While looking into the history of the Onehunga Volunteer Fire Brigade I came across numerous occasions when it answered calls to outbreaks at the Onehunga Woollen Mills on Neilson Street, Te Papapa. I realised the Mills played an important part not only in Onehunga’s development, but contributed to the economy and well-being of Auckland and the Colony.

Illustration of the new Onehunga Woollen Mills
Auckland Star 17th October 1887

Background

The mills supported the local economy and sheep farmers, they encouraged improving quality of the wool-clip and, when New Zealand was at war, supplied military fabrics. On top of which the Mills produced quality woollen consumer products for markets at home and abroad

Then in late 2018 I discovered the premises were being demolished, all but 2 small buildings right on Neilson Street which are protected by Heritage Order. The 11 acres (4.5 hectare) site was cleared, the Onehunga Woollen Mills no more. They deserve their own story.

Beginnings

The story must begin with the raw product, wool. Until the 1850s raw product was imported from Australia and England: but much more commonplace, worth many times the value of raw wool, were finished consumer goods shipped mainly from England.

Meanwhile flocks of varieties giving best wool and meat, and which flourished in New Zealand conditions, were being developed. The Leicester was crossed with Merino. Romneys and Southdowns were also favoured. Pedigrees were imported to bolster breeding stock.

Wool began to be regularly bought and sold in January 1845 when well-known Wellington merchant, Peter Hervey, advertised in the “New Zealander” stating he was a buyer of New Zealand wool. By the early 1850s auction sales in Wellington had begun with reports that “Hervey, Johnston, and Company’s wool sale was attended by a large number of buyers, and the different qualities of wool realised the highest rates yet obtained in the colony”. Washed fleece wool from two Wairarapa stations, Russell’s and Hickson’s, fetched highest prices. Other merchants were quick to join the trade, though it’s noticeable that some sales were postponed or cancelled, perhaps indicating lack of supply – or that some farmers still preferred to export their woolclips for sale in Australia or England.

Auckland Wools

Wool sales followed in Auckland, but a little later. Alfred Buckland advertised the first such in  October 1858, he “ begs to inform the Wool Growers of this Province, that he proposes holding an Auction for the Sale of Wool in Auckland, sometime in December next, and solicits their attention to it as the most legitimate means for its disposal, ensuring the best price to the producer of the best article. Abundant Storage including insurance provided. Cash advances on the clip previous to the sale”.

The sale, hailed by the “New Zealander” newspaper as the first in the Province and the Colony, was held on 22nd December 1858. Mr. Alfred Buckland is fairly entitled to the credit of having initiated public wool sales in Auckland – in New Zealand, in fact; and already the experiment has worked with great success, not only in testing the real average or times’ price, but also in leading to the wool of this Province being brought to market for shipment home (to the United Kingdom) in a greatly improved condition”

Alfred Buckland’s enterprise was soon quickly copied by at least 3 other local auctioneers: to help starve competition Buckland immediately added sale-dates to his annual December auction.

The developing industry was delivering an increasing yearly woolclip. More farms emerged from bush-clearing, flocks multiplied, wool quality was enhanced and with one or two hiccups, higher prices were realised.

Wool from Waikato on its way to the mills in Auckland
G. F .Neligan – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19090107-14-1

Farmers relied on their woolclip: the market for sheep meats they produced was depressed, without improvement until 1882 when revolutionary refrigerated cargoes allowed the export of frozen carcasses to wider markets abroad, mainly the United Kingdom.

The Wool Industry 1870

Why not process the wool locally, adding value, rather than sending the raw clip aboard and returning it as woollen goods? This was a question often posed. It was answered in 1871 when Ross and Glendinning Limited opened the Mosgiel Knitting Mills, the first, followed by another plant at Kaikorai and then other companies established mills at Kaiapoi, Roslyn, Oamaru, Ashburton, Napier, Wanganui and Petone.

Mosgiel Woollen Mills, the first in New Zealand, pictured 1876
Ministry of Culture and Heritage

There was sufficient raw material – wool purchased at local auction – to meet the market’s appetite. Occasionally imported wools were mixed with local yarns to meet special orders. The Kaiapoi Mill required enlargements almost as soon as it began operations with many more staff taken on. A night shift was begun to help meet demand and public tours of the works were curtailed except on Saturdays.

In Kaikorai a township was formed around the mill with sections sold to employees, while Mosgiel mill owners invested heavily to replace the wooden premises with modern brick ones. Other mills reported brisk business. Then Mosgiel, short of product, leased the Kaikorai mill to help fulfil increasing orders. The New Zealand Herald, March 1883, reported the American Consul’s speech:  “All the woollen mills established in the South Island have been successful to a degree far beyond the expectation of their founders”. Already about 7,000 bales of wool are consumed annually by the mills and the goods manufactured were top notch. Wellington businessmen announced they were going to have a woollen mill and investment was subscribed, but the idea fell through when no one came forward who knew the business and there were procedural difficulties over several years. The group purchased land at Korokoro for the venture and the foundation stone was eventually laid in November 1885. At the ceremony the Premier opined that more mills would not result in competition… but each mill would specialise.

Legislation

The woollen mills are credited with the first factory legislation in New Zealand. The Employment of Females in Workrooms and Factories Act of 1873 was aimed at protecting women workers in the mills, giving them an 8 hour day, 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings. It also listed public holidays. Subsequent amendments allowed them to start at 8am and took away the necessity of Saturday hours. Slack mill owners were found not to be complying with the law by a Royal Commission in 1878: they often sent work home with female employees to be done at night: this outwork was not covered by the Act. New legislation provided for a 48 hour week, then reduced maximum hours to 44 by 1914. Measures already introduced in 1901 were designed to protect women from hazardous chemical processes within the mills.

What about Auckland?

William Archibald Murray, a farmer of Piako, wrote to the Editor of the Thames Advertiser, and other newspapers, saying it was about time Auckland had its own woollen mills, and “while investors pooh-pooh the idea, returns on Southern mills were better than 10 per cent”.

In its leading article the Daily Southern Cross newspaper, May 1873, on the need for more employment opportunities for young people observed “Woollen mills have been established in other provinces. There is no province better situated than Auckland for such works being successfully begun. Labour is more plentiful and cheaper here than in Otago, where a woollen factory is progressing with rapidity and financially”.

Other talk among potential investors came to nothing. Rather than Auckland, there was a suggestion woollen mills would do best near Warkworth at rural Mahurangi, a far cry from the mooted “urban” location in Auckland’s southern district, Onehunga. Raglan locals, too, thought they might attract mills to establish there while Whangarei was also mentioned as a possible location.

Onehunga – Ideal site 

Locations for potential woollen mills pose a number of “must haves” and Onehunga ticked most, if not all, the boxes. First, there was ample land for the mills, even with expansion, on the proposed site on the foreshore of the Manukau Harbour known as Pumpkin Flat on Slaughterhouse Road… generally described these days as Te Papapa. 11 acres were available, flat and well-drained. It could have its own wharf to facilitate shipping to and from the mills. Mills require copious supplies of water, readily available through a bore on the property that tapped into underground sources near Captain’s Springs (as was) which still provide Auckland’s citizens with first-class quality water (average 21 million litres each day in 2019).

Labour for the mills was available from the rapidly-expanding Onehunga and surrounds: mills provided work for the district’s skilled tradesmen, for youth and for women who had left school and awaited marriage. A connection to the rail would have been possible: the nearby branch line from Auckland to Onehunga had opened in 1873.

Onehunga, 1870
Auckland War Memorial Museum

With an ideal site and burgeoning business to date by other New Zealand mills, along with partial protection by tariffs, it seemed a no brainer that Auckland should have a woollen mill, and Onehunga was the ideal site.

An Auckland Manufactory?

