I recently visited the Epsom Community Centre in Gillies Avenue, and I found the place very different to recollections of my youth in the 1950s. Back then it was the Auckland City Council’s Epsom Works Depot. But in the early 1980s the property was born-again, re-opened as a very different, and valuable, resource for the community.
I found an interesting story behind the early history of the Depot and surrounds and I want to recall the men and machines of the Works Depot of the 1950s, as well as recognising those local residents who persevered in the late 1970s to retain the property and breathe new life into it as a community amenity.
Epsom became a popular “suburb” (arguably Auckland’s first) around the early 1900s. Arable and pastoral farmland had been sub-divided into allotments and houses were being constructed. The tramway (electric from 1903) connected with downtown Auckland, opening up the district. The territorial local authority, Epsom Road Board, had to provide reticulated water and drainage. When it came to planning the district’s sewerage system it was found topography between the present Campbell Crescent and Gillies Avenue was a large basin covering some 70 acres (28 ha) with its low-point near Gillies Avenue and (the now) Kimberley Avenue.
(There’s evidence to suggest that this (southern) part of Gillies Avenue was originally part of Windmill Road (see Note 1 below) … the road leading to the windmill near the corner of Church Road (now St Andrews Road) and the present Windmill Road.
The site at the corner of Gillies and Kimberley was chosen by engineers as the ideal location for a pump which was required to elevate the effluent from “the basin” to the existing drainage network which, by gravity, fed into the Okahu Bay outfall.
In January 1915 the Epsom Road Board advertised that it intended taking about one acre (.4 ha) of land for public works, a pumping station.
By June the same year the Board had taken possession of the land, paying local merchant, Byrge Peder Olesen, £1,250. No time was lost – Samuel Gordon of Dominion Road, with his tender of £544 7/8, won the contract to build the pumping station and work began. Construction was right in the middle of the land acquired. The electric motors and compressors were already on site. Engineers said the pump would be working in four months, provided that electricity could be supplied.
When the facility was commissioned in the second half of 1915 there were nearly 700 local Epsom connections to the sewers and the Epsom Road Board ended night-cart services: a considerable plus for public health and improvement to sanitation.
A dwelling was built a little later adjacent to the pump-house, accommodation for the Road Board staff-member overseeing the pump. The dwelling was built of stone that was so plentiful in surrounding lava flows, the result of eruptions from Mt Eden (Maungawhau). The same bluestone was used to build a wall within the property and along the Gillies Avenue frontage.
The new buildings took up just a small portion of the land taken over by the Road Board, leaving the remainder in “public hands”.
Change of Ownership
In 1917 the Epsom Road Board amalgamated with the Auckland City Council… the Council inherited all the Board’s assets including, of course, the pump house and surrounding land. In the early 1930s the Council looked at selling the portion that was surplus to requirements. It found a legal impediment in the land title, so on 16th March 1933 part of the area was declared a street to overcome difficulties.
The Council then surveyed the 1 acre site (.5 ha), and depending on levelling, found it could be divided into 4 lots, – 3 for disposal. The remaining section was the site of the pump-house, the staff dwelling and the proposed Council works depot, 27’ x 42’ (9m x 14m).
The Engineer budgeted £195 to build the proposed depot: construction costs greatly reduced by using stone from the Epsom Domain (later Melville Park) immediately across the road, with labour to be provided by relief workers under the Government Scheme during the 1930s Depression.
A bit earlier…
Given that volcanic stone had been used for the Council employee’s house and the wall around the property in 1915 … and that it was now the preferred material for the new Works Depot… it’s appropriate to track back a few years…
This land where the stone came from was part of an enormous tract of land gifted to the community by an early local settler, Peter Dignan and which in 1882 was vested in a Domain Board, a body of representatives of Epsom and Mt Eden Road Boards. The land stretched from Epsom Avenue in the North to Windmill Road in the South and, with extensions, from the present bowling greens, tennis courts and Nicholson Park in the West to Gillies Avenue in the East. Total area was around 80 acres (32 ha)
A – Gravel Pit. B – Proposed site for Lunatic Asylum. C– Later site of Teachers’ Training College, D – Later site of Normal Intermediate School. E – Later site of Melville Park. F – Site of Works Depot.
