An odd walking tour of New Zealand’s radio history (1/5)

There used to be a huge hole in the ground in Featherston Street.  It was fenced with those eight foot high sheets of wood that are always around construction sites, but someone had cut a viewing hole so you could look in.  Looking in you could see the massive concrete gap tooth in the city scape.  It was sort of a celebrated hole and fascinating to a child for it covered an entire city block and was very large, deep and square.  It was probably also a symbol in the adult mind of loss, or economic stagnation or potential (depending on the adult who glanced down through the viewing slot).

As far as I can gather this site was a hole in the ground from about 1974 until, perhaps, 1990 when a faceless conglomerate mustered up sufficient funds and confidence to build the Park Royal Hotel (now the Intercontinental).  The Park Royal at the time it was built was quite glamorous and I suppose it is not surprising that I forgot about the giant hole that fascinated me as a kid.  Not surprising that I forgot, but a little bit odd that I never once wondered what had been on that site before it was turned into a hole.

As it happens, thanks to my curious tangent into exploring the history of early radio in Wellington, I have now discovered what used to be on that site.  On the other side of the Park Royal, facing Waterloo Quay, is the clue.  The clue is in the name of the little paved plaza with a kiosk on it where people gather at the lights before crossing to the waterfront: it is called Post Office Square. 

Post Office Square with the Intercontinental Hotel behind

Until now I had never wondered why that place was called Post Office Square.  From 1884 until the 1970s it was in fact the square in front of the General Post Office Building: headquarters to the Post Office in New Zealand.  After a fire in 1887 the General Post Office Building was rebuilt and reopened in 1889 on the same site.  It was this building that stood on the site until the 1970s.

General Post Office, Waterloo Quay, 1905

On the left hand side of this building, in the square itself, you can see the statue of Queen Victoria that now sits, somewhat pointlessly, on a strip of lawn between Kent and Cambridge Terrace on the other side of town.  We should also note the clock tower as it will be important in the story to come. 

In 1912 the General Post Office building was extended so that it filled the entire city block, and also had a frontage on Featherston Street which was less imposing but still self-confident.

Which explains the nods to nostalgia that you can find in Post Office Square now.

Which are fairly paltry remnants of a once grand institution, but they are useful to me, because they include not only a post box, but a telephone booth.

When the telegraph and then radio technology were introduced into New Zealand they were run by the Post Office.  Eventually the phones would be run by them too.  Radio was often called wireless in its infancy, which happens to be a nice connection to our modern desire to be wireless, and also to the technology of the internet which has been the death knell of the post.

But let’s scoot back to 1910 when wireless radio transmission was a new kind of magic brought to you by the wonderful world of science.  In an article in the Evening Post (14 December, 1910) you can sense the wonder of the reporter as he witnesses technology’s latest miracle connecting some chaps in Wellington with a ship far out at sea.

No wires! 

To the Edwardian mind (and to my mind too) this seemed truly incredible.  The precursor to radio was telegraphy which made some kind of tactile sense as it relied on a wire to connect two points, but radio seemed an impossibility.  One that was being keenly pursued by the Post Office.

Ethergrams is such a cool name. 

You may notice however that we are not talking about broadcasting radio to any Tom, Dick or Harry, but about sending messages from point A to point B.  And to be clear, we are also not talking about sending verbal messages over the radio, we are talking about sending morse code signals.  The early days of radio are really about a bunch of boffins not seeing the full implications of their technology, or wanting to monopolise it for important and official business, and not the frivolity of entertainment.

By 31 December, 1910, the Evening Post was reporting further developments in wireless in Wellington with antennae wires (ironically) being strung from the clock tower of the General Post Office building to buildings on either side, and even across Waterloo Quay to a pole erected on the Harbour Board building.  The two watt plant was up and running by the middle of January 1911 which marked New Zealand’s official launch into the world of radio.

This problem of being in the “shadow of the land” was to be a major factor in the decision to move New Zealand’s first radio station out of the clock tower of the General Post Office, and up the Tinakori Hill.

