Auckland’s Taxi Cabs  

The arrival of Uber cabs in Auckland revolutionised taxi services in the mid-2000s. Uber’s internet application means patrons, with one tap on their mobile phone, are connected with the nearest taxi within seconds. The app also means the driver automatically knows where to pick up the passengers and, once the destination is reached, cashless payment’s made electronically: again, through the phone.  By 2018 there were 6,000 Uber cabs throughout New Zealand… and other companies are setting up in competition..

Just a hundred years ago there was a similar revolution that shook Auckland’s taxi services and, like the latter-day Uber changes, it led to the demise of many of the traditional cabbies.

Hansom Cabs await passengers on Auckland’s Quay Street, 1870
James D. Richardson – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-211

All was not well with horse-drawn cabbies in Auckland, if you believed the police. Inspector Cullen, reporting on two applications for cabbies’ licenses in 1898, told the City Council that Auckland was the only town in the colony where men of notoriously bad character could obtain licenses to drive cabs. He alleged some Auckland cabmen were acting as touts for prostitutes; they ran brothels, associated with the lowest thieves in the town and allowed their licensed cabs to be turned into brothels-on-wheels. Mr Cullen hoped for the sake of the good name of Auckland, and in the interests of law and order and morality, that the Council would be put a stop to without delay. The Traffic Inspector reported that 10 drivers had their licenses cancelled during the year. The Town Clerk explained that all applications for licenses were forwarded to the police for a report, and were frequently returned endorsed, “nothing known of the applicant”. The Council, however, decided to investigate the complaints thoroughly.

Hansom cabs in Wellington “…better behaved than their Auckland counterparts…”
Evening Post Collection – Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: 1/2-071428 F

Perhaps the City Fathers resolved to do better with the new lot of cabbies coming on… the “chauffeur” of the motorised taxicab.

For it was not a matter of if… but when…  horseless taxis would begin plying for hire in Auckland. The scene had been well-set at the beginning of the 1900s with newspaper stories appearing in local newspapers telling of the explosion of motorised taxicabs in London. They were, it was predicted, going to displace the traditional horse-drawn hansom cab and other conveyances. Some compared the change with the industrial revolution and, more recently, the introduction of the linotype which revolutionised printing.

 

Errant Cabbies in London… and Auckland

Among the stories from London were accounts of drivers swindling their passengers and, in turn, their employers. These rackets were curtailed by the installation of taximeters which automatically registered distance travelled, showing the fare incurred. No more haggling about the price. Frequent reports quoted cabbies boasting high earnings and, it was noted, they still expected a tip, a habit that continued in motorised services. Statesman Disraeli once referred to the hansom cab as “the gondola of London”. Crime, too, was featured in newspaper reports from abroad – the motorised taxicab provided a ready means of rapid getaway for those who held up banks, robbed shopkeepers or picked pockets in the street market.

Disraeli’s “Gondola of London” in Regents Park
“The London Hansom Cab, Park Road, Regents Park”, 1875,
artist unknown, watercolour, Dunedin Art Gallery

At the turn of the century downtown Auckland was the scene of scores of horse-drawn carriages, all available for hire, swarming the taxi-stands awaiting their fare-paying passengers.  Customs Street and thereabouts was a hub. It was adjacent to the wharves where passengers were leaving or joining ocean-going ships, vessels from New Zealand coastal ports and the harbour ferries. Customs Street was also next to the railway station, a good place to seek passengers arriving by long-distance or local trains.

Changes On the Way

In March 1909 the Truth newspaper, correctly, predicted the imminent arrival of the motorised cab – “to oust the cabbie, faster than the best horse on the stand”. Later that month Smith’s Garage in Christchurch introduced what it described as the first of “…the world famous London taxi-cab…” to that city, and probably New Zealand. The newspaper advertisement went on “…we feel that we have supplied a public want. It means that we have brought the price of motoring within reach of the general public, and everyone may now hire a “Taxi” for long or short distances, at any time of the day or night. The “Taxi-Cab” is built by Renault Freres, recognised as the finest motor vehicle in the world, which, for ordinary purposes, is run as a covered Landau. We can travel anywhere, and we undertake trips to Akaroa, Hanmer, Timaru, Dunedin – in fact anywhere. The public will find the cabs delightfully easy and quiet to ride in with no possibility of soiled clothes as in open cars, while, the charges are no more than with the horse-drawn vehicle. Fares are shown on the taximeter.”  By June 1909 the local Council was asked to approve a stand for 3 taxi-cabs: the new means of transport for passengers was catching on.

