Trouble with Trams 2


Brooklyn, in this case, is a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, not New York. The Evening Post report of 4th May 1907 continues….

A “roaring noise”, a rumbling, and finally a tremor of the earth made householders near the tramway line on the Brooklyn heights fear that an earthquake had visited them last evening, at about half-past five. The cause of the disturbance was a large electric car, of the new palace pattern, which left the rails while it was whirling down at terrific speed and plunged over a bank.


There were only four passengers, including one woman, Mrs. Eliza Bell, wife of Mr. Thomas Bell, a sheep-farmer of Murchison [South Island]. She was crushed under the frame. Her husband and the other passengers were cut and bruised, but were not seriously injured. Mr. Bell was taken on a stretcher to a neighbouring house, and received attention from Dr. Hogg, pending his removal later on to a private hospital. The other passengers dispersed, and were soon lost from view. The motorman, John Rea, and the conductor, Arthur D. Perkins, were dazed by knocks on their heads, and were taken home soon after the accident.

After rounding a curve….[the tram] swept along a straight strip for some distance, and then forsook the metalled way. The outside wheels scoured out a deep groove in the ballast for a dozen yards, and then the rear bogie was left behind. At this moment the car must have been turning on its side, on the slope of a bank, and after skidding about ten yards, the body was jolted from the front bogie, and the whole of the car body was pitched on its side, with the bottom towards the rails. Fragments of the lower woodwork were left along the hillside as the vehicle plunged over the earth.


A distracted driver, experienced but unfamiliar with that particular route, incorrect settings on a complicated triple braking system, damp rails on a steep incline, all combined to produce this result. It could have been worse. The Brooklyn line had a single track with sidings to allow trams to pass. Unable to stop and back up to the nearest siding, John Rea’s runaway was hurtling towards an “up” tram with forty people on board when it jumped the track. An inquest a week later, when the crew had recovered from their concussion, returned a verdict of accidental death on Eliza Bell.

The photographer here was Joseph “Zak” Zachariah (1867-1965), a man with the instincts of a photojournalist before the word was invented – “Things would happen at eight o’clock in the morning, and “Zak” would have the photographic record of it staring at you from his window before noon.”

Brooklyn Road has been widened and the corners modified but, for those of you who know Wellington, I think this spot is opposite where the Renouf Tennis Centre stands today.


Riding a Thunderbolt

Mentioning New Zealand’s Centennial Exhibition in last Wednesday’s post reminded me of that prolific Land Speed Record breaker of the 1930s, Captain G.E.T. Eyston. It’s one of those word association things. The reason will become clear later.

George Eyston, a tall man with neatly trimmed moustache and round spectacles, didn’t fit the popular image of a daredevil race driver, yet his career encompassed every aspect of motorsport. In a set of fifty cigarette cards entitled ‘Speed’, produced in 1938, he was the only person to feature three times.


Speed of the Wind, unconventionally-designed car equipped with Rolls-Royce engine, has covered more miles in one round of the clock than any other. Manned by Captain Eyston and A. Denly, it achieved a distance of 1,964 miles at an average speed of 163.68 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, although the track was soggy after an unusually rainy season. As the car sped round on the glistening salt, the track became softer and softer and driving became more difficult, but the two intrepid drivers carried on till the record was won.
Albert Denly (1900-1989) had broken numerous speed records on motorcycles and was Eyston’s chief mechanic and reserve driver.

Eyston_flyingCaptain Eyston is a great believer in the future of the heavy-oil engine and demonstrated on Flying Spray the potentialities of this type. In 1936 he beat the World speed record for Diesel-engined cars with a mean speed over the flying start kilometre of 159.1 m.p.h. and over the flying start mile at 158.87 m.p.h. His visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1937 was remarkable for the fact that he took two cars with him and successfully attacked different records with both of them, thus completing a speed “hat trick.” In appearance, the car is very like his famous long distance record breaker, “Speed of the Wind.”

The resemblance is understandable because it was, in fact, the same car with a different engine. The caption writer was a little confused. Eyston took two engines, not two cars, to Bonneville. As MotorSport magazine explained after an interview with Eyston in 1974 – front-wheel-drive was used for “Speed of the Wind”, Eyston’s very successful record car, which had a 21-litre Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero-engine and was also used with an ex-Air Ministry 19-litre Ricardo diesel engine. ….
Both engines were used at Utah, being changed out there, the c.i.-engined [diesel] set-up being named the “Flying Spray”.

Then came ‘Thunderbolt’ – and the connection to New Zealand.


Thunderbolt is the fastest car in the World. Captain G.E.T. Eyston drove this giant car at a speed of 357.53 m.p.h. on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, on September 16th, 1938, thus breaking John Cobb’s record of 350.2 m.p.h. which was set up the day before. Thunderbolt weighs over 7 tons and is more than 30 ft. long. It is fitted with two 12-cylinder Rolls-Royce engines set side-by-side behind the driving seat. The enormous power is transmitted through a three-speed gear box to a final bevel drive without differential.

