We were definitely “St John kids”: father’s ambulance work as a volunteer had a profound effect on our family’s life for all those years we lived at home. St John was inextricably woven into all our family activities.

First Recollections

My first memories of Epsom Ambulance Division were as perhaps a five year old (1950) being taken to the St John hall at 171 Manukau Road by my father, a long-time Brigade member, who was at that time engaged in a job of works at the premises, repairing the post-and-wire boundary fence. These visits to the hall became a regular occurrence. I suspect that for my mother, with 3 of us kids under 6 years of age, it was a bit of relief – when I accompanied Dad she got a break, her child-minding one-third lighter. Well, at least in theory. My younger siblings probably demanded more of her time.

The St John hall on Manukau Road was headquarters for those volunteers who comprised Epsom Ambulance Division, the Nursing Division and the Cadets. Appropriately, it was almost exactly opposite Mt St John Avenue, in the shadow of Mt St John and bordering that part of Epsom called Mt St John.

The name Mt St John was not connected with the Order of St John; rather it remembers an early army officer, Lieut. Colonel John Henry Herbert St John, who led troops on many campaigns in the New Zealand Land Wars. On his demise (in middle age, of natural causes!) newspapers said “St John performed a series of exploits against the natives such as would do no discredit to the heroes of romance and earned the reputation of being, without exception, the bravest man in the colonial forces”.

Lt Col J. H. H. St John,
Alex Turnbull Library

Right outside the St John hall on Manukau Road was a tram stop (the Onehunga line) which later became a bus stop (Route 10). And in those days there was plenty of car parking, right outside the hall or around the corner in the side road, Domett Avenue.


The hall was a plain rectangular, aging, wooden building with a corrugated iron roof and, around the back, had the remnants of a huge water tank (a left-over from before the days of piped water?) The hall was set well back off the road, a snug fit across the section with just room for a narrow path down one side. The building was originally situated further along Manukau Road, near the present library. In 1917 the Epsom Nursing Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade had its eyes on the former Epsom Fire Station when the fire brigade was disbanded resulting from the amalgamation of the Epsom Roads Board with Auckland City Council.

The Epsom Nursing Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade was looking for headquarters… a place to meet and for instruction and training. The Division had been formed in 1914, the brainchild of registered nurse Evelyn Firth who, at the outbreak of World War One, had the foresight that nursing facilities would be required for injured and sick servicemen returning from the front.

Epsom Convalescent Home for returned soldiers from World War One
Henry Winkelmann – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1-W1658

Appointed Lady Superintendent of the Nursing Division, she recruited nurses and caregivers through Red Cross and St John, grew the Epsom Nursing Division and set up a recuperative nursing home/hospital in a former mansion at 2 Dommet Avenue, property taken over by the Hospital and Charitable Board. Similar convalescent homes were later set up at Narrow Neck on the North Shore and in Parnell, a facility named after Evelyn Firth and which continued into the 1960s having catered to those suffering long-term injuries and sickness from two World Wars. Evelyn Clifton Firth, founder of St John in Epsom, died on 13th November 1918 of illness arising from duties at Narrow Neck Camp nursing native soldiers suffering influenza. The epidemic which swept New Zealand caught up with Evelyn Firth at the age of 43. The newspaper New Zealand Herald said at the time “…she gave her life in the service of humanity and she will be remembered as a true heroine”. As well as the Parnell Convalescent Home named in her memory, St John members, family and friends subscribed to a memorial tablet, unveiled in St Andrews Church, Epsom, by the Anglican Bishop of Auckland the Right Reverend Averill in November 1919. For his address he used from Bible the text “She hath done what she said”, referring with feeling terms of the noble and self-sacrificing life of Miss Firth and said that the community had suffered a severe loss by her untimely death, but had gained a noble example from her beautiful, self-sacrificing life.

The men’s Epsom St John Division was formed sometime after the nurses: both entities survive and are flourishing: the Nurses celebrated their centenary in December 2014.


St John Nurses Get their HQ

The City Council was prepared to gift the old fire station to St John, but unfortunately not the land it occupied. (It may not have had the right to do this: the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board owned, and leased, large areas in this part of Epsom).

The fire station became vacant when the brigade disbanded in May 1917

St John accepted the old fire station building and arranged to move it, intact, on wooden rollers along Manukau Road to its new location, a section in Domett Avenue provided by a benevolent resident. The hall was improved, and extended. Some 20 years later the resident wanted to develop the section and gave notice to St John to remove its hall. A new site was found, land fronting Manukau Road, part of the large block owned by the Hospital Board. The hall was cut into sections and piece by piece moved from Domett Ave, around the corner on to the new site at 161 Manukau Road. Perhaps it was deliberately positioned, pushed right back on the long, narrow section, to allow a new, more modern-looking, addition to later grace the street frontage. And, of course, this was to happen, but decades later.

The 1950s

To the 1950s, and things I personally recall. On the northern (Newmarket side) the neighbours lived in a block of brick flats while the southern boundary was not marked – it was in fact the wall of the adjoining fruiterer’s shop, the first of two or three shops on the corner of Dommet Avenue. Inside, the hall was as utilitarian as it was drab. Old fashioned light bulbs with minimal shades hung from the match-lined ceiling. At the far end of the building on one side was the small kitchen, on the other side the toilets. The kitchen did not have a power point so the big urn which was used to boil hot water was plugged in halfway down the hall and moved to the kitchen in time to make the drinks. The urn, by the way, had a very slow element so that when there were evening functions someone… and my father lived the closest of most of the members… had to visit the hall in the afternoon to “put the urn on” to make certain the water was hot enough to make tea and coffee for supper. The small windows along each side of the hall were heavily curtained. There was but one relief, I recall, from the expanse of one of the walls: a print of the famous picture of legendary stretcher-bearer John Simpson and his donkey, “Duffy”, in the hills above Anzac Cove, “Duffy” carrying an injured soldier on the way to medical help. Not only a kind of memorial to those who died in the Great War, it was probably also meant as an inspiration to present-day ambulance workers.

Simpson (Jack Simpson Kilpatrick) and Duffy above Anzac Cove, 1915

There were meeting and training nights at the hall every Monday evening. Father was never available for anything else of a Monday night – it was “St John” of “Parade” night  – and there was frequently a bit of a scramble in the family home as he changed into uniform and got away in time for the meetings.  Sometimes there were special St John gatherings for which the hall had to be prepared. I recall some of these events were the Division’s Annual General Meeting, parades for “Corps” or “District” visiting officers, tests for annual revalidation of First Aid Certificates and once, a big ceremony for a member who was not-quite retiring but was going to carry on, listed on what was called “National Reserve”. I guess this means he would be willing to assist if summoned to help in the event of major calamity.

The Evening Post, Wellington, records in May 1914 that the Government had recently set up a National Reserve with Defence Forces “recognising the St John Ambulance Brigade as the ambulance section of such reserve”. It was, perhaps, a prudent move with the outbreak of World War One soon after. The same report advises that in 1914 Auckland Division National Reserve had 3rd highest membership in New Zealand with 27 members.

When I was a teenager I recall there was a major function at Epsom Division. I guess it was the 50th anniversary. There was an immense crowd invited, and I helped decorate the hall. I also helped clean up after the festivities. What I remember best was the big box of food that father brought home: the leftovers, saveloys, assorted sandwiches and fresh cream cakes. The Carlyon kids could not believe their good fortune.  Our family put the hall to good use for some of its events and celebrations. Parties connected with milestone birthdays, engagements and wedding dances were held in the hall, a useful gathering place when numbers invited would have overwhelmed the Alba Road family home.

The Projects at the Hall

I recall one of the Division’s projects was to lay a new concrete path from the street to the steps of the hall, quite a job because the hall was so far from the footpath. The idea was to plant a lawn either side of the new, raised, path.  As mentioned, another working bee had been held to replace the fence along the boundary with the neighbouring flats. The Burkes occupied the rear flat. Mrs and Mrs Burke were always interested in the Division… Mr Burke often lent a hand with the various works while I remember Mrs Burke providing endless cups of tea and refreshments for the men engaged in the projects next door. Their son, Gary, joined St John Cadets about that time and was later a member of the Division until he joined the NZ Police when shift work precluded his continuing membership. I remember one Saturday afternoon… it must have seemed a long session at the Hall for a 5 year old and, by hook or by crook, I wanted to go home. Father was busy in the middle of tensioning the wires in the fence. Mrs Burke came to the rescue, diverted my attention with toys Gary had kept from his childhood, particularly a model car which I can still see to this day, and somehow made me forget thoughts of going home.

Father was regarded as the Division’s Clerk of Works and, with other members of the Division, he planned the Hall’s maintenance programme and improvements.  Projects included painting the building inside and out and replacing the flagpole atop the barge boards on the front of the premises. I recall careful selection of the Kauri timber for this, the choice left to Brigade Officer Noel McLennan. He was a builder by trade and greatly assisted many of the works at the hall especially those involving carpentry or joinery. He worked on our family home, adding a new kitchen, laundry and indoor toilet to help cope with the growing family. Anyway, the timber for the flagpole was chosen, several ladders were fetched in to assist the elevated work above the roofline, and the old, rotten mast was replaced.

In later years there was a project to build a concrete-block wall along the frontage, complete with wrought-iron gate worked into the shape of the St John eight-pointed star and a ‘minor work’ about the same time was the erection of a signboard, telling the passing world this was the headquarters of Epsom Ambulance Division.

Memories of Public Duty

Most weekends these works were interrupted by Public Duty, times when St John presence was expected at various events, taking first aid to the community. Those who performed this duty were often referred to as “Zam-Buks”, commonly used, but not universally favourably accepted by those to whom it referred!

“Zam-Buk”, in fact, was a well-known English-made medicated ointment, a kind of soothing fix-all for skin complaints and irritations.  It had anti-septic qualities: important in the absence of antibiotics in earlier times… it was used by medics treating injured Boer and First World War casualties. There were several versions of labelling on “Zam-Buk” tins over the years, presumably to comply with local pharmacy laws and to suit customs where it was being sold … for instance the wording of one indicates “no lard or animal fat or oils used”, presumably to meet religious rites in India and other markets.

It became available in New Zealand and Australia in the early 1900s and when it was advertised as “a miracle embrocation” it was quickly sought after to soothe football players’ sprains and pains. It was soon assumed all St John personnel carried a tin of “Zam-Buk” in their first aid kit and, when summoned, they would run on to the playing field and apply the ointment for just about every injury or complaint! The name of the ointment and the first-aiders rapidly became synonymous and, on both sides of the Tasman, “Zam-Buk” became their nickname. Radio commentators would often say “… and now the “Zam-Buks” are running on to the field to patch up the injured player….” thus perpetuating the name.

On Saturday afternoons during winter months there was always Public Duty at rugby, and I frequently accompanied father to what (at that young age) I thought were long, boring, games played in the grounds of the Teachers’ Training College in Epsom.

Teachers’ Training College with football grounds, 1940s
James D Richardson -Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-2910

There was absolutely no shelter of any kind either from the wind or the rain in the wide open football fields so the College grounds were wind-swept and stark. Usually too cold or wet to get out of the car, I would sit in the family sedan of the day, a Ford Model A or Hillman, a young boy trying to figure out what the game was all about and watching in case father’s duties were called for… three short blasts on the referee’s whistle and he would run on to the paddock to minister to the downed player.  One time, player number 8 in the light blue jersey, I still recall the scene, was carried from the field on the shoulders of 2 of his team mates and put into the temporary sanctuary and comfort of the back of our Ford, his leg plainly broken and his body shivering in shock. No cellphones or 111 emergency calls in those days. Someone had to make sure they had a few coins and then run over to the public phone box in the Training College precincts to call for an ambulance to take the injured player to hospital. Dad put the player’s leg into a wooden splint (which he had in our old car just for such an eventuality). He also went on Public Duty at Rugby League games in Cornwall Park, adjacent to the Showgrounds, but I don’t think I ever accompanied him there; perhaps I was a bit older by then and did my own thing on Saturday afternoons!

