May 20, 2008

34 Cranmer Square


At the northeast corner of Cranmer Square is an 1870s two storey shop, with accommodation attached. Next to it is an even earlier cottage, which first appears at this location in the later 1850s.

This small dwelling is of a prefabricated design and probably began life at an inner city location, before being moved to an area initially favoured by small tradesmen and domestic servants employed in the grander houses and numerous private schools in the vicinity of Cranmer Square and Park Avenue.

Immediately to the south of the of the small cottage, on a site that has been a car park since 1975, stood a substantial house of historic interest. Built before 1877, this was the home of William Wilson, Headmaster of the nearby Methodist Church School in Durham Street.

In 1900 the Methodist church in St Asaph Street burned down and the adjacent church hall suffered minor damage. In an area that was becoming increasingly industrial, it was decided not to rebuild the church. The hall was dismantled and rebuilt as schoolrooms behind Wilson's house, across the boundary to the gable roofed early 1860s dwelling next door (below Right).

Photographic evidence would appear to further indicate that this older house was also part of the school, which had five teachers and 75 pupils, including 12 boarders by 1904.

In his 1999 book; The Opportunity Shop – Growing up in New Zealand 1948 - 1963, Michael Mence wrote of William Wilson's former home and school;

"When I returned to New Zealand in 1960 to start university I set up house in a tiny one room bedsitter perched on top of a garage in Cashmere. It was quite idyllic, but in my second year I decided I needed to be closer to university and moved to an old Victorian house in Cranmer Square.

There were eight other inhabitants sharing this slightly dilapidated but solid building with a large entrance hall and broad staircase. There was one lavatory on each floor and only one shared bathroom with a penny operated gasometer. I soon came to understand that I had not just rented a bedsitter but was also to become privy to parts of other people's lives, obtaining a glimpse and foretaste of the stages of life which lay ahead of me.

Mrs Mackintosh, my immediate neighbour, was a widowed farmer's wife from the high country, with a weak heart, a good sense of humour, and an extensive repertoire on the piano. Very occasionally she went out dressed up to the nines, but I was, so to speak, her daily link with the outside world — via milk bottle, mail, and the Morse taps of her stick on the dividing wall.

Then there was Harry, a stranded German seaman, who had a kind heart but always seemed to think that people were teasing him, or 'playing the monkey with me', as he called it.

The lady in the bedsitter below me was nearly ninety and stone-deaf, but nonetheless a vital continuity link amidst all the changes to the cast of lodgers over the years. Then there was a woman in her forties, an executive secretary, who later committed suicide.

Some of the other tenants were more clandestine characters. On one occasion I was woken up in the middle of the night by two plainclothes policemen, wanting to know when I had last seen the nocturnal neighbour across the landing. Apparently he was sought in connection with a murder case. Usually, the paths of the occupants only crossed at the Victorian bathroom, in the derelict bike-shed, or at the washing line in the backyard."

Demolished by 1975, the site of William Wilson's former home and school has been a car park ever since.

1 comment:

Gerardine said...

I attended teachers' college with Michael Mence in 1963, and lived across the Square from him at 5 A with my two flat mates Sarah and Dorothy. Last November I ordered Michael's book ( I now live in the U.S.) from his publisher in Wellington, and have enjoyed reading it. I have tried to find Michael. I believe he lives in Southern Germany. If anyone has his address/email, please let me know.