Southernmost Taxi Cab in the world at Bluff
The Hansom, also known as a “Growler”, had an inordinate
high “dickie seat” for the bowler-hatted driver
Te Papa Collections – Online Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

In July 1909 a reporter from New Zealand Herald newspaper was asking whether taxicabs were coming to Auckland. Chauffeurs of the city’s early motor cars  (as the drivers were known at that stage to differentiate from drivers , reinsmen, of horse-drawn vehicle) said “no… they won’t be – Auckland’s too hilly and the roads are too rough! Furthermore, judging by the few motor cars that are hired in Auckland, it won’t pay”. However some companies interested in the motor business predicted that sooner rather than later the taxicab would come to Auckland to stay, and one firm stated it would probably take the lead in bringing out some cabs. “Auckland roads were quite good enough, and the taxicab would pay handsomely. Horse-drawn cab owners, however, gave no hope for the motorised taxicab. Judging by past experiences in the way of innovations, such as the institution of motor buses, cabbies were not going to take any lead in the matter, and would first wait to see how it paid “the other fellow”. First motorised taxicabs were on Wellington streets in July 1909, soon declared “Hackney Carriages” in the by- laws which attracted a higher licence fee for the Council than private motor cars.

Motorised taxicab in Wellington, 1910

Then it was Auckland’s turn with the formation of the Auckland Taxi-Cab Company Limited, its capital heavily over-subscribed, with the promise of five taxicabs imported from Italy and available before Christmas. Led by R.W. Wade, the company advised it would charge one shilling per mile for one passenger, the fare registered by taximeter.

The Auckland City Council realised the advent of motorised taxicabs when it received an application from the Company for dedicated space, a stand, for 5 cars on the corner of Queen and Customs Streets. “Some taxicabs are here, almost ready to go” the company said, outlining its intentions, and fare structure. The Council’s wary Traffic Inspector advised that the motorised cabs should be separated from their horse-drawn predecessors until horses became accustomed to the sometimes- noisy newcomers.

The Council approved the stand… and true to its word, the company had 3 taxicabs in service in the last days of December 1909, promising 5 more cabs “soon”. It immediately capitalised on the major local event at Ellerslie, advertising “During race week cabs will leave the stand for the course every forty-five minutes”.

But the Auckland Taxi-Cab Company Limited was to survive for only a year… by March 1911 the firm went into liquidation and disposed of its five taxi-cabs. (Those eager to invest in the company at its outset and were shut out when shares were over-subscribed must have felt greatly relieved). The New Zealand Herald said “the company experienced considerable trouble, and though the public demand for this method of conveyance is all that was expected, it was found that expenses were high and bad debts many, with the result the firm went into voluntary liquidation”.

Providing Auckland’s taxicab services from March 1911 were left to one or two other companies and to individual owners. Newspaper advertisements claimed that Faithfull and Hantler “the oldest established taxicab company now in Auckland has for hire a first class landaulette and several touring cars. Phone garage in Wakefield Street, City, day or night”, and  Chas H Mitchell, Taxicab Proprietor, sought “orders at the Cab Stand (‘phone 365) and Garage (‘phone 2464)”.

The advent of the taxicab led to other initiatives. Cars suitable for conversion to taxicabs began to be advertised by agents offering larger cars. Motoring pioneers in Auckland, Skeates and Bockaert, reckoned their 10 horse-power two-cylinder De Dion was perfect for taxicab duties and sold one to a New Plymouth client, W. A. Jury of East End Livery Stables, introducing the taxicab to that city in March 1910, “the car’s ideal for the smooth roads in New Plymouth”.

1912 De Dion – “ideal as a taxi” the salesmen said

Within weeks of the first cabs appearing on the stand in Customs Street, Auckland Motoring School, of Swanson Chambers, was also “cashing in” on the new industry. It advertised in newspapers advising “vacancies for taxicab drivers will be numerous throughout N.Z. this season. Salary, £3 upwards. We have found numerous positions for our students, and know at present of positions for competent drivers. Lessons in servicing the cars. Join Day or Evening Class now forming, and better your position”.

