This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The Devonport Bear Gardens (1881-1898) - a menagerie that never was
Lisa J Truttman In the midst of today’s Devonport suburbia are the remains of a concrete-and-scoria wall which once delineated the boundaries of an area in which an idea never really flourished. The local businessmen in the area behind the idea were keen to sell property they owned and promote other interests they held; and the common thread was a steam ferry company born in the 1880s. How it came to be associated with bears is still unclear, but it appears to have been intended as a pleasure & tea garden, similar to that at Ellerslie but on a much smaller scale. The Devonport Steam Ferry Company was launched in August 1881 with the election of the first directors and with Ewen W. Alison as Chairman. 1 Alison was to go on to play a prominent part in the history of Devonport as a Borough. Alison and another businessman, Robert Adam Mozley Stark made a number of purchases in Devonport around this time, both independent of each other and together. Stark (according to Alison) often approached Alison for advice, as it was Alison who was said to have known the most about real estate. By 1886, Alison was one of three property tax reviewers for the Devonport district. Together, they were involved with land sales in the c.1882 Calliope and Melrose estates.
In November 1881, Stark apparently entered into another property partnership, this one with George Quick. Together they purchased two pieces of adjoining property: 3 part of Lot 23A, formerly owned by Walter Combes and William Crush Daldy of the shipping and merchant firm of Combes and Daldy, 4 and a much smaller part of Lot 22A, originally owned by John Logan Campbell. 5 The total area was just over 3½ acres, 6 and today forms most of the block bounded by Queens Parade, Anne Street, Clarence Street and Garden Road. At the time, Stark was chairman of the North Shore Regatta Club, 7 and involved with the Takapuna Jockey Club, becoming a steward (along with Alison, by 1886) 8 so was clearly keenly involved with local Devonport affairs. So too was Alison, who ran (unsuccessfully) for the electorate seat of Waitemata in December 1881. The chairman of his public meeting held in the Devonport Hall on 6 December was R. A. M. Stark. George Quick had been prominent in the horse-drawn transport business for many years before the Devonport involvement. He may have considered that, while the railway was eating into his business opportunities on the Auckland isthmus and in the Waikato, there was a place for him on the North Shore. The earliest reference found to a “garden” in connection with Stark is when the collection of Auckland Volunteer Bands were reported as intending to perform a sizeable musical contest “in the garden of Mr Stark, North Shore”. 9 Later, by 4 March, this was referred to as “Messrs Stark and Quick’s garden, North Shore”. Perhaps Stark and Quick, and possibly Alison in the background, intended to copy Robert Graham’s idea of the Ellerslie Gardens, but in a vastly smaller scale, so as to promote their own land sales and perhaps even the new ferry company. Animals may have been part of the plan, as with Graham’s small menagerie. If so, they were off to a slow start by early 1882, even though a rush had been made to complete the walls. The Auckland Star was not impressed at all with the site.
“General dissatisfaction was expressed by the public, and many people, after paying their money, were so disgusted that they retraced their steps and returned to town. How ever beautiful and interesting Messrs Stark and Quick intend to make their gardens, the grounds did not appear to advantage on Saturday. Visitors paid their money at the gate, and were ushered into a bare and recently ploughed enclosure, surrounded by concrete walls. There was no sign of vegetation anywhere, and the only seats available for ladies were several dirty logs and a few planks on which the workmen had mixed their concrete in building the walls … Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that visitors were dissatisfied. Surprise was evinced at the indiscretion of Messrs Stark and Quick in allowing their grounds to be thrown open to the public before their proposed improvements had well been commenced, inasmuch as a false impression is liable to circulate which even years hence may act to the detriment of the gardens.” 10 Given the lack of any mention in the media, whether by articles or advertisements, of a successful tea garden here, and the evident bareness we can see from photographs of the site from the mid to late 1880s, the Star reporter’s prediction seems to have come to pass. The NZ Herald was just as scathing of the lack of facilities that day in March 1882, both for the performers and the public, provided at the gardens. There was no platform for the bandsmen, who had to contend with playing in the midst of a large crowd of 3000. “On future occasions of this kind,” the reporter wrote, “it will be necessary to have a place exclusively for the bands if they are expected to do justice either to themselves or the public.” 