Public Duty Officer

Father was Public Duty Officer for Epsom Division for some time. The task was to keep abreast of local events and to ensure adequate and appropriate resources were arranged to provide first aid cover. In the winter months screeds of printed material would pass through our home letter-box, rosters from organisers of rugby and rugby league tournaments, so father could go through them, find the matches Epsom Division would need to attend and arrange personnel to be there. Then there were major or regular events which seemed to be shared around the various Auckland Divisions, such as Ellerslie Races, Night Trots, Rugby Test matches and the annual Birthday Carnivals at Western Springs. Father’s job was to find sufficient numbers so that Epsom could be seen to be doing its bit.

On the approach to the annual Easter Show, father would be ringing around trying to arrange cover at the Showgrounds during the day: difficult because most Epsom members had their jobs to attend. But father found nurses and veteran St John man, George Morrison, to fill the breach.

They made themselves available year after year, signing off each day as other members became available. In summer there was once regular weekend daytime duty at the Olympic Pool, Newmarket, but this seemed to disappear. Just as well, because Rangitoto Island duties kept members busy in the holiday season and until winter closed in.

George Morrison, SBStJ, was the mainstay of daytime public duty at the Easter Show for many years (freeze-frame taken from 16 mm movie film)

First and Last

In 1961 an English FA soccer team was touring New Zealand and members of Epsom Ambulance Division were among St John personnel from all around Auckland rostered for Public Duty at the Showgrounds at Epsom for the Test Match, England versus New Zealand, on 10th June.

New Zealand Football Association officials introduced an unwelcome innovation for this tour when, I suppose as a means of preventing free-loaders, everyone, just everyone entering the Park had to have a pass. This included St John people. There was an outcry. It was pointed out that this was the first time, ever, that a pass or ticket had been required by St John personnel to get through the gates of any event, a stipulation many brigadesmen thought unnecessary. So much so, that they at first declined the duty. Others said it denigrated the uniform and what it stood for… an Order much older (and, apparently, wiser!) than the Football Association. Adding insult to injury, the pass handed out to St John people so they could access the Showgrounds was, in fact, a duplication of the Press Pass.

Father was on duty that day: I am not certain if he took the pass and had to show it to get into the Park himself, or whether he had to show it on behalf of all members of Epsom Division who were attending. But he was bitter about the uniform not being recognised. It became a personal hobby-horse. He kept the pass, later framing it with the handwritten caption “The First… and the Last”. It survives to this day.

The infamous and controversial pass issued to St John personnel.

I think father got his wish… from memory I believe it was the last time St John folk had to have a pass to get access to any event while on duty. I can’t recall repetition of that controversial move in 1961 by the Football Association.

The tourists played 2 matches in Auckland, the Test at Showgrounds, 10th June 1961, and against an Auckland Eleven at Carlaw Park, Parnell, on the 14th June. They also played Tests in Christchurch and Wellington. The Auckland Test fetched an estimated 10,000 spectators which must have been surprising given that Rugby was very much “the game” in those days. Among the tourists were top names like Booby Moore, Tom Finney and Ray Charnley. As perhaps may be expected with such high-class players, the visitors took a clean sweep of all the games in their month-long tour: Tests were also played in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and San Francisco.  

More Public Duty

Every now and then it would be Epsom Division’s turn on the roster to provide Public Duty at the Auckland Trotting Club’s meeting at Alexander Park, Epsom. It was only day-time racing at first: the introduction of night trots came later. Father disliked this duty, especially in winter, because St John personnel were dotted around the track in case of accident, and he often described the racecourse with no shelter, its chilling winds sweeping across the wide, open space, as “the coldest place in Auckland”.   In fact, he obtained the heaviest, thickest, black felt overcoat, attached St John buttons and shoulder flashes and wore this whenever he was posted to “Trots Duty”.

Epsom Division obtained more Public Duty when, in summer, part of the Cornwall Park fields were allocated to softball. Personnel were rostered there every Saturday afternoon from November to March.

These personnel on Public Duty were often alone, especially at sports events. Their only first aid resources they had readily to hand were the contents of a small black leather pouch the men carried on their waist belt, nurses in a hand bag. As far as I can recall, the typical pouch contained the bare essentials: a carefully folded triangular bandage (mainly to create a sling to support a broken limb), a couple of gauze bandages, dressings, scissors, tweezers, iodine (later mercurochrome), a reel of sticking plaster, sal volatile (smelling salts), and burns cream.  Sometimes more resource was added in a wooden box, the size of a small suitcase, which accompanied members on duty. An old muddy canvas stretcher was kept for emergencies in the groundsman’s shed at Cornwall Rugby headquarters. I recall it was my job, when I accompanied father at this venue, to go over to the shed before the game began to sight the stretcher hanging in its brackets from the rafters – making sure it was there, ready for action, if required, to carry an injured player to the sideline.

 First Aid on Wheels

Then, I think in the late 1950s, came the Division’s biggest project of all. No, not improvements at the hall this time.  Epsom Division decided that Auckland should have a mobile first aid facility, a caravan outfitted as a clinic/first aid post that could be towed to various locations for Public Duty and would also be available for major accidents or civil defence-type incidents. I guess once the design was finalised and the funds guaranteed, a firm of caravan-makers was commissioned to complete the coach-work. But I recall the aluminium-clad shell of a caravan being towed up on to the land in front of the hall for the Divisional Project to put the finishing touches outside and then to fit it out with a bed, benches, a table, chairs, cupboards and a small wash basin… thus creating a useful first aid facility. I recall a notice board inside recording all the donors… we would call them sponsors these days… so Epsom Division obviously canvassed, and obtained, a lot of support behind its idea for a mobile first aid post.

I can recall a very grand occasion for Epsom Division the afternoon the caravan was dedicated.

Father, like other members of the Division was apprehensive before the event. With so many important people coming, the Service had to go off just right. The centrepiece of the day, the caravan, was parked on the forecourt in front of the hall, polished, dressed overall, and looking a million dollars. A very big crowd assembled in the hall. I saw Officers there wearing more medals than I had ever seen before. I think these people were referred to as “Corps” or “District” officers, obviously high up in the pecking order of Auckland St John or even in New Zealand. The rank insignia was impressive, too.  One or two mantles were worn accompanied by glistening regalia, definitely senior people of the Order. I remember Epsom Division was honoured to have them attend the ceremony, so perhaps they came from Wellington.  Everyone moved outside. There were flags and bunting, a Padre gave the blessing, the ribbon across the doorway was cut and there were speeches by the many-medalled, one of which I have never forgotten.

A Homily

That was, perhaps, 55 years ago. I was about 10, I suppose, and must have been at an impressionable age. Maybe the seniority of the officer’s rank, the respect shown him by those present… or whatever… but his inter-generation story must have hit a responsive chord within me and I still remember its theme and have updated it and often quoted it myself. The Officer said that his Sunday School teacher had once told him that life was a bit like a money-box. A few pennies collected every now and again would soon add up.  “What you have put in can later be retrieved for something of value,” he said. “In this life…”, and he repeated his Sunday School teacher’s words of probably 60 years earlier, “… you get back what you put in. If you contribute to life, you are entitled to take something out of it. Volunteering in St John, whether it be on Public Duty training for proficiency or building assets like this caravan, is a personal contribution, and you’ll find the satisfaction of serving will be repaid many times over”.   I cannot recall the name of that St John Officer who impressed me so much the day the caravan was dedicated: the sentiment has stuck with me all these years.

The dedication service over, the caravan was open for inspection by all present and then there was welcome afternoon tea in the hall.

On the Move

In the early days the caravan was stored beside the path in front of the hall. I can’t recall local duties it undertook at that stage but for some years at holiday times – Easter, Queen’s Birthday Weekend, Labour Weekend and between Christmas and New Year, it was towed to the top of the deviation on Great South Road, Bombay,  and stationed at the cross roads there. Staffed by members of Epsom Division, I think they slept-over in the caravan, at the ready around-the-clock to treat victims of road accidents. One year there was a write-up in the NZ Herald about this service, noting patients otherwise would have a long wait for treatment while an ambulance responded from Auckland. Another time the caravan was towed to Ardmore Aerodrome to be the ambulance base for Public Duty at the International Grand Prix.

Just how these duties came about I don’t know: they were all so far from Epsom! Perhaps Auckland District officers, representing greater Auckland, realised the worth of the caravan and asked for it at these “out of town” locations and I suppose it was only natural that Epsom personnel would accompany the vehicle and carry out the duties.

Public Duty at the Showgrounds 

The Easter Show, held at the Showgrounds, was right in Epsom Division’s territory and for many, many, years the Division performed Public Duty for the fortnight of the Show, providing first aid both day and night for the duration. From time to time reinforcements were called in, particularly for the afternoons when most Epsom St John volunteers were working in their normal occupations. Veteran ambulance man, George Morrison, SBSJ, long-time retired from the Railways, was a willing worker for afternoon shifts often accompanied by St John nurses. From memory, the senior ladies had their own network and, between them, arranged their own roster for afternoons at the Easter Show with George. I recall Mrs Hall was one of their leaders. Evening and weekend “shifts” were filled by members of Epsom Division, the men, the nurses and the cadets: a full-on commitment for the fortnight leading up to the busiest long weekend of the show, Easter, though in those days it was not open on Good Friday. From time to time other Divisions were invited to assist to help maintain a full complement.

Epsom Ambulance Division’s caravan at the Showgrounds:
wide doors so stretchers are easily manoeuvred in and out
(freeze-frame taken from 16 mm movie film)

The caravan was used as a mobile first aid post, towed to the Showgrounds before each year’s Easter Show (entertainment-based on the old-style industrial fair in those days) and then again later in the year for the annual, November, 3-day A and P Show (entertainment entwined with displays of farm animals of all sorts) . The caravan was parked in the same spot each time, just inside the main gates where it was easily accessible for ambulances to pick up patients and take them for treatment over the road at Green Lane Hospital’s Casualty Department, as it was then known.

Apart from the usual cuts, scratches and aches and pains that were treated in the caravan, it was inevitable that among the thousands of visitors there would be the victim of collapse, heart attack or fall.  Patients would be taken by stretcher to the caravan and given emergency first aid until the ambulance arrived. In addition, there was a wide range of other people needing help. Patrons sometimes got bitten by the monkeys performing in side-shows, folk fell out of, or off, some of the rides at the Easter Show and there was occasionally the victims of fights or altercations: a knife figured in one lively exchange between staff in the kitchen of the restaurant and at one Easter Show there was a fight between competitive visiting showmen. During the A and P shows, riders sometimes got tossed from their mounts during horse-jumping or dressage events. An elderly farmer was gored by his prized bull one year. Details of the total number of patients treated at each Show were collated and, together with some of the more serious or curious cases, often rolled into a release for the newspapers.

It was soon realised that the Showgrounds provided a better “storage” place for the caravan than the front yard at the hall.  It was more secure in the Showgrounds, it didn’t have to be towed to and from and, moreover, it was readily available when it doubled as first aid station for Public Duty at Club rugby games which, around this time, were played over several winter seasons on the oval within the Showgrounds. Time passed and the caravan never moved. Chocks were placed underneath, the wheels removed, and that was it. The caravan became a fixture at the Showgrounds. It deteriorated over the years, leaked and the interior looked shabby and – worse for a medical facility – it appeared unkempt and dirty. An alternative was sought. Divisional Officers didn’t have to look far. Easter Show officials came to the rescue with the perfect answer, and at the best possible price!  They offered an “A-frame” house to the Division, a replacement for the caravan which was now past the point of repair. The “A-frame” had in fact been part of the Show, a demonstration show home by Hardies of their ‘up-to-the-minute’ Fibrolite building, a departure from the shape of the conventional house… now available as a prefabricated kitset for home or seaside bach.

The “A-frame” had been on display for several Easter Shows so it no longer lived up to its “state of the art” claims, and Hardies wanted rid of it. Epsom Division accepted the offer, but pointed out it was in the wrong place, inaccessible and out of the way among the other show exhibits. Besides it needed to be connected with water, power and sewerage, and ideally it would be located by the main gate, easily accessible for ambulances collecting patients en route to hospital. No problems, Showground management and Hardies, between them, arranged to have the A frame house moved to the spot where the caravan was: the deal was done. The caravan was dispensed with; the “A-frame” replaced it and all without charge to Epsom Division. It served as first aid post at the Showgrounds for many years.