The Firsts

Within a month of the taxicabs appearing in Auckland the first charges were laid against drivers for not being present in their cars while waiting on the stand. Four taxicabs were on the rank, but no drivers. An inspector found the 4 cabbies in a shop having a soft drink, and as he told the Court, “skylarking with a couple of girls”. The drivers were convicted and fined.

Perhaps Frank Parks could have done with a lesson or two at the Motoring School. He, it’s believed, was the first to be charged with driving a taxicab at a speed that was dangerous to the public. Police reckoned he took the corner of Symonds Street and Khyber Pass Road too fast. In court on 26th January 1910 Frank Parks pleaded not guilty but he was convicted and fined £2, and ordered to pay costs £1.5shillings.

One that got away, escaping the clutches of the law, was detailed in the New Zealand Herald, related as “a feat of motor driving as daring as it was dangerous, was attempted by the chauffeur of a taxicab last evening”. The taxicab was carrying passengers to Auckland Railway Station. They were running late to catch a main trunk train and the taxicab driver was breaking all the bylaws relating to speed in an attempt to make it to the station. “The corner was turned at a very dangerous rate”, the Herald continued, “the vehicle narrowly escaping knocking down two pedestrians. The passengers missed the train”.

Accidents

A probable “first” was the report in February 1910 of a taxicab coming to grief. The vehicle collided with a lamp post in Lower Queen Street, Onehunga, and one of the occupants fell out while the driver and other three passengers retained their seats. The lamp-post was broken, one of the cab’s wheels was wrenched off while the explanation of the accident was that the wheels of the car skidded on the tramlines at a bend in the street. No one was badly hurt.

(What this also tells us is that taxicabs were being utilised for relatively long trips –  the journey by road from downtown to Onehunga in 1910 would have been over rough, unsealed, roads subject to mud and flood)

Taxicab crashes in London were reported in New Zealand newspapers almost as often as their unintended roles in crime. An amusing account resulted after a Salvation Army officer, cycling along Edgeware Road, was knocked over by a taxicab. He wasn’t hurt but his bicycle was smashed so he summoned a policeman and violently accused the taxi driver of running him down. While the driver protested, a labourer-type who had seen the accident gave independent testimony that the cyclist was on the wrong side of the road. “Never mind that” said the Salvation Army man, excusing his actions ending with the piteous cry, “I might ‘a bin killed, I might ‘a bin killed.”

“And wot of if?” put in the son of the soil ruthlessly. ‘Yer stands up at the street corner ev’ry night shoutin’ an’ prayin’ to meet yer Maker, an’ then the first chance yer gets, yer grumbles at it.”

Amusement aside, there began a sad record of accidents involving taxicabs in London… and now in Auckland. They struck lamp posts, street verandah supports, horses, tram cars… and people. Many minor incidents were reported in local newspapers such as collisions with horses (unaccustomed to the vehicles), with a night-cart in Remuera (which resulted in a serious mess in the street and claims for compensation) and, ironically, knocking down hitching posts used by horses that the cars had replaced. And then there were the more serious ones, with loss of life.

John McConnell died of injuries sustained when he was thrown from a taxicab near the railway overbridge in Parnell. It was alleged the driver, 23 year old Rhodes Battye, swerved to his right to avoid some horses and collided with a tramway pole. Police said that there was no necessity for the driver to turn his cab across the road, as there was plenty of room for him to pass the horses, and therefore he was responsible for the death of Mr. McConnell. Battye was charged with manslaughter. His defence in court, that the taxi’s wheels skidded in the tram tracks, did not excuse him: a jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to 3 months’ jail.

An elderly man was killed in Khyber Pass Road, run over by a taxicab after, according to the driver “he suddenly loomed out in front of the vehicle”. Then, John Ballard was killed on the same road, knocked down by a taxicab and flung on to the tram tracks, run over by a following tram. An Epsom resident died at the scene of an accident on Manukau Road near Owens Road after he stepped off a tramcar and, as he crossed to safety of the footpath, was hit by a taxicab.