The Survey Map reveals the detail. To the north, near the Epsom Avenue boundary (Lot 48) there was a quarry, known as the Gravel Pit. The Historic Places Trust says this was the site of Te Pou Hawaiki, a former minor volcanic cone, a maunga, of considerable importance to Maori: a site of rituals, a place of sanctity from an early stage in New Zealand’s history. Quarrying this area provided stone for contractors making roads for several Auckland Road Boards and the importance of access can be seen when Epsom Road Board spent money maintaining Gravel Pit Road (later Epsom Avenue) from 1884. Travellers paid tolls to use “roads” (not much better than tracks) and expected them to be metalled: passable in all weathers.
Then there was an area allocated for a future Mental Hospital (Lunatic Asylum Reserve, 46, 48, 49). The Domain Board generously offered this site as a gift to administrators of Auckland University as a site for its campus, but the offer was repeatedly turned down as being “too far from the city”! (It was just 2 miles, 3.2km, as the crow flies, from the city centre). The Asylum was later built at Pt Chevalier, so the bulk of the land designated for it in Epsom (more than 37 acres (15ha) were given over to reserves, buildings and playing fields for the Teachers’ Training College (1926) alongside the site of Normal Intermediate School (opened in 1945).
World War Two contingencies forced a change at the Teachers’ Training College when it was taken over as an auxiliary hospital. But when Japan entered the conflict in the Pacific and perceived risks to New Zealand escalated, the military took over the premises, creating a Northern Districts Combined Headquarters, adding buildings and requisitioning nearby properties such as the bowling club’s buildings. Part of the Epsom Avenue frontage, the site of the excavated quarry (the old Gravel Pit), was also taken for Defence purposes and an underground secure bunker was built on the site. In the years following the war it was used as storage when the Teachers’ College resumed possession of the property and then it became a “bunker”, operational headquarters to be used in times of adversity by Greater Auckland’s Civil Defence organisation. The place was damaged by 2 fires in the 1980s. Today It’s closed, alongside a carpark.
Ironically the buildings on the site today, the former Teachers’ Training College, is operated by the Auckland University as its Education Faculty: these days apparently not considered “too far from town”!
That left Lot 180 on the Mt Eden side of Windmill Road, retained as a grassed reserve and, later, basketball courts, and, nearby, some 12 acres (5ha), Lot 182, “Epsom Park Plantation Reserve”.
The first works on this land to create recreation spaces from the scrub-covered volcanic bluestone began adjacent to Gillies Avenue around 1920 when unemployed returned soldiers from World War One were given work. They created the present croquet grounds. But the need to find work for unemployed men during the 1930s Depression created a new, much larger, project to forge playing fields, transforming the area of rugged wasteland. Hundreds of workers were paid “a daily rate” to break up the huge formations of bluestone enabling the rocky outcrops to be levelled. They regularly used explosives to loosen the stone and a small railway helped move the heavy loads around the site. Volcanic caves and Maori workings were encountered and avoided. But gullies were filled in, stone walls were constructed together with walkways, steps and terraces. Stone was also transported for use at other employment schemes on the waterfront: Tamaki Drive and a link between Curran Street and Freemans Bay.
The aerial picture below shows the completed Epsom Park project except for some works on one of the croquet greens.
In June 1930 this reserve was named Melville Park, recalling Ellen Melville’s services as City Councillor, continuously from 1913 to 1946 and her strong advocacy for the interests of women. The Council said the playing fields would be dedicated to women’s sports.
A – Teachers’ Training College. B – St Andrews Road. C – Melville Park. D – Croquet greens. E – Gillies Avenue. F – Kimberley Road . G – Epsom Works Depot
The aerial photo plainly shows, G, the Epsom Works Depot and the vacant land alongside it on the corner of Kimberley Road, the lots which had been surveyed by the City Council “for disposal”.