Interest was stirred up in July 1879 when it was reported that R. L. Newsome was in Auckland investigating the site for a woollen mill and interested in setting up a company, the Auckland Woollen Manufacturing Company Limited. He had extensive experience setting up and managing mills overseas and furnished details of cost of establishment and ongoing costs. Within days a meeting of interested investors was held, Newsome provided more detail and it was decided to go ahead with the proposal to form a company with “shares held by the many rather than a selected few”.  Subsequent meetings failed to see a company floated.

A year later there were reports from Ballarat, Australia, that Newsome was disassembling a woollen mill there, the components to be shipped to Auckland, reassembled and got to work. The New Zealand Herald said “…there is a fair prospect of something taking place that will tend to establish another local industry in our midst”. This, also, came to nothing.

Solid Moves

A prospectus in the name of the North New Zealand Woollen Manufacturing Company was published in May 1885, welcomed by the New Zealand Herald advising “a large and influential directory of promoters”. Raglan folk said they would subscribe if the works were established near their town. The prospectus mentioned company representation in Hawkes Bay, perhaps designed to cool interest in a local, competing, mill there. The very next month the Government said it was going to increase tariffs on imported woollen goods to protect local manufacturers.

Company matters were resolved at a meeting in October where the Chairman of provisional directors said uptake of shares had been solid, remarking “…when the formation of the Company had been first proposed, it unfortunately happened that the citizens were more seriously interested in what appeared an inevitable European war. The question was therefore shelved”. He went on to say sites for the mills were being surveyed.

Investigations over, further progress was reported in December 1885 when the Company purchased the 10 acres (4.5acres) of Mr Dunaghy’s land, Pumpkin Flat, on the foreshore of the Manukau Harbour which earlier had been assessed as an ideal site. It fronts the present Neilson Street, some two miles east of Onehunga’s main shopping centre, waterfront otherwise occupied by timber yards and mills, ship construction, a tannery, brickworks and an abattoir.

The mills would add to Onehunga’s industry such as Kauri timber mills
Burton Brothers – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections JTD-19L-01225

The purchase involved terms which delayed some payments to Mr Dunaghy and included his buying shares. Further stock in the company was still available so Onehunga residents were canvassed and immediately took up 20,000 shares and while most locals welcomed benefits of the new industry, a correspondent to the local newspaper pleaded for an efficient smoke stack… it had been industrial smoke and smog in a town in England that led to the writer’s emigration to New Zealand!

The Mills Appear

Auckland architect William Skinner (designer of St Paul’s Church Symonds Street and Grand Hotel Prince’s Street) was commissioned to design the buildings. He was an old resident of Auckland having worked in the building industry and studied at Science College in his younger days in England. He served in the forces during the New Zealand Land Wars and then pursued architecture.

The foundation stone for the Mills was laid in September 1886 and Auckland-based contractors, Keyes Brothers, began construction in brick, mostly single-storey premises with iron roofing and a tall octagonal chimney.

Original part of the Mills fronting Neilson Street
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection 957-687

Two of these original buildings were more or less classic factory designs of the time: medium- pitched roofs with round, louvered, vents in the end-gables and finished with finials and flourishes. (These are two buildings right on the Neilson Street frontage have survived demolition, protected by a Heritage Order).

Meantime, machinery had been ordered from local suppliers (steam engines, boilers, shafts and gearing) and from England (latest machinery, drying, dyeing equipment and looms).

Platt Brothers, est. 1821, supplied much of the equipment
Grace’s Guide

Directors were persuaded of the financial benefits of adding a carding machine enabling worsteds and fine coatings to be made.

Carding Equipment, reform.com

The company began buying raw-stock, wool, in preparation for the testing and opening of the mills: notably a farmer moved his flock from the South Island in order to better service the company’s needs.

The New Zealand Herald’s reporter visited the site in April 1887 and wished that progress towards shareholders paying their dues equalled the rate the buildings were being fitted out and equipped, almost ready to begin work. Other commentators believed the company had been under-capitalised.

The Governor, Sir George Grey, visited the works in August 1887 and expressed amazement at how many hitherto menial processes had been mechanised.

Spanner in the Works

Parts of the machinery could not be adjusted properly, threatening delays in opening the mills. Enter an aging resident to put things right, and a woman at that! Matilda Webb was born near Dursley, Gloucestershire in England, the daughter of a family steeped in the wool and fabric trade for generations. It was a given that Matilda would learn the craft and at the age of 12 joined her father’s mill in Dursley. She married a weaver in 1835, Samuel Furley, a man who worked in Oldham, centre of the milling districts and home of Platts, the company which supplied the equipment for Onehunga mills.

In the early 1840s the Furleys came to Auckland, at first in business in Queen Street and in 1844 moved to Onehunga where, among other businesses they owned a bakery, general store and the Royal Exchange Hotel until it burned down in 1871. Samuel pursued his real estate business across Auckland, leaving Matilda to see to the businesses. She became a leader in the community, with her church and with various charities. In the 1860s she prepared shelter for women and children when it was thought an invasion by Maori was imminent. She was a foundation member of the Onehunga Ladies Benevolent Society. Samuel died in 1878: Matilda carried on in the bakery in Queen Street until the 1890s.

Matilda Furley
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 957-509

When there was trouble in the mills with the brand-new machinery it is said that Matilda went to work. Recalling her days in the mills in England, she looked at the equipment that had been assembled after arrival from Platts in Leicestershire. She detected that an error: the assembly had been wrong. Once she got to work with her spanner (and those of the engineers!) the problem was rectified and the machinery was humming. Matilda Furley died in October 1899 and lies in St Peter’s Churchyard, Onehunga.

Underway

After Matilda’s intervention, mill manager Mr George Ballantyne reported in the first week of October 1887 that trial manufacturing had been carried out, some high-quality tweed had been made and was on display in a downtown tailor’s shop-window. “It’s gratifying to learn that the woollen industry is likely to flourish in Auckland,” the Auckland Star newspaper enthused.

The mills were officially opened mid-October 1887 with a crowd of about 500 people on hand to see manufacturing in action… the Chairman of Directors, Robert Barstow, thanked workers who had given their half-holiday to tend the machines in order to show off all aspects of production… “you could have chosen to go to the races just down the road, but you are here and that’s appreciated,” he told the crowd.

The Auckland Star heralded the opening of the Mill with a drawing.

Auckland Star 17th October 1887

Newspaper reports said that, as of opening day, the company held orders for £1,000 worth of goods. The Auckland Star said “…every department is in apple-pie order, the machinery is of the latest pattern, the employees appear to be thoroughly conversant with their duties, the manager is an experienced man, and the fabrics which the Company so far have turned out are equal to the best tweed that is to be found in the market… …success, however, can be considerably facilitated if the public will but help in two ways. In the first place they should make themselves shareholders of the Company. Its capital consists of 50,000 shares of £1. So far only 23,000 shares have been taken up by 700 shareholders, leaving 27,000 still available. The public may also assist by purchasing the Company’s goods”.

This was facilitated when, just 2 weeks later, Smith and Caughey’s downtown store was advertising

in Auckland newspapers that they were displaying “…their first delivery of tweeds from the Onehunga Woollen Mills, in stylishly made and well-finished Gentlemen’s Suits, at 47s 6d. These are the new mills’ first-productions, and can only be obtained in ready-made clothing at the above establishment – S. & C. hold the largest and best assorted stock of boys’, youths’ and men’s colonial and imported clothing and mercery in Auckland”.

Auckland Star 3 December 1887

Advertisements not long after offered a choice of “25 of the choicest patterns produced at Onehunga Mills…”

A side-line industry was spawned when an entrepreneur found a simple way to make tweed-covered buttons, previously imported from England at great expense. He sourced the tweed from Onehunga Mills.

The mills began sourcing raw materials at Auckland wool auctions – bidding up to procure merino wools among the 27 bales purchased: “which is evidence that at least one industry is progressing,” said the Auckland Star newspaper.

Further modernity came to the Mills in January 1888 when the place was lit throughout by Edison electric lighting.

What Could Go Wrong?