11 The Waikato Times were even more descriptive in their criticism. “At present the gardens do not exist, and there were no adequate preparations made for the convenience of the public who were there to the number of two or three thousand. The beautiful parterres of flowers, the grassy lawns, smooth and level as a billiard-table, the comfortable garden-seats, the shady arbours, in which friends could do their billing and cooing, were all conspicuous by their absence.” 12 Undaunted, later that month Stark and Quick were at the inaugural meeting of the Devonport Club, with Stark as president, and Quick as vice-president. 13 This is the last reference found to their association together. It is doubtful that the gardens progressed beyond the concrete wall, 6 inches thick and at least 6 feet high in places, and a gatehouse with an ornamental tower on the Beach Road (now Queens Parade) frontage. 14 In March 1884, Stark (now by himself, having bought out Quick’s interest by a mortgage which he had cleared by early 1884) leased the Clarence & Anne Streets corner site (part 22A) to the Devonport Ferry Company, 15 of which by that time he was a major shareholder and soon to be director of with Alison. The rest of the property was sold outright to George Holdship the following month. 16 George Holdship started out selling firewood, timber, sashes and doors from his works on Customs Street in Auckland in the 1860s, 17 before becoming manager of the Auckland Timber Company, which later merged with the Kauri Timber Company by the late 1880s. 18 The gardens weren’t known as the Bear Gardens at that point, however. None of the newspapers of the nineteenth century appear to have used the term until 1890, long after both Stark and Quick had left the story, when the grounds was called “Alison’s Bear-gardens”. 19 Apart from the 1890 reference, all others come from the 20th and this century. For me, researching the Bear Gardens of Devonport has been somewhat of a study in the construction of folklore (other examples are discussed later, concerning the Onehunga Zoo). In 1919, H. Hector Bolitho wrote in his Devonport on the Waitemata: “There is one part of Devonport which is often passed by the unknowing. It is the area enclosed by Garden Terrace, Kapai Road and a portion of the Queen’s Parade. This ground was once
bordered by high stone walls, and was known as the “Bear Garden”. Some enterprising showman sought to attract people across the water by keeping his ‘teddies’ in this enclosure. But either the bears died or the attraction wore off, and only odd portions of the wall stand today as a monument to the old gardens. The ground is now covered by houses.” Bolitho (1897-1974) was a prolific and well-known author and biographer with a long career, but he was born around the time the gardens were subdivided and sold and the wall began to come down. It sounds from his passage on the gardens that he listened to something told to him by others, and then added his own thoughts. It lacks dates or specifics, and describes only around half of the total size of the site (and nothing of the Clarence Street extent of the wall). In 1924, Thomas Walsh compiled his An Illustrated Story of Devonport and Old North Shore 1848-1924. In his article on the Devonport ferries, Walsh wrote regarding George Quick: “In 1886, Mr. Geo. Quick … broke with [the Devonport Ferry Company] …He purchased two fine ferry steamers in England and they were ‘put together’ one on the site of the old Bear Gardens on Queen’s Parade the other (the Osprey) at Niccol’s old yard near the rowing shed. The Bear Gardens were part of Mr. Quick’s scheme to attract ferry traffic to Devonport.” Walsh (1887-1968) was born only as Quick was splitting from the Devonport Ferry Company, but his account is correct in that Quick did purchase and operate the Eagle and the Osprey. It is likely that some of the shipbuilding activities which went on at the gardens may have been his, if he temporarily leased part of it from George Holdship. It is also correct that Quick (in partnership with Stark, but Stark isn’t referred to by Walsh in the account) had the promotion of ferry traffic in mind in coming up with the idea of the gardens with his business partner. Walsh doesn’t make any claim that it was Quick who gave the gardens the name “Bear Gardens.” Isabel M. Cluett in her article entitled “Story of the old North Shore -- Green fields of Flagstaff have become Devonport,” (1958) was rightly cautious about whether there were any bears or not involved, but still made the error of associating the high walls with the bruins, hedging her bets with the Devonport locals who really do believe that the site was a bear garden. In doing so, she contradicted herself. “There were the ‘Bear Gardens’ where, so far as I know, there were never any bears, but there were high stone walls with broken glass on top, presumably to keep bears in and boys out.” 20 A 1972 local newspaper called the Midweeker had this to say: “The Garden Terrace Bear Garden was a popular place by the waterfront … The area featured a pond where children learnt the art of sailing.” 21 The reference to a pond may have come from memories of those locals still alive at that point who remembered the period before 1898 and the subdivisions. However, according to subdivision plans for the area, while there is no pond noted on the Bear Garden site, 22 there was one to the west of Huia Road, further along the beachfront. 23 At this point, memories of details of the Bear Gardens site’s origins seem to have become misty. In 1975, Paul Titchener stepped into the story, with an article published on 23 September that year in the North Shore Times Advertiser. In the article, Titchener also made no mention of R. A. M. Stark, and concentrated solely on George Quick in terms of responsibility for the establishment of the garden, claiming that Quick built the garden around 1886 during his ferry
