Topic: Auckland: City of Style by Gwyneth Jones

Topic type:

Archived version here.


Auckland was once classed among the great Victorian cities of the world, and it was still that in the 1950s, when people took the trouble to dress well when they visited the city. Most women wore costumes or coats, gloves, seamed stockings and matching accessories. Men’s loose-legged slacks were baggy, but smart with their knife-sharp creases. Gents showed respect doffing their felt hats as they passed ladies in the street.

Queen Street was like Aladdin’s cave with the big department stores of John Courts, Milne and Choyce, Smith and Caugheys, plus Woolworths, McKenzies and McDuffs variety stores. The buildings, too, decorated with cornices and mouldings, had class. To lunch on the top floor of John Courts was to take in a breathtaking view of the city and harbour.  Partington’s Mill could be seen from any quarter and gave Auckland’s skyline a positively continental look for more than 106 years before being demolished in 1950 to accommodate a hotel.

Trams rattled up and down Queen Street transporting passengers around the city while others clattered and clanged their way out to the suburbs. The clippies, in their navy serge uniforms, tore off paper tickets and dinged the bell advising the driver to move on again. A hazard to beware of was getting your shoe, with three and a half-inch heel, wedged in the gap between the tram rail and road surface when crossing the streets.

Karangahape Road had Rendells and George Courts department stores as well as numerous footwear and fashion shops, novelty stores and Indian and Chinese fruiterers. The Hi Diddle Griddle, Auckland’s first licensed restaurant, opened in Karangahