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Avondale Historical Journal No. 31

Avondale Historical Journal No. 31

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Published by Lisa Truttman
Journal of the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society, Auckland, New Zealand
Journal of the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society, Auckland, New Zealand

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Lisa Truttman on Jun 25, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The stories of 19th century immigrants to New Zealand are at times those of personalfailure. Such was the story of John Thomas (1829-1865), from North Devon in Eng-land, the son of William Thomas, a mason. William Thomas had purchased a ruin inthe vicinity called Bradwell Mill, and by c.1834 had restored the old building and theequipment there so that the mill functioned once more, raising his family on the site.By 1850, John Thomas was also a flour miller. It is unknown why John Thomas emi-grated to New Zealand. Why would he have left a steady job at a local flour mill inDevon, where he was apparently in a supervisory position as an employer?Thomas arrived in Wellington on the
 Duke of Portland 
in February 1854. His wifeand children followed in 1855. It is odd that he should choose to land in Wellington,if he intended to continue to work as a miller. In 1854, there were already 2 steamflour mills and 2 water flour mills on the Auckland isthmus. Sometime between 1855and 1859, the family made the move up to Auckland, although the reason for this,also, is uncertain, unless Andrew Rooney had perhaps already made arrangementswith Thomas. Could Rooney have been seeking to set up an alternative flour milloperation to that run by Low & Motion at Western Springs?On 20 April 1859 Thomas purchased (for £195) part of Allotment 18A of the Parishof Titirangi from Andrew Rooney. Rooney was a farmer living in Epsom who had,with partners John PChandler and a Mr. Brere-ton, obtained the CrownGrant to Allotment 18Afor £50 in 1849. The entireallotment was the landbetween present day Cow-ley Street and Oakley
The AvondaleHistorical Journal
September — October 2006Volume
Thomas BrickMaker1- 4Inside this issue:
The Society and AHJ editorial staff thank 
AvondaleBusiness Association
for their continued support and sponsorship of thispublication.
Next meeting of theAvondale-WaterviewHistorical Society:
Saturday,7 October 2006,2.30 pm
Lion’s Hall,corner BlockhouseBay Road andGreat North Road
Please contact theSociety for
Official Publication of the Avondale-Waterview Historical  Society Incorporated 
5th Birthday for the Avondale Historical Journal
Thank you all for supporting the AHJ during its first five years. Without you, the readers and contributors, thiswould not be here today. From an original print of 50 in August 2001, we now distribute over 250 copies na-tionwide and also send copies to Australia and the United Kingdom. Not bad for a wee publication fromAvondale, eh? — editor
An Unfortunate Brick Maker: John Thomas of Oakley’s Creek
 by Lisa J Truttman
Continued next page
could well have been made on the site of the new asylumbuilding itself. Thomas submitted his tender for the supplyof bricks on 5 January 1864. He’d submitted a tender priceof £3 16/- per thousand bricks for a total of 900,000 to beproduced over months. This was an amazingly boldstep on his part, as he himself later said that he wasn’t in thetrade before that point; he had no machinery, sheds or “therequisite apparatus for conducting the business”, only theclay. He had made no contingency preparations for the on-coming winter of 1864 when he’d tendered, and reliedheavily on exemptions from military duty for both himself and his foreman. Thomas indeed thought that the fact thatthere was a militia service call-up happening at the time hetendered for the work would be advantageous: “The militiawere on service when I tendered. I thought the fact of theirbeing on service would be an advantage to me as manywould like to take employment, to escape militia duty,”according to Thomas’ later testimony before the ProvincialCouncil.Lacking any brick making equipment at all in early January,he wasn’t even able to submit samples of his bricks, whichhe was supposed to have done on tendering for the contract.In his tender, he asked to be “provided a little more time”for the delivery of the total number of bricks, “say twomonths.” So from that point, he’d planned to produce the900,000 bricks over the course of nine months, not just overseven as specified in the tender documents. Thomas clearlythought that