Drama on Lambton Quay

The photograph on this vintage postcard of Lambton Quay in Wellington was taken in the first nine months of 1906. The reason we know this will come later. First, let’s take a walk down the street.

Lambton Quay 1906

On the left of the picture, at the corner of Grey Street, is the New Zealand Insurance Company building which shares the block with other financial institutions. At the extreme right, you can just see the Wellington Auctioneering Company next to Miss Roach’s fruit shop in “an old dilapidated one-story wooden structure – a survival of past days.” Then we have in turn the Trocadero Hotel and Restaurant, the three-storey wooden Commercial Hotel, Whitcombe and Tombs – book seller, printer and stationer – and, in the middle distance, the new imposing facade of the Bank of New South Wales, built “at a cost of upwards of £50,000” and only occupied since the beginning of the year. That gives us our starting point for a date.

The end point for this scene came on 22nd October 1906 when, at 3.25 a.m., a fire was discovered at the back of the Auctioneering Company building. By a cruel coincidence, the main water supply pipe to the city had burst ten minutes earlier, leaving the fire brigade to cope with a secondary low-pressure system. When the firemen turned on their hoses, the water could reach no higher than twelve feet.

The height handicap and a rising wind contributed to the peculiar nature of the inferno that followed. Sparks and glowing embers from the old wooden building spread to the roof of the Trocadero, set it alight, and burned from the top down, which gave the boarders time to escape; some with hastily packed suitcases, others with only the clothes they wore. The pattern was repeated with the Commercial Hotel next door and so on down the street.

The Evening Post tells us about one cool customer at the Commercial ….. “several of the early spectators were astonished to see dimly through an upstairs room a man moving about. In a second or two he calmly got out of the window, having the appearance of being dressed for business. No sooner had he alighted on the balcony than the flames burst out of the window with such force that had they caught him they would have swept him over. The spectators howled at him “Look out,” but by this time the danger was over. He calmly got on to the verandah of the Trocadero, and descended to the street by a ladder which had been adjusted for him.”

MA_I325318_TePapa_New-Zealand-Insurance_web

The N. Z. Insurance building in the 1870s.
Photo: J. Bragge

Sparks were carried across the street to the roof of the New Zealand Insurance building which started to smoulder. A fireman was sent up a ladder to deal with it “but the hose could not even weep a tear, and the man had to come down.” While the brigade concentrated on the main blaze, fire crept along the Insurance building roof. Eventually the entire block was lost except for one brick structure saved by the heroic efforts of its occupants.

“The march of the flames was irresistible” and by 5.30 a.m. everything in the photograph up to and including the bank was on fire. A Post reporter thought “Whitcombe and Tombs’s presented a particularly magnificent appearance. The fire, commencing from above, gradually devoured floor after floor in its descent, and then, with a sudden roar, it burst open the big iron shutters on the ground floor and swept in a bright red mass right across the road. The pressure from within was so great that the iron shutters stood out over the footpath almost horizontally, while the furnace within belched its flames for some moments, and then, as the pressure lessened, they closed down again and the fire went on with its work inside.”

By 8.30 the fire’s progress had been checked and it was brought under control, thanks to a change in the wind and several volunteer bucket brigades on rooftops. The Post reported “Roughly, fifteen business premises were destroyed, and probably over one hundred different firms and companies occupying offices in the various buildings are outcasts today.” Incredibly, there were no fatalities.

MA_I043644_TePapa_Lambton-Quay-Wellington_full_Muir&Moodie

Lambton Quay with the Insurance building on the corner of Grey Street at centre. The heat from the fire was so intense that the metal poles supporting the tram wires were bent and twisted. Photo: Muir & Moodie.

Recovery
Building in wood meant that fire was a constant danger in early Wellington. There had been many similar disasters in its short history but the damage was repaired each time. By the end of December 1907, every building had been replaced and improved. The new Commercial Hotel had four storeys – built in brick. By that time, of course, the Parliament Buildings had burned down. But that’s a story for another day.

Photo sources: Colour – a card in my collection posted, oddly, in 1911. Someone must have been selling off old stock.
B+W – Te Papa museum.
All quotes are from The Evening Post newspaper at paperspast.

