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Volume 6 Issue 31
The Avondale Historical Journal
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, this would not be here today. From an original print of 50 in August 2001, we now distribute over 250 copies nationwide and also send copies to Australia and the United Kingdom. Not bad for a wee publication from Avondale, eh? — editor
An Unfortunate Brick Maker: John Thomas of Oakley’s Creek
Inside this issue: Thomas Brick Maker 1- 4
by Lisa J Truttman
The stories of 19th century immigrants to New Zealand are at times those of personal failure. Such was the story of John Thomas (1829-1865), from North Devon in England, the son of William Thomas, a mason. William Thomas had purchased a ruin in the vicinity called Bradwell Mill, and by c.1834 had restored the old building and the equipment 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 emigrated to New Zealand. Why would he have left a steady job at a local flour mill in Devon, where he was apparently in a supervisory position as an employer? Thomas arrived in Wellington on the Duke of Portland in February 1854. His wife and 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 steam flour mills and 2 water flour mills on the Auckland isthmus. Sometime between 1855 and 1859, the family made the move up to Auckland, although the reason for this, also, is uncertain, unless Andrew Rooney had perhaps already made arrangements with Thomas. Could Rooney have been seeking to set up an alternative flour mill operation to that run by Low & Motion at Western Springs? On 20 April 1859 Thomas purchased (for £195) part of Allotment 18A of the Parish of Titirangi from Andrew Rooney. Rooney was a farmer living in Epsom who had, with partners John P Chandler and a Mr. Brereton, obtained the Crown The Society and AHJ editorial staff thank Grant to Allotment 18A for £50 in 1849. The entire Avondale allotment was the land Business Association between present day Cowley Street and Oakley for their continued support and sponsorship of this
Continued next page
Next meeting of the AvondaleWaterview Historical Society:
Saturday, 7 October 2006, 2.30 pm
Lion’s Hall, corner Blockhouse Bay Road and Great North Road Please contact the Society for
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could well have been made on the site of the new asylum building itself. Thomas submitted his tender for the supply of bricks on 5 January 1864. He’d submitted a tender price of £3 16/- per thousand bricks for a total of 900,000 to be produced over 7½ months. This was an amazingly bold step on his part, as he himself later said that he wasn’t in the trade before that point; he had no machinery, sheds or “the requisite apparatus for conducting the business”, only the clay. He had made no contingency preparations for the oncoming winter of 1864 when he’d tendered, and relied heavily on exemptions from military duty for both himself and his foreman. Thomas indeed thought that the fact that there was a militia service call-up happening at the time he tendered for the work would be advantageous: “The militia were on service when I tendered. I thought the fact of their being on service would be an advantage to me as many would like to take employment, to escape militia duty,” according to Thomas’ later testimony before the Provincial Council. Lacking any brick making equipment at all in early January, he wasn’t even able to submit samples of his bricks, which he 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 two months.” So from that point, he’d planned to produce the 900,000 bricks over the course of nine months, not just over seven as specified in the tender documents. Thomas clearly thought that the extra two months had been agreed to, using Graham’s letter confirming acceptance of his tender on 11 January as proof. However, it is possible that Thomas did not check the specifications of the contract he’d signed on 20 January properly. The Superintendent could not have altered the terms of the tender without also cancelling the tender entirely and asking those who had already tendered along with Thomas (including Dr. Pollen) to resubmit under the altered conditions. Also, the specifications called for the first delivery of 180,000 bricks in February 1864. Thomas, in his testimony, emphatically denied that the specifications were the ones to which he’d signed. Pollen himself expressed grave doubts, saying that in his opinion it was “a physical impossibility” for Thomas to “half perform the contract in the time specified.” Thomas had the backing of J S Macfarlane & Co, an Auckland merchant and shipping firm of some note in that period, whose offices he used as a return mailing address when he tendered for the contract, and he also assured the Superintendent “J S Macfarlane & Co will become sureties if required.” Two weeks later, the situation had changed somewhat, with Thomas himself putting up half of the £1000 bond, while the rest was split between merchants Thomas Macky and Thomas Milne Machattie. There was no further record of J S Macfarlane & Co’s involvement. Mr. Daldy a day later, in reply to a question from Mr. King in 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 considerably facilitated by having the supply of bricks ready.” (Daldy was apparently completely unaware that the successful tenderer was not only a novice, but starting absolutely just