Although Cobb regained the record soon afterwards, at 368 m.p.h., ‘Thunderbolt’ was taken to the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and exhibited as a winning example of British engineering. It had a short stay before being shipped to Wellington for the Centennial Exhibition (despite the outbreak of war in Europe) where it went on display on 10th January 1940.

When that exhibition closed four months later, it was decided to keep ‘Thunderbolt’ in one of the buildings, which had been taken over by the Air Force, until the end of hostilities. By September 1946, Eyston’s record breaker had been joined in storage by several De Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft, surplus furniture, and £70,000 worth of baled wool due for export. At around 3 a.m. on the 25th the wool caught alight by spontaneous combustion, starting a fire that could be seen for miles and destroying the entire building. Thunderbolt’s charred remains lay rusting in the open into the 1950s before eventual burial in the Wellington landfill.

You can watch this newsreel of Eyston and Thunderbolt on Youtube.


Wellington panorama

One of the finest views of the city is to be obtained from Mount Victoria, and the Centennial Look-out near the summit, which is to be officially opened on Friday at 3 p.m., gives fine panoramic vistas.


On one of the piers there is a bronze bust of the Duke of Wellington, after whom the city is named.


On another pier is the bust of the founder of Wellington, Edward Gibbon Wakefield.


A further link with the Duke of Wellington is stone from the demolished Waterloo Bridge over the Thames, which the Duke officially opened* in 1817. The stone forms the base of the memorial, which consists of a concrete shelter, surmounted by a large hood. Lines pointing to places of interest round the city will be drawn on the top of the wall, while a telescope has been bought for use from this commanding spot.
Wellington Evening Post. 12 March 1940.

*The Duke didn’t open Waterloo Bridge. He accompanied the Prince Regent who performed the ceremony.

Mount Victoria is still the best place for 360° “panoramic vistas” of Wellington and should be on every tourist’s itinerary. Driving up the narrow road from Oriental Bay to the top can add to the experience! If you’re more than reasonably fit, and have the time, you might like to walk up the winding track through the “bush.”


This view looks out across Evans Bay to Wellington airport with Cook Strait beyond. The area to the right of the runway was the site for New Zealand’s Centennial Exhibition from November 1939 to May 1940. Construction of the present airport began in 1958.

To find the Centennial Lookout on Mount Victoria, walk back down the road from the car park and past the communications mast. The Lookout is on the rise to your right.

Wellington architecture #3 – the evolution of Parliament.

When New Zealand’s capital, or Seat of Government as it was known then, moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1865 Parliament’s “House of Assembly” moved in to the existing Provincial Council Chambers.


Photo: ATL – Swan, George Henry, 1833-1913. Provincial Council building, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-003739-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22494909

It was a convenient place to start but obviously not big enough. Additions to accommodate debating chambers for Upper and Lower Houses, committee rooms, the members’ restaurant (very important) and offices were added in stages until the original became part of a much bigger complex.


Photo: ATL – Parliament Buildings, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-011625-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22795018

Restricted by Sydney Street on the left and Hill Street on the right, architects had to build over the back yard. Twenty years later, the side view from Sydney Street looked like a Gothic fantasy castle made in wood.

Parl buildings_S

In the 1890s, when the overflowing Parliamentary library demanded a new fireproof home, architect Thomas Turnbull went full circle and put his masonry extension in front of the original Provincial Council Chamber.

Pre 1907 postcard image of Parliament Buildings, Wellington.

It should have been a three storey building but political bickering over cost saw it redesigned by the Government’s architect with two storeys. Turnbull resigned from the project and asked for his name to be removed from the foundation stone. Fortunately, fireproof rooms and doors remained part of the design, despite budget cuts.

Parliament fire

On 11th December 1907, the tinder-dry wooden buildings burned down. The library and most of its contents survived, was rebuilt, and can still be seen today.

Parl library

The destruction of everything else disrupted Parliament for years to come and brought about a dramatic change in the landscape. The Governor abandoned his official residence, Government House (see previous post), and it became a “temporary” House of Assembly. An architectural competition for a new building was won by John Campbell – the Government’s own architect – with a grandiose design. The shallow gully that was Sydney Street was filled in and the site levelled to accomodate it. Construction began in 1912. And then came the Great War.

Work dragged on despite the lack of manpower available but when the war ended enthusiasm waned. An already small population had been decimated by conflict and the Spanish flu pandemic, materials became difficult to source, and the country was short of funds – again. Construction stopped in 1922 when the new House of Assembly was literally half the building it was meant to be. It has never been completed.

Parliament buildings, Wellington, New Zealand.

The building you see today is only half of the original concept, which is why the entrance steps are at the left instead of in the centre. The “Beehive” Executive Wing was added in the late 1960s to make a bold statement about “modern” New Zealand.