The caravan had served Epsom Division very well: truth to tell, as well as providing a useful public amenity, it also provided a focus for the Division’s very being.

An innovation worth noting was the radio system that father introduced at the Showgrounds. What with the pavilions, the enormous new Australian Court, the arena with its grandstand and events, the amusement section (sideshow alley) and the car parks, the Showgrounds ranged over many hectares. Getting St John personnel quickly through the crowds to the right place within the complex became a bit of a problem. In the early 1960s father purchased the very latest in hand-held two-way radios. The caravan (later the A-frame) was ‘base headquarters’ and roaming St John personnel each took a radio with them so they could be contacted and dispatched directly to patients. Although the radios were awkward with their long telescopic aerials and were confined to the low-power Citizen Band they were a boon to mobilise first-aiders, and knowing father’s penchant for latest radio developments, I am certain that this was the first time portable radios were used by St John personnel on Public Duty. Epsom Division led the rest!

Biggest Crowd… Ever?

Going back even earlier, perhaps the early 1950s, Epsom Ambulance Division personnel were on duty at the Epsom Showgrounds (including father) when it was estimated the biggest crowd, ever, attended that venue and it was one of the largest crowds of the time, anywhere. The occasion was a fireworks display, celebrating exactly what, if anything, escapes me, but people turned up like the organisers never dreamed. Maybe it was to celebrate Guy Fawkes (November the 5th) or perhaps it was the first post-war fireworks display: financial recovery was such that folk thought they could afford an evening out. Whatever, there were traffic jams that Epsom had never seen before, the trams could not cope with the numbers wanting transport to the Showgrounds, taxis were caught in the jam. There were mile-long queues of people waiting at the ticket boxes and, inside, just a crush of humanity. Father tells the story of police, worried about a stampede of those unable to gain entry as start-time approached, ordered the organisers to close the ticket boxes and open the gates wide, for all to enter. Not only were the gates flung open but sections of the corrugated iron fence along Green Lane Road were deliberately torn down by organisers to allow better entrance for the mob. (The organisers had probably made more than enough money to cover expenses, and then some, by that stage). Father told us that inside the open-air stadium, the toilets could not cope and people were either going where they could or disgracing themselves. St John lost count of the patients they treated for claustrophobia, crush or collapse. Many young people climbed up on top of the old wooden grandstand building to get a better view, and a few broke bones when they fell from their precarious perches. The fireworks were spectacular, a series of set pieces on the ground and then many sky rockets of every colour according to father.

We knew all about the skyrockets – we could see them from the nearby Carlyon family home in Alba Road. Then the immense crowd had to make its way from the stadium. Father says police and the MC used the loud speaker system to ask people to depart sequentially, one section of the stadium after another, to help ease the crush at the gates and out in Green Lane Road. The press next day wrote up the big night at the fireworks, saying that, while it was impossible to count the crowd, at least 100,000 people packed in to the Showgrounds to witness the event. The Carlyon family had seen the traffic jam in our street, we had admired the skyrockets and then heard the stories from father, so though we were not present at the Showgrounds, we all thought we had been part of a momentous event.

 Rangitoto Island – Islington Bay

For as long as I can remember Epsom Division was responsible for Public Duty on Rangitoto Island. I don’t know how this eventuated when there are other Divisions closer, or more appropriate, to serve the island, nor can I ascertain when Epsom began the duty but St John duties on the island go back as far as 1926. In 1934 there was correspondence between Rangitoto Domain Board and the then Superintendent of Epsom Division, A. C. Marks.  So staffing the small first aid post at Islington Bay by Epsom personnel goes back much before World War 2.

As a very small boy in the 1950s I remember accompanying my father on the launch, probably one of the Blue Boats, to Islington Bay – “Issy Bay” as it was known – and staying the weekend in the very old-world atmosphere of the two-roomed St John station.

St John Ambulance Station, Islington Bay
North Shore Libraries Collection

There was no electricity, of course, no phone and no utilities. Fresh water had to be fetched from neighbours because the supply in the St John tank was of dubious quality. Cooking was on a Primus kerosene pressure-stove and there were kerosene lanterns and candles for lighting. There was an out-house.

Father had fetched tools and equipment because his weekend was mostly spent on maintenance. He took a break for a walk around towards Motutapu Island, pointing out items of interest he had been familiar with while stationed there during the war. Father had also fetched his 16mm film projector so that, with the help of a generator for power, there could be movies on Saturday night at the local hall.  I can’t recollect the audience, or the title of the film, but even at age 5 or 6 I recall the feature of the evening turned out not to be the comedy on screen, but the overweight man in the crowd who laughed so much the deck chair he was sitting on collapsed, depositing him with a thump on the wooden floor. The movie was interrupted, an impromptu half-time, while it was ascertained he was not hurt and so he could find a sturdy, replacement chair!

I do not recall any patients that weekend but there were stories of very busy times for the St John person treating locals, day-visitors, boaties and yachties during summer months, particularly during the Christmas and New Year holidays. First aid treatment was appreciated: there was no doctor on the island and apart from the regular daily trip to Auckland by the Blue Boat, there was little contact with the mainland.

From memory (and I have not been back inside the St John station at Islington Bay since), there were 3 rooms. Once you entered through a small porch there was the clinic which led through to a bedroom and out the back was a small kitchen.

Islington Bay, itself, provides sheltered anchorage for boaties while waiting out foul weather: perhaps some found the bottle appropriate comfort – the reason it’s sometimes called Drunken Bay.

There was quite a settlement at the time I went there centred around a small shop and the hall, buildings constructed of local volcanic rock, erected in the late 1920s and early 1930s by inmates from Mt Eden Prison. They also built the road around to the beacon at McKenzie Bay at the western end of the Island via the only other settlement known as Rangitoto Wharf.

Austin Seven cars taking officials on a tour of inspection after prisoners
completed the road to McKenzie Bay beacon, Rangitoto Island, 1930.
North Shore Libraries Collection

Rangitoto Island – Rangitoto Wharf  

I was a teenager at the time that several buildings were joined together to form the St John facility at Rangitoto Wharf. They had been part of the construction camp for the 1920s roadworks and are easily identifiable in a photo taken in the late 1920s.

Prison construction camp at Rangitoto Wharf, 1930

The committee representing bach owners at Rangitoto Wharf decided that the small settlement should have its own first aid facility, similar to that at Islington Bay. Not just for residents but for the increasing number of day-trippers and boaties visiting the island. I accompanied my father as part of a working bee of St John people and locals to finish off the premises, painting inside an out, levelling the rocky ground in front of the building and fashioning a flag pole. Subsequent visits were spent putting up curtains, laying lino on the floor and, a respectable distance from the bach, creating an outhouse along a stony pathway nicknamed ‘Burma Road’.

The buildings comprised 3 sections, the clinic at one end, (which had been used in recent times as a honey house), a kitchen and dining area in the centre section (inserted between two buildings) and sleeping quarters at the other end, another former prison/construction building.

Three buildings were joined to form the St John Station.
Dawn Burton

Again, there was neither electricity nor phone. Lanterns lit the rooms by night, cooking was on a small pressure-stove, done mostly outside for safety. The bach had its own water tank and in lieu of a refrigerator, a “safe”, hanging in a nearby Pohutukawa tree to keep food cool.

A former prisoners’ hut became the bedroom.
Dawn Burton

The clinic was fitted out with a bed and cabinets for first aid equipment and supplies, including an elderly canvas stretcher.  At night, with no patients, this became a bed for “family extras”.

The new facility was officially opened in March 1961 with grand pageant, ceremony and a dedication service. The Mayor of Auckland, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson attended, together with the Port Chaplin, the Reverend Lawley Brown and high-ranking members of St John. Many bach-holders were present and so were members of the Rangitoto Domain Board (Devonport Borough Council) which had helped fund moving the buildings and renovations. It was a gala day, the bach-owners celebrating achievement – they had realised their quest for first aid facilities.

St John Ambulance Station, Rangitoto Wharf, 1960s.
Dawn Burton

The Carlyon family were frequent visitors to Rangitoto Wharf, sometimes putting in the best part of their summer holidays there, enjoying the walks, swimming, fishing and the company of other bach-holders. It was a unique location. Few had the privilege of staying over when the last boat left for the day on its way back to Auckland.  And, at dusk, that’s when you’d see the wallabies and young deer coming down from the bushy slopes, foraging for food scraps around the Wharf settlement. Later in the evening it was time for the opossums to make their appearance.

I recall many cases of sunburn being treated… father had his own secret potion comprising mostly of cold tea: “…the tannin in tea is both soothing and healing”. There were numerous scrapes and abrasions. One thing was quickly learnt – it was a certainty that even the slightest or most superficial scrape or graze caused by contact with the island’s volcanic rocks resulted in rapid infection. If not promptly and properly treated the wound would quickly flare up. There must have been something on the surface of the rocks which caused certain aggravation. Other cases I recall being treated were numerous occurrences of fish hooks embedded in human flesh, a woman with burns after a cooker overturned and… exhaustion. One hot day an elderly couple found the walk to McKenzie Bay more than they could handle and had a panic-attack when they thought they would not make it back to Rangitoto Wharf in time for the only ferry boat back to Auckland.  Worse, they could see themselves alone on the island, out in the open, overnight. Other people using the route raised the alarm and storekeeper/caretaker Reg Noble went out in the old White bus to collect the two distressed hikers.

The old White bus on Rangitoto
Ed Dowding – Northern Sports Car Club

The couple was tired, suffering shock and were a little disoriented. Back at the St John station father gave them hot sweet tea and a lot of calming, reassuring words in the short time they had before being assisted along to the wharf and aboard the late afternoon launch for Auckland.

Just a word about the White Bus. It had originally been in service on Auckland’s North Shore. Its destination blind showed “Deep Creek” so at some stage it must have been on the run to and from Torbay. It appears to be an early 1920s model made by White Motor Company in Cleveland, Ohio, USA with coachwork probably done by an Auckland company for North Shore Transport Company, a 23-seater, labelled “No.4”. It was left-hand-drive.

Back to first aid duties on the island. They  were often shared at weekends and holidays with St John nurse Dawn Burton of Onehunga Nursing Division. Her family members owned (and have retained to this day) a small cottage, “Whare Taare”, at Rangitoto Wharf, and they regularly visited the island at weekends, particularly over summer. Dawn’s photos are most welcome to illustrate Rangitoto Wharf activities.

Dad’s movie projector was fetched on the ferry during some holidays and long weekends, hooked up to the power generator at Reg Noble’s store, resulting in popular outdoor evening movie shows which invariably included a repeat of the film Dad had taken of the official opening of the First Aid facility.  The locals could see themselves, larger than life and in colour, on the big white screen, a sheet, strung between Pohutukawa trees.

Other Memories

Annually (and did it coincide with St John’s Day?) there was a Church Parade with all Divisions throughout Auckland participating.  The particular one I best recall formed up near the Town Hall and marched down Queen Street, along Customs Street West and up Hobson Street.  While today a split in a formal parade to divide members by religion would hardly be tenable, this is exactly what happened in those times. St John personnel were called on parade and asked to form two distinct sections, Roman Catholics in front and Protestants bringing up the rear. A couple of bands accompanied the parade. This particular year Epsom Division was honoured with the task of providing the Colour Party. Father was pleased to be included and, wearing white gloves, proudly escorted the flag of the Order of St John at the head of the parade, second only to the brass band.

Colour Party, behind the band
on Hobson Street, Annual Parade and Church Service, 1960

The column proceeded up Hobson Street. Near the Swanson Street intersection a party of highly ranked St John Officers on the footpath took the salute.  At Wyndham Street the parade came to a halt. The front ranks then broke off, marching the short distance up Wyndham Street to the entrance of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the mother church of Catholics in Auckland, to attend Mass. Protestants and others then continued their march up Hobson Street to Wellesley Street where they broke off and entered St Matthew-in-the-City, the Anglican inner-city church, for their annual Service. I can’t recall whether the parade reformed and returned to the Queen Street start point: great detail would be called for by the organisers to ensure coordination between the churchmen so that both services ended with the Catholics out in Hobson Street, formed up and ready to join the Protestants as they marched by!