Creek, then across the creek in a strip that extended to present day Pt Chevalier Road. This appears to have been the rump left over from the sale of the much larger Allotment 19 (to the north of Oakley Creek) which was given to George Russell of the Hokianga in 1845 in exchange for some land claims elsewhere. As at 1845, the land which was to become Allotment 18A was described as “reserve”. By 1849, obviously, the government saw fit to dispose of it, and so the Rooney-Chandler-Brereton partnership purchased it. Thomas’ mill may well have been in operation well before April 1859. The dates of land title in 19th century Auckland do not necessarily indicate the start of occupation of these sites – Rooney bought out his two partners in December 1857 and May 1858. The story of Thomas’ Star Mills deserves to be told in detail in a later separate article. There are no clear descriptions known as to the site of the mill, as the contemporary references were not precise, and even varied from the identified photographs we have today (see caption on facing page.) Suffice to say, however, that John Thomas was indeed a flour miller, residing beside the Oakley Creek in the Whau district, as at the early 1860s. At some point in late 1863, he decided to be a brick maker as well. This, as it turned out, was a grave business error. The Lunatic Asylum The situation with regard to accommodation for the mentally ill in Auckland had become dire by 1862. The Head Keeper reported to the Auckland Provincial Council then that more room at the existing Asylum, then on the Domain, was desirable. On 26 February 1863, the Council appointed a Select Committee, made up of Messrs George, King, Martin, Rowe, Daldy and Dr. Pollen, “to take evidence and report on the best site for a Lunatic Asylum.” The Superintendent, Robert Graham, presented plans a day later to the Council. On 31 March, the Select Committee came up with a second of 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,” they reported, “after having visited several proposed sites, and taken evidence of the Provincial Surgeon, are of opinion that the Reserve at Oakley’s Creek, No. 29, should be recommended to the Provincial Government as being the most eligible site for the erection of a Lunatic Asylum, from its cheerful aspect, nature of the soil, supply of water, and easy distance from town.” By September, plans from England by a Mr. Barrett were submitted to James Wrigley, an Auckland architect, who adapted them as there was apparently “a material defect likely to affect the health of the inmates”. A Select Committee considered the architect’s report in October, and by early January 1864 the tender for supply of bricks for the asylum was advertised. Thomas’ brick contract It’s uncertain where John Thomas had his brick yard, but going from some descriptions, most of the bricks he supplied
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Two of three photos identified as being those of mills at Oakley Creek. The one on the right comes from the NZ Graphic of 10 September 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 John Thomas’ original Star Mill? Was that one 4-5 storeys? Photographs (left) 7-A2820 and (right) 7-A1683, by courtesy of Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries (N.Z) from clay, as it were.) They’d decided to try to secure brick supply before the final drawings were completed. The tender for the building contract was advertised in late Januaryearly February, with the Daily Southern Cross describing the colours of the bricks as per the design this: “The outer walls will be of coloured bricks, and the building will depend for effect upon a combination of colours. The facing bricks are to be yellow, with red moulded brick dressings. A few of the centre bricks will be white.” Thomas was unable to produce the yellow bricks at all. “Have you been able to supply a single yellow brick?” he asked Dr. Pollen in March 1865. “I could hardly distinguish whether they were yellow or purple; they were not perfect yellow.” Wrigley was to testify: “Those [bricks] supplied were not in accordance with the specification, inasmuch as I got no facing bricks. I got good red bricks, but no yellow ones.” All round, it turned out to be a sorry tale of errors and serious misunderstandings. Thomas had ordered machinery from Vickery & Masefield, but they “were not bound to supply the machinery within a specified time.” Thomas applied to “Fraser of Mechanic’s Bay”, a foundry operated there by Fraser & Turner, and possibly borrowed machinery from there until his own was eventually supplied by Vicery & Masefield. And then, there was the matter of militia exemption. Shortly after 5 January 1864, Thomas claimed he’d spoken to the Superintendent who told him to come to him, “he’d make it all right”. Shortly after the bond agreement was signed (20 January), Thomas and his men were called up for duty, four days a week, in Auckland. His foreman had to serve in Otahuhu for a month. Thomas again appealed to the Superintendent, and was told to come back in February when the Exemption Board would be sitting. In February, the Superintendent informed Thomas he would not be applying for him, as he felt it was no use: other applications made by the Superintendent for other people had been turned down. So, short-staffed, with borrowed or leased equipment, and no experience on Thomas’ part in the brick making business, he carried on. 10,000-15,000 bricks were delivered in March, according to him; 40,000 in April; 35,000 in May; then nothing until around August. By September, he claimed to have delivered only around 250,000 bricks. Pollen’s doubts of late January 1864 appeared to have been justified. In September, Thomas claimed he received “verbal notice that I had better give up the contract.” The Daily Southern Cross reported on 28 October that the brick making contract had fallen through, and that work on the asylum had been at a standstill for the past month. “The supply now devolves upon Dr. Pollen,” it was reported, “who is at present busily engaged in carting a superior material from his Whau and other yards, in order that no further delay may arise from this cause.” There must have been somewhat of a panic that this major project would be retarded further – and prove an embarrassment for the Provincial Council. After complaints from the builder, Henry White, Wrigley agreed to have Pollen supply the remaining bricks. Pollen’s involvement was