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The Unquiet Earth

New Zealand, 1885. English historian J.A. Froude follows a popular tourist route to the North Island’s thermal region.

…..we saw in the distance a blue, singular range of mountains, while immediately underneath us, a thousand feet down, stretched a long, greenish lake with an island in the middle of it, and a cluster of white houses six miles off standing on the shore. The lake was Rotorua; the white houses were Ohinemutu, the end of our immediate journey.

Rotorua_Ohine

As we drew nearer to our destination both Ohinemutu and the district touching it seemed to be on fire. Columns of what appeared to be smoke were rising out of the Ti-tree bush, from the lake shore, and from the ditches by the roadside. We should have found the lake itself lukewarm if we could have dipped our hands in the water.

The smoke which we had seen was steam rising from boiling springs – alkaline, siliceous, sulphuretted, and violently acid – not confined, too, exactly to the same spot, but bursting out where they please through the crust of the soil. You walk one day over firm ground, where the next you find a bubbling hole, into which if you unwarily step, your foot will be of no further service to you. These springs extend for many miles; they are in the island on the lake; they must be under the lake itself to account for its temperature. Across the water among the trees a few miles off, a tall column of steam ascends, as if from an engine. It arises from a gorge where a sulphurous and foul smelling liquid ….. bubbles and boils and spouts its filthy mud eternally. I have no taste for horrors, and did not visit this foul place, which they call Tikiteri.

Rotorua_Tikitere

The native settlement [Whakarewarewa] was at one time very large, and must have been one of the most important in New Zealand. It owed its origins doubtless to these springs, not from any superstitious reason, but for the practical uses to which the Maori apply them.

Rotorua_Whaka

They cook their cray-fish and white-fish, which they catch in the lake, in them; they boil their cabbage, they wash their clothes in them, and they wash themselves.

Rotorua_cooking

Text source: ‘Oceana, the tempestuous voyage of J.A. Froude, 1884 & 1885.’ Ed. Geoffrey Blainey. 1985.
Images from postcards in my collection.

A card for your collection

The international craze for collecting picture postcards began in the mid 1890s and reached its peak a few years before the Great War. It’s easy to understand the attraction in an age when privately owned cameras were few and expensive, and foreign (or even local) travel was a luxury. A good postcard collection could provide a “virtual” experience.

As William Main points out in his book ‘Send Me A Postcard’ –
“In some households every member of the family had their own album which they would proudly display to visitors. To justify this pastime, it was argued that postcards added greatly to one’s knowledge of other cultures. Clubs were established and specialised publications appeared which gave stature and a measure of respectability to postcard collectors”.
Craig Potton Publishing, 2007.

Beginners would have been happy to start with this one, the first New Zealand picture postcard.

collect_4 views

Published in 1897 by the Post and Telegraph Department and printed in London, it features four tourist-attracting views of Waikite Geyser, Mount Cook, Mount Egmont (now Taranaki) and the Otira Gorge. A government department, no less, had the foresight to recognize the sales potential of postcards and got the ball rolling, hoping that private enterprise would follow. Which it did.

collect_mandanus

This image ‘Crossing the Mandamus’, published by Ferguson and Taylor, probably dates to around 1902. It would have been among the first cards the local company produced and was posted in 1906. The unsigned message says
“Many thanks for pretty card. Your collection is growing. I have about (260). Do you prefer view cards or actresses?”
Some collectors specialized in themed cards; foreign countries, animals, royalty. Actresses – who had never been seen on a stage by most of their collectors – were very popular.
The Mandamus river, by the way, is in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island. It joins the Hurunui 25km. (16 miles) west of Culverden (population less than 500) and although it is bridged today, it’s still a long way from the main highway. So why these four intrepid ladies and their driver were parked in the middle of it in 1902 is anybody’s guess.

Many vintage postcards carry the auctioneer’s description “message on back (m.o.b.), not postally used” which suggests there were a lot of absent-minded or lazy people around in the early 1900s. Often this can just mean the card has no stamp or postmark and was, in fact, posted in an envelope – sometimes with others. Like an illustrated letter. The Edwardian equivalent of an email with photos attached. Here’s a good example

Tuck's Oilette postcard of Belfast harbour c. 1904. Posted 1908.