There was one other formal, very formal, occasion I remember: the Investiture Ceremony. It was not an annual event, in Auckland at least, but may have been shared with other New Zealand cities. This particular year the ceremony was held in the Auckland Town Hall. My father was to receive his medal and parchment as Serving Brother of the Order. The Carlyon kids were not present: invitations were strictly limited. But from the photos I later saw, it was all ceremonial, and in the eyes of a young person, bristling with very official-looking people, be-mantled or in uniform and practically everyone had medals. The investiture was carried out by the Governor-General who, from memory, headed the Order in New Zealand. Dad was proud of his SBSJ. He had always respected those in the Brigade, the ordinary Zam-Buks (not that he liked that term when used by others to describe St John personnel!) who were Serving Brothers and Sisters, and now he had joined their ranks.

I mention Brigade – there was always a little tension between the St John Ambulance Brigade and the St John Ambulance Association. In short, the former were the unpaid personnel providing first aid on Public Duty while the latter operated ambulance services in Auckland. Elsewhere in New Zealand, especially in provincial towns and cities, the Brigade did both, the volunteers performing Public Duty and also rostered to ensure an ambulance was readily available in their communities. Some Brigade people, father included, resented the frequent publicity the Association got and the better funding it received, maintaining the Brigade was by far the poorer cousin, always in the background.  Father often disagreed with the various utterances by high-ranking Association officials… “what would they know about providing first aid on the side-line at a rugby match in the cold with driving rain, comforting a patient in pain while awaiting an ambulance?” he would ask.

I gather in recent years the two ‘arms’, so apparently separate in those days, have combined.

“The Evening Post” newspaper reports that in 1929 the Epsom Nursing Division took 3rd prize in the Inter-District “Willowbank Challenge Cup” in the annual St John competitions held in Wellington. I think it must have been these national competitions that were held at Eden Park, Auckland, in the early 1960s or thereabouts. I recall there was great preparation for the event: all Divisions in greater Auckland seemed to contribute some part of the organisation and, on the day, all had parts to play to ensure success. Dad borrowed a movie camera and shot some of the action… mostly a march past, I remember, so perhaps it was something other than competitions… the visit of on overseas St John dignitary? Video exists of this event – it will be found in Carlyon family treasures and if possible will be made available.  

A Visitor

In the mid 1960s St John Brigade Headquarters in Auckland received a request from St John in Nadi, Fiji, for help for one of their first-aiders who was coming to Auckland for a medical operation at Green Lane Hospital and who neither had relatives, nor knew anyone, in Auckland. Could St John assist?  Epsom Division was asked to be involved because the hospital was in its patch. The upshot was that Epsom did help, and the Carlyon family agreed to host Mr Amrit Lal during his post-operative convalescence. It turned out the operation was to remedy a nasal condition, so after Amrit was discharged from Green Lane he came to stay at our place, bulbously bandaged nose and all! As his appetite returned he cooked his own food to ensure he ate nothing that offended his religious beliefs. We got some advice from a local Indian family about where to buy appropriate foodstuffs and the Carlyon kids were coaxed to share some of his exotic, sometimes aromatic, dishes. Amrit was with us for some weeks while his nasal tubes returned to normal and until the surgeon gave him the all-clear to fly back to Fiji. One thing we did discover from Amrit…  the St John first-aider in Fiji is not known as a “Zam-Buk” but as an “Aspro”, the small white pill taken for headaches and pain, a name similarly transferred to first-aiders from a well-known remedy.

“Aspro” – the other name for “Zam-Buk”

Amrit and his family hosted my father when he visited Fiji. I also had a holiday with the Lals in Nadi.


Superintendent Des Bentley was OIC Epsom Division for most of the years I recall, and Noel McLennan before him. Des was also a senior leader/executive in Scouts.

Gordon Dean was a senior officer for many years, so was Fred Graham, the latter heading the local cadets in earlier years. Fred Madden, Noel Doull, Nel Allport, Jack Conway, Jim Noble and Ted Phipps – and his wife (who was an executive officer in St John Nursing in Auckland) – were names of those in ‘Corps’ or ‘District’.

My cousin, Warren Carlyon was a cadet, qualified for the Grand Prior’s Badge, rising through to the ranks of Epsom Division. Other names I remember were Gordon Wilson, ‘Snow’ Mason, Graeme Poole, Lindsay Roberts, Colin Mackie, Ricky Robertson, Lawrence Ennor, Jim Datsun and Dorothy Fraser.  Ronald Batson met with a boating accident in the Hauraki Gulf and was drowned. He was a member of Epsom Division at the time… members properly paid tribute to him at his service. Years later the Batson family, as their memorial to Ronald, gave the Division a substantial contribution enabling it to buy the leasehold section the hall stood on. A new building has since been constructed on the freehold site, known as the Ronald Batson Memorial Centre.

Mavis Mansfield, who for many years held the Cadets together, knew how to be favourite among the young men she led. By day she worked in a coffee bar/tea rooms in Balmoral and would frequently take leftovers – cakes and similar treats – to the Hall on nights when the Cadets were meeting.

Although slightly handicapped herself with a crippled foot, Mavis was a stalwart for the Division and took more than her fair share of Public Duty and administrative help.

Dawn Burton (ex Onehunga Nursing Division), George Morrison (Otahuhu Railway Division) and Miss Schroeder and Mrs Hall (both St John Nurses, but from other Divisions, I think) are other names readily to mind.


My close association with St John from such an early age because of my father’s dedicated membership might prompt the question “why didn’t you join?”. I was asked if I was interested when I was quite young. And just the once! I can’t remember who it was, but an officer in Epsom Division asked me if I had considered joining now that I had reached an age when I could enroll in Cadets. Unfortunately the question was put to me in the presence of my father who immediately discouraged the idea with the comment “he wouldn’t last 5 minutes”. Dad probably had more than 20 years’ service at that stage! The subject of my enrolling with St John was never raised again.

I later joined the Auckland Volunteer Fire Police. I have been a member for some 40 years.


RCC Oct 2010

Pics added Nov. 2018 June 2019

The Story of Epsom Hotel and Potter’s Paddock

The old Epsom Hotel was central to the earliest development of the district, including Potter’s Paddock which became Alexandra Park and Auckland Showgrounds, venues for many “firsts” and important events… like the first serious flight by an aeroplane in New Zealand.

In Our Time

In the 1950s and 60s I knew the Epsom Hotel as a large two-storied building on Manukau Road at the corner of Alba Road which had seen better days: no more a hotel, a pub or even a tavern, long-since stripped of its licence and now living the quieter life as a block of shops. It was a big building, constructed of timber, its wide, hewn, Kauri weatherboards painted cream but showing their age. The building had several very large chimneys, one served a large open fireplace, probably in the front parlour, or saloon bar, in earlier times, and the other perhaps originated in the kitchen connected to the stove and ovens. The hotel was built right on the footpath (or over the years the footpath was widened to touch its skirting boards!) and secured to the wall facing Alba Road were two vertical steel ladders – fire escapes – which, with two casement windows, were the only features breaking up the expanse of timbered weatherboards. Along the Manukau Road frontage – in my school days  – there were four shops: the fruiterer’s on the corner of Alba Road, a dressmaker’s, then a milk bar/dairy and finally a grocery store, one in the chain of Self Help shops throughout New Zealand which boasted the slogan “High Class Groceries”. The hotel’s neighbour on the southern (Onehunga) side was the stone cottage which had been owned, but not occupied, by William Potter and his family.

The house on Potter’s land, made of local volcanic rock. The hotel is the near-neighbour to the right. 1919. James D Richardson: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-150

William Potter had been a hotel-keeper in the Bay of Islands about the time Maori chief Hone Heke was active.  Potter’s hotel and all property was destroyed by fire and he moved to Auckland to start again and began by purchasing from Maori a large tract of land in Epsom extending from the present Potters Park at the Dominion Road/Balmoral Road intersection to the showgrounds on Green Lane West. In 1845 he built the stone house on Manukau Road (at various times known as Manukao, Epsom or Onehunga Road). It was sometimes referred to as a “blockhouse” because its solid stone walls would have offered protection in any conflict with the natives (and William Potter had experienced personal loss at the hands of the Maori in the North so probably deliberately built of stone). In our time (1950s and 60s) it was in much better state of repair than in the photo above – and was being lived in.

I knew some of the tenants who rented accommodation in old hotel building next door, including rooms on the first floor accessed by a grand sweeping staircase, though I recall this being removed, probably in the early 1960s.  There were more lodgings at the rear, rented accommodation. Out back there were also a couple of sheds with, beyond them, a market garden stretching along the Alba Road frontage, the width of a couple of sections. It was originally tended by Chinese gardeners, their harvest providing fresh produce for sale in their shop within the old hotel right on the corner of Alba Road. Cultivation gradually ceased but this large area was never built on: a run-down house was moved on to it at one stage, but it remained unkempt, incomplete, and subject to Council warnings to renovate or move on.

Adjacent was a small paddock, with stables, home to horses who trained on the track at nearby Alexandra Park. Mid-morning the horses, up to 6, could be seen mingling with traffic as they made their return from the track to their “house paddock”. The horseman would be in a sulky (cart) pulled by one horse, the others tethered, following. For many motorists this would be an unusual encounter, sharing the road with horses.

The paddock was behind a block of shops, one of which housed J. Mackey, Saddler. I guess he was strategically located, being close to Alexandra Park, headquarters for trotting racing. The small shop was crowded with work-benches and harnesses of all kinds hanging around the walls. If one lingered while passing the shop’s front door the smell of leather, dressings and stains were evident. I always thought of Mackey’s as an Epsom business, but not so. J. Mackey first advertised his wares in 1903 at a Durham Street address in the city. He then moved to the corner of Wyndham and Albert Streets, expanding the business to sell horses, cows and traps.

New Zealand Herald Advertisement 23 October 1920
Papers Past National Library of New Zealand
The business moved to Manukau Road, Epsom, in post-war years.

The empty section behind the old hotel building, the stables and paddocks remained during my childhood. But in the late 1960’s it all changed. Every house (about 20) along the southern side of Alba Road, the old hotel and the stone house, were demolished or removed to make way for a new road linking Manukau Road and Balmoral Road, engineered and constructed for the Auckland Regional Authority. In 1967 the stone house was moved, piece by piece, to the Pioneer Village at the Museum of Transport and Technology, Western Springs, Auckland where it was rebuilt, furnished and fitted-out with an appropriate early 20th century “look”.

Its original owner, pioneer William Potter died in March 1872. His life and his legacies – Potter’s Park, Alexandra Park and Auckland ASB Showgrounds (and the historic events played out there) – are inextricably woven into the story of the hotel at Epsom.

In Days Gone By

The hotel’s demolition in 1967 finished off a building that had been front and centre of the district’s history since earliest colonisation, time when the hotel was a flourishing business, the local public house serving alcoholic and spirituous drinks, providing a break for the travelling public and used as a vital meeting place in the developing suburb. But all that ended in 1909 when residents voted “no licence” and the Epsom Hotel became “the pub with no beer”. But for some 65 years before that the hotel had played its unique part in the history of Epsom.

The Epsom Hotel in 1908, before it “went dry”
Auckland Weekly News Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19081126-10-7

The first mention that we can find about the hotel along the “Epsom Road” (now Manukau Road) goes back before 1841 when it was known as the Prince Albert Inn, situated near where the Lido Cinema now is. It was an investment by John Gotty and Thomas Manton. They capitalised on travellers, advising newspaper readers that “the mail cart passes the door”.

First mentions of the Prince Albert are also associated with horse-racing.

A two-day meeting had been planned at Epsom Downs in November, 1841, “the course situated about 3 miles along the Great Manukao Road” as newspaper advertisements read, promoting 3 races, with heats staged each day. This proposed race meeting, the first in the new Colony, was postponed until January 1842, once the stewards were appointed, the course re-drawn (adjusted to a half-mile circuit – similar to some of the famous tracks in England, the “New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette” noted) and the track was referred to as “the Auckland Racecourse”. The programme included flat races, (one or two circuits of the course), and hurdle races (twice around with six jumps about 3 feet (1m) high each circuit.