For Sale or Lease
The Council had various proposals in the early 1930s to dispose of these 3 surplus sections. The hard times of the Depression probably influenced swift action to help Council’s finances.
Estimates were obtained to see what a Glasgow Lease would return… or what an outright sale might realise. The Council decided to lease the land and resolved to call tenders.
The Engineer had advised Council that an open watercourse across section 4 (as shown on his plan) might deter tenderers, and so could piles of earth, etc, on the more-valuable corner section 3. Further, the Engineer pointed out that a neighbour, wanting to buy a piece of the land, had been turned down by Council because it was a “low-lying point”, subject to flooding. And as if to cap off his list of “minuses”, the Engineer warned that the pump, working day and night, was noisy and might prove to be a nuisance for near-neighbours.
Whether this swayed the Council against leasing the land, or the offers fell below estimates, the property remained with Council. Meanwhile, the works depot was built as planned.
That left the remaining vacant land that was being used to tip soil, scoria and rubble from road works over the years. The low-points were thus filled in, the watercourse probably piped, the land now gently sloped away from Gillies Avenue. This was the Works Depot, pumphouse and yard I knew in my youth.
The Depot was headquarters for a team of four or five led by (aptly) Norman the foreman, the youngest, and who always wore Khaki overalls, the type with the bib up across the breast. Norman would show up at some stage at all the works undertaken… he was a working foreman so when not being strictly the overseer he would share the site works. He wore a pocket-watch on his belt so he could keep track of smoko… and four o’ clock sharp, time to knock-off and return to the depot.
The most prominent in the group, let’s call him Jack, had a grotesque face, perhaps the result of a stroke. We kids had other ideas about his disfigurement. We believed he had once pulled an ugly face, and true to the warning parents give (according to the saying), the wind changed – and poor Jack was stuck with his deformity for life! Jack always wore an old, knitted beret-like hat, pulled well down over his ears.
There were several others in the team… two who mowed the berms throughout Epsom but on wet days joined the works team and the only other I can recall drove the Council’s horse and cart. Steptoe, character of the English comedy, was surely modelled on this man, aging, slight of stature, wearing heavy grey serge-material workman’s clothes, always with an outer waistcoat. No bowler like Steptoe, but his battered felt hat, once his prized MK Fedora, now misshapen with a greasy brim and worn in all weathers.
As I recall, Epsom was the last of the City Council Depots in the 1950s to retain a horse and cart which, in Epsom’s case, had been deployed since the depot opened.
The horse in my time was “Jimmy” and the accompanying small dog “Blue”. There was a stable for Jimmy at the depot. The cart he hauled was a big two-wheeled affair always driven by the same man, as I mentioned, a Steptoe look-alike, who sat high up on a front bench. Not only was this, I believe, the last horse and cart owned by Auckland City Council, it was by the 1950s extremely rare to encounter a horse in Epsom, except around the Alexandra Park race course, Arcadia Road and King George Avenue where horse trainers had stables for trotters and pacers.
Others in the works team travelled to and from jobs on a Bedford O Series truck, at first painted grey (possibly a hangover from war-time), later painted apple green. Norman the foreman drove a Bedford van and there was small Aveling-Barford “Invicta” road roller.
In addition. there were two motor-mowers for the grass berms, Gravely self-propelled models. At first, they had sickle cutters which took out all the vegetation they were pointed at. But this efficiency led to one of the men cutting, as well as the grass, some 20 cherry tree saplings which the Council had planted on the berms in Arcadia Avenue. “The trees are a nuisance to my work,” he said. The residents were angry and newspaper publicity ensued with the result that the Council disciplined the mower-man and replaced the trees. The Gravely mowers were later swapped for ones with safer, totally-enclosed, rotary cutters.
There were two other vehicles based at Epsom Works depot… frightfully old mobile workmen’s huts containing tools and equipment which were trundled out to work sites. Trundle was very true: they had steel wheels so could not exceed walking pace, towed by the Bedford truck. Like the noisy steel wheels of the horse and cart, the huts could be heard rumbling through the streets well before they were seen! These huts were window-less, painted grey (later green) and, as well as tools of trade, they carried barriers and a supply of kerosene lanterns to warn night-time road-users of excavations and roadworks.
