fourth Avenue. At the time of the newspaper article, the O’Sheas had made their home at 3 Katoa Avenue in Pt Chevalier. After Patrick died, Alice lived on another 23 years, passing away in January 1988.

The quite ordinary Mr Kontze of Tui Street


(Left) The Press (Christchurch) 2 May 1951

The news snippet at right caught my attention one day. Hard to miss a report of someone painting “SCAB” on what was otherwise quite likely a quiet, unassuming house in an Auckland suburb full of the working class.

George Frederick William Kontze had really only two brief periods in his otherwise ordinary life where the media focussed on him — this one from 2 May 1951, during the infamous 1951 Waterfront Dispute, and one pretty much around the same time, 27 years earlier.

Kontze was born in Fulham, London, England, in 1891, the son of German-born master baker Henry Kontze and Ada Charlotte née Dicks. In 1909, young George Kontze joined the Royal Navy and would serve at a number of shore establishments for 12 years, through to 1920. He married Gladys M Dye in 1918.

On leaving the navy, Kontze secured a job as an able seaman aboard the ship ss Waiwera by 1922, and it was on the Waiwera that Kontze reached New Zealand. Where he and an accomplice were caught pilfering from the ship’s cargo.

NZ Police Gazette, 1923
“Getting out of bed at 2.30 o'clock on Sunday morning, George Frederick Wm Kontze (31) and Henry William Standen (20), two seamen on the ss Waiwera, which was lying at the Queen's wharf, made their way to the hatchway of No 5 hold. They removed the hatch and descended into the hold with a lighted candle. From No. 5 they got through to No 4 hold, where they opened two cases containing women's woollen clothing. Three coats, two jackets, four robes, a roll of dress material, and six undergarments, valued at £14, were removed. “The seamen then reclosed the cases, nailed them up and replaced the iron bands. The goods which had been removed were then wrapped up in a bundle, and on the men regaining the deck the parcel was secreted in one of the ship's air-shafts. Detective-Sergeant Gourley found it there next day, when he searched the ship.

“On being interviewed the accused admitted the theft, and each made a statement. A plea of guilty was entered by Kontze and Standen when they appeared in the Police Court this morning. Mr J W Poynton, SM, said the Court could only look upon the offence as serious. They had admitted going into the hold among inflammable cargo with a naked light. They might have set the ship afire. A fine would not meet such a case. Each would be sent to Mount Eden for six months.”
(Auckland Star, 1 May 1923)

Kontze served his sentence — and then decided to stay in Auckland, obtaining work as a watersider.

His wife Gladys arrived via Wellington in November 1924, and by 1925 the couple were living in Bayfield Road, Herne Bay. In 1928 Kontze bought 32 Tui Street in Pt Chevalier, and made it his and Gladys’ home until her death in 1950, and his own in 1976.

Apart from the incident in 1951, it really can’t be said that Kontze had anything other than an ordinary life at Pt Chevalier. I asked online if anyone who lived in the area at the time remembered him, and no one had, even those who said they once lived right around the corner.

In 1949, he and Gladys travelled back to England for a trip, Kontze describing himself at that point as a carpenter. Then came Gladys’ death the following year, and a year after that, Kontze’s second brief spotlight on his life.

He was still working on the wharves in 1954 according to the electoral roll for that year. Strangely, there is a naturalisation file in his name in Archives NZ, dated 1957, even though he was born in London. It was around this time he had retired.

He and Gladys had no children of their own, so in his will, he left his assets to his brother William and a nephew, and a list of his worldly possessions, including carpentry tools, Kenwood chef foodmixer, Royal Doulton dinner and tea service, bedroom furniture, and his stamp collection. His ashes lie with Gladys’ at Waikumete, but with no plaque.