war with the Devonport Ferry Company. Titchener also included details in his article many of which, so far, I have been unable to confirm from the newspaper accounts from that period: “These gardens were built first west of the Flagstaff Hotel (now the Esplanade) fronting on to Queens Pde and extending back to Clarence Street. The idea was to have a display of animals in cages and pits, together with lantern slides and lectures by well-known personalities of the time. A 6ft high concrete wall was built round the boundary and passengers who had used Quick’s ferries were admitted free. Those who had not, and local residents, were charged one shilling. Quick had elaborate plans for the gardens -- tropical plants were imported and planted, and he arranged for lions, tigers, zebras and giraffes to be sent from Africa. Peacocks and other brightly-coloured birds were to be free to wander at will … The name ‘Bear Garden’ came about because the only animals Quick ever put into the gardens were four brown bears bought from a visiting circus. The Bear Garden site became a hauling out area for commercial and pleasure boats and at the turn of the century was subdivided and sold off as house sections.” In 1977, Brian Bond compiled a history of the North Shore United Association Football Club, 90 Seasons. Reference was made in Bond’s history of a football match held between North Shore and Ellerslie teams on the ground ‘hitherto known as Stark and Quick’s gardens’ on 25 June 1887, after receiving permission from the site’s owners, Holdship and Watson. Bond then republished in his account the 1975 Titchener article in its entirety, so the actual date for the building of the wall (early 1882) and Robert Stark’s name are lost in favour of the ‘brown bears’ story from Titchener. The Titchener story now became the established history as far as the Bear Garden story was concerned. Gael Ferguson in The Hundred of Devonport (1985) repeated the association (from Titchener, who was also a contributor to the book) between the Bear Gardens construction and Quick’s brief ferry competition with Ewan Alison. 24 The Devonport Community Board organised a plaque in 1994-1995, 25 commemorating the Bear Gardens, with the text: “BEAR GARDEN WALL. Part remains of historic wall which formed an enclosure for a captive bear. Constructed in the 1880’s by Mr George Quick. Was used to house a brown bear for a short period.” Titchener’s four bears, it seems, had now shrunk down to one lonely bruin. In this century, a Salmond Reed conservation report on the Bear Gardens wall used Titchener’s 1975 article, via Brian Bond’s 1977 booklet, as a citation for a list of exotic animals intended for the garden by Quick and Stark. 26 Exactly what Quick and Stark actually did intend, beyond a pretty recreation garden, possibly along the lines of Graham’s Ellerslie Gardens, is unknown. So too is the true reason why the gardens obtained their local name. Perhaps at some point from late 1886 to early 1890, the imposing yet fragile concrete-and-scoria walls, with ornamental towered gatehouse, may have brought to mind for locals the old London Bear Gardens in Southwark. There may even have been a local wag, around the time of the 1890 jubilee celebrations, who dubbed the empty gardens “Alison’s bare garden”, and the local press misheard. Unless more 19th century references come to light, especially any making reference to a “bear garden” prior to 1890, the reason as to why this walled patch of Devonport ground was considered to once be the home of bears will remain a mystery.
David Balderston, The Harbour Ferries of Auckland, 1986, p. 11 Statement by Ewan Alison and report on the Stark Commission hearing, NZ Herald, 26 October 1886
Salmond Reed Architects, Heritage Assessment and Condition Report, Bear Garden Wall, Devonport, October 2004, p. 3, North Shore City Council records 4 CT 34/244, LINZ records 5 CT 35/74, LINZ records 6 Plan 715A, LINZ, from Salmond Reed report 7 Star, 16 November 1881 8 Te Aroha News, 6 February 1886, p. 4 9 Star, 22 February 1882 10 Star, 6 March 1881 11 NZ Herald, 6 March 1882 12 Waikato Times, 14 March 1882, p. 3 13 Star, 25 March 1882 14 The garden gate building shows up on Plan 715A, from Salmon Reed report; photo ref. 3043, by Frank Arnold Coxhead shows the site c.1884, from Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries & on p. 4, Salmon Reed report; photo ref. ½-018635-G, 1880s, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington 15 CT 35/74, LINZ records. A long two-storey building is seen in the two 1880s photographs (above) which depict the site at the corner of Anne and Clarence Streets. 16 CT 34/244, LINZ records 17 Advertisement, Southern Cross, 26 December 1866 18 Te Aroha News, 11 May 1889, p. 5 19 Star, 1 February 1890 20 Star, 6 November 1958 21 Midweeker, 20 September 1972 22 Plan 715A 23 Plans 249 and 115, LINZ records 24 p. 54 25 North Shore Times Advertiser, 6 December 1994, p. 5 26 Salmond Reed, 2004, p. 4, North Shore City Council records
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?