Gotty and Manton, owners of the Prince Albert Inn established a bar and restaurant on the course, promising that they would satisfy all the race-goers’ needs.

Advertisement in New Zealand Herald and Auckland Gazette, 18th December 1841

Gotty and Manson also cashed in on land sales in Epsom in January 1842 when they offered lunches for prospective buyers. Allotments had been surveyed on land that had recently become well known, used earlier that month as the Auckland Racecourse. Gotty and Manson offered refreshments at both venues… on site and back at their Inn.

1843 “Moody’s Royal Almanack” notes that the mail cart, operated by Samuel Wood of the Royal Hotel in Auckland, “…starts out each Monday from his hotel for the Manukau passing Gotty and Manton’s Inn”. It was a feature in advertisements for the establishment, the owners benefitting from the trade of passengers in transit.

But like many of the punters at the Epsom Races, Gotty and Manton also lost money. They also went bankrupt.

In February 1843 Alfred de Philipsthal must have had the Prince Albert Hotel because at that time he advertised in The Auckland Times that he had just returned from Sydney having imported new stocks.

The Auckland Times

But it appears his tenure was short-lived. In April 1843 ownership of Prince Albert Inn passed to Thomas Conry, an Auckland lawyer, with the licence in the name of Benjamin Davis.

In less than a year local land-owner and farmer, William Potter, purchased it with Benjamin Davis (aka Davies) retained as licensee*. In May 1843 Davis advises readers that he has leased “the well- known House”.

Daily Southern Cross, 20 May 1843

A meeting of some of the district’s earliest settlers had been held in the Prince Albert Hotel, April 1843, to discuss the erection of a church in Epsom. And although the sentiment at that gathering was keen, backed by cash contributions and promises of gifted land on which to build the new church, it was to be another 3 years before St Andrews opened in September 1846**.

* Earliest owners and licensees are mentioned in “History of Epsom”- Graham Bush (Ed)

** From “Spire on the Hill History of St Andrew’s Church in the Epsom District, 1846 -1996”, Rory Sweetman

Prince Albert Inn

Having secured the licence for the Prince Albert Inn, Davis stepped up advertising. In 1843 he advised that he was offering “a choice and well selected assortment of Spirits, Wines, Malt Liquors, &c” and that he would “always furnish Liquors of the very first quality, and pay every possible attention to the comfort of his guests”. What’s more, he had “at considerable expense, created an oven, which is now in full operation, and having lately made an extensive purchase of real Derwent Flour*, he could confidently assure those who may honour him with their support, of being supplied with bread of such a quality as cannot be surpassed in the Colony. Further, he told newspaper readers “I have been induced, on account of the distance of this place from Auckland, to lay in an assortment of teas, sugars, and other groceries, which will always be sold on the most moderate terms, for cash, and trust that the quality of the goods, and reasonable charges, will ensure a constant demand”. A later advertisement added the offer of “Breakfasts, Luncheons, Dinners, &c, on the shortest notice”, a message no doubt targetted at travellers along Epsom Road who, hungry, might drop in for a meal and refreshments.

The hotel, reputedly half-way between the two ports, Auckland on the East Coast and Onehunga on the West, provided a natural rest break for passengers making the trip between the two places, perhaps travelling on one of Hardington’s horse-drawn carriages. In the mid-1840s the journey took a whole day. The Prince Albert Inn did not have as much accommodation as perhaps might be expected: it was geared to serve passing travellers rather than overnight guests.

Prince Albert Inn should not be confused with the Halfway House – another public house in Epsom on the corner of Epsom Avenue and Manukau Road, first opened by Henry Hayr. In 1850 the Licensing Committee refused George Smith a licence to sell alcoholic liquors. The place was briefly a guest-house until it regained a licence under the name of Walter Scott a year or two later. The premises, now 219 Manukau Road, had the landmark of an ever-growing, towering, Norfolk Pine tree that was planted, some say by a ship’s captain who fetched the sapling from Norfolk Island. The N.Z. Tree Register says the tree was planted around the 1860s when the site was nursery. Maybe both versions are correct: the captain gave the sapling to the nursery to nurture. The tree, at one stage was supposed to be the tallest of its kind anywhere, still exists – it’s on the protected tree list.

By 1848 Benjamin Davis’s widow held the licence in the name of Ann Rose Davis (later her name was published as both Rose Ann and Rosannah). William Tye’s name, as licensee, was over the front door of the Prince Albert Inn for a few years from 1849. He had been Auckland’s early Court Clerk and Bailiff. Conry advertised in the New Zealander in July 1850 that there were now “superior accommodations offered, he having made extensive renovations to the premises”.

*Flour was milled at Derwent Valley, Tasmania from the 1820s and exported to New Zealand

New Site

In 1851 a new hotel was built for Rose-Anne Davis 50 meters (50 yards) or so towards Onehunga, on a vacant site on Manukau Road at the intersection of Greenlane West and Derby Street, later renamed Albert Street and then Alba Road. This was the site on which the hotel was to endure.

William Gordon must have had occupancy of the hotel sometime around 1855 when, in June of that year, he got out of the business and commissioned auctioneers to sell the entire contents of the premises including stocks of alcoholic liquors, 7 tons of potatoes and 4 horses.

The licence reverted to Rose Ann Davis until she died in April 1858 aged 47.

One report says the first hotel on the Manukau Road corner burned down in 1856 and was quickly replaced.

Isaac Gwynne

Several licensees followed until Isaac Gwynne took over in 1870 and for 14 years he, or his wife Sarah, managed the Prince Albert Inn.  Isaac’s brother, Richard, was also a publican… he had the Junction Hotel at the intersection of Manukau Road and Otahuhu Road (now Great South Road), just out from the present Newmarket.

Junction Hotel 1908: Great South Road is to the left, Manukau Road to the right
Weekly News: Sir George Grey Collection, Auckland Libraries

Isaac originally had stables adjacent to the Junction and he bred both gallopers and trotters which he raced at Potter’s Paddock, land given over opposite the Hotel by its owner for public use, including the training of racehorses. The Junction Hotel was popular not only with the equestrian set, but also sports people across the board.

Junction Hotel, favourite with those of the turf and the track N Z Graphic – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19050429-29-1

Isaac Gwynne, now of the Prince Albert Hotel in Epsom, was a big man, an athlete, who often challenged locals at running races and endurance tests, or he would take bets that he could run great distances against the clock, always setting himself a real test. It was not uncommon for him to race from Onehunga to Auckland, and back. Most bets appeared on the surface to be absurd, but Gwynne invariably beat the clock and claimed the money. He seemed super-human. He was also a crack shot and took limit bags without effort during the shooting season – the lowlands around Wairoa (Papakura and Clevedon) seem to have been his favourite hunting grounds.

Isaac Gwynne, for all his athleticism, died in July 1880 aged 35 years of a heart complaint. His wife, Sarah, took over the Prince Albert. She must have been an enterprising woman for very soon she was running a Hamilton Hotel as well.

Enter a Jockey

She also had a new man in her life, the well known top jockey who had successfully raced throughout the country, James Wattie. He took out all the big races and in 1874 rode Templeton, the winner of the first Auckland Cup ever run. He also had the record of winning four of the five races on the card at the Takapuna Jockey Club’s meeting in 1884, and, just for good measure, was placed second in the fifth race.

A newspaper columnist of the day compared Sarah Gwynne’s late husband Isaac, the somewhat eccentric West Coast gum digger and athletic street-runner, to the diminutive famous jockey, Wattie, wondering which she preferred! In June 1884 the Licensing Committee was told of the recent marriage and the licence as transferred to Jim Wattie’s name.

Sarah died in December, 1893 aged 45, and was buried alongside Isaac, her first husband, in the old St Marks Church graveyard in Remuera.

Wattie later bred and raced both thoroughbreds and trotters. He was obviously dedicated to sporting and kindred local events for in this time he encouraged many organisations to meet in the hotel: some gatherings witnessed the founding of Auckland’s early clubs and organisations. The access-way alongside the hotel became known, locally, as Watties Lane for it led to extensive stabling that the publican had established behind the hotel buildings.

It’s recorded that Jim Wattie was involved in an accident with a horse in Yaldhurst, Canterbury in August 1895 and received serious head injuries. He is next reported, November 1895, a patient at Sunnyside Asylum. Then in 1899 newspapers reported he fell from the evening train at Remuera, Auckland, and lay, injured and unfound, until morning. He was listed as a horse trainer at that time. He died in Auckland, in January 1913, aged 55 years, leaving his name on the list of well-known men of the turf and having contributed to the history of Epsom.  His nephew was Sir James Wattie, industrialist and successful owner-breeder of thoroughbreds.   

Meanwhile, in 1896 the hotel property was sold to Seccombe and Son for £3,250, “a hotel containing 20 rooms with a large 7-stall stable having a 72 foot (22m) frontage to Manukau Road by a depth of 260 feet (80m)”.

Change of Name

Seccombes and Son, new proprietors of the Prince Albert, owned land near the present Khyber Pass Road/Mountain Road on which there was a spring giving exceptionally pure water, ideal for making beer: breweries were established in the immediate area and for more than a century continued under the names Seccombes, Great Northern Brewery, Lion Brewery, Captain Cook Brewery and latterly New Zealand Breweries. Seccombes Road, between Mountain Road and Gillies Avenue and near the site of the original spring, is named after the pioneer family.

The new owners, Seccombes, changed the name: “Prince Albert” signs were removed. Amelia Brown was granted the licence in May 1896 “for a hotel situate at Epsom, and known by the sign of Epsom Hotel, containing ten rooms except those required for the use of the family”. The accommodation side of the business had been halved.

There was string of licensees in subsequent years, almost a new one annually, and in 1903 ownership changed to the Great Northern Brewery Ltd and L D Nathan Company and again the following year to the Great Northern Brewery Ltd. In 1904 H. Lloyd of the Kamo Hotel bought the Epsom Hotel for £4,600. He knew the place, having been the licensee in 1901. Lloyd’s name above the front door was replaced by George Bishop’s in 1906.

Voters Have their Say

Bishop must have been apprehensive about the business because under the Alcoholic Liquors Sales Control Act the question of licensed premises was going to the ballot box. Temperance was becoming a popular movement; sales of alcohol were frowned on, public houses opposed. The future of the Epsom Hotel lay in voters’ hands. In 1906 the Licensing Committee was obliged to take note of election results when residents in the Eden electorate voted for a reduction in the number of liquor outlets. The “Eden” licensing district included many suburbs including hotels at the Junction (Great South and Manukau Roads), Avondale, Epsom, and New Lynn.

Four licensed premises had to be reduced to three. Epsom Hotel submitted to the Licensing Committee on the 29th June 1906 that many public meetings and events were held on the premises, that, accommodation-wise, it had a good occupancy rate and regularly provided travellers with meals. The New Lynn Hotel pleaded that its licence should continue: stable-hands found it was too much to travel from Auckland to the West Coast in one day and welcomed the opportunity to break their journey. However, the publican of the Avondale Hotel thought his house was much better located to provide these services. There appears to have been no question that the Junction Hotel should give up its licence.

After careful consideration it was decided to close the New Lynn Hotel despite pleas by the owner that “a considerable investment would be lost, all lost”.

The remains of the former New Lynn Hotel on Great North Road, just 4 walls and a roof, was demolished only in 2011, more than a hundred years since it lost its licence. It had been occupied by residents for decades but, vacated some 5 years ago, there had been several fires in the crumbling ruins, further weakening the concrete shell. The site, between Wattle and Nikau Streets but on the opposite (southern) kerb, was a kilometre or two west of where New Lynn grew up as a shopping centre, the old hotel ending up surrounded by houses.  A day care centre for pre-schoolers has been built on the land.

