Sunday, July 31, 2022

Harriet Powley, and the Queen Street Fire of 1873

 4-418, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections [detail]

The highlighted building, I believe, was the one used by Harriet Powley for her millinery and drapery business. It had three storeys, the two you see here, and a lower cellar, and in a sitting room on the ground floor, behind the main shop (each storey had two rooms), the great 1873 Queen Street west fire started in unexplained circumstances behind a staircase.

Today, this is the northern-most part of Smith & Caugheys.

Thomas Elwin/Elvin/Edwin Powley (the middle name varies from record to record) was born in Norwich, England, around 1813. He enlisted with the 96th regiment in 1830, and in 1838 married Harriet Guyton, before the couple left with the regiment the following year, bound for Sydney. His obituary says Powley was discharged in 1848. He seems to have then joined the constabulary in Tasmania, and come across to Auckland in 1851 with three others to escort transportation prisoners, according to a file held in Wellington’s Archives NZ office.

Sometime between then and 1858 he and his family came to settle in Auckland, and by 1858 Harriet had set up a drapery and millinery business with her son-in-law Edward Johnson in Shortland St, under the name of Powley & Johnson. Most references though seem to credit Thomas as being the one in business as a draper, not Harriet. In the late 1850s, Thomas worked as a bailiff.

By 1862, the Powleys had shifted, now living on the east side of Queen Street, between Vulcan Lane and Durham Street, and the business came with them. In June 1863, however, their shop and a number of others, including the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, burned to the ground, the fire seeming to start somewhere in the vicinity of the Powleys. They were insured, however, and rebuilt.

In 1869 however, things changed. Edward Johnson accidentally poisoned himself. He was suffering from a chest infection, and mixed up two prescriptions he had from his doctor – one for a cough mixture, and one for a chest rub, not to be taken internally as it was poisonous. The Johnson-Powley partnership was officially dissolved a year later, and by November 1870 Thomas Powley was bankrupt.

Harriet, though, kept the business going, at that stage the family’s only income. She shifted over to the west side of Queen Street by September 1871, and was doing a good trade, up until the fire in September 1873 which razed all Queen Street businesses on that side from the Thistle Hotel at the northern end, right through to the Anchor Hotel to the south.

In the aftermath, Thomas’ military pension finally came through. He and Harriet quit business, and lived quiet lives, until his death in December 1901, and her own in September 1902.

Interestingly, their son George Henry Powley, after a bit of a stint as a publican in the Kaipara at Batley, returned to Auckland in the early 1880s and took over a clothing factory in Shortland Street. In partnership with Macky, Logan, Steen and Co, he renamed it the Cambridge Clothing Factory, and shifted it to Victoria Street West in the 1890s, finally selling his shares in the business in 1904. Today, Cambridge Clothing still exists, and once had a factory in New Lynn.

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