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.
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.
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.
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.