The Harbour. The shipping at Belfast is very considerable, both passenger and cargo steamers leaving here for all parts of the world. Next to the linen industry, the shipbuilding trade is the most important in the town, some of the largest and finest ships in the world having been constructed there. The harbour has been greatly improved, enlarged and deepened at a cost of over half-a-million sterling.
[Raphael Tuck & Sons. Oilette No. 7416]

This was the last of a three card set posted on September 27, 1908, by John Quirk from No. 3 Depot Royal Field Artillery, Seaforth, England, to an unknown address, presumably in New Zealand. The message reads
“….before finishing my badly written epistle I must compliment you on the nice description of Auckland you gave me on the card which I have before me and which I shall add to my collection of 2000, have you as many? Trusting you are well and hoping to hear from you again soon”.

With a score of 2,000, John Quirk was on his way to becoming a serious collector, although some heavy hitters could have added a zero to that number.

collect_Seaforth_Barracks

Seaforth Barracks, near Liverpool, where John Quirk was stationed in 1908.

Crossing the Tamar

I recently acquired an interesting old letter card featuring eight photographs of Devonport, England. It was published by “W.B.P.” and my best guess for a date would be 1904 to 1907. Printed on semi-matt paper with a fairly course screen and a little faded with age, it doesn’t provide the best quality but I think these two images are good enough (after a little tweaking) to be posted for their historic interest.

Torpoint ferry

The ferry service across the Tamar estuary between what was then Plymouth, in Devon, and Torpoint, in Cornwall, was established in 1791 by the first Earl of Mount Edgcumbe. It’s still running – with three much bigger ferries. This image was also published by W.B.P. as a hand-coloured postcard.

Image from a letter card c. 1904-1907 published by "W.B.P."

Farther upstream, at Saltash, is the Royal Albert railway bridge opened by Prince Albert in May 1859. Still in use today, after periodic strengthening to take heavier trains, it is literally a monument to the brilliant Victorian engineer I. K. Brunel. He died four months after his creation opened and the railway company added his name, in large letters, to each end of the bridge as a memorial. A road bridge was built alongside it in 1962.

London Notes, 1918

Vintage postcard of Rotten Row, London, by J. Valentine. Used 1918.

Card caption: Rotten Row – a corruption of route de roi, is reserved for equestrians. Is situated near Hyde Park corner.

I seen this row from the other end. I walked right through Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park to Marble Arch. Roy, 16-10-18. [map]

Vintage postcard of Westminster Abbey by J. Valentine.Dec 31st 1918
Dear Louie. After leaving the Albert Memorial behind we passed along Rotten Row where the knobs hang out on horse back of a sunday morning and came to the Abbey. We were all over it and saw the tombs of the different ones buried there. She’s a great joint and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Its an interesting old place.
Love Frank x x x x

Frank may have been an American soldier on his way home at the end of World War One. It seems he was a man given to understatement.
Both cards are by J. Valentine. Although they were used in 1918, the images are probably 12 to 15 years older.

A footnote about Prince Albert and his memorial – many web sites still maintain that Albert’s cause of death in 1861 was typhoid. Modern medical opinion is that Crohns disease, a condition not understood at the time, was the more likely cause. See here and here.

Kelburn: midway between earth and sky

Wellington (New Zealand) journalist, Pat Lawlor (1893-1979), digs into his boyhood diary

February 1, 1906….. Went to the Kiosk and had fun in the cable car……

Vintage postcard of Kelburn Tea Kiosk and cable car c.1907

Kelburn (with an extra ‘e’) Kiosk around 1907 with cable car at right.

The place Wellingtonians know now as the Skyline was for many years identified as the Kiosk. It was a barn-like building where one could have tea and cakes for sixpence, with a fine view of the city and harbour thrown in for good measure. The young men of the city usually took their young ladies there by cable car and then wandered on down through the Botanical Gardens on the way home, or through the then-embowered Kelburn to the other end of the city. I do not know when the tea rooms ceased to be called the Kiosk.