But the Edison lights in the mills could not overcome an emerging dark period for the business. While advertisements for the mills’ products continued, there was no hiding a general down-turn in the economy. Reflecting on this, one critic said the worsteds turned out at Onehunga were too up-market and expensive and that more every-day, reasonably-priced, fabrics would do better. As the Star pointed out, “shareholders have not taken up available stock and others have said the company is under-capitalised”. Others noted the large number of woollen mills for the relatively small colony. The press published questions of exploitation at the mills with “girls allegedly called on to work 48 hours each week and boys 66 hours”. The Premier replied that, if this was true, the Government might have to legislate against it.

The company’s annual report in February 1888 showed a profit of £190 for the first three months’ operations, saying profits would have been higher but for a fire which swept through the dyeing works the previous November. While damage was covered by insurance, processing was disrupted until repairs could be made. At the Company’s annual meeting chairman,  Robert Barstow, encouraged directors, shareholders, indeed all Aucklanders, to “buy Onehunga woollen products”, noting that while he was wearing an Onehunga worsted suit, not many others at the meeting were. “I’m proud of the product,” he said, “and I’m willing go to my grave dressed in an Onehunga worsted suit!”

In March there was a change of company secretary, Arthur D. Bennett was replaced by Joseph Barber who won the position from some 90 applicants.

 

“A very extraordinary case” 

Anyone wondering about the circumstances of Mr Bennett’s resignation had only to watch the civil court list: he sued the company for £480 for “cash spent and services rendered in the formation of the defendant company, North New Zealand Woollen Manufacturing Company Limited.”   In court the company alleged in a counter-claim that Mr Bennett had spent about £650 on account of the business without Board approval: “a one man band” incurring liabilities. Bennett, the company said, had hired part-timers to canvass sales of shares in the company among other unapproved expenditure. It emerged the account-books were found to be “in a jumble”. The judge, Justice Gillies, said “the cash book’s cooked, more likely!”

Justice Gillies: “The company’s cash books are cooked!”
Henry Winkelmann – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1-W14

The Judge added up Bennett’s legitimate claims, set them against the Company’s losses and ordered Bennett to pay the difference to the company, £370. “No servant of a public company,” Judge Gillies said, “is entitled to dispose of the moneys of that company without express authority”.

What the New Zealand Herald labelled as “a very extraordinary case” had concluded.

Well, not quite. Arthur Dunbedin Bennett could not raise the £370 and the Sheriff ordered the sale of contents of Bennett’s Parnell home, furnishings and fittings, in order to satisfy the Court’s judgement.

 

Deterioration, Winding-Up, Sale

Meantime the company’s financial state was not good. This may have been blamed in part on the past Secretary’s book-keeping, the set of accounts which had been inherited by the new company secretary and which had been described in Court as inadequate, muddled and “in a mess”. It was later revealed that instead of a profit of £190 shown in the annual accounts, the correct figure was a loss to the tune of £500.

Perhaps another indication of the situation arose when shares in the company, advertised for sale by auction, were passed in, unsold.

Despite ongoing assurances that the mill was maintaining, and bettering, its output, things were turning sour.

Out of the blue, notice of a shareholders’ meeting was given in September 1888 to consider the motion “that the Company cannot, by reason of its liabilities, continue its business, and that it is advisable to wind up the same and, accordingly, that the Company be wound up voluntarily”. This

must have shocked many investors, having earlier heard that trading had been profitable and operations continued at full tilt.

The meeting postponed any action by a few days, to allow further consideration and in the hope preference shares would be purchased, ameliorating the financial situation.  Letters to the Editor supported continuation, hoping the small shareholders would survive rather than the business being taken over by a few bulk holders.

A meeting of Onehunga shareholders in the company was told the plain facts when the chairman, Mr. J. G. Hutchison, said “…the whole difficulty is to meet the liability of £11,000 with our bank, and if any person has a suggestion to make, I will be glad to hear it. When the company offered preference shares a short time ago, I offered to take 100, in addition to 150 I already held, but the response of the shareholders was so apathetic that the directors abandoned the idea. If all shareholders had accepted preference shares, funds would have been provided, and the present difficulty avoided”. Local butcher, citizen, borough councillor, and later Mayor, Daniel Neilson, said “I am very sorry for the small shareholders who had given their all to establish a factory in the town, and to give Onehunga a start. Those were the people who would suffer, for they had struggled hard to take up a few shares, and were quite unable to take up the preference shares which were offered”. The meeting was also told another company had been registered, ready to acquire the mills.

 

Daniel Neilson, butcher, whom Neilson Street is named after
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

Then on 27th September 1888 the adjourned shareholders’ meeting resumed. Press reports said “… a long desultory and somewhat recriminative discussion ensued, after which it was resolved to wind up the Company voluntarily, and Messrs. Robert Barstow and Joseph Barber (the secretary) were appointed liquidators”.

Blame: Head before Heart

The New Zealand Herald made it plain. “It is a great pity that the Company should be in its present difficulties. But these do not show that the enterprise is a mistake… …it is, indeed, an “old, old story” in the history of companies in New Zealand – it is thought that it would be a very good thing to establish a company for some purpose. Profit and patriotism are the motives and the objects in view. How much profit and how much patriotism it is always difficult to tell. The North New Zealand Woollen Company committed the mistake of starting an enterprise for which £30,000 was required with half of that amount. The remainder had to be borrowed. A large proportion of the calls made could not be recovered. As a matter of course the entire deficiency of capital had to be made up by borrowed money, interest at the rate of eight per cent. In yesterday’s meeting we have the inevitable result of this borrowing policy”.

On losses, the Herald was sanguine – “…those who went into the company from patriotic motives, and who cannot go into the new company, must simply derive what satisfaction they can from that circumstance. It’s certainly not fair to expect any new industry to succeed, handicapped as was the North New Zealand Woollen Company”.

For Sale

On the day after the decision to windup the company – 28th September 1887 – the liquidators advertised the business for sale. “Tenders are invited for the purchase of the Freehold Land, Buildings, Machinery Plant and Stock, as now in full work at the woollen mills, Onehunga”. The liquidators were also rounding up all the company’s creditors. And those shareholders who had not paid for their allocated stocks were pursued in the Resident Magistrate’s Court. Most investors settled out of court.

Ironically, on the same day that the mills were advertised for sale, the Bank of New Zealand held a special meeting to acquaint its shareholders, and everyone else, that it had made unfortunate decisions incurring huge losses. Directors were asking for approval to re-finance to the tune of £1,000,000. After what was described as “trenchant and outspoken proceedings’ the re-capitalisation was approved. And within a week two other local commercial undertakings were in difficulties, and collapsed.

While the mills continued to work at capacity to meet demand, the tenders for their sale were considered. At the end of November it was announced “no deal”.

 

New Owners

Then a number of Auckland commercial men, including Mr. John Burns and others who had been investors in the failed  company, bought the assets of the company and reconstructed it under the title of the Onehunga Woollen Company Limited. It was said Burns and associates paid £12,000 for the going concern. In April 1889 C. Henderson was appointed company secretary and James Park became manager. He had worked in mills in the United Kingdom and Australia and came to New Zealand to work in mills in the South Island and then at Onehunga.

In February 1891 the New Zealand Herald, taking stock of operations, reported “… the company is progressing successfully, and the factory is working full time, with a good local demand for the stock. Recently £2,000’s worth of new machinery has been imported, comprising carding-engines, twilling and dressing machines, which will enable the whole staff to be fully employed during the regular working hours. Wool for the ensuing season’s operations has been all purchased… ….the whole of the manufactured products are bought by the low wholesale firms, with the exception of a small quantity sent to Canterbury. The way the Government encouraged the woollen industry was to charge £203 duty on the machinery lately imported, although it could not possibly be constructed in the colony, and this handicapped the Onehunga Woollen Company by that amount”.