Special Trips

Usefulness of taxicabs for swift, comfortable, passage for special conveyance was quickly realised. Accounts tell how they became ambulances, taking the sick and injured to hospital or to doctors’ rooms. None the more embarrassing was the case of the taxicab taking John McGuinness to hospital. John was hurt after being struck by a tram in the city and a taxicab was requisitioned to take him to hospital. Instead of crossing Grafton Bridge the driver, Sylvannus Gill, travelled via Khyber Pass Road…and this was his undoing because when he got to Park Road he found it closed because of roadworks. Near Carlton Gore Road the vehicle became stuck in the deep mud… the cab could go no further and helpers carried the injured man the remainder of the way to hospital. It took 4 hours to extricate the vehicle and there was a follow-up legal claim for damages to the car. During an adjournment of the subsequent court case, Newmarket Borough Council agreed to pay damages of £5, just a quarter of that claimed, and it was accepted by the cabbie.

Police, too cottoned on to the taxicab as a ready means transport. The cabs were usually instantly available downtown to get arrested troublemakers off the street and into custody at the police station. The bylaw, that cabbies had to accept a fare if they were not otherwise engaged, was tested early-on after a driver refused to take a prisoner, a drunkard, intoxicated  and “in a state uncleanliness”, to the lock-up under escort. The case went to court and the taxi driver lost. The New Zealand Herald said it was an unreasonable judgement: drivers forced to take “drunken deadbeats picked out of the gutter” notwithstanding the drivers’ pride about caring for their expensive cars, and anyway, what of subsequent passengers getting into the soiled taxicab? “Time”, the newspaper said “for police to get their own conveyance for the dispatch of these drunks and casual offenders”.

Other Rules

The City Council more or less legislated “as needs must” to regulate taxicabs: new measures were required for the motorised conveyances.  Council set the fare structure and organised the taxi stands. By October 1912 there was also a rule that taxicabs had to display a “For Hire” flag but it was flawed, as was confirmed in Court when several cabbies were prosecuted for not showing it. In fact the bylaw more or less said the opposite to what was intended by the legislators. The clause approved a sign with the wording “For Hire” which the driver must show when his car was not for hire, and drop it to a vertical position when the car is open for engagement. The magistrate dismissed the charges advising the Council to either change the words on the flags or amend the bylaw.

Taxi drivers also found the law on their side following charges arising from a blitz to try to kerb their speed. Police were out in force on the day of the horse races at Ellerslie and stopped 20 – 30 taxi-cabs for speeding and, secondly, for passing stationary trams at excessive speeds. The bylaw about restricted speed while passing trams was held invalid and the cabbies had to pay only the speeding fines.

There were 121 registered taxicabs in the city by December 1911. As pundits had predicted, the number of horse-drawn cabs declined. But what they had not foreseen was that by February 1913 there was a glut of cars… with fewer passengers. The Council reviewed the fare structure. There was some opinion that taxi drivers knew their worth and ought to set their own fares, trip by trip. “There is so much competition,” the cabbies contended, “that no one’s going to over-charge!”  There was evidence that taxicabs were waiting-up on stands for hours until a passenger came along.  Some drivers wanted to ditch the taximeter while others said two shillings or two shillings and sixpence ought be the minimum fare, a figure they thought they could live with. The New Zealand Herald:  “The Council is trying to regulate the charges but does not take into consideration such increased expense as the increased cost of petrol, it has never made any allowance for the time lost while passengers keep cars waiting and it has not provided such roads as will reduce the wear on tyres”.

Discussion about taxicabs, their fares and drivers’ behaviour continued: in May 1913 the Automobile Association weighed in, telling the City Council that all taxicabs should have the sign “Taxi” and drivers should wear a uniform. Taxicab owners quickly replied… they already paid 5 times the 10 shilling registration fee for private cars and uniforms were not needed – “nor any other irksome measures”.

In July the Council decided a new fare structure with the basic minimum fare of 2 shillings for the first two miles, or, for time, for the first 10 minutes) for one or two passengers. The scale provided for incremental payments for longer trips, time spent or additional passengers. The cabbies objected and met with the Council seeking higher fares. By October a new taxicab schedule had been issued by the Council: the basic taxicab fare increased to 2 shillings for the first mile. It was pointed out that the fare applied only on the way to a destination, and not for the return journey to the stand.