But before we head off up that hill we should note two things.  Firstly, when we stand in Post Office Square in Wellington we are standing at the birthplace of radio in New Zealand.  Secondly, we should take a moment to put a human face to the men who were involved in all the excitement, and think about what lay ahead for them. 

Here then is a picture of the men who were at the cutting edge of communication technology in Wellington in 1912.  They are pictured in the telegram section of the General Post Office building. 

And when they left work that day they would have stepped out of their rather grand building and walked across the square: the statue of Queen Victoria glaring over the heads of the men in suits and bowler hats, the bell of the trams clanging in the distance, and the ships tugging at anchor at the wharves across Waterloo Quay.  There was probably a wind, the smell of the sea, a horse and cart making its way along the road, as they turned for home in the fading light of King Edward’s Wellington.

Rather grimly I can’t help but wonder how many of those young men survived the Great War which loomed just ahead.  Some of them perhaps took their skills with them into that war and found jobs that may have preserved them.  The First Expeditionary Force that left New Zealand to capture Samoa from the Germans included four radio operators and two radio engineers who had volunteered from the P & T Department.  Later the First New Zealand Wireless Troop was formed that included 60 linesmen and telegraphists from the same department.  It is hard not to believe that we are looking at some of those men when we look at this photograph.

I would like to think that their skills kept them safe from harm, and they came back to Wellington to carry on their lives, and not merely as a name to be cut into the stone of a freshly minted war memorial.

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10 thoughts on “An odd walking tour of New Zealand’s radio history (1/5)

  1. Thanks for that. I remember the Grey Street square well and the post office building. When I was at secondary school I used to sell The Evening Post at set ‘stands’ outside the pubs (2) that used to be in Grey Street, one at each end. I used to collect my papers from the newspaper guy at the top of the P.O. steps. Later, after I had proved my abilities (honesty and being able to yell out “Eeeeeeveeeneeeng Peeeeyooost!” ) I was given a ‘cream run’ This was taking a small amount of papers (about 20) and delivering them to VIP customers – major shipping companies, Gentlemen’s Clubs, top Barristers’ offices etc. I got paid more than doing the ‘stands’ and the tips were better. I also got to have a cold drink at one of the clubs (I think it was the old Wellington Club but I may be wrong). It was kind of special and grown-up. The barman would mix a tall glass of raspberry cordial and lemonade with lots of ice, an umbrella and a straw. I would sit down in a big leather armchair and drink it. It was a kind of a ritual. On Saturday afternoons as the businesses were closed I used to help out on the ‘stands’. This involved sneaking into the pubs to sell newspapers. The tips were tremendous sometimes. The cost of a newspaper was about four-pence but some drunks would give us 2 shillings or half a crown and slur “keepsh tha changeshh”. This was in the days of 6-o’clock closing – about 1966 and 7 I think. Great memories.

  2. Clubs and shipping companies. Times have changed. Thanks for sharing this with me. It makes that little part of town come to life. A shame the Post Office Building is not around to get ready for its 125th anniversary.