Eden Goes Dry

In the 1908 ballot electors voted Eden Licensing District dry, a vast proportion of Auckland, most of the isthmus extending from Newmarket to the West Coast would have to survive without premises selling alcohol.  The licences of the 3 remaining hotels, including Epsom, were doomed: no longer could alcoholic liquor be sold on the premises. So at closing time on 30th June 1909, Epsom was one of the 107 hotels throughout New Zealand caught up in the “no licence” move. In Auckland many public houses which closed their bars and bottle stores that night, like the Epsom Hotel, had many old, if not historic, associations with early Auckland. Like the Junction Hotel, and those at Avondale and Henderson, all of which dated back to the colony’s infancy. In other Licensing Districts in Auckland voters decided to reduce the numbers of premises, so that public houses in Parnell, St Heliers, Royal Oak and Harp of Erin also closed.

“Once dry, always dry” was the cry of those days, so without possibility that licences would be restored in Eden, the owners of the Epsom Hotel auctioned “household furniture and effects, all in first class order and without reserve”. The place was repainted. And then in July 1910 the Auckland Star advised readers that the Epsom Hotel was being converted into shops by Mr W. E. Trevathen at a cost of a thousand pounds.

Hotel – Community Centre

From its earliest days the hotel at Epsom played a unique part in local history.

It’s recorded that in 1843 the pub hosted tourists, day trippers, who arrived on horse-back, en route to explore the caves created in the honey-combed lava flows from the Maungakiekie volcano (One Tree Hill).

The entrance to the caves under Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill
Weekly News, Sire George Grey Collection, Auckland Libraries

The sightseers reported in the NZ Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser, 24 March 1843, (from the Auckland Times): “Generally speaking, there is little moisture in the caves, but here and there water is dripping from above, and where that is the case stalactites are rapidly forming. With exception of the regular avenues, there is nothing striking to the eye of the general observer, the place seems to consist of rude heaps of very sharp rough scoria, upon which it is necessary to be very careful of one’s footsteps.

In the entrance of the cave there are several piles of human bones but we did not observe any indication of the Aborigines having had the courage or the curiosity to penetrate beyond except indeed that at the very extremity of one of the deepest passages we found one solitary skull no doubt carried there by some explorer like ourselves, and dropped because of the trouble of taking it further”.

As early as 1849 the hotel was where intending buyers gathered to inspect horses for sale, a year or two later candidates for election to the Epsom West Ward were announced there and an inquest was held in the front parlour of the Prince Albert Inn into the death of Alex Geddes who fell from his horse nearby. In 1850 licensee William Tye “begs to inform his friends and the Public attending the Races on the 23rd inst., that they will find superior accommodations at the Prince Albert Inn, Epsom”, he having made extensive improvement in the premises, thus cashing in on the crowds expected at the horse races in nearby Potter’s Paddock. Soldiers rode their military charges for prizes quoted in gold sovereigns and the races were a big hit with the public. The race-track was to be born again in the late 1880s when the Onehunga Racing Club refurbished it.

Episodes of Life and Death

The hotel became a temporary maternity ward in June 1870 when Isaac Gwynne’s wife, Sarah, gave birth to their daughter.

In 1876 the Coroner’s Court was convened in the hotel’s front room, a consequence of the violent death of a young farm hand, Edwin Packer, in his quarters on the Cleghorn property in Epsom. A Maori youth, Harry Winiata, who also worked on the farm, was the only suspect since he had been accused of stealing money from Packer a few days before. Packer’s death, it was said, was to cover up evidence he might give against Winiata. The inquest heard of the recovery of Packer’s body from a shallow grave on the Cleghorn farm and the serious head wounds inflicted, probably the cause of death. The coroner’s jury decided it was murder. Newspapers of the day detailed the murder and the manhunt for Winiata in the King Country. He was eventually captured some six years after the crime, tried and hanged.

The hotel became an emergency medical surgery in June 1900 when 32 year old John James Johnston was fetched in, having been thrown out of the cart he was driving when his horse “swerved badly”. The licensee, Richard Carr, saw the accident occur and assisted the injured man to the hotel. Doctor William Scott was quickly on the scene, followed by 2 more doctors, but no treatment could save the patient.

Dr William G. Scott (right). Medical man and later Mayor of Onehunga
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZG-19050311-38-3

And again in 1908 the hotel became a haven for the injured. An accident occurred at Alexandra Park when Mr. K. Menzies was “going amongst some of the horses”. One suddenly lashed out, and kicked him severely on the thigh. There being no ambulance stretcher available, Mr. Menzies was carried to the hotel where he was attended by Dr. F. M. King.

The hotel became Coroner’s Court again in August 1902 when an inquest was convened into the death of William Robinson, who was found at the bottom of a well at the rear of the pub. He drowned in about two feet of water.

The hotel was the last meeting place before burial for Mrs Rose Ann Davies, licensee, who died in April 1858.

In 1888 it was widely advertised that the stables at the rear of “Watties Hotel” housed well-known thoroughbred King Cole, sire of so many winners, and available for services.

Meeting Place

Meetings of many local organisatons were held in the hotels’ parlour… in 1851 “Tye’s Inn” (as it was described at the time) witnessed the founding meeting of the Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Association. (The Agricultural and Pastoral show was already well underway… inaugurated in 1843, the first of its kind in New Zealand).  The Association, looking for a “home”, later purchased the eastern part of Potter’s Paddock, known as the Showgrounds, where it events have been staged ever since.

Big crowds at Epsom Showgrounds: A and P Show, 1906
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 7-A1654

The annual A and P show used to be held in November but since the 1950s it was combined with the Easter Show: both have been big draw cards over the decades. Stock cars were popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a tightly-curved race track surrounded the main arena which was formerly used at A and P shows for equestrian events, sheep dog competitions and Grand Parades of animals. There have been fireworks displays on the site, boat shows and since new exhibition halls have been expanded, trade shows are held practically every weekend.

Long-wanted improvements to the road to Onehunga were discussed with tenderers in the hotel in 1865 and those disputing the latest electoral rolls in 1868 gathered in the hotel to meet officials and make their pleas to be added.

Alfred de Philipsthal, a sea-captain, had management of city hotels in the 1840s, the “Victoria” and the “Rose, Shamrock and Thistle Inn”, and subsequently Prince Albert Inn at Epsom, began organising events centred on the Inn when he attempted  to get up a Rifle Match in September 1842 (postponed) and at the same time advertised he was clearing an area of land adjacent to the Inn “… for gentlemen who enjoy the exhilarating game of cricket”.

The founding meetings of several other organisations were also held in Epsom’s hotel…the Rifleman’s Club. the Mount Roskill Highway District, the Epsom Trotting and Racing Club (which had its Secretary’s office within the hotel and in May 1890 a meeting was held in “Watties Hotel” (as was publicised) for the purpose of forming a separate trotting club, to be called the Auckland Trotting Association (now the Auckland Trotting Club). The Pakuranga Hunt, New Zealand’s oldest hunt club, was associated with the hotel from early on – in 1890 the “hunt drag” ended at the premises.

Quoits tournaments were regularly held in the hotel around this time. In 1891 plans were made in the hotel’s parlour for the United Fire Brigades’ competitions, when fire brigades from throughout the land competed against each other for the championship title, events to be held in nearby Potter’s Paddock.

By 1906 the Epsom Road Board was holding its ordinary meetings in the hotel and the need for a policeman to be stationed in Epsom was discussed. Inspector Cullen wrote that he had forwarded the application to the Commissioner of Police, who had strongly supported it, and now Cullen was looking for a suitable house near the tram depot and the Hotel. (And a suitable house was found at 4 King Edward Avenue, the police station for many years to come).

There are several reports of soldiers crowding the bar during overnight stops, military personnel en route to serve at various outposts, some engaged in the New Zealand wars. In June 1849 there must have been quite a windfall for the hotel’s takings when 88 soldiers (Fencibles) and their families were billeted nearby in Mr Potter’s barn, specially converted for the purpose. The military men had just landed from England and stayed in Epsom until accommodation was completed at their new posting, Onehunga.

The hotel well-served its community.

The Transport Evolution  

Travellers along what’s now Manukau Road (earlier known variously as Onehunga, Epsom and Manukao Road) contributed much to the revenue of the hotel in Epsom. At first they arrived on foot along the tracks first forged across the narrow isthmus by Maori, then on horseback and by horse-and-cart as more townspeople made the journey to or from Onehunga.  What started out as a network of walking tracks soon became passable by wheeled vehicles, thanks mainly to New Zealand’s first Surveyor-General, Felton Mathew, who, having designed Auckland’s streets, charted a more direct route: his road had many long, straight sections while at the same time avoided swampy ground and rocky outcrops.

The first horse-drawn coach along Epsom Road to and from Onehunga apparently began in 1841, described as a weekly “mail cart” but which also carried paying passengers and freight. By 1851 Hardington’s horse-drawn buses, based at his Horse Bazaar alongside the Junction Hotel in Newmarket, were plying the route to and from Onehunga with the Prince Albert Inn at Epsom one of several refreshment stops along the way. By 1872 several companies were offering horse-drawn bus services along Epsom Road. In that year some 3,000 travellers* made the journey in one month: it must have been a lucrative trade for both the bus companies and the hotel. Many travellers were making the journey to and from Onehunga’s port, utilising services of sailing ships travelling locally to wharves within the Manukau Harbour or beyond the Heads to other ports of call along the New Zealand coast, while some passengers, colonists, were arriving from overseas: others making for voyages to destinations abroad.

Horse-drawn buses in Queen Street c1900
Auckland Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19400124-41-2

*   Information about early horse-drawn coaches and buses:  “Newmarket Lost and Found” – Dinah Holman

The Trams

Horse-drawn tramcars introduced in Auckland in 1884* were at once a hit with travellers, affording a much smoother ride along steel tracks, replacing the movement and motion of the horse coaches.

Horse-drawn trams became popular on all routes…
the extra horse added, leading on steeper inclines
Auckland Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19190619-37-1

Auckland Tramways anticipated the trend and in 1888 purchased part of Potter’s Paddock on the corner of the present Greenlane West and Manukau Roads for tram barns and stables. The City of Auckland Tramways and Suburban Land Company Limited (the Tramways full name) must have already rented some of the land at the same location because in 1887 the company called tenders for the cutting, stacking and storing of 30 acres (12 hectares) of hay at Potter’s Paddock.

About this time the Tramways Company was placed under bank supervision, losses mainly to do with its land purchases. Notwithstanding, it continued trading and the new tram barns meant Epsom, and particularly the streets within walking distance of the tram barn, became home of many tram-drivers and conductors. They needed to live handy so they could walk to the barn to begin early-morning services and so there was just a short walk home after they worked the last tram at night.

Fortunately for the future of the Epsom Hotel an alternative custom to passing travellers was soon to flourish.  The Tramways Company, keen to market the trams, purchased additional land from William Potter Jnr and paid to create racecourse facilities on part of Potter’s Paddock behind the tram barn. This followed up on William Potter Snr’s original plans to promote horse-racing on his property.

As mentioned, there had been racing on Epsom Downs in 1842. Horse racing moved to Potter’s Paddock in the 1860s when the militia, the Volunteer Cavalry, organised meetings for their mounts and local horses.

New Zealander, 4th March 1864

Return to Potter’s Paddock

Potter’s Paddock was back in the frame by 1888 when organised racing returned to Epsom. The race-track was re-developed, part of the enterprising scheme with two aims… to “sell’ trams, increasing the tram company’s revenue, and to accommodate Onehunga Racing Club. It had raced on a course at Te Papa since 1883 until in April 1888 the Club transferred to Potter’s Park.  “At the old Epsom course,” as the Club put it “the scene of many a hard-fought battle in the early days of Auckland, when the Imperial troops were with us. With the expenditure of a little money the Epsom course could be made quite the equal of Ellerslie, and its easy accessibility must bring it into high favour with turfites”. A grandstand, essential at any race course, was built by the Tramways Company and it was completed just in time for the first day’s racing.

Both gallops and trots were staged and by 1898 football fields were developed on the inside of the improved race-track so that rugby football would make Potters Paddock its “headquarters” with all main games transferred from the previous venue, Dilworth’s farm near Great South Road. This was quite a victory, an achievement, for the Tramways Company in its quest to attract more people to Epsom.