Speeding taxicabs obviously greatly annoyed the elders of Epsom in July 1914. The speed limit for motorcars had been set a year earlier at 16 miles an hour, reduced to 4 miles an hour while taking corners. Mr F. T. Wood, chairman of the Epsom Road Board thought that the reckless driving of motors was such a menace to life that the matter should be brought before the Minister of Justice while fellow Board member, Mr H. Frost said “I think a term in gaol is the only suitable penalty.” The Board resolved to ask for stiffer penalties for those caught “furiously driving motor cars along Manukau Road – the fine of ten shillings or a pound usually inflicted by a magistrate is quite inadequate”.  Ironically this publicity in newspapers led to criticism of the Manukau Road itself. The Observer newspaper noted “There is no doubt the road, from Newmarket to Onehunga, isn’t a Roman Road -it’s a disgrace, a deplorable, sloppy highway full of holes. Each of the local bodies responsible do their funny little bits of patching according to their means, and the result is chaos. This is one of the greatest and most important highways into Auckland and many people think that it should be ‘made’, not patched, made new, lock, stock, and barrel, foundation and seal, from end to end”.

It was also in July 1914 that a taxi made the first descent of the crater on Mt Eden. The BSA car somehow got into a runaway mode while at the summit, leaving the road and careering backwards off the road down into the deep crater, coming to rest at the bottom in a crumpled state.

The BSA taxi in Mt Eden crater
P.J. Skeates, Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19140730-54-2

By this time, July 1914, 190 taxicab licences had been issued by the City Council which, to cater for the numbers,  had reserved kerb-side stands in Queen Street, Customs Street, Fort Street, Quay Street, Wyndham Street, Albert Street, Karangahape Road, Ponsonby Road, Newton Road, Symonds Street, Beresford Street, St Mary’s Road and Broadway, Newmarket. And the number of horse-cabs continued to reduce. Motorised taxicabs were taking over!

The Demise

The last horse-drawn cab in Wanganui, operated by Charles Howard, ceased plying for hire in January 1923.

The New Zealand Herald paid tribute to long-time local horse driver and coachman William McLauchlan when he died in March 1926. He came to Auckland in the late 1860s after disappointment at the Thames “gold rush” and was employed by some of the companies who had the biggest stables in Auckland, later setting up business on his own account operating carriers and buses. McLauchlan also drove cabs… as the Herald said, it was a matter of pride with him that he was part-owner of the last horse-drawn cab that plied in the streets of the city. “If a hansom cab – or a “growler” – appeared in the city streets today, it would be stared at as a curiosity, and coach-horses are not numerous on even the remotest country roads”.

The Auckland Star, in 1927, recalled the hansom cab with nostalgia – “The days of leisurely transit are still within the memories of many Aucklanders, likewise the slow motion steeds and the picturesque Jehus with piquant vocabularies. Some staid Aucklanders of to-day may recall the time when they drove to their suburban homes with an immobile driver on the box seat, completely oblivious to the fact that his fares were singing “Daisy Bell,” or some equally tuneful melody. But the old Auckland cabbie was also always urbane in manner and  exceptionally gifted in repartee, a singularly well-informed authority, and could hold his own in a pithy discussion that ranged anywhere from theology to horse-racing. To the junk heap went Auckland’s collection of cabs as the motor made a revolutionary change and the horse went back his original home on broad acres. Even the horse-drawn hearse became as obsolete as the rest!”

The Auckland Star again, reporting on a street parade to celebrate Onehunga Borough Council’s jubilee in May 1927, closed the curtain on horse-drawn cabs in Auckland when it welcomed the sight of a hansom cab pulled by a white steed. “Surely the only one left that’s not in a museum!” the paper said, “this very antiquated hansom cab came in for quite a lot of applause. In contrast with this elderly thing on wheels were, of course, several of the latest vehicles on pneumatic tyres, driven by benzine. It would naturally be futile to tell the present generation which smiled audibly at the queer cab, with its ridiculous seat at the back for the driver, that their forebears used to find hansoms quite speedy and many a romance began in its somewhat restricted quarters”.

And with the demise of the horse cab, the disappearance of both the “bell topper” or the bowler hat which became the standard wear for horsemen cabbies world-wide. “Why!” cried out a Taranaki newspaper in 1929, “even undertakers are scorning them now!”