 

The Wash-up

Then, in June 1891, agitation by shareholders – creditors of the former company – led to a meeting at which they sought an up-to-date balance sheet and looked for progress on a pay-out. They wanted to see what returns, if any, might be in the offing. A formula was set and reluctantly agreed-to to divvy up the available funds… but with criticism that it had been 2 years since the assets were sold without progress reports and with questions about liquidation expenses.

 

The Mills Flourish

In November 1891 the company began displays of their products at shows, notably at the Auckland Provincial Agricultural Association’s first event at Potter’s Paddock, Epsom. The New Zealand Herald noted “…The Onehunga Woollen Company has a display of tweeds, worsteds, blankets, etc., which appeared to be equal to the best imported”. From that date the company exhibited at many shows and markets throughout the Province and beyond. In 1898 the company showed off its new loom, part of a working display at the Auckland Industrial and Mining Exhibition. Despite presentations by other woollen mills, Onehunga took out the prize for “general excellence of exhibit”.

Typical display at A and P Shows
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19070718-12-1

The mills continued to contribute to the pastoral economy… in November 1899 James Park, on behalf of the Onehunga Mills paid a record price at the annual auction for a bale of wool. It was from Mr Climo’s Hunua farm, the clip from his Shropshires. Park paid one shilling a pound-weight compared to the top price the previous year of seven pence per pound.

In 1900 the works hosted a tour of the Governor, Lord Ranfurly. He was told 100 staff working two shifts each day to produce goods for which the company had forward orders from local firms for 3 months.

In 1902 Manager James Park died (he helped set up the mills) and his son John took over for a period, during which he on an overseas study tour and to order new equipment. Once he had supervised installation of the machinery he resigned to return overseas. C. Miler from Petone took over.

 

Liquidated Again…

Onehunga Woollen Mills went into liquidation in June 1905. As before, the going concern was offered at auction: working woollen mills on just over 10 acres (4 hectares) of freehold land, “one of the largest manufacturing businesses offered in Auckland of late…” said the Auckland Star.

The enterprise, to be known as Onehunga Woollen Company, was purchased by R. Burns, of John Burns and Company, who paid £17,500. The Burns family had been part of the syndicate that made the earlier purchase.

 

The official party arrives at the mills’ Neilson Street entrance,
the buildings shown are those now protected by Heritage Order.
N. Z. Graphic Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19060127-37-4

In 1906 the mills were honoured with a visit by the Governor, Lord Plunkett, who motored out to Te Papapa for a tour of the works accompanied by the Mayor of Onehunga, Angus Gordon, the Chairman of the woollen mills company, R.G. Burns and the manager C Miller.

…and Liquidity

Onehunga Woollen Company was startled to receive a mammoth water bill in April 1915, an account for 397,000 gallons consumed in two months to the end of March. For comparison, the quantity for a similar period the year before was just 25,000 gallons. The supply was not used for industrial purposes but consumed by employees as potable drinking water. The Company disputed the bill saying the meter must have been faulty and pointing out that staff members could not possibly have consumed the enormous volume. At first the Council was insisting on full payment, there was further argument and the outcome is not recorded.

 

Business as Usual

The Mills resumed exhibiting at A and P Shows, the presentation always received good reviews. Representatives of the mills, often Mr Burns himself, attended local wool sales and made purchases. In 1906 the manager C.C. Millar left for a new job in mills at Paramatta, Australia and John Simpson took over.

And there were the normal occurrences in business – the mills closed for half a day in March 1906 because they ran out of coal, the result of Railway delivery problems, there were several accidents at the mills with cut hands and arms. But a more serious mishap in July 1906 took the life of 20 year old Alfred Wadman. He had sustained a rugby injury to a leg in earlier days and while at work in the mills somehow received a blow to the same leg. He was hospitalised but the limb was poisoned and he died a few days later.

In 1908 the company mounted a major display as part of the Auckland Exhibition, taking over the whole of a downtown shop window and placing in it one of the largest looms the company owns and putting it to work, powered by a petrol engine. The show attracted streams of onlookers.

In 1909 a huge new store was erected and in 1912 new buildings were erected to house a new power plant, a suction gas engine, which doubled the capacity available within the works.

 

Death of Owner and Wartime

Mr John Burns, of John Burns and Company the well-known Auckland merchants, died in November 13 1913. As chairman of the board of directors and main investor, he was virtually the owner of the Onehunga Woollen Mills. Reports of his funeral say the whole staff of the Mills and the city warehouse turned out to respect his memory and joined the procession to St Andrews Church in Epsom for the burial. Mr Burns’ honesty and philanthropy were remarked on.

First hints of conflicts abroad are signalled by the works and their employees contributing to various relief and patriotic funds: they always seemed generous donors. Then, once war was declared in 1914 there was a huge demand on the mills with orders from England for woollen materials, khaki in particular. Material produced at Onehunga was made into garments in Wellington and shipped abroad. When troops began to be mobilised from New Zealand, came an even bigger demand.

Wool was part of the War effort. Wairarapa Archive

By October Mr J. Burns, Junior, announced that practically all output from the mills would be for the military.  “The Minister of Munitions and Supplies laid before us,” he said, “a list of his requirements for the year 1915. His words were in effect ‘If the mills are not prepared to supply what I want, my hands will be forced, and I will have to take over the mills’”. John Burns went on “…to manufacture all the material required by the military, 12,000 bales of greasy wool will be required. Uniform material alone will run into a million yards, and over-coatings into a similar amount. Nearly one million blankets also are needed. Crossbred wool is mainly required, but finer wools are used in the manufacture of officers’ uniforms and underclothing. The work will be split-up among the New Zealand mills”.  The war also forced the mills management to ask the military to excuse those from active duty who were employed in vital occupations, like dye-workers. Some applications were granted.

Throughout the war social events were organised for mill workers… an annual picnic, ball along with other get-togethers at the works. The mills continued sponsoring staff members who formed various sports teams and engaged in local and provincial competitions. And when Liberty Loans were launched by the government as a means of raising funds for the war- effort, the company agreed to help employees buy the bonds with interest-free loans, repaid out of their fortnightly pay packets.

Probably unconnected with the wartime precautions, but in September 1915 the mills management offered to build a fire bell tower to enhance alarm of fires in Te Papapa. The condition was that the facility would be on mills’ property. The bell would have come into its own had it already been in place because in early October the Beeson’s 7-roomed house caught fire. Onehunga Fire Brigade rushed to the scene but flames had taken over. (the mills had a fire of their own in 1918, quickly dealt with by the fire brigade).

A product designed to benefit the war effort had its genesis at the mills when in 1916 Professor Worley from Auckland University experimented with a waterproofing process. He conducted tests at the mills with the outcome that his successful invention was used by the military, applied to uniforms, tents and other materials.

During the latter war years and until 1920 the New Zealand Government, sole vendor, purchased all available wool and, where appropriate sold it to Britain the preferred (only?) buyer at a fixed price.

 

Unusual Case

The Mills Company was involved in a court case when Frank College sued it for £37 damages in 1916. The Court heard that Mr College was driving a horse attached to a spring cart along Neilson Street when the animal shied at two large boilers which had been left on the side of the road by the Mills workers. The cart and harness were damaged, and the horse ran on to the railway. Most unfortunately at that particular instant a train was passing, hit the horse and killed it.

A train departs Auckland for Onehunga
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 957-166-1

The magistrate heard evidence from sixteen witnesses and visited the scene of the accident. He then gave judgment in Mr College’s favour, awarding £31 and £3 costs.

Post War and New Owners

At the end of 1918 the mills were told the military no longer required supply of uniform items and production returned to rugs, blankets and worsted and other materials.

In January 1919 the company directors declared their usual half-yearly dividend, at the rate of 10 per cent per annum and manager, Mr. J. Simpson, reported that the output of the mill was larger than for the corresponding six months of the previous year. “This is notwithstanding the fact that forty-four of the hands were laid up with influenza during the period under review. And on behalf of the employees I thank the directors for their action in paying the employees who were away owing to the influenza, (1918 epidemic) on full pay during their absence”. The directors decided, in view of the good work which has been done by the employees during the previous twelve months to give them a bonus of a fortnight’s wages.