Whether or not you think these buildings “work” together is a matter of personal taste, but they have their own story to tell and represent three distinct periods in the architectural history of Wellington.

Wellington architecture #2

From the Cyclopedia of New Zealand.

Government House, Wellington, is built on one of the most favoured sites in the City. The location is immediately between the Houses of Parliament, where the laws are made, and the Government Buildings [previous post], where they are administered. The grounds have an area of about six-and-a-half acres….. The House itself is a two-story edifice in the Italian style, 165 feet in length, and slightly less in depth, the top of the tower being eighty feet above the ground level.

Vintage postcard image of Old Government House, Wellington.

Government House up till 1868 was a very unpretentious affair, and only remarkable from other humble buildings of those days by the flagstaff and the two guns in front. Originally erected for and occupied by Colonel Wakefield, of the New Zealand Company, it became the first Government House on the removal of the Administration of the Colony [from Auckland] to Wellington [in 1865].

The present building was completed in 1871, and contains two spacious drawing rooms, which open out into each other, a dining-room, a ballroom, a billiard-room and conservatory, together with a full suite of offices for the Governor and his staff, and the Executive Council. There are upwards of twenty bedrooms, and the servants’ quarters are commodious, and arranged with all the conveniences modern ideas of comfort suggest. Ventilation has had due attention paid to it through-out, and gas and electricity are both laid on.

Govt House2

An imposing view of Government House with shops on Lambton Quay in the foreground.

The stables are situated at the south-west corner of the grounds, and are built with loose-boxes ten feet square, brick floored, and with every convenience for feed, water, etc., for ten horses. There are two coachhouses, in which are kept five carriages, and adjoining are the cottages for the accommodation of the grooms and gardeners.

Govt reserve2

This rear view taken in the 1870s shows Government House and grounds in the centre with part of the Parliament Buildings at left. A gate from Hill Street (foreground) leads down to Sydney Street. The stables are on the corner.

The out-of-door staff consists of two coachmen, and three gardeners. There is also a lodge at the main entrance, where a bombardier and three privates of the Permanent Artillery are constantly on duty, one being always on guard, and the squad being relieved at 9 a.m. every morning; there are also three of the same force always in attendance at Government House itself, one attending at the door, and the other two acting as messengers. The domestic servants consist of four employed in the kitchen, three housemaids, one schoolroom maid, two ladies’ maids, one butler, and a man and boy for odd jobs. The laundry is occupied by one of the permanent force who is employed on duty at the House.
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1897. [abridged]

Govt reserve

This photograph, copied from an old postcard, was taken sometime before 1897. Government House, at left, and the Parliament Buildings, right, are separated by the tree-lined Sydney Street, which no longer exists. I’ll explain why in my next post. The church tower in the background belongs to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Hill Street.

This fine old building lasted until 1968, by which time it hadn’t been used as a Governor’s residence for decades and was in very poor condition. It was demolished to make way for the new Executive Wing of Parliament, a controversial design by Sir Basil Spence, and a building more commonly known as the Beehive for obvious reasons.

Govt_Parl beehive

#3 on Monday.

Wellington architecture #1

Govt offices

The Government Buildings, built on newly-reclaimed land in 1876 and photographed by James Bragge soon afterwards. Wellington would continue to spread into the harbour for most of the next century.

To many, the gem of Lambton Quay, undoubtedly one of the finest structures the Dominion has to offer, is the Government Buildings, erected in 1876 to meet the needs of the rapidly growing civil service, a beautifully proportioned block somewhat resembling a wooden replica of Somerset House, and standing in grounds which, though limited, serve to enhance not only the building they surround but the whole northern end of the Quay. The building is constructed entirely of wood, and forms the largest permanent wooden structure in the world.

Govt offices 2

c. 1902. The original “ugly” corrugated iron fence was replaced by railings, and the gardens improved, in the 1890s.

And what wood! A list of the materials used – a million feet of them – sounds like a building contractor’s dream. For the main block, the framework of Tasmanian hardwood, the weatherboards and interior of kauri, For the wings, added later [1897 and 1907], the framework of rimu, the piles of totara, the weatherboards and flooring of matai, the interior finishings of kauri – an epitome of all the most precious of New Zealand forest products. The thought comes uppermost: “What forests passed beneath the axe to rear its walls!”
‘The Streets of my City’, F.L. Irvine-Smith, A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1948.

Govt offices 3

The civil service had outgrown its old offices by 1990 and left them empty. In recognition of its status as a heritage building, government sponsored restoration and conservation began four years later. Most of the interior is now leased to the Victoria University School of Law but parts of it are open to the public and well worth a visit.

The city has grown around (and above) it as cities do, and it’s a little sad to see the old building, that used to dominate its surroundings, being overshadowed by modern office blocks.

Govt offices 4

This is the first of three loosely connected posts about the New Zealand capital’s early architecture. Next – Government House, 1871.

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.”


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.


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.

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.