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continued from previous page agreed to so swiftly that no written contract was drawn up with him for supply. When Thomas was paid for his bricks supplied up to September, he received only £289 9/- 8d. £497 10/- was held back, to pay for the increased costs of Pollen’s bricks, over and above the original contract with Thomas. At that point, MacHattie was informed, and told Thomas, that the contract was terminated. Again, there was nothing in writing. MacHattie spoke to the architect and asked if he’d let Thomas supply the last of the bricks, as the equipment had by now arrived. The architect agreed; and so Thomas, without a written contract and charging an increased cost, supplied over 200,000 more bricks up until late March 1865. The Daily Southern Cross on 11 February 1865 reported: “Much progress has been made in the construction of the new Lunatic Asylum. A plentiful supply of bricks has been obtained from Dr. Pollen’s manufactory at the Whau, and the kilns on the spot, kept going by Mr. Thomas, the original contractor for the bricks, and since the supply has been equal to the demand, the contractor Mr. Henry White has gone on rapidly with the building, and much of the lost time has by this means been made up.” Thomas took his petition to the Provincial Council in late March 1865 to recover the money deducted the December before. Before Henry White could appear before the Council, Thomas died on 5 April 1865, of dysentery. The Provincial Council voted a week later to arrange to have half of the sum deducted from Thomas’ contract payment the previous year invested and held in trust “for the benefit of the widow and children of the late John Thomas; interest to be paid quarterly.” The Superintendent however did not feel it was his “duty to place on the Additional Estimates the half sum deducted in consequence of the non-completion of Mr. Thomas’ contract.” In his message to the Council, Graham continued that he objected to the “desire expressed by the Council” because (a) he was satisfied that Thomas did not have even an equitable claim against the Province, and (b) that the £250 if returned “ought to be carried to the account of the Estate of the deceased for the benefit of his creditors.” Whether this sum was ever actually paid to Jane Thomas I have yet to determine. It’s interesting to see that a sworn statement to the Supreme Court signed by his widow Jane in June 1865 lists among John Thomas’ assets debts owed to the company of £400, brick making machinery £300, bricks £400, wheat and flour £450 and even a third share in a cargo boat £100 – but no listing for the Star Mill buildings themselves. As Thomas had re-financed with Andrew Rooney in 1860, and again with David Nathan in February 1865, it’s no wonder that the land he owned and the mill buildings were left off the list. Effectively, his milling business would have been heavily subsidising his brick making business where, I suspect, it was supposed to have been the other way around. Was John Thomas given a fair go? Was John Thomas cheated or hard done by? I think he was far too trusting, almost naïve, in his dealings with Auckland’s businessmen. I don’t think anyone actually intended to send him along the road to financial difficulty. But while Thomas bit off far more than he could chew with the Asylum contract, Robert Graham, on the other hand, should possibly have shown far more thought and not simply picked the lowest tender because it seemed to fit in with both his budget and the convenience of location. As he was a successful merchant in his own right, it seems to be unusual he didn’t act otherwise. Was Pollen a villain? It can be said that he used his inside knowledge, as a Provincial Council member, to step in when the brick supply became critical and take up most of the required supply ahead of others who had originally tendered in January (possibly even including Boyd, who provided 50,000 bricks from his yard). But then again, Pollen had expressed his doubts early in the piece that the timeframe specified for the bricks supply was a realistic one. I think he simply knew disaster would loom – had read the signs that Robert Graham appeared to ignore – and then, as a clever businessman, stepped into the breach at exactly the right moment. If John Thomas had had the manpower and the equipment, he might not have failed as he appeared to have done. We will never know for certain. But, today there still stands a building partly made from bricks from one of Auckland’s briefestoperating brick making firms. His mill by the creek is long gone, but that remnant of the man’s life in this district continues on.
The Avondale Historical Journal
Published by: the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society Inc. Editor: Lisa J. Truttman Society contact: 19 Methuen Road, Avondale, Auckland Phone: (09) 828-8494, 027 4040 804 Fax: (09) 828-8497, email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: http://www.geocities.com/avondalehistory/index Society information: Subscriptions: $10 individual $15 couple/family $30 corporate
Avondale Photo Centre, 1962 Great North Road, Avondale, Phone/Fax: 09-820 6030
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