Internationally, special arrangements were put I hand to gradually dispose on the markets a stockpile of wool left over following hostilities. Despite drip-feeding this mountain of wool into global markets, the price of wool suffered. Notwithstanding, retail prices held but this did not deter post-war enthusiasm with Onehunga Mills, and all others in New Zealand, in May 1919, saying they could not keep up with the demand for dress and suit fabrics and overcoating.

On June 30th 1919 Sargood, Son and Ewen, Ltd. took over the controlling interest in the mills. The arrangement did not involve any change in the management or the 100 members of staff, the business to continue under the present title, Onehunga Woollen Mills Limited with a new board of directors. Sargood, Son and Ewen was founded by (later Sir) Frederick Sargood in Melbourne in 1848 as a soft goods merchant, the business quickly spreading to all main centres across Australasia. In 1863 Sargood sent one of his employees, John Ewen to set up in New Zealand with a store in Dunedin, later supported by Percy Sargood, Frederick’s son. The New Zealand business was thus known and Sargood Son and Ewen Limited.

The mill was under new ownership, but in 1927 it was farewell to one of the original owners, William Greenwood, who died aged 90. A pioneering colonist, he arrived in Auckland in 1841 and bought land at the town’s very first sale. He built the first St Pauls Church in present Emily Place and is remembered by the name of the Epsom district, Greenwoods Corner.

1928 advertisement
New Zealand Herald

In the 1930s the world-wide depression struck. Wool prices fell and so did the sales of woollen goods. Onehunga Mills tried to excite interest with a series of newspaper advertisements, tugging on the local patriotism.

One special product was manufactured about his time which proved a good seller – air-cell blankets for babies. The weave was light-weight and loose-knit, the air in and around the fabric said to be beneficial to babies and acknowledged as such by leading pediatricians at home and abroad.

The Aircell label
Trademe

It was later thought that research showed the “breathable” blanket, by being wrapped around the baby, helped avoid “cot deaths” or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The cot blankets are still made today, some in wool, others of cotton.

Further innovation when the mills advertised their goods were moth-proofed, but the process did not seem popular.

New Zealand Herald, 13th December, 1933

In January 1934, well known Auckland businessman, Robert Burns, died suddenly. He had a long-time interest in the mills since his father became involved in 1887 and had been a director of the company for years.

Onehunga Woollen Mills in the mid-1930s
N Z Herald – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 957-34

The company’s fine woollen products were put to different use in April 1934 when blankets from the mill were used by thieves to muffle effects of an explosion when they ignited a stick of gelignite to blow the safe open. The thieves had broken into the premises between visits by the night watchman, who did not hear the explosion. The proceeds were only £9 in cash.

Not much more than a year later the mills were broken into for a third time in recent times despite electric security lights being installed around the perimeter of the buildings. Goods to the value of £55 had been stolen, woollen articles of the best quality, such as choice Merino rugs and blankets, “…indicating…” the New Zealand Herald said, “…that the thieves had time to examine the stock in a leisurely manner”. Police later recovered 56 rugs and 3 blankets… they were part of a vast array of exhibits in Court when a 53 year old man appeared on multiple charges. He was jailed for 3 years.

The sprawling Onehunga Mills 1930s
N Z Herald – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 957-98

In August 1937 colour caught up in the bedroom: Onehunga Mills offered blankets in 4 “soft tonings” under the brand “Sunset”, which was said to be “the affordable by all”.

Coloured blankets go to market
New Zealand Herald 28th August 1937

“Trouble at Mill” at the end of November 1937 resulted when the usually placid industrial relations were broken when 27 girls downed tools at lunchtime and did not resume work, stating they had an ongoing grievance with the company about swapping looms and rosters which shortened their hours. Left unsettled, the dispute spread to the whole works, deserted except pay day when staff members called in to pick up wages owing. After a week pickets were withdrawn from the Nielson Street gates when police said the action was illegal and most of the strikers went for a picnic at Waikowhia Reserve. On the basis that negotiations would be held, workers returned to work and a few days later the company and the union announced a settlement.

 

Second World War

War clouds gathered in 1938. Anticipating hostilities, the Company joined other well-known local companies asking men consider joining the territorial force to bolster the military.

Part of an advertisement 20th August 1938
New Zealand Herald

With the declaration of war 1939, production at the mills once again geared to the war effort, concentrating on fabrics required by the military. The Government removed restrictions within the industry which enabled double shifts to be worked and encouraged the youth and married women of Onehunga to consider taking up “essential work” in the woollen mills.

The hum-drum and uncertainty of the war years was interrupted in 1941 with a pleasant surprise for some of the mill workers.

Sir Percy Sargood
S. P. Andrew – Alexander Turnbull Tapuhi Collection

Sir Percy Sargood died, leaving a bequest for about 600 workers who had served more than 5 years at the various undertakings his company owned. More than £6,000 was distributed which amounted to a week’s wages for each eligible staff member.

In 1941 the Government re-appraised future wartime woollen needs with reduction in battledress requirements and concentration on worsteds and blankets – “…much needed together with other essential civil weaves”.

Onehunga mills further contributed to the war effort with the perfection of the manufacture of felt mats.

Local shots were fired across the Government’s bows in July 1944 when mill workers advised they would cease work if anomalies in their award were not corrected within 14 days. Negotiations followed.

In August 1945 the strategic nature of woollen mills was recognised when workers, men over 45 years and women over 30, were included in the first list which was promulgated setting out those now exempt from war-time duties… for men that had meant enrolling in the military for service at the front or on home duties.

At war’s end there was a little bit of self-praise when Mr. A. E. Allison, chairman of the  Wellington Woollen Company, speaking at the company’s annual meeting said, “…New Zealand’s woollen mills may be justly proud of their record during the war, and many references have been made to the high quality of our cloths in use by the forces, as compared with those of other countries… products supplied in great quantity to the forces included tunic cloth, overcoating, serge, flannel, blankets, vests and shorts, jerseys, socks, battledress suits, and greatcoats”.

Late 1945, as after the First World War, production returned to consumer goods, output buoyed by the installation of up-to-date machinery at Onehunga and recruitment of specialist staff in England who arrived in Auckland under generous post-war Government immigration arrangements. This move was designed to overcome what the industry said was a gross shortage of staff which affected the manufacture of clothing fabrics, especially “suitings”, worsteds and tweeds for men’s suits and women’s formal wear. There was renewed interest in blankets and travel rugs.

Onehunga blankets marketed under the Te Ariki brandMosgiel mills in the south, particularly, suffered and undertook an advertising campaign trying to stimulate demand of its woollen goods. A new Industrial Award was negotiated which helped stabilise one or two disputes that occurred with slightly increased basic pay-rates.

Post-war, with the development of air travel, Onehunga Woollen Mills provided blankets for passengers’ comfort on Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) flying boats travelling to and from Australia and the Pacific Islands.

The fine-weave, like TEAL blankets, later marketed under the Ariki brand

Until these times many householders had lino as floor-coverings, augmented by rugs or small carpets. The trend now was to more carpeting in the home, especially living and bedrooms. Woollen, or woollen/synthetic yarns were to come into their own as homeowners geared up to carpet throughout. Woollen mills also adjusted, importing looms and machinery to do backing-materials to provide for the increasing demands for carpet. And purchasers no longer had to rely on imported styles and colours.

The Neilson Street frontage, 1979, showing some of the original buildings
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 957-687

 

Change of face shows in 2010
Joan McKenzie – NZ Historic Places Trust.

In July 2012 Cavalier Corporation announced the closure of its company’s Onehunga wool yarn spinning factory as “consolidation of the business”. Closure of the Onehunga factory of its subsidiary company Norman Ellison Carpets affected 85 workers, the company deciding to concentrate its long-term production at its Napier and Whanganui plants. The down-turn in orders was blamed on increased wool prices, an increasing competition from synthetics and the erosion of export returns by the high New Zealand dollar.