I do know, however, that after World War II the name became unpopular. Anti-communists suggested ‘kiosk’ was of Russian origin, but this is not correct. The word is Turkish or Persian signifying…… banqueting amid trellised splendour with fair views. This, despite all the glamour that youthful memory may inspire, could hardly describe the Kiosk I wrote of in my diary of 1906.
‘More Wellington Days’. Pat Lawlor, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd., 1962.

F. L. Irvine-Smith, in her book ‘The Streets of my City’ (1948), digs a little deeper

Kelburn, named after Viscount Kelburn, the eldest son of the Earl of Glasgow, Governor of New Zealand (1892-1897), quickly became a favourite suburb, not only because of its proximity to the city, but because of the sheer beauty of its position poised high above the city and the shining waters below.

Kelburn ascent

The nucleus of settlement was the Upland Farm, acquired by the Upland Estate Co., in 1896, originally the property of Wm. Moxham, but every possible foothold was soon covered by the heavily basemented type of house which may be said to have become the characteristic of Wellington hill-side architecture…….

It was a sheer triumph of engineering that transformed the lower levels of Moxham Farm into habitable ground….. which emerged out of the levelling of the knolls that filled the valley, their soil being spread by means of an aerial wire tramway.

Kelburn is thus an essentially man-made suburb, from its cable tramway which transports passengers in ten minutes from the heart of the city, to its flights of soaring steps and bastions and retaining walls that transform the most inaccessible eyries into “desirable building lots,” but once safely ensconced within these buttressed edifices, midway between earth and sky, the panorama that meets the eye is truly heaven-made – an unsurpassable vista of city, sea and sky in the perfection of harmonious balance…….

Kelburn descent

Nearby is Kelburn Park, a verdant expanse of “the greenest grass that ever grew,” with scarce a trace of having been made to order by cutting off a hill-top and tipping it holus-bolus into the adjacent gully.
‘The Streets of My City’. F. L. Irvine-Smith, 1948. Reprinted 1974 by A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd, Wellington.

Overlooking the Oriental Bay area of Wellington from the suburb of Kelburn.

Kelburn Park, foreground, “made to order”.

The Skyline building was lost to two suspicious fires, three weeks apart, in 1982.

Landseer’s Lions

Tate; (c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Duchess of Abercorn and daughter by Landseer. Tate Gallery.

Sir Edwin Landseer, the painter…..was one of my father and mother’s oldest friends, and had been an equally close friend of my grandparents, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. He had painted three portraits of my father [the Duke of Abercorn], and five of my mother. Two of the latter had been engraved, and, under the titles of “Cottage Industry” and “The Mask,” had a very large sale in mid-Victorian days. His large picture of my two eldest sisters, which hung over our dining-room chimney-piece, had also been engraved, and was a great favourite, under the title of “The Abercorn Children.” Landseer was a most delightful person, and the best company that can be imagined. My father and mother were quite devoted to him, and both of them always addressed him as “Lanny.”

My mother going to call on him at his St. John’s Wood house, found “Lanny” in the garden, working from a ladder on a gigantic mass of clay. Turning the corner, she was somewhat alarmed at finding a full-grown lion stretched out on the lawn.

Trafalgar Square lion

Landseer had been commissioned by the Government to model the four lions for the base of Nelson’s pillar in Trafalgar Square. He had made some studies in the Zoological Gardens, but as he always preferred working from the live model, he arranged that an elderly and peculiarly docile lion should be brought to his house from the zoo in a furniture van attended by two keepers. Should anyone wish to know what that particular lion looked like, they have only to glance at the base of the Nelson pillar.

Vintage postcard of Trafalgar Square, London, by the Photochrom Company.

On paying an afternoon call, it is so unusual to find a live lion included amongst the guests, that my mother’s perturbation at finding herself in such close proximity to a huge loose carnivore is, perhaps, pardonable.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton. 1920.

The photograph of the captive lion was taken by Gambier Bolton, probably in the early 1890s, and published on a postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons about 1905. This pioneering animal photographer was sometimes described as the Landseer of photography and his original prints fetch high prices from collectors today.