The tram trip from Auckland city to Epsom was not exactly fast. Giving evidence before the court when  the Epsom Hotel was charged with trading after-hours (April 1899), both the conductor and the driver of the last horse-drawn tram from Auckland testified that they left Queen Street, City, for Epsom at 10.30 p.m. and reached Epsom terminus, the tram barn, at 11.15p.m, a trip taking three quarters of an hour. They swore that they did not see the man accused of late-night drinking: case dismissed.

Rugby crowds throng the entrance to Potters Paddock 1898
Weekly News: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-18980806-2-1

Ranfurly Shield matches were held on Potters Paddock in 1902. The Tramways Company encouraged the fixture, again realising that sports fans would soon be using its new electric trams to travel to and from these important sporting events.

The packed temporary stand at Potters Park, Thames/Auckland rugby clash, 1900
Auckland Weekly News – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19000817-2-2

With football, horse races, shows like the visit of “Buffalo Bill” to Auckland and other activities, the Tramways Company could count on at least two events each week at Potter’s Park – and it sought other attractions. The Epsom Hotel, of course, also benefited from the regular crowds.

There’s ample evidence that many of the events held on Potter’s Paddock were planned at meetings held in the Epsom Hotel. When thoroughbred racing moved to Graham’s Gardens at Ellerslie (the Auckland Racing Club continues meetings on that location today) Potter’s Paddock was given over to the trotters (saddle races rather than the now-familiar sulkies) and in 1901 it was renamed Alexandra Park (as it is today).

Potter’s Paddock provided an ideal venue for the Annual Tramways Employees’ picnics and the Auckland Star reports that prize money for the races was contributed by the publican of the Epsom Hotel. As well as a social club, the large number of staff-members working at the tram barn by the turn of the century supported the Tramways Cricket Club, with grounds at Potter’s Park and its headquarters (its clubhouse?) conveniently situated in the hotel across the road!

Electric Tramways, inauguration ceremony, 17 November 1902
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 755-Album-39-9

Auckland Electric Tramways took over all tramway operations and by Christmas 1902 electrification of the tramway had reached Newmarket with connecting horse-buses to and from Onehunga. Again, they stopped for refreshments (both for horses and passengers) at the Epsom Hotel. By March 1903 the electrified line extended to Epsom but there was still a brief stop at the tram barn to swap from electric motors to real horse-power, strong horses – so the opportunity for passengers to pause for refreshments at the hotel continued. But six months later travellers could go all the way from Auckland to Onehunga Wharf, and return, by electric tram, a distance of 11 kilometres each way, said to be the only coast-to-coast electric tramway in the world.  Without horses and a much quicker journey, there was no longer need to have a refreshment stop at Epsom: the hotel lost the valuable slice of business from travellers that it had enjoyed over many decades.

Staff at Auckland Electric Tramways Epsom Depot, 1902. No doubt some patronised Epsom Hotel.
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19041229-14-1

Electric trams, however, attracted more local settlers to Epsom, who now had reliable, speedy and comfortable transport to and from the city, Newmarket and Onehunga. Allotments and sub-divisions sprang up all along the route: the tramway was the catalyst for the march on suburban settlements, Auckland’s first urban spread. And until 1909 when the area “went dry” local residents had their own pub where they could get a drink or two.  Again, the hotel benefited.

But not everyone welcomed the electric trams. A letter-writer to the editor of the Auckland Star, October 1903, with the non de plume “Sunday School Boy” of Epsom was one-such. Perhaps with tongue-in-cheek he complained that “last Sunday a church service I attended was disturbed by three trams passing”. He asked why “the Epsom Road Board did not secure the right of a poll on this subject” saying that “the trams run on the Lord’s Day without the people having a say, and, furthermore, I learn that you can get a return ticket from Greenwood’s Corner to Auckland by electric car for 7 pence, or 7pence halfpenny. From the Epsom Hotel, the 1d section nearer Auckland, instead of it being 6 pence or 6 pence halfpenny, it is eight pence. Epsom people, I suppose, take up more room, or are heavier: nevertheless they are treated shabbily”.

By 1908 Alexandra Park had become the accepted home of rugby with huge crowds turning out for local games while inter-provincial matches were patronised to capacity.

Auckland played Wellington at Alexandra Park 20th August 1908: a “full house”
Auckland Libraries – Sir George Grey collection

15,000 packed the Park to watch a Ranfurly Shield game between Auckland and Wellington in August 1908, arriving by tram, car, truck, taxi and on foot. Auckland won, 24-3, and the gate-takings, estimated at £1000, set a record for an interprovincial match. Epsom Hotel must have done well that day!

In 1919 Aucklanders decided by poll to authorise the Auckland City Council to raise a loan to purchase the assets of the Auckland Electric Tramways Company. By this time operations providing public transport by tram was big business.

Epsom tram in the line-up, Queen Street Auckland, 1919
Weekly News Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19190619-36-2

There was always added tramways traffic along Manukau Road, Epsom, as tramcars headed to and from the tram barn. In addition there was a branch line from Manukau Road along Green Lane West to Green Lane Hospital to cater for patrons attending events at Potter’s Paddock, Alexandra Park and the Showgrounds.

Electric trams continued the coast-to-coast service for more than 50 years until December 1956.

Crowds in lower Queen Street mob the last tram before its departure to Onehunga, 1956
Auckland Museum Collections

The tracks were torn up soon after Auckland’s last tram made the journey to Onehunga. The route was designated Number 10 by the Auckland Transport Board and trolley buses took over, followed by a combination of electric trolley buses and diesel buses, the trolleys giving way to diesel in March 1973. In the city the bus stop was in Victoria Street East opposite the Grand Hotel: the Onehunga terminus was moved near Nielson Street with only a few peak-hour diesel buses scheduled to and from the slightly extended route terminating at the wharf.

Trams leave the Epsom Tram Barns for the last time, 1957
Auckland Museum Collection

The Epsom tram barn, also known as the Epsom Depot, was closed in early 1957 and the huge sheds were taken over by Woolworths as a warehouse and distribution centre to serve the company’s many retail stores across Greater Auckland. These buildings were diagonally opposite the old hotel and their plain, bland, “industrial” look continued to dominate the intersection of Green Lane West and Manukau Road.

The old tram barns, from another era, became Woolworth’s warehouse
Te Ara Flickr Ministry of Culture and Heritage

In later years the buildings were demolished, the exception was a small, separate, two-storeyed block at the northern end of the property which had been the depot’s offices for, first, the Auckland Electric Tramways Company and then, latterly, the Auckland Transport Board. These premises were renovated and survive today as restaurants.

A multiple-occupancy office block was erected on the large ‘footprint’ occupying the land along Manukau Road where the tram barn once stood… it’s the equivalent of two blocks, from opposite King Edward Avenue to the Alba Road/Greenlane Road West intersection. The Auckland Transport Board also owned tram workshops further along Manukau Road, almost opposite the entrance to One Tree Hill parkland. With the passing of trams, these were converted to facilities to service buses, and then later the land was sold as a housing sub-division.

* Information about early horse-drawn and electric trams:  “End of the Penny Section” – Graham Stewart

Potter’s Barn

From the 1850’s William Potter’s holdings in Epsom were something of a landmark. Other properties were advertised for sale as being “next to Mr Potter’s land near Bird Grove*”, “valuable paddock adjoining Mr Potter’s” and “on the west of Mr Potter’s”. William Potter’s barn must have been well known, too. In 1852 electors of the Northern Division were invited to attend the barn “to state their political views and sentiments”. In an 1854 advertisement for a property at Onehunga, the agent says “complete with a store as big as Mr Potter’s barn”.

The barn itself came in for a different purpose when, in the mid-1860s, horse races organised by the Auckland Cavalry Volunteers were regularly held on the site. On these occasions the barn was converted to a saloon bar run by mine host, Mr Lawrence Robertson of the Union Hotel, Queen Street who, it seems, had all the bases covered for a great day at the races!

New Zealander, 3rd January 1865

On top of which, Mr Robertson staged a ball each evening after the racing in an aptly-decorated Potter’s Barn.

Members of the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Militia, and their families made the Barn, their home when they were billeted there in 1864 while waiting for their cottages to be constructed around the Blockhouse in Onehunga. The barn had been specially converted for the purpose.

Sadly the barn was in the headlines for the last time in April 1874. They told of an early evening fire that consumed the building. The glare of the flames could be seen from the city, prompting a mounted constable being sent out to investigate. A ton of hay and a number of saddles were lost. There were three race horses in the barn at the time, saved by the brave actions of Messrs Gwynne (of the Epsom Hotel) May and Leonard. Two jockeys were living in the building taking care of the racers. The pair went across to the hotel and a few minutes later someone saw that the barn was on fire. Its origin was a mystery.

1960s aerial picture of Showgrounds (and car parks)
Hospital buildings, upper left, and Alexandra Park, top
Whites Aviation – Alexandra Turnbull Library Tapuhi Collection

*Bird Grove was at first an estate, originally of about 20 acres (50 hectares), fronting on to the present Manukau Road, later allotments centred near Kimberley Road.

The Military

Various parts of Potter’s Paddock have, over the decades, been used by, or taken over by the military. The nearby hotel was often their “watering hole”.

It’ already been mentioned that the cavalry held horse races on the Paddock and that members of the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Militia, and their families were billeted in Potter’s Barn in 1864.

The property became an encampment for combined companies in the late 1890s, there was a military gymkhana in 1900, and Royalty (HRH the Duke of Cornwall, Duke of York) reviewed a military parade there in 1901.

HRH the Duke of Cornwall, Duke of York, ascending the saluting dais
N Z Graphic – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19010622-1155-1

The Fourth Contingent, Mounted, the so called Roughriders, trained there before departing for South Africa to fight in the Anglo-Boer War.

First day of training at Potters Paddock for the Roughriders
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19000216-5-1

It would not be long before Potter’s Paddock was again pressed to military service when troops began assembling preparatory to proceeding overseas to fight in the First World War.

Church Parade at the Volunteers’ Camp prior to leaving for the front, August 1914
Weekly News: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19140820-47-1


The showgrounds, part of the original Potter’s Paddock, were again turned into a military base during World War 2 with row upon row of bell tents.

Auckland Contingent at Potters Paddock shortly before departure overseas
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19391213-36-1

At the same time the western-most section of Potter’s Paddock at corner of Dominion and Balmoral Roads, in Mt Eden, now known as Potter’s Park, had a war-time make-over. The lawns in the reserve were torn up and cultivated by locals in a “Dig for Victory” campaign, the gardens providing welcome vegetables in the time of shortage. The Park has recently had another makeover, creating water features and other playground equipment for children with, in 2019, the addition of “Boy Walking”, a sculpture by Ronnie van Hout.

These days (2019) some of the biggest crowds gather at the old Potters Paddock for “Potters Cottage Christian Fellowship”, a weekly Pentecostal church service held in the Auckland Trotting Club’s premises. Although an appropriate name for its location, I am told the coincidence is just that, nothing to do with Potter’s Paddock – but reference to chapter 18 of the Book of Jeremiah, in the Bible, “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause thee to hear my words”.

Aviation History

The old Potter’s Paddock, now Alexandra Park, played its part in the birth of flight in New Zealand. The first “long flights” in New Zealand were made from the Park in May 1913. American barnstormer Arthur Burr “Wizard” Stone made the flights to and from the park as proving “ascents” before repeating them in public. The park was not his first choice. An estimated 13,000 people had paid admission to the Auckland Doman the week before to see his Bleriot-Metz monoplane up close and then to watch him take off, “ascend” (as the advertisements said), take a long flight, and land. It was estimated another 12,000 people took vantage points around the Domain to get their first glimpse of the aeroplane. But all did not turn out so well. There was trouble getting the small plane through the throng to the grassed runway. Police and a racing car were used to form a taxi-way, then there were delays in the start-up and, once the plane was aloft, it got caught in a down draft, turned suddenly, the “Wizard” lost control and the plane landed heavily against an embankment on the outer Domain. The flight had lasted just econds covering some 400 meters. “Wizard” Stone was uninjured. The plane was damaged and the crowd swarmed it, manhandling it, precluding a further flight. There were cries of “fraud”, the entrepreneur was not offering any money back and the disappointed spectators left the Domain. Some wrote to newspapers criticising the enterprise, blaming “Wizard” Stone and his colleagues for the dupe.