In 2018 the mills were demolished, the land cleared, to make way for progress: a new industrial site.

 

Levelling the site, February 2019

All but two buildings disappeared: the twice-failed, once-thriving works no more.  In May 2019 owners of the land, Triumph Capital, announced that a business hub called “Woollen Mills” was being developed on a 2.8 hectare (7 acre) site with access from Neilson Street, Angle Street and Captain Springs Road. Architects had reflected the heritage of the site, retaining the saw-tooth shape of the roofline, similar to the original mills. This design was retained in the project’s logo.

The vendors advertise the hub as containing 26 two-storeyed industrial units, each with their own parking, kitchen and ablutions with occupancy anticipated in mid-2020.

The Onehunga Woollen Mills before demolition: their sunset

 

Sources

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

“Furley, Matilda”, Janice C. Mogford, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1990, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

 

RCC June 2019

 

Fire that raced through Auckland’s luxurious Grand Hotel in May 1901 resulted in five deaths… and a radical make-over of the city’s fire protection. The tragedy, and findings of an inquest into the blaze, forced the City Council to upgrade an impoverished fire brigade, providing up-to-date equipment and investing in a fire alarm system. 

But no one counted on the sensational evidence given at the inquest!  

Grand Hotel before the fire
Henry Winkelmann – Sir George Grey Special Collection Auckland Libraries

 Inquests, before a jury, were held as a matter of course into serious fires in those days. The coroner inquired into any aspect of the blaze and to call witnesses to testify about what had happened. Townsfolk… and the law… looked to the jury to determine the cause, how to prevent recurrence and whether anyone was directly responsible. Criminal charges often followed.

But the inquest into the Grand Hotel fire became a drama in itself when one of those who escaped the flames on May 30th was called to give evidence. The “Auckland Star” newspaper’s headline was “Sensational Witness” and as the inquest progressed this proved to be no over-statement….

Call Jessica Minns

The coroner, Thomas Gresham, looked to hear the next witness. The clerk called Florence Jessica Newbegan Minns, but after a short pause it was obvious she was not present, nor in the precincts of the Central Hotel, venue for the inquest. Mr Gresham issued a warrant for her arrest and, as he put it, “her apprehension to secure her attendance”.

Thomas Gresham, Coroner
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010510-10-3

 

Jessica Minns, as she was best-known, was a 26 year old scullery-maid at the Grand Hotel at the time of the fire, one of those among the 17 guests, staff members and licensee’s family who managed to escape. 5 occupants did not survive: the licensee’s 3 young daughters who died in their room, a maid who leapt to safety from an upper floor (and later died) and a guest, a middle-aged man whose remains were found in the debris.

Mourners at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church
Auckland Libraries Heritage Images Collection

These deaths, and the loss of the hotel, meant there was intense public interest in the inquiry and, arising from it, the coroner might find the cause and anyone culpable.

The Silent Jessica Minns

Police had apprehended Miss Minns and she appeared when the inquest resumed, accompanied by her mother. But Jessica Minns could not be encouraged to give evidence nor answer any questions. Mr Gresham “…used all his considerable persuasive eloquence…” the Auckland Star reported, “…but the woman remained absolutely dumb, she remained deaf to every question”.

She looked down at the floor, avoiding eye-to-eye contact with anyone.

Florence Jessica Newbegan Minns
Sarony, Weekly News, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010712-4-5

At last her mother spoke up… and immediately a sinister angle was introduced to the circumstances surrounding the fire in the Grand Hotel. “My daughter is intimidated by a promise she made to a man she came across in the hotel’s pantry the night before the fire”.

The inquest wanted to know more about this intriguing turn of events. Mr Gresham advised Miss Minns that any promise made to the man was not binding, but he could not cajole the woman to say anything more and he adjourned the hearing.

 

Sensational Evidence

Next day the reticent Miss Minns was back at the inquest and just as reluctant to participate. She was hesitant about taking the oath but eventually recited the words and kissed the Bible, as required.

Slowly, as if frightened or suffering acute nerves, she repeated her revelation of the previous day, but in much more detail. Having completed her chores as scullery-maid she retired, but, as was often the case, she could not sleep. She told the court that there were often “peeping toms”, men spying on her through her bedroom window and this made her wary, adding to her insomnia. On the night before the fire she had seen two men coming from the hotel’s billiard room, another from the pantry who shook his fist at her and after exchanging a few words  all three men left. She did not see them again that day but on the night of the fire she said she was aware that there were men again trying to peep into her room as she undressed but she did not put a light on, so, thwarted (she thought) they went away. Unable to sleep, about one o’ clock that morning Jessica went upstairs to fetch a book from the pantry.

 

Explosives in the Pantry

“I came across a man there” she said. Sub-Inspector Mitchell, for the police, pounced. He thought he better take his opportunity while Miss Minns was now answering questions and get in quickly.  “What was the man doing?”. He stabbed the question at her. And the surprise answer he got might have pointed to the cause of the tragic fire.

“He was fixing powder to the range,” Miss Minns replied, and then elaborated in answers to a series of questions from the startled policeman: he was not the only one in court who was rocked by her evidence.

“The man had explosive powder and a fuse: he fixed a rubber tube to the gas jet on the mantelpiece. It led to the stove. When I entered the pantry, he said ‘I have been caught!’ and jumped up and seized me by both hands, asking if I had seen what he was doing. I said, ‘yes, I have seen, and what are you doing it for?’ The man replied that his actions were his business, adding ‘you won’t be here another night. You mention a word of this to anyone, I will kill you, understand?’”.

Miss Minns, answering Sub-Inspector Mitchell’s questions went on say that she saw two more men near the pantry at the time. “The night porter came along the passageway just then but I daren’t call out to him”.

 

Where is “the Bully”?

“This was because one of the men showed me a knife and a pistol, saying he would use them if I made a sound. By now two men had hold of me and they asked questions about ‘the bully’. I found out they meant the licensee, Alexander Johnston, and they wanted to know where his bedroom was and what time he retired each night. At last the men said ‘stay here’ and left, taking with them brown paper parcels which they had earlier hidden in the pantry.  But before they went, one asked me if I had ever had revenge on anyone and I said ‘no’. ‘Well, I have’ he went on, ‘I have revenge on the conceited lady and the bully and they will soon find out they can’t do as they like with everybody’.   Eventually all three men left but not before one again threatened me that I would be killed if I revealed to anyone what I had seen and heard. As they parted one said ‘We now know where the Johnstons sleep, we have looked around all the rooms carefully‘.  The men took the brown paper parcels with them and as I went downstairs I heard one of them say ‘Things will be blown sky-high tomorrow night and we will make it warm for them’.

This evidence related to events on the day before the fire: now Sub-Inspector Mitchell turned to the night immediately before the fire.

Noises

Miss Minns told how she went to the bathroom sometime after 8.30pm and must have dozed off and gone to sleep in the bath, for much later she was awakened by noises in the passageway, men laughing and talking. “I recognised the voices as those from the night before. I dressed and went to go back to my room only to come across one of the men I had previously seem near the stairs. He said he was looking for the keys to the rooms and that staff member Camille would not give them up. The man was trying doors but they were all locked. I quickly returned to my room… my room-mate was asleep… I could not sleep and heard the clock chime the hours. At about half past twelve, it must have been, I heard noises in the dining room above my bedroom”.  To the coroner she said they were “confused noises, like  people running here and there quietly and pulling something along the floor of the dining room: no voices. It woke my room-mate who asked what was going on. I said it was upstairs and I did not know”.

“The noises stopped and immediately we heard screams, probably from the top flat. ‘That’s the Masonic Hall on fire’ my roommate said.

The Fire – picture enhanced by photographer
Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19010607-1-1

Backing up a touch, Sub-Inspector Mitchell had a snap question for Miss Minns. “What was the book you went looking for on Wednesday night?”