the extra two months had been agreed to, usingGraham’s letter confirming acceptance of his tender on 11January as proof. However, it is possible that Thomas didnot check the specifications of the contract he’d signed on20 January properly. The Superintendent could not havealtered the terms of the tender without also cancelling thetender entirely and asking those who had already tenderedalong with Thomas (including Dr. Pollen) to resubmit underthe altered conditions. Also, the specifications called for thefirst delivery of 180,000 bricks in February 1864. Thomas,in his testimony, emphatically denied that the specificationswere the ones to which he’d signed. Pollen himself ex-pressed grave doubts, saying that in his opinion it was “aphysical impossibility” for Thomas to “half perform thecontract in the time specified.”Thomas had the backing of J S Macfarlane & Co, an Auck-land merchant and shipping firm of some note in that pe-riod, whose offices he used as a return mailing addresswhen he tendered for the contract, and he also assured theSuperintendent “J S Macfarlane & Co will become suretiesif required.” Two weeks later, the situation had changedsomewhat, with Thomas himself putting up half of the£1000 bond, while the rest was split between merchantsThomas Macky and Thomas Milne Machattie. There wasno further record of J S Macfarlane & Co’s involvement.Mr. Daldy a day later, in reply to a question from Mr. Kingin the Council’s session, said that the separate tendering of bricks, instead of treating the contract to build the asylum“as a whole”, was due to operations “being considerablyfacilitated by having the supply of bricks ready.” (Daldywas apparently completely unaware that the successful ten-derer was not only a novice, but starting absolutely just
The Avondale Historical Journal 
Volume 6 Issue 31
 Page 2
Creek, then across the creek in a strip that extended to pre-sent day Pt Chevalier Road. This appears to have been therump left over from the sale of the much larger Allotment 19(to the north of Oakley Creek) which was given to GeorgeRussell of the Hokianga in 1845 in exchange for some landclaims elsewhere. As at 1845, the land which was to becomeAllotment 18A was described as “reserve”. By 1849, obvi-ously, the government saw fit to dispose of it, and so theRooney-Chandler-Brereton partnership purchased it.
Thomas’ mill may well have been in operation well beforeApril 1859. The dates of land title in 19
century Aucklanddo not necessarily indicate the start of occupation of thesesites – Rooney bought out his two partners in December 1857and May 1858. The story of Thomas’ Star Mills deserves tobe told in detail in a later separate article. There are no cleardescriptions known as to the site of the mill, as the contem-porary references were not precise, and even varied from theidentified photographs we have today (see caption on facingpage.)Suffice to say, however, that John Thomas was indeed a flourmiller, residing beside the Oakley Creek in the Whau district,as at the early 1860s. At some point in late 1863, he decidedto be a brick maker as well. This, as it turned out, was agrave business error.
The Lunatic Asylum
The situation with regard to accommodation for the mentallyill in Auckland had become dire by 1862. The Head Keeperreported to the Auckland Provincial Council then that moreroom at the existing Asylum, then on the Domain, was desir-able. On 26 February 1863, the Council appointed a SelectCommittee, made up of Messrs George, King, Martin, Rowe,Daldy and Dr. Pollen, “to take evidence and report on thebest site for a Lunatic Asylum.” The Superintendent, RobertGraham, presented plans a day later to the Council.On 31 March, the Select Committee came up with a secondof two options: the Reserve at Oakley’s Creek (“No. 29”,although this may have been a simple mis-numbering error,when they meant Allotment 30). “Your Committee,” theyreported, “after having visited several proposed sites, andtaken evidence of the Provincial Surgeon, are of opinion thatthe Reserve at Oakley’s Creek, No. 29, should be recom-mended to the Provincial Government as being the most eli-gible site for the erection of a Lunatic Asylum, from itscheerful aspect, nature of the soil, supply of water, and easydistance from town.”By September, plans from England by a Mr. Barrett weresubmitted to James Wrigley, an Auckland architect, whoadapted them as there was apparently “a material defectlikely to affect the health of the inmates”. A Select Commit-tee considered the architect’s report in October, and by earlyJanuary 1864 the tender for supply of bricks for the asylumwas advertised.