  3. I loved growing up in Wellington. Remember that this was in the 50’s, 60’s and into the 70’s before the corporate brigands like Chase Corporation, in their greedy acquisitiveness, destroyed a lot of the landmarks around the city. It was also before successive councils ‘modernised’ the street layouts and ruined the character that individual streets had. A surviving example is Cuba Street although even that is a watered down version of what it used to be. I remember Christmas 1985 when I visited my parents, then living in Paraparaumu, and taking the train into Wellington. The walk from the railway station to Oriental Bay saddened me. There were holes in the ground where nice buildings had previously stood. Traffic re-routing had turned some streets and portions of shopping areas into ghost towns with painted up windows and buildings in varying states of disrepair. Up until that point I always thought of Wellington as home and Auckland just as a temporary place. I then thought that you can’t go back. Fortunately, in the 1990’s things began to change. The Wellington waterfront was revitalised and civic pride began to take precedence over short-term planning. Wellington today, whilst still in need of some work, is a vibrant and interesting city again.
    In the 1960’s I also had an after school job in the centre of the city working for a now long-gone business stationer. They were named C.M. Banks and had the shop/showroom and small warehouse in Grey Street. I was one of the delivery boys and rode an old black bike like Granville rode in ‘Open All Hours”. This had a large rear wheel, a small front wheel with a big basket over that. The side of the bike had a panel reading “C.M.Banks Stationers. This bike was really hard to propel and I used to have to stand on the pedals to get it going, especially when the basket was full. I delivered ‘urgent’ supplies of pens, paper and various office necessities to offices around town. These were usually to the buildings along Lambton Quay and The Terrace. How things have changed. There were no Warehouse Stationery type stores then. C.M. Banks was upper class and could even have had a ‘by appointment to” tag-line in their branding. Dodging the trolley busses at rush-hour between 4 and 5.30 was nerve wracking but enjoyable. I had to give the job in when I was in the 6th form at school because school sports requirements meant I didn’t have the time.
    Sorry about the ramble but your story has awakened long-forgotten memories. The little kiosk in one of your photographs was there and was a confectioners and tobacconist. Fry’s chocolate fudge bars were a must purchase.

  4. No need to apologise for a ramble – my whole blog is a ramble. The kiosk sounds like it is more or less the same: selling lollies and probably cigarettes. I wonder if you have read Pat Lawlor’s book about being a kid growing up in Wellington. Although he is talking about the 1920s (I think) and not the 1960s I reckon you’d like it.

  5. Thanks, I’ll look out for that. I like to read books of places that I have been to. Sadly there is not much of this on Wellington. Sort of related is a book by Derek Hansen titled ‘Remember Me’. It is set in Ponsonby/Grey Lynn in Auckland in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Well worth reading.

  6. Rambling is fun. The whole of life is a gamble with a ramble, hoping that the ramble isn’t a gamble with Rambo.

    BTW I love the highly polished tables. Probably had a Hisrtory graduate (1st Class Honours) doing the polishing.

  7. I was around too when The Wine Comeinyourpants was riding that bike. I was working in the Wellington Gas Company and did quite a lot of work in ‘the machine room’, as it was called. These were big machines that printed off customer accounts and printed out data. The machine room was very noisy and the big paper spewing machines often got jammed. You always went home with oil on your hands. The other jobs at the Gas Co were very repetitive, like adding up figures on hundreds of printed accounts, or putting customer files back into their trollies – the machine room job was the best. It was also fun cleaning up the general manager’s store room where information was kept, in boxes, that went back years. I also worked for the purchasing manager. Each year hundreds of packets of cigarettes and chocolates were purchased. At Christmas every staff member received, either a box of chocolates, or two packets of cigarettes cellotaped together. A mate and I (we were school kids and worked in the school holidays) noticed that the purchasing manager helped himself to the stored cigarettes, so we did the same. It was all very relaxed in the purchasing department. I also remember that, one day, an old guy came back to work drunk, after lunch, and chased one of the women around the office making animal type calls. I think they sent him home early. He would have been back the next day. I remember that we school kids were quite stunned at some things that went on in the Gas Co – there was certainly no PC in those days! I remember a manager watching as a young mini skirted lass bent over a filing cabinet and remarking,
    “You can see her cheeks!”

  8. I routinely chase female staff members around the staffroom making animal sounds, and I fail to see what point you are making.

    Where was the Gas Co.?

  9. Great story Richard. Political Correctness was alive and well at C.M. Banks (By Appointment to…) though. I remember that one of the male account clerks made an offer to one of the typist/secretaries (who used to inflame the senses (and more physical parts) of us young schoolboys). He offered her 10 shillings (a note that later became 1 dollar) if she took her blouse off and showed her breasts. Mr Lim, the office manager overheard the remark and fired the guy on the spot. I can’t remember if the young woman was also fired but do know that she was up for the dare.

  10. The Gas Co was in the building the National Bank now occupies on the corners of Tory St and Courtenay Place.

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