“A ‘Family Reader’” was the immediate reply.

More Startling Evidence

Sub-Inspector Mitchell now turned to events immediately before the fire, and again responses he received were beyond his wildest expectations.

“When mention was made of three men mingling with hotel staff, you would not discuss them. Why?” he asked.

“Because the three were watching the place on Thursday, I saw them. It was George Sage and two others I don’t know, they were in the billiard room in the hotel. I would know the men if I saw them again. I also saw them while the fire was going on. They were in the rear yard near the fence where I was thrust over to safety, out into Bank Street. One of the men asked if I was injured and I said no… to which he replied he was glad – ‘… but others had been warmed up’. The three men jumped the fence and were gone”.

Mr Mitchell then asked Miss Minns if she had distinct recollection of what she had told the jury and she replied that she had, that she had not gone to sleep and dreamt it all, as the policeman suggested, because she could not sleep, always finding it difficult. “Why didn’t you like to come to this inquiry and give evidence?” he asked.  “Because I was frightened” was the reply.

 

Continuing responding to Mr Mitchell’s interrogation, Jessica Minns said that just before the three men jumped the fence at the rear of the hotel and disappeared during the fire, that they said they were on their way. ‘We won’t be back until all this is over’ one said.  They wanted to shake my hand, but I refused. They said they were going away, didn’t tell me where, but one said they would probably make their get-away by boat”

Sub-Inspector Mitchell had one or two other aspects he wanted to clear up.

“How did you recognise the fuse when you saw it in the pantry?” Miss Minns replied that she had seen fuses in possession of her father who was a miner at Thames and that the powder she described was not loose, but in parcels.

“How long have you known the three men?” The witness surprised the court when she said “every day for about a month before the fire. Usually in the hotel’s billiard room. They would say ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ to me, but I would not reply because I did not like the look of any of them”.

“And did you ever hear noises in the dining room above your room similar to those you heard on the night before the fire?

“Yes, about 6 weeks before, Mr Johnston lost some silver.  I heard something drop that night in the dining room upstairs and also someone running. The noises were more distinct than those the night before the fire”.

“Anything else you would like to tell the court?”

“No”.

Her evidence concluded, Miss Minns left the witness box. The Coroner then excluded the press and the public while a witness was heard in camera. George Sage, former billiard-marker at the Grand Hotel was recalled but, according to reports, gave “no satisfaction” in his evidence. When the hearing resumed in public Mr Sage said that while he was on duty in the billiard room men often visited, including on the day before the fire when three mates had been in for a game.

Miss Minns Recalled  

Sub-Inspector Mitchell was not finished with Jessica Minns and had her recalled later that week. She was again accompanied by her mother who, when Jessica  was once more reluctant to take the oath, explained that her daughter felt that the copy of the Bible being used was dirty, handled by so many people before her. The oath taken, Mr Mitchell asked about her insomnia, to which she said she had long been inflicted – her previous employers, hoteliers, could attest to this.  She would often read a book in bed until two or three in the morning. Sometimes three or four times a week she would be in the pantry at the Grand Hotel until a late hour, reading, and that the night porter often saw her there. He sometimes offered her a cup of cocoa.

There was a series of questions about why Miss Minns was so reluctant to talk about events at the Grand Hotel in court or with her colleagues on the staff, notably the night porter. She could not be budged to give any information.

Juryman’s Direct Question

Members of the jury were free, at any time, to ask questions to elucidate evidence being given. One of the juryman, obviously frustrated by Miss Minns’ reluctance to give all the information she had, cut to the chase and put a direct question.

“Now Miss Minns, to save time and to save worry to Mr Johnston, tell us how the fire started… was it an accident?”

“No!”

The coroner asked “Are you sure?”
“Yes” replied Miss Minns

Miss Minns said the fire was no accident. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19010608-1073-1

Thinking aloud, the coroner told the court “for the first time the witness hasn’t hesitated: she must know, therefore, how the fire started”.

Sub-Inspector Mitchell, at the risk of being upstaged, quickly got in with a question, “how did the fire start?”

Miss Minns replied that neither she nor the night porter was involved. And then: “it was the three men, the names I gave to you. I was in my bedroom when the fire was started and I don’t know where the porter was”.

“And…” the policeman asked “..if you were in your room how do you know the three men started the fire?”

Miss Minns said it was the consequence of what they had told her the night before. She denied any Involvement in the plot by the night porter. There was then an exchange with Mr Mitchell which resulted in the Court adjourning briefly so he could have a word in private with Miss Minns. It was then revealed to the Court that she had been reticent to mention the night porter because he sometimes had a sleep while on duty and that she did not want to get him into trouble with his boss. That apparently cleared up, the Sub-Inspector set out to test other matters.

He asked how long the witness had known the three men she had seen in and about the hotel.

She said “oh, for a long while, before I went on holiday at Easter”.

The policeman asked for their names.

“Well, the names I gave before are not their real names: one of them told me this on the night before the fire”.

“Which one told you this?”

“Butcher. They all had nicknames. ‘Butcher’ was Alfred Wilson, a very tall man. George White was ‘Springy’ and there was a sailor named ‘Blacky’.

“Why did you not tell this before?” asked Mr Mitchell.

“Because I did not tell all”.

The coroner remarked to the witness “And you haven’t revealed everything yet,  but you will have to. We will see to that!”

The Sub-Inspector than put a series of questions about books Ms Minns had recently read, whether she had dreamt what she told the court, then returning  to the names of the three men. “What harm is there giving the names?”

“Springy told me on the night of the fire that I must fall in with secrecy”.

The coroner, addressing Miss Mins, “you have told us the worst of this, and if what you say is true those three men are guilty of murder. Why not, therefore, help us to end this mystery?”

Miss Minns did not reply, repeating one of her long looks towards the floor.

Sub-Inspector then asked Jessica whether she had seen any of the men since the fire and she said yes, with three others and mentioned another man, ‘Boncer’.

“Where is this leading?” the coroner asked.

“I am trying to convince the jury that this witness’s first statement was pure invention,” Mr Mitchell replied.

Somewhat testily the coroner, reserving his authority, told the officer “If I could be convinced I may take some steps. I don’t intend people to come here and trifle with the court”.

Rebuked, the officer explained that he wasn’t saying the witness was wilfully misleading but he thought she was not quite accountable. He resumed questioning but Miss Minns returned with her own question – “What’s the use? When I tell you, you don’t believe me”

The coroner again interjected. “Don’t say that of me, please. But you do appear to be fencing with us…. tell all and go home… it’s only you causing the delay”.

Mr Mitchell asked about ‘Boncer’ which led to testimony from Miss Minns about her more recent encounters with the men, by now she had met all six again and that she had been with her mother when she saw some of them in the street. She had also seen some of them behind the Albert School fence and some near the house where she stayed. One, Alfred, had said ‘now we know her mother and where she is we will follow her and hunt her down wherever she goes!’  My mother reported this to the police. One of the men, William Smith, has shaved off his moustache in disguise.

Coroner Gresham asked what more Miss Minns knew about the men starting the fire. No reply. And at that point Miss Minns entered one of her periods of silence, stubbornly declining to answer any further questions.

The coroner asked her to resume, saying “we have already exercised a great deal of patience and you are wasting our time, you must tell us!” There was a lull in proceedings until Sub-Inspector Mitchell had an exchange with her, after which he continued his questioning -and again he got more than he imagined!

The Coroner tried to get at the cause of the fire. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 7-A1684

Further Sensation

Miss Minns told of coming across men in the Grand Hotel on the Thursday before the fire. “In the pantry I saw William fixing the tube to the gas jet, exactly the same as the night before… he told me to get out and go upstairs as Alfred was waiting for me. At the top of the stairs I could see Alfred, accompanied by George, both rubbing stuff on the carpet, white stuff that had a funny smell. William had said ‘If you do what we want, you’ll get half what we get’. He wanted me to help put the stuff on the carpet. I declined.  Then Alfred and George put the same stuff on the walls. Alfred gave me a parcel to take downstairs for William, this I did and he put it on the balcony. I asked him if he got the silver from the dining room, and he replied ‘Yes and the others have down below’”.