Importantly, the “mobile sheds” also carried the makings for smoko: a Thermette (the “quick-boiling kettle”) in which to heat water, as well as a teapot, mugs, etc.
Latterly the team was supplied with two pneumatic drills, plus a compressor: the days of, strictly, pick-and-shovel were over!
The small team based at the depot carried out mainly maintenance works on council roads, in parks and for other ACC property in the greater Epsom, stretching from Newmarket to Royal Oak. They would patch footpaths, replace loose kerb-stones and install vehicle crossings across footpaths. Contractors would be called in for major works, though I recall the team working for weeks reconstructing footpaths with gutters etc in Queen Mary Avenue. That project required both their mobile sheds on-site for the duration. I also remember the annual pruning of the Plane Trees that grew on so many grass verges in Epsom. Another task that engrossed us kids was the cleaning of underground sumps… there was one such in Alba Road. First the big steel plate in the footpath would be lifted and a wooden A frame positioned over the open hole. The frame was in fact a hoist with a rope much like that used with a bucket over a well. One of the men, usually Jack, would put on gumboots, an oilskin coat and cape, plus a sou’wester fisherman’s hat. Thus dressed, he was lowered on a wire-cable into the gully-trap beneath the footpath. A shovel followed and then a bucket would be sent down. The depth would be marked with a string tied around the cable so the bucket would be lowered to just within Jack’s reach. He would fill it with stinking black stuff, a combination, I gathered, of rotted leaf mould, silt, paper and other sediment washed into the drains and collected in the gulley trap. It would take several hours before Jack had cleaned it all out and he was then hauled back to the surface on the end of the cable. Jack did not wear a mask or breathing gear and as far as I recall he did not have a light, either.
These works intrigued local kids: the idea of a man toiling away out of sight under the footpath was novel. And when the drain had been cleaned all that remained was for the spoil to be taken back to the depot, except a small amount that an Alba Road resident took away to use as manure on his garden. He swore by it for his vegetables!
This gunk, plus all the rubble, soil, gravel and scoria that was unwanted after various other works was used to help fill and level the hollows in the yard surrounding the depot buildings.
It’s interesting to see the differences in City Council Works gangs since the 1950s. In the first place they don’t exist, as such: the work now undertaken by contractors. A review of safety measures in those days is also of note: workmen wore little, if any, protective clothing, there were few signs to warn motorists about road works ahead, no barriers except for the odd 44-gallon drum… and not a traffic cone in sight. The scene of a works site on Great South , Remuera, was typical.
End of the Depot, Beginnings of a Community Centre
In the early 1970s staff at the Epsom Depot complained that the 40-year-old building had deteriorated, inside and out, and was no longer suitable as a workplace. The men were transferred to a combined Mt Eden/Epsom yard in Normanby Road, Mt Eden, after which the Epsom Depot and the adjacent residence lay vacant.
In September 1979 local residents’ concerns began to be voiced about the state of the vacant buildings and section. The buildings had deteriorated, and the land became overgrown: the long grass and weeds growing through the pipes, and covering heaps of soil and rubbish left behind.
A group called the Epsom Community Committee urged the Council that, rather than being sold for development, the buildings could be converted to a community centre and the grounds given a landscaped make-over. At first there was strong opposition from some City Councillors and their advisers. But later there was some encouragement from the Mayor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, and a Council Development Officer… after which the committee began to notice results of their continual petitioning – a gradual leaning towards their objectives. In early 1981 the City Council agreed that the buildings and part of the land would be given over for a community centre.
“Not good enough”, the persistent committee said, determined to take over the entire area… that is, all 4 lots surveyed back in the 1930s, including the corner section. The committee’s wish was granted in April 1982 when the Council allocated the whole property for community use and the committee embarked on fund-raising to purchase facilities and fittings for the premises. In April 1982 Mayor Colin Kay officially opened the Community Centre. Work was subsequently carried out to physically connect the old staff residence with the former works depot, both of which now host meeting rooms, offices and a child-care centre.
