Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Albert Graven and his Avondale Central Service Station

Detail from JTD-24A-03278-2, December 1967, J T Diamond, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

Published in the June 2023 issue of The Avondale Historical Journal as "The Golden Investor: Albert Graven."

Avondale is a place where people tell stories, stories which I’ve always called the Avondale Lore. Some of them true, some of them probably fanciful (the one where dentist Cecil Herdson from the 1920s and 1930s gave his beloved hunting dog a set of gold teeth is a doozy), and some with hints of the truth mixed in with speculation. The stories hang around for a bit, told and re-told by the generation who were once youngsters going to Avondale Primary School before World War II, then as memories fade and the story tellers pass on, the tales slowly vanish. 

Back in 2001, chatting with those same folks around tables in dining rooms and over cups of coffee in cafes across Auckland, I heard the last whispers of some of the tales before they faded out into time. One topic of those stories was Albert Graven. 

Some said that he got his riches from winning the Irish Sweepstakes, and thus paid for the landmark Central Service Station that stood for five decades at the junction of Wingate Street and Great North Road. Some said that, later on, he committed suicide. And, according to the late Ernie Croft whom I visited and interviewed back in 2001, Albert Graven’s original name was Albert Grubnitz (Ernie wondered if that was perhaps changed due to WWI anti-German feeling). He’s appeared in references at least twice before now in the Avondale Historical Journal, and of course in Heart of the Whau from 2003, to the extent that I had access to information on him up to that point. 

While working on an index for the Journal (still in progress) I decided to take another look at the Albert Graven legends. So now I know a lot more about him than I did. 

According to family history sources, his birth name was Albert Heinrich Knowles Von Graevenitz, born in Paeroa in 1897 to Albert Frederick Ludwig Von Graevenitz, and Millicent née Atherton. The story has to start further back, though. Back to 27 years before Albert Graven’s birth, to 25 May 1870 when Von Graevenitz snr, then 20 years old from Dortmund in western Prussia, deserted from a ship that had sailed from Bremen to New York City. In America, Von Graevenitz slipped into the background, until resurfacing in October 1874, charged before the Auckland Police Court for assaulting the infant child of a woman he lived with, Susannah Wilkinson, née Craib. 

Married to Richard Wilkinson in the Bay of Islands in 1860, Susannah left her husband to live in Auckland with Von Graevenitz. For his part, Von Graevenitz was said to have been in employment (as a seaman aboard a whaler), but spent a lot of his wages on drink. It appears that, in return for Richard Wilkinson’s hospitality to him in Northland, he’d said that as he had a considerable sum of money coming to him in Auckland, he offered to take Susannah and her father to the city with him for a bit of a trip. It ended up being more than that. 

Von Graevenitz served two months in Mt Eden Gaol with hard labour. Soon after he returned to Susannah and her father in the Chancery slums, the young baby died. He wasn’t blamed however, as the child had been ailing for some time and had simply died from natural causes. No inquest was held. I couldn’t find the death registration for that child, but another, Amelia Wilkinson, died in 1878 at the age of 5 months. 

By then Von Graevenitz had altered his identity, now calling himself Francis Rappart (Von Rappard being his mother’s maiden name), taking up employment working on railway construction projects. In November 1879, he was charged with intention to desert his illegitimate child, the mother referred to in the news report as “Sarah Craib.” “Sarah” (Susannah) withdrew the charge and the case was dropped. By 1885, he and Susannah, along with their children, were living in Mt Albert, and by 1888 he was described as a platelayer (still with the railways). 

Then, in 1892, an abrupt change. 

Albert Von Graevenitz married Millicent “Milly” Atherton of Waikomiti (Glen Eden), at All Saints Church in Ponsonby, and the happy couple went to live in Enmore, near Sydney. Not for very long though, for they were back at Waikomiti by late 1893. Meanwhile, “Susan Rappard” was managing on her own, appearing in a court case report regarding a cow taken from her. 

By 1896 Albert and Milly were living in Paeroa, Albert working as a wood splitter. By 1900, the family had moved to Dublin Street in Auckland – but by 1905, Milly was on her own with three young children: Albert aged 8, Thelma aged 5 and Millicent aged 3. Milly would later have another daughter, Arthea, in 1912. 

Young Albert, known then as Bert, attended the Unitarian Sunday School in Ponsonby in 1910, and did well, performing in a play called “La Mascotte”. But in 1914, Milly was caught shoplifting boots, using a pram to push young Arthea but also to hide the boots she was pilfering, and accompanied by her eldest daughter Thelma. Milly called herself Milly Graevenitz, and was fined £3 and costs. 

Meanwhile, Susannah’s son Albert Rappard, railway hand, was in Drury, living with his wife Maud in 1905. Susan Rappard was by herself in Drury, a “widow” in 1911, then moved to Takapuna. Confusingly (nothing new for this family’s story) she died in Lyttelton Hospital, but was buried at O’Neil’s Point Cemetery. 