Later…. Other Shake-ups

Jumping forward to the late 1950s, early 1960s there was one dominant cab company in Auckland:  Auckland Cooperative Taxi Society.

The name suggests an amalgamation of smaller companies, one entity organised by taxi owners in 1947 to share licensing procedures, to centralise radio-telephone despatching and to make  bulk purchases of such things as insurance, fuel and the inevitable crash repairs. Atta was one independent company that stood out, I remember, until 1960 when the Hawthorne family created the competitive Alert brand, the first time in many years there had been serious opposition to Auckland Cooperative.

Alert gave the industry a good poke and retained a fan-base of dedicated passengers but Cooperative held, by far, most cabs on the road.

Taxi drivers, apart from requiring a knowledge of Auckland streets and suburbs had to learn the “code” for the many taxi ranks. They all seemed to be shortened, mainly I suppose to save time on the radio. The rank outside the Oxford Theatre, downtown, opposite the Chief Post Office was “the Ox”, the rank at Queen Mary Avenue at Epsom was known as “Mary” and while “Civic” was easier, it became a little obscure when the rank moved some distance up Wellesley Street, no longer anywhere near the cinema!

Alert continues in business today while Cooperative has changed its brand to the nation-wide Blue Bubble Cabs, boasting 800 cabs and mobility vans in Auckland alone.

Blue Bubble and Alert have since been joined by a multiplicity of services, big (such as Corporate Cabs and Uber) and small (undertakings such as Cheap cabs, Discount Taxis, etc) all chasing custom, greatly assisted by electronic applications enabling patrons to order, and pay for, services on-line and by I Phone.

And Lime Scooters, and other similar companies, joined them in Auckland with superior digital application and the innovative “use and abandon” principle.

This heralded a major change in public transport, and the transport law, when scooters were declared not to be vehicles – meaning they could be ridden on footpaths… in fact, almost anywhere.

Lime is being joined by other scooter services.

And for those who prefer a roof over their head in Auckland’s often inclement weather, another service is emerging. City Hop offers cars at various kerb-side locations for short-term hire (by the hour) for trips around town or longer durations for travel further afield. 

Post Script

In the July 1929 edition of the New Zealand Railways Magazine Ken Alexander recalls the days of the Hansom cab. By then the era of the horse-drawn cab had long-disappeared , replaced by motorised cabs. Ken Alexander titled his sentimental piece “Whirled on Wheels and Maddened by Mechanism” and in the text captures the experience of a ride in a Hansom cab.

The sub-title, “Hansom is as Hansom Does” is a play on the words “Handsome is as Handsome Does”, a 17th century saying which reflects that good character and behaviour is more important than good looks. Alexander maintains there was much more to the old Hansom cab than its looks, including its ability to torment pedestrians!

“Hansom is as Hansom Does.

For instance, the term “hansom is as hansom does,” is no mere mental mirage to one who has experienced the emotion of hauteur induced by wallowing in the leathered luxury of the now enhallowed hansom cab, with the driver up aloft, like a human brandy-ball, whispering sweet nothings through a hole in the roof.

“Hansom is as Hansom Does” – drawing by Ken Alexander

I once could claim title to a luxurious uncle who smoked cigars and was an inveterate hansom-hound. He used to roll everywhere like a substantially upholstered caliph in wheeled hoodah. Frequently he invited me to “hop in m’ lad,” just as if I were one of the boys of the old brigade, Oh, the palpitation produced by the reek of musty leather, the mystery of the doors which closed without a suggestion of human agency, the pleasantly horrifying spectacle of the unwinking bloodshot eye which appeared at the peep-hole in the roof like the green eye of the gloating glimp*. There was romance, mystery, intimacy, serenity, in that ancient accretion of perished leather and wormy wood, and you felt that all was well, for the captain was up aloft. You had no need to brush the blur of lamp posts and fences out of your eyes: you had leisure to enjoy the envy of the humble pedestrian and to splash him well and truly with your mud”.

* glimp – originally a ray of sunlight, these days glimp refers to a laser beam

 

RCC May 2018/June 2019

Pioneer Motoring Family & the Bandit

The Skeates family arrived in Auckland from London in 1872 and engaged in many aspects of colonial business and enterprise. These were diverse activities, from farming, local government and cheese-making at Whatawhata in the Waikato, shares in the copper mining project on Kawau Island and gold mining on the Coromandel. In Auckland two of the younger Skeates brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and set up a jeweller’s shop.  Percy Robert Skeates was a handy cyclist, often placed in top events, and was elected Treasurer when the Auckland Cycle Club was formed in 1895.