Coroner Gresham interrupted to tell the court that the evidence was now pointing to two motives – robbery and revenge, and asked Miss Minns directly “who had set fire to the building?”

She said straight out “Alfred did”.

Sub-Inspector Mitchell, keen to regain the lead,  asked whereabouts Alfred had set fire to the hotel, to which Miss Minns said ‘in the centre’, and though she had not seen him do it, he had told her exactly where he would be setting the fire.

“When did you first think of this, just now, or before” asked the doubting Sub-Inspector Mitchell.

“Before, but William told me to keep it a secret and that I would get half of what he got”.

In reply to Mr Mitchell’s questions about the Johnston family, Miss Minns said the girls were always rude and cheeky to her but she was sorry and frightened when, because of her promise of secrecy,  she found she could not bring herself to tell Mr Johnston what she knew.

A plan of the Grand Hotel was produced so that Miss Minns could make it clear where she thought the fire had been set.  She pointed to two places on the second level in the older part of the building, saying that Alfred Smith reckoned that as soon as he struck a match it would catch fire so quickly because of all the stuff they had spread all over the carpets and on the wall.

Miss Minns stood down. Miss Hipkins, who had worked with Jessica Minns, was called to give evidence about Jessica. Hipkins corroborated personal and other matters already adduced about Minns… “nothing strange about her, a soft and good-natured girl”.

Other Witnesses

People who frequented the Grand Hotel gave evidence: none had heard the names, or nicknames, of the men mentioned by Jessica Minns.

The licensee, Alexander Johnston was also called, saying he told police that he thought the fire was deliberate and may have been set to cover theft of silverware from the dining room: utensils and plate.  He admitted most was silver-plated, not pure silver, and that he considered the theft may not have been entirely of silverware. He said that he had not seen the men hanging around the hotel, as described by Miss Minns, and that he had personally questioned her after the fire but she would not give any details saying “I must not tell… I will be murdered if I tell!”

The remainder of the day was taken up with evidence of the Fire Chief, Herbert Gladding about how and when the alarm was received, the fire brigade’s response, fire-fighting and then discovery of the bodies.

The Inquest heard the building was a total loss. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19010607-3-1

The rest of the week was evidence taken from fire-fighters, waterworks engineers, architects and builders.

Spectacular Revelations 

“The Auckland Star” evening newspaper had a scoop on its hands when, nearly a week after Miss Minns last gave evidence, her mother revealed to a reporter that all the evidence  given by her daughter had been concocted, untrue, inspired by one of the books she had read. It was pure fabrication, beginning to end.

“The Auckland Star” in the first publication of the spectacular, almost incredible, revelation put it like this: “The story about the three men with the powder and fuse, who threatened to kill her if she “breathed a word”, which provided the newspapers with such sensational copy, was merely the creation of some imaginative novel whose story so imprinted itself upon the memory of the impressionable Jessica that she was able to reproduce it with much convincing detail before the Coroner’s jury”.

Mrs Mary Minns told the reporter that her daughter Jessica had already admitted to the police that her story was made-up.  Mrs Minns said the basis of the story came from a book “Fred the Miner”, including coating the wall and carpet in flammable liquid. The nicknames came from the same book. She said Jessica invented the story to try to protect some members of the staff whom she had seen on the pantry stairs with three unknown men. The story also hid her reticence to give this evidence and she embellished her story when she thought Sub-Inspector Mitchell was putting words into her mouth, leading her to say things, forcing her to give evidence.

This disclosure meant that all the Court’s patience, the coroner’s insistence on answers, and the policeman’s persuasions had been in vain. Miss Minns had made up her evidence as she went along, based on a book she had been reading which enabled her to be so sure, so definitive, about her “evidence”.

It must all now be discounted pending her admission of telling lies before the coroner.

Back before the Coroner

The inquest was still underway when the revelations had been made in “the Auckland Star”, followed by other newspapers. Jessica Minns was recalled to the witness stand.

Sub-Inspector Mitchell asked her if she had anything to say and she whispered that “she had read it all in a book”. The coroner asked if this was everything she had given in evidence and she said that it was. He then curtailed further questioning because, he said, the matter of perjury now arose.

The coroner issued a warrant that afternoon and Jessica Minns was arrested, held in the cells overnight and appeared in the Police Court next morning. But it was not about perjury, as most people thought.

 

Murder Charges

Florence Jessica Newbegan Minns was charged with the murder of Lenora Johnston and others on May 31st 1901. Lenora was one of the 3 Johnston girls who died in the Grand Hotel fire. Jessica Minns’ counsel, Mr Martin, questioned whether his client would be bailed – the only evidence against her appeared to be what she had said at the inquest. Minns was allowed bail.

When the hearing resumed a few days later, the town was flooded with townsfolk seeking a glimpse of Minns as she was conveyed from the police cells to the Magistrate’s Court. The courtroom was packed. The prosecution outlined her work as a scullery-maid at the Grand Hotel before the fire, her subsequent  reluctance to give evidence at the inquest and then, on oath, describing the actions of three men in the hotel, their intentions to blow the premises sky-high or to burn it down. On the night of the fire a light usually left burning in the pantry for security had been doused, keys to some locks were missing and the back gate to the hotel yard had been left open. By her own evidence, the prosecution said, Minns was guilty of murder… then she said she had read it all in a book.  “It is possible that Minns had carried out the arson and then invented the story at the inquest to cover her tracks”.

 

The Defence

Legal argument then ensued. One of the points made by Mr Martin for the defence was that Miss Minns had been unduly threatened by the coroner into giving evidence: she had not done so voluntarily. “ The coroner’s references during the inquest were too harsh when he said that she would be forced to appear, or go to jail, that she must give evidence and that the inquest would  get the truth out of her with compulsion if necessary”.

The Magistrate, Mr T. Hutchison, said that where there is any doubt that a statement is other than a voluntary one, it has to be rejected by the Bench.  He found numerous ways during the course of the inquest in which Minns’ statements were not likely to have been made voluntarily. He was referring to the Coroner having the woman arrested and escorted to court, his repeated insistence that she give evidence and that he would be getting her evidence out, no matter what. The magistrate dismissed the case: Miss Minns went free.

So ended the story of her sensational evidence which, day after day during the inquest was inclined to be believed by the coroner, Thomas Gresham, but at the same time doubted by the police, notably Sub-Inspector Mitchell.  And jury members must have been impatient as “evidence” was slowly extracted from the reluctant and conniving Miss Minns. And all to no avail.

End-notes

While Jessica Minns’ part in the inquest had to be discounted, the court’s findings included a censure against the City Council and the fire brigade’s for their shortcomings, resulting almost immediately in far-reaching improvements in Auckland’s fire protection.

Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York were due to tour New Zealand within weeks of the fire which destroyed the Grand Hotel – it had been reserved for their exclusive use while in Auckland. The day after the blaze officials rushed from Wellington to hurriedly arrange alternative accommodation for the Royals and their touring party at the Northern Club.

Despite the licensee Alexander Johnston’s opinion that the Grand Hotel had been deliberately set on fire, no one was arrested and charged with an offence.

Jessica Minns came to police notice again in 1917. She was charged with vagrancy (homelessness, perhaps begging) and sentenced to 3 months’ jail with hard labour.

Jessica Minns died in June 1926 and was interred at Waikumete Cemetery.

Grand Hotel was rebuilt, Auckland War Memorial Museum

The Grand Hotel was rebuilt, retaining the design of the façade, and re-opened as a five-star hotel just one year after the destructive fire. The façade remains behind which in 2018 a high-rise apartment block is being constructed.

 

RCC 09/09/2018

Sources:

Text: Papers Past-  National Library of New Zealand

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