Thomas’ brick contract
It’s uncertain where John Thomas had his brick yard, butgoing from some descriptions, most of the bricks he supplied
The Avondale Historical Journal 
Volume 6 Issue 31
 Page 3
from clay, as it were.) They’d decided to try to secure brick supply before the final drawings were completed. The ten-der for the building contract was advertised in late January-early February, with the
 Daily Southern Cross
describingthe colours of the bricks as per the design this: “The outerwalls will be of coloured bricks, and the building will de-pend for effect upon a combination of colours. The facingbricks are to be yellow, with red moulded brick dressings. Afew of the centre bricks will be white.” Thomas was unableto produce the yellow bricks at all. “Have you been able tosupply a single yellow brick?” he asked Dr. Pollen in March1865. “I could hardly distinguish whether they were yellowor purple; they were not perfect yellow.” Wrigley was totestify: “Those [bricks] supplied were not in accordancewith the specification, inasmuch as I got no facing bricks. Igot good red bricks, but no yellow ones.”All round, it turned out to be a sorry tale of errors and seri-ous misunderstandings. Thomas had ordered machineryfrom Vickery & Masefield, but they “were not bound tosupply the machinery within a specified time.” Thomasapplied to “Fraser of Mechanic’s Bay”, a foundry operatedthere by Fraser & Turner, and possibly borrowed machineryfrom there until his own was eventually supplied by Vicery& Masefield. And then, there was the matter of militia ex-emption. Shortly after 5 January 1864, Thomas claimedhe’d spoken to the Superintendent who told him to come tohim, “he’d make it all right”. Shortly after the bond agree-ment was signed (20
January), Thomas and his men werecalled up for duty, four days a week, in Auckland. His fore-man had to serve in Otahuhu for a month. Thomas againappealed to the Superintendent, and was told to come back in February when the Exemption Board would be sitting. InFebruary, the Superintendent informed Thomas he wouldnot be applying for him, as he felt it was no use: other appli-cations made by the Superintendent for other people hadbeen turned down.So, short-staffed, with borrowed or leased equipment, andno experience on Thomas’ part in the brick making busi-ness, he carried on. 10,000-15,000 bricks were delivered inMarch, according to him; 40,000 in April; 35,000 in May;then nothing until around August. By September, heclaimed to have delivered only around 250,000 bricks. Pol-len’s doubts of late January 1864 appeared to have been justified.
In September, Thomas claimed he received “verbal noticethat I had better give up the contract.” The
 Daily SouthernCross
reported on 28 October that the brick making contracthad fallen through, and that work on the asylum had been ata standstill for the past month. “The supply now devolvesupon Dr. Pollen,” it was reported, “who is at present busilyengaged in carting a superior material from his Whau andother yards, in order that no further delay may arise fromthis cause.” There must have been somewhat of a panic thatthis major project would be retarded further – and prove anembarrassment for the Provincial Council. After complaintsfrom the builder, Henry White, Wrigley agreed to have Pol-len supply the remaining bricks. Pollen’s involvement wasTwo of three photos identified as being those of mills at Oakley Creek. The one on the right comes from the
 NZ Graphic
of 10September 1898. The one to the left, showing what appears to be a 3-storey building (a 3-storey mill was built by June 1873,after a 4-5 storey mill was burned down in January that year) could well have been that re-built 3-storey mill. But what of JohnThomas’ original Star Mill? Was that one 4-5 storeys? Photographs
7-A2820 and
7-A1683, by courtesy of SpecialCollections, Auckland City Libraries (N.Z)

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