Skeates Enters Business

Percy’s hobby turned into a business sometime about 1897 when he arranged to make bicycles after which he bought out Auckland Cycle Company in Customs Street.

Newspaper advertisement September 1897

It became Skeates Cycle Manufacturing Company with 3 models of cycles bearing the Skeates name going on sale. In 1898 the business was renamed Skeates and Bockaert: Mr E. Bockaert introduced two innovations – the very latest designs for cycles recently personally researched in Europe and a new look for the Queen Street shop-front and in-store fittings based on the chic of latest Paris trends. The same year, maybe early 1899, the firm imported a three-and-half-horsepower, single cylinder, belt-driven Star car, the first automobile in Auckland. The company also set up in Christchurch where, in November 1900, it is credited with “the first motor-car sale in New Zealand,” according to the “Star” newspaper, “it sold for £135”.

The Star car, imported by Skeates and Bockaert, 1899

Their business flourished as demand for cars increased and, as advertisements of the day indicate, they were principal agents for Darracq, New Parry and Oakland cars as well as BSA and Indian motorcycles.

Percy Skeates’ 6hp 1903 Darracq on a run near Tauranga c1909

By early 1920s the partnership name had changed to Skeates and White… the name most people probably recall in connection with the pioneering motor firm which was to continue for another 40 years. Skeates Jewellers also survived until relatively recently, latterly on the corner of Shortland Street and Queen Street.

 Youthful Customer

But it was in March 1913 that the name Skeates was involved in life-threatening high drama.

On the morning of March 13th the latest American-made, 35 horse power, 5-seater “New Parry” car sat, gleaming in the Queen Street showrooms of Skeates and White, downtown Auckland. But not for much longer.

A young, fresh-faced man is looking over the vehicle, engaged in knowledgeable conversation with the salesman and indicates he wants to buy it for his taxi business on the North Shore. Proprietor Percy Robert Skeates overhears the conversation and, sensing a sale, hurries out into the showroom to clinch the deal. Skeates is quickly impressed with the young man’s detailed familiarity of automobiles, their engines, maintenance requirements, and especially the capabilities of this particular model of the “Parry” and its suitability as a taxi. Skeates realises he probably has a sale.

Magazine advertisement 1912

Excusing himself, he goes to his office to check papers the customer had brought with him: correspondence with several motor companies seeking a suitable taxicab. There’s no question, the bona fides of the young man, Robin Jasper Crago, check out. He wants to take immediate delivery of the car.

Delivery Drive

A price is agreed with Skeates which will be paid cash-on-delivery at the Crago home in Takapuna. But the customer demands a tail-light is fitted before the deal is done. A suitable light is immediately sourced and fitted. Company mechanic, young Bert Hanna prepares to drive the car out of the showroom for its delivery trip to the North Shore and guesses that he may have to give the youthful new owner a few tips on how to drive. The sale finalised, Skeates says he’ll go with them to receive the cash payment once the car’s delivered.

They take the vehicular ferry Goshawk across Auckland Harbour to Devonport.

“Goshawk” en route to Devonport

N.Z. Herald – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1370-508-02

Once on the North Shore they motored on to Takapuna, continuing towards Murrays Bay and the Crago residence. The young man points to a house some way off the road… their destination. At the gateway he asks “Can we stop here so I can check the letter-box?” Bert Hanna pulls up and their customer gets out and goes behind a hedge to collect the mail. 

Shots Fired

The next thing the two in the car know is that they are being fired upon in a shower of bullets, a surprise ambush. Bert Hanna was struck first in the shoulder. Turning, he saw the gunman, Crago, was now focussing the revolver on Percy Skeates seated in the back of the car. Skeates received several shots, one to the head, and fell, twisting and struggling to get out of the car, only to receive another shot in the left side. It was Hanna’s turn again, and he received a grazed neck with the next shot, followed by several more aimed at him. He fell to the ground. Crago now goes up to the car, sees Skeates is inside leaning helpless against the back door, and deliberately opens it so that the disabled Skeates tumbles out on to the road. Crago reloads the revolver. The injured Hanna looks over at Skeates lying motionless beside the car. He appears dead, beyond help, so Hanna, fearing for his own safety, decides to make for cover in scrub beside the road. He looks back just in time to see Crago go up to the car, steady his aim against the side of the vehicle and fires, point blank, at Skeates.  Skeates remains motionless. Crago believes he has finished him because, just as quickly as it began, the shooting’s all over. Crago gets into the driver’s seat, eventually starts the car and drives off.