Fatal short-cut: the death of Frank Lane, 1954

The Elephant House at Auckland Zoo. Detail from Henry Winkelmann image, 1-W0652, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

This year, Auckland Zoo looks set to celebrate its centenary in December, depending on how the pandemic goes. This year also, the zoo has said goodbye to one of their two remaining elephants, and is set (at the time of writing) to say goodbye as well also to Burma, the last zoo elephant left in the country, as soon as another home can be found for her. Back in 1954, the zoo also had two elephants: the still-well remembered Jamuna, and the forgotten Kassala, a young addition that arrived in Auckland in 1952, was sold to Bullen’s Circus in 1957, and ended up dying from poisoning in Australia in 1960. It was Jamuna who, one afternoon in August 1954, abruptly ended Frank Lane’s life.

Zoo keepers these days are well-trained professionals, who have often studied in their fields of expertise. Back in the 1950s however, those who worked with the animals at the zoo were more often than not gardeners, labourers, truck drivers, those who generally worked as Parks Staff for Auckland City Council, and did not have the same level of training. Nor the keen awareness of the health and safety hazards the jobs they carried out brought with them.

Francis (Frank) Wallace Lane was born c.1889 in Ryde on the Isle of Wight in England. His father was a farm worker, and working on the land was what Frank would do as well. Sometime before late 1911 he arrived in Auckland, and worked as a landscape gardener. By at least 1922, he had a job with the Auckland City Council, and was living at the Auckland Domain cricket grounds. Later reports said that he was one of those who worked on transforming the rough landscape at Western Springs into the Auckland Zoo grounds in time for the zoo’s opening on 16 December 1922. By 1925 he was living nearby, in Bannerman Road, Western Springs, and in 1929 married widow Florence Maud Rowntree.
The previous year, Florence had purchased land at 18 Muripara Avenue in Pt Chevalier, in behind Walker Park. The property remained solely in her name until her death in the early 1980s.

By 1954 Frank Lane was 65 and still working at the zoo, but as second man on the truck that picked up the elephant manure in the mornings from the back of the Elephant House, the grand structure built in the 1920s with a viewing area and two elephant pens. Each morning, during the mucking out, he’d bring Jamuna some bread, feeding her via her trunk, or sometimes straight into her mouth.

Jamuna’s main keeper, Albert George Barnett, died suddenly on 15 July 1954, just over a month before the incident where Lane died. Another keeper, Albert George Paddy, was being trained as his replacement, but was having time off in mid August. Yet another keeper, David Robertson, was ill, and would die in hospital three days after the incident – his absence added more pressure to second men with next-to-no training and expertise including Lane to help feed and look after the two elephants.

(Left) Jamuna, detail from Ron Clark image, 1956. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1207-783

Jamuna arrived from India in 1923. The Elephant House wasn’t completed, so her first home was the City Council depot in Patteson Street, Freemans Bay, where she staged a number of break-outs and caused considerable damage. She didn’t like being shackled. Sadly, she was shackled when she was at Freeman’s Bay, and also at the zoo within the Elephant House. Only when she was saddled and walking the circuit at the zoo, day after day, carrying load after load of adults and children for nearly 40 years was she free of the shackles – and on her best behaviour. At the Elephant House, it was a different story.

Traffic noise from the Old Mill Road upset her in the night. She took an active dislike to certain members of the staff called in to look after her temporarily, either swinging her trunk at them, knocking them against walls, or spraying them with water. Her natural behaviour altered and hindered by the zoo environment, she developed a tell-tale swaying motion that some say points to her suffering from zoochosis, a mental illness.

On the morning of 17 August 1954, Lane was on the truck, and had brought Jamuna some bread before she started her day out on the pathways of the zoo. In the afternoon, she was brought back into the Elephant House, shackled, and Lane came in to help feed her and Kassala. Jamuna was in the eastern cubicle, Kassala next to her in the western. The standard practice set by zoo director Robert Weller Roach was to have just one man feeding elephants, but two to clean out the stalls in the mornings; however his instructions were that two men had to be present whenever it was necessary to enter the pen. On that afternoon though, the second man, John Eder, was around at the rear of the building, outside.