Albert von Graevenitz senior seemed to follow his own path, seeking assistance in vain after the First World War from the Government for passage back to Germany to settle some affairs there, then returning to take up a life on the North Shore where he died in 1956 as Frank Albert Rappard. 

By 1916, Albert von Graevenitz junior had changed his own name to the less German-sounding Graven, working as a salesman and living in Herne Bay. He was apparently involved with the Territorials from 1911, and during the First world War tried to enlist three times – but was eventually accepted only for Home Service in 1916. He lived with his mother Milly at Islington Avenue. 

Come 1923, Albert Graven was now a grain and produce broker. Four years later he started his Avondale story in 1927, taking up a lease of part of Charles Pooley’s property at the triangle between Great North and Old Windsor Road in Avondale. There, he built the Central Service Station. In 1928 he married Gladys May Sullings, and they were living at the service station in March 1929 when one night thieves blew off the safe door at the Hellaby’s butcher shop across the intersection. “The noise of the explosion was heard by Mr Graven, of the Central Service Station. He was awakened at 2.30 o’clock this morning by a rumbling noise and got out of bed to investigate. There was no one about, and after looking round Mr Graven went back to bed.” 

How did Albert Graven finance the service station and adjacent car sales yard, and the extensive tours of the European continent enjoyed by him and his wife in 1930? It wasn’t through the Irish Sweepstakes, although in 1933 Graven did draw a horse in the British and Foreign Concessions Danzig Sweepstake. 

No, Albert Graven was an investor, and a canny one at that. He had interests in Canada and Britain, possibly due to his brokerage experience, and after crossing paths with one Henry Theodore Castaing, took things even further in the 1930s, a period where for most life was a challenge during the Great Depression. 

Between 1930 and 1942, Graven was fundamentally involved with 10 gold mining companies, nine of which were subsidiaries or indirect subsidiaries of one company, Mining Trust Ltd. The companies were involved in the Coromandel district and in the South Island, and consistently made financial headlines describing their operations and success during the decade. 

Graven also dabbled with rental cars. In 1935 he set up Drive Yourself, Limited in Lower Albert Street in the city, advertising “Cars for hire without drivers” from 6/- per half day and 10/- per full day. He hired his sister Arthea as a secretary there. His friend Castaing also invested in the enterprise. The company, though, parted ways with Graven in 1939 after it came to light that he had had the company buy a car that was not only not brand new, but was in fact one of his own. 

The golden ride may have come to an end for Graven in 1942, but by then he had more than enough of a personal fortune to be able to retire. In 1940, he brought in Walter Frederick Arthur (who lived in St Georges Road) to run the Central Service Station, while Graven and his family shifted to Remuera. It was at the new home, during the 1950s, where their son Ian Albert Graven shot himself; news that probably percolated back to Avondale and later formed the suicide legend. 

On the night of 21 April 1942, the service station was burgled, the safe removed and the door blown off near Waikumete Cemetery. Around £200 in cheques and cash, mostly the former, was taken. 

In 1946, Charlie Pooley sold the land Graven had been leasing to Barry Bernard Cleland, a market gardener living near today’s Cleland Crescent off Blockhouse Bay Road. This caused Graven to look at ways to secure his rather valuable Avondale investment, so he put in contingencies in case his Central Service Station was shut down. On the other side of Wingate Street, he bought the Waygood’s service garage, while across the five roads intersection he made an even larger purchase. There, he bought the quarter acre corner from R & W Hellaby’s, leasing the company’s shop back to them through to the mid 1950s. If his service station were to shut down at the triangle, Graven’s intent was to open up another one at the Hellaby’s corner of St Jude St and St Georges Road. 

As it turned out, Graven needn’t have worried. Despite a legal dispute over the lease between Cleland and Graven, the service station remained right where it was, and Cleland later transferred the title to Central Service Station Ltd in 1961. This remained as a service station site until taken over by Mobil which then shifted across the road in the 1980s, although the old Central Service Station was demolished earlier and the business modernised. 

Meanwhile in 1958, Graven developed the Hellaby’s corner into a block of eight shops which still exists. 

June 2022.

“Man behind the scheme,” so the Avondale Advance tells us, “is Mr A Graven, a well-known local businessman, who told the Advance, “The new block will certainly be an asset to the area, and with the adequate off-street parking which it incorporates will allow housewives to buy many of their household needs in the one block, free from parking worries.” Hellabys were to reopen in a new butchers shop at the corner, with the rest of the block including “a grocer, greengrocer, home cookery, fish shop and dairy.” 

Albert Graven died after a heart attack in July 1967 at the age of 70. While it remains, that corner block of shops is his legacy, with or without the convolutions of his family’s story here in Auckland, or the legends around his name that still come to some minds on hearing his name.