The Sequel

Crago motors straight to the Takapuna Police Station to report “a shooting affray” by persons in a  car out on the Silverdale Road near Murrays Bay. Crago explained that he was taking Skeates and Hanna out to see the district in a car he intended to purchase, and that he had occasion to leave the car and go into the scrub. He heard some shots fired while he was away, he said, and he returned to see Skeates lying on the side of the road and Hanna running away in the direction of Brown’s Bay. Worried about those who had been shot, he told how he got into the car and hurried back to Takapuna to inform the police. Constable Steere sent Crago to fetch Dr Fullerton and while Crago was away on this mission the injured Bert Hanna arrived at the police station… only he told a totally different story! Crago returned with the doctor and was immediately accused of firing the shots, but denied it. Hanna’s wounds were dressed and Crago drove the doctor to the scene. Police followed in another car.

They were looking for Percy Skeates’ body in the roadway but on inquiry they found he had been taken to a nearby cottage for first aid. Percy Skeates was lucky to survive the 5 shots he received, suffering injuries to various parts of his body. He will take months to recover and court proceedings are held up until he is well enough to give evidence.

Crago, who turns out to be 18 years of age, again denies he was the gunman… “…someone else must have came out of the bush with a gun… … perhaps he was after the £420 I handed over to Skeates for the car on the way to Devonport”. But police soon discovered that no money had changed hands and they found that Crago had purchased a revolver and ammunition the day before. The salesman at the gun shop who served Crago easily recognises both the firearm and the customer. And then there was the evidence of bullets taken from Skeates’ wounds, from folds in his clothing and found in the “Parry” car and at the scene. The handgun was later recovered from roadside bush. The bullets matched the gun. And where was the money coming from to pay for the car? Well, it didn’t exist. Crago lied to police that he had recently won the lottery.

eHe changed his plea once he was before the Supreme Court, admitting the attempted murder of both Skeates and Hanna. “The Motor Bandit”, as New Zealand Truth newspaper labelled him, was sentenced to 10 years’ reformative treatment. He was obviously not of such good character as painted in the documents he had dishonestly fed to Percy Skeates because at the time of the shooting Crago was still bound by a Court Order to keep the peace. This resulted from a conviction after he sent threatening letters to well-known Auckland businessman, J. J. Craig, seeking money… “or else!”.

 Prisoner Escapes

And then, 3 years later, Crago escaped from Waikeria Prison, hailed a taxi on the main road near Te Awamutu and half-strangled the driver hoping to steal the cab and make his getaway to Auckland. For this Crago received 5 years in jail and an additional 5 years of reformative treatment. Cocky to the last, at his trial he tried to complain about his malicious treatment by authorities in both Invercargill and Waikeria Prisons. “Write down your complaints and send them to me”, invited the judge, His Honour, Mr Justice Cooper, “…and I will see they get to the right people”.

Robin Jasper Crago must have survived his alleged mistreatment, his lengthy prison term and supervision, and cured his “thing” for cars. He next pops up in 1926 travelling the world promoting “the international language, Esperanto…” (as the newspaper of the time says) “… having made a study of it over many years until now he can justly claim to be a proficient exponent”.

Perhaps he hadn’t exactly wasted away those years he spent behind bars! 

Post Script

News of Auckland’s “Motor Bandit” went world-wide in March 1913. Within 2 months a man named Duvignor, in a copy-cat crime “… on the pretext that he wished to purchase a car, lured M. Dardenne, manager of a Paris motor firm, to drive him out, then fired ten shots from a revolver, severely wounding M. Dardenne. The bandit left the injured man, and bolted with the car.

Duvignor was sentenced to 20 years in jail”.

Sources:

New Zealand Herald

The Auckland Star

New Zealand Truth

Auckland Libraries Collection

Google.

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

RCC  2015