Plan of the zoo’s Elephant House. Kassala was housed in the lefthand cubicle, Jamuna in the right. “Plans Auckland Zoological Park Elephant House including alternative scheme showing accommodation for two elephants”. Drawings 1 & 2 JW or Jev Beggate dated 13/03/1925. Auckland Council Archives ACC 015 6132-1, 2 id. 473815, from their online exhibition.

With general complacency, those looking after the elephants had taken to using a short-cut, passing through Jamuna’s pen once feeding had been completed and closing the rear door from the outside. The feed room inside was on the western side of the elephant house, the attendants’ room on the eastern side. Lane got feed from the feed room, then he passed Kassala’s cubicle to feed Jamuna, then returned to feed Kassala. Then he came back, headed for the eastern-most side of Jamuna’s cubicle, and bent to duck under the railing for the usual short-cut through Jamuna’s pen and out the rear door. Jamuna at the time wasn’t facing the rails of her cubicle, but standing parallel to them, apparently standing just 18 inches away from the wall.

As Lane passed under the rails, Jamuna was swaying back and forth. Lane was seen to push Jamuna’s trunk aside and said “Let me get past.” According to testimony at the inquest, Lane would often reach out with his left hand to Jamuna’s trunk as he passed through the rails in front of her to head for the rear door, and would often have something in his hand to give her as he did so, like bread. In this instance though Lane hadn’t quite straightened up when Jamuna swung her trunk forwards and hit him, catching him off balance. Lane fell backward. A staff member who witnessed what happened said he tried to call Jamuna, but wasn’t not alarmed at that point because (as he said) he’d “seen the same proceeding before.” He expected it to be just one blow, and that was all, just enough to wind Lane.

But then Jamuna swung her trunk again, and moved forward. This crushed Lane against the wall from the left. His ribs fractured, the pericardium around the heart split, his lungs and arteries were bruised, and his head squashed and shattered against the wall. Lane’s body then slumped down to the floor, semi-upright, legs drawn up, head bowed forward, arms limp. Blood was seen on Jamuna later “approximately half way between her tusks and her eyes and in the centre of her trunk.”

Jamuna didn’t touch the body again, but stayed put, moving Lane’s fallen hat around with her trunk. When truck driver James Henry Large first attempted to remove the body, Jamuna swung her trunk toward him, and he backed away. Others arrived, and tried to attract Jamuna to the other side of the stall, but she refused to move. They waited for Roach to arrive – during that time, they watched as Jamuna took two loaves of bread that were behind Lane’s body and eat them. Roach finally made Jamuna move back by brandishing a pitch fork, and Lane’s body was retrieved.

Frank Lane’s funeral was held at the Church of the Ascension in Dignan Street at 1.30 pm on 19 August, he was cremated at Waikumete Cemetery, and his ashes scattered a day later.

Two things probably saved Jamuna from the same fate as the earlier Rajah at the zoo, who was found to be unmanageable and so shot in 1936. She mainly misbehaved when shackled in the Elephant House, and not on her usual rounds – Roach, who was opposed to shackling her, had the fastening ring removed from the pen. On 20 August she was taken out from her pen, and ridden around the zoo by the chairman of the Parks Committee and his family, in perfect safety, just before the Parks Committee met to decide her fate. She was soon put back to work, and Roach ensured through alterations to the Elephant House that no staff member need put themselves in Lane’s position again.

The other aspect was that Jamuna was a valuable money earner for the zoo. Valued at around £1150 at the time of the incident, in 1946 it was reported that she carried more than 24,000 children per year, at 2d per ride, earning £203 (around $18,000) for just £95 in upkeep. In 1958, her earnings were up to £512 per annum (nearly $26,000), plus she was a drawcard in general to encourage visitors to the zoo, buying tickets and enjoying refreshments.

Jamuna died in September 1965 at the age of 58, estimated to have carried 750,000 children in her time at the zoo, but suffering from recurring chills, rheumatism and foot complaints. A few years before, she needed surgery for issues inside her great body, and at the time of her death, weighing 5 tons, was still two tons less in weight than she was on the day Lane took that fateful and ill-advised short-cut past her trunk.