There is a separate, newer building on the corner occupied by the Epsom North Kindergarten with a children’s adventure playground adjacent.
Between the buildings there are shared community garden plots where locals can grow vegetables and, at the rear, a carpark. And right in the middle of all this, the pumping station survives.
The pumphouse was the reason the land became “public” in the first place, back in 1915. And, although upgraded over the years, it still faithfully serves the people of Epsom, 24 x 7. The Works Depot, “born again”, has since resumed public service and, thanks to the work of that tenacious committee, continue to benefit the local neighbourhood – and beyond.
These days the “iconic” Epsom Community Centre is managed by Town Square Community Trust, on behalf of Auckland Council. The Trust is a non-profit community services’ provider with more than 30 years’ experience and oversees a range of services at Epsom to people of all ages.
Note 1 Windmill Road and Gillies Avenue
I am advancing three items which indicate the southern part of Gillies Avenue, from Epsom Avenue to King George Avenue, was once known as Windmill Road, not documented nor easily ascertained. I contend that the road led south towards the windmill, Auckland’s first, built of local stone by William Mason in 1844. The road was considered at one time as a likely through-route to Onehunga: an alternative to the Onehunga Road (now Manukau Road). The other (Newmarket end) of Gillies was known as Domain Road until the early 1900s when it appears the whole road – as-is now – from Seccombes Road to King George Avenue became Gillies Avenue).
Windmill Road was, thus, the first name of part of the road we know as Gillies Avenue on which the Epsom Works Depot was built many years later.
- In May 1859 agents were selling a block of land at Birdwood, an estate in early Epsom, with “… three frontages: 253 links to Onehunga Road, 250 links to Windmill Road and 1809 links to a road (now Epsom Avenue) leading from the Onehunga Road (now Manukau Road) to Windmill Road (today’s Gillies Avenue). That is, Windmill Road ran parallel to Manukau Road between Epsom Avenue and what’s now King George Avenue.
- In November 1876 an auctioneer’s advertisement in the Daily Southern Cross newspaper advertised “Lots 14 and 15 of Section No. 1 of subdivision into Sections and Lots of Small Farms, Nos. 20 and 21, having a frontage of 168 feet to Brown-street, Maytown , and 171 feet to Windmill Road, Epsom, with all the Valuable Buildings and Out-houses, lately in the occupation of Mr. Beamish”. Brown-street became Ranfurly Road West, Maytown was the name of the “new suburban township” in Epsom, formerly the property of Joseph May. The land was thus situated at the corner of what’s now Ranfurly Road West and Gillies Avenue.
- In April 1882 the New Zealand Herald reported that, “…once the Epsom Highway Board makes progress, one of the most pleasant and safe drives in the locality will be from Seccombe’s brewery (Newmarket) to Onehunga via the Windmill Road”. Meaning along what’s now Gillies Avenue.
(My account of the struggle to keep the Depot property and buildings in public ownership as a community asset has been taken from “How the Fight for the Epsom Community House Was Won” by Valerie Ayers, published in “Prospect”, Vol.6, 2007, the journal of Epsom and Mt Eden District Historical Society, Incorporated. Valerie Ayers was a member of the Epsom Community Committee during the prolonged negotiations with the Auckland City Council)
The 2 graphics were kindly adapted by Noel Carlyon
Auckland City Archives – Records of the Epsom Road Board and Auckland City Council
“History of Epsom” by G W A Bush: Epsom & Eden District Historical Soc. Inc. 2006
“How the Fight for the Epsom Community House Was Won” by Valerie Ayers, in “Prospect”, Vol.6, 2007, the journal of Epsom and Mt Eden District Historical Society, Incorporated
National Library of New Zealand – Papers Past, on-line
“Spire on the Hill, A History of St Andrews Church in the Epsom District 1846 – 1996” by Rory Sweetman: Vicar, Churchwardens and Vestry, St Andrews Church, 1996
© RCC 05/04/2022