Not to be outdone, the airman announced he would take a few flights and have another public showing, this time at Alexandra Park. He repaired and tuned the plane’s engine at Epsom and made two or three proving flights from the racecourse flying over Epsom and adjoining south-eastern suburbs.

“Wizard” Stone flying above Alexandra Park
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19130501-16-4

These were said at the time to be the first aircraft flights over distance in New Zealand.

Within a week Stone was ready to stage his public exhibition at Alexandra Park, combined with another of his pursuits, motorcycle racing, together with a race – aeroplane against a sports car. For this Mr Percy Cornwall had imported a 100 horse power racer (the one that cut up cricket pitches in the Domain) with the intention to pit the car against the Bleriot plane doing laps of the racecourse. This race had to cancelled after Cornwall was practising at Alexandra Park and the car got out of control at “tremendous speed”, headed for the enclosed stables taking out 30 meters of wooden fencing before it came to rest, badly damaged.

Percy Cornwall’s racing car after the crash. It tore a gap in the fence.
Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19130501-16-2

Cornwall was moderately injured but Arthur Stone’s assistant Bert Hinkler, was hospitalised with broken ribs and other injuries (Herbert, (Bert) Hinkler, an Australian, recovered and went on to be true aviation pioneer).

A mere 200 paying patrons turned up eager to see the plane put through its paces at Epsom. But a week’s bad weather had cut up the track so there could be no motorcycle races and on the day turbulent, gusty winds precluded any flying. For the second time Aucklanders were thwarted – their attempts to see what had been dubbed “flight – the triumph of the age” were not to be realised. The “Wizard” moved to Hamilton where he presented a perfect showing, then to Napier where he crashed, smashing the plane to pieces, lucky to be alive.  He returned to Australia, surviving many mishaps. He died in 1943.

In December 1913 a further flying exhibition was planned at Alexandra Park by two local young men, Sandford and Miller, who had made their own aeroplane, naturally enough called the Sandford-Miller biplane. The craft had been shown off at various trials and the time had come to give a public exhibition. The pair pointed out, in light of the Domain fiasco involving “Wizard” Stone, that if the plane did not fly for some reason all money taken would be refunded at the gates. But this exhibition came to nothing when, on a flight from the pair’s headquarters at Avondale race course to Alexandra Park, Sandford had to make an emergency landing. This went smoothly enough. But the later take-off was flawed, the machine not rising as expected, hitting a fence. Sandford was thrown 30 feet (10m) on impact, sustaining serious injuries and the plane was wrecked.

But just a month or so later flight was to return to the old Potters Park – the Showgrounds – but without all the hype of a barnstormer, although it ended in drama. This time it was the Government-owned Britannia plane, captained by pioneer aviator and air-ace, Lieutenant Joseph Joel Hammond of the Royal Flying Corps. The plane had been gifted by the British Government, had taken some 5 months to arrive in Wellington, packed in its crates and, curiously, without its propeller or any spare parts. The propeller was sent from England and the packages were railed to Auckland.

J.J. Hammond with the Britannia monoplane
B. Beattie, Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19140122-39-2

Campbell Showgrounds (as was called), part of Potter’s Paddock, was chosen as the depot where eventually Hammond oversaw the plane’s assembly and then prepared it for flight.

The Britannia at the makeshift airfield in the Showgrounds
Free Lance, Volume XIV, Issue 707, 17 January 1914

During a 15 minute proving flight Hammond tested it exhaustively and then on Auckland’s Anniversary Weekend he took the monoplane out again. He flew for an hour above the city and the harbour, the first time that an aeroplane had flown over Auckland City.

The Britannia taking off from the Epsom Show Grounds
Beattie, Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19140122-39-1

Lieutenant Hammond almost crashed on one of these flights. The next planned take-off was to be an official fly-past over the Auckland Exhibition on January 29th.  But on the 28th he went aloft with a passenger, Miss Esme McLennan, an Australian actress performing in the city at the time. It was a 20 minute flight and Miss McLennan’s subsequent written account conveys the thrill of flying in those times. This flight was, however, unauthorised and his superior officers, out of jealousy that they had not been invited or just stiff-upper-lip discipline, banned him from flying. The plane was ordered to be crated up and returned to England. Hammond was fired. He returned to air services connected with the war and in September 1918 he crashed near Indianapolis, USA. The first man to pilot a plane in Australia, a pioneer of developing aircraft for war, survivor of may crashes and near-misses, and the first to fly a plane over Auckland City, was dead. Born in Gonville, Wanganui, Joseph Joel Hammond was aged 31.

Alexandra Park rang out with the noise of much more advanced aircraft when air shows were held there in the early 1930s. The Auckland Aero Cub organised the shows with formation flying followed by stunts by a “mystery pilot”. Spectators were invited to guess the altitude of a plane flying above the Park at the moment the pilot signalled with a coloured flare. 2,135 feet (650m) was the winning estimate.

Brushes With The Law

From time to time over the years various Auckland’s licensees were in trouble with the law for selling liquor after-hours, for selling to other than bona fide travellers and for failing to keep the peace within the hotel. From several court cases of the day (late 1890s and early 1900s) it seems travellers were “bona fide” on Sundays only if they had journeyed more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the hotel. Those staying at the hotel, and a limited number of their guests, could buy a drink but locals were not allowed to be on the premises, let alone served liquor.

Every year the Licensing Committee reviewed publicans’ licences and it was at these hearings that police often commented on how each pub had been managed over the previous 12 months. Some of these were damning of other hotels but seldom was the hotel in Epsom mentioned, its licence always readily renewed or transferred without question or comment.

But the pub starred in other cases.

In August 1887 one of Auckland’s best known boxers, Barney Donovan apparently did not like the result of the football match played at Potter’s Paddock and got into a fight outside the hotel. He allegedly assaulted one Percy Meredith using a clenched fist.

In March 1888 Daniel Gallagher complained that his swag had been stolen while he was in the hotel. James Watson appeared in the Police Court at Otahuhu charged with its theft and while he denied all knowledge, he was found guilty and sentenced to three months in Mount Eden Prison.

In 1898 three men arrived after midnight by hansom cab and later would not pay for their drinks, nor would they leave the premises. The police were telephoned (the hotel must have been a very early adopter of this technology!) and the men were locked in a room by the landlady awaiting the arrival of a constable. Later in court the case was dismissed – the magistrate accepted they had been asked to leave, but then observed that they could hardly do so once they had been locked in a room!

One Sunday afternoon in November 1900, 2 patrons were charged with assaulting several people in the hotel. They arrived intoxicated and were refused liquor, triggering abuse towards the landlady and assault on several patrons. There was further trouble after the landlady was struck… and patrons went to her defence. Both men were convicted; one fined £6, the other £4, in default 14 days in jail with hard labour.

And in 1906 clues leading to the whereabouts of two wanted men took police to the Epsom Hotel. There had been a robbery in Mount Roskill and, according to the Auckland Star, “the chase went on in such a sensational manner through the district on Thursday. O’Keefe, one of the men who gave the police an afternoon’s hard work, was secured in the Epsom Hotel the same evening. It was suspected that his companion could not be far off: there are indications by police that their quarry is concealed somewhere in the rough country around Avondale”.

A member of one of the district’s best known families appeared in Court in January 1907 after a street fight outside the Epsom Hotel. Alfred Greenwood (Greenwood’s Corner, Epsom) and Archibald Neville (of the pioneer family farming in the New Lynn district) were charged with threatening behaviour in Manukau Road.  Greenwood pleaded guilty but evidence was given that Neville was the aggressor and Greenwood acted solely in his own defence. Neville was convicted and fined £2 and costs, or one month’s imprisonment. The charge against Greenwood was dismissed.

The Regional Road

Central to the hotel’s existence had been the travelling public along Manukau Road, (Epsom Road and Onehunga Road as-was), first on foot, then horseback, by horse-bus followed by trams and motor vehicles. The intersection that the hotel was situated on was created when Green Lane was formed, a road that was originally a walking-track linking the other main road out of Auckland, the Great South Road (Otahuhu Road as it was known). While Manukau Road was later formed as a wide concrete road with tram lines down the centreline, and Green Lane was widened with the advent of motor traffic, Alba Road remained a bottle-neck, a very narrow road linking Manukau Road westwards with The Drive, which it met at a “T” intersection. Traffic heading to western suburbs such as Mount Eden, Mt Albert and Avondale, or en route to Henderson etc, had to take a very circuitous route. After turning left at the “T” into The Drive, vehicles had to travel one block before turning right into Merivale Avenue and then negotiate its narrow bends through a dog-leg up to St Andrews Road where it connected with Balmoral Road for the run out west. In the late 1960s Auckland Regional Authority engineers sought to streamline the route and proposed a widened intersection at Manukau Road and a realigned 4 or 6-lane road connecting with The Drive, then taking a direct line to St Andrews Road where an enlarged intersection would deliver traffic on to Balmoral Road. Many buildings would have to be swept away to make way. As well as all 17 houses along one side of Alba Road, businesses at the Manukau Road/Alba Road/Green Lane Road would have to be sacrificed.

Hotel Demolished

This included the old Epsom Hotel. It was demolished in August 1969 with much of its Kauri timber re-cycled.

Potter cottage 1960… later dismantled, moved and preserved
B. Beattie, NZ Herald -Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 1370-702-19

Land that the adjacent Potter cottage stood on was also wanted: the old “blockhouse”-type dwelling, covered in Ivy at the time, was dismantled stone by stone and, as mentioned, rebuilt at MOTAT. The major road works transformed the look of this part of Epsom and saw the demolition of several shops on the northern side of Alba Road (land agent’s, hairdresser’s and drapery) and then on the other side of Alba Road, the hotel and stone house.

Today trees crowd the site of the old Epsom Hotel alongside the busy intersection
Looking west along the Regional Road – Manukau Road runs left to right

On the opposite (eastern) side of Manukau Road, the home cookery, fish shop, RSA hall, Four Square grocery store and coffee-roasting business disappeared. Then there was the removal or demolition of all the houses on the southern side (even numbers) in Alba Road, and other properties in The Drive (notably Taylor’s grocery store and an Old People’s Home), Bloomfield Road, Wilding Avenue and St Andrews Road, all of which were in the line of construction. Those houses left on the northern side of Alba Road had their own separate access-lane formed alongside the new “highway” which, when opened in late 1970 with its landscaped verges and wide traffic lanes, became Auckland’s first Regional Road.

Another removal to provide alignment for the new road was a mature Oak tree growing in a traffic island at the intersection of St Andrews Road and Balmoral Road.  Conservationists and horticulture people wanted the tree left. They told the Auckland City Council and Auckland Regional that the road should take a slight diversion to save the tree, something they considered was easily manageable. Controversy grew. Time was short as development works approached the Oak. It was discussed at a meeting of the City Council one night, mid-evening. After lengthy discussion it was agreed the tree should go. Late that night the tree-fellers moved in and by morning there was no evidence left that a spreading Oak tree had grown there. The pro-tree lobby complained, alleging sabotage by the Councillors. To soften the situation the Mayor guaranteed nothing like it would ever happen again: in the future there would be full and frank discussion before action was taken.

(History was to repeat itself. In 1987 at an evening meeting the members of the Auckland City Council made a decision they knew would be controversial. They gave the go-ahead for the demolition of the heritage-rich His Majesty’s Theatre in Queen Street. Demolition crews with their equipment were prepared, ready to knock the building down and, once given the green light by those at the meeting, moved in around midnight. Most of the place was demolished overnight before those who cared realised that the 80 year old showplace was on the ground. Déjà vu!)

The End of a Hotel

In the late 1800s and early 1900s growth of Auckland’s South-Eastern suburbs and attractions at Potters Paddock  increased traffic along the old Epsom Road to Onehunga with beneficial business opportunities for the Epsom Hotel.

Ironically it was further progress, a project designed to solve Epsom’s overwhelming traffic volumes in the 1960s, which spelled “Time!” and an end to the 120 year old building.

(c)  RCC 25 November 2012.

Additions 29 November 2012-12-03

Amendments after FT plus additions 3 December 2012

Further pics and wartime notes. November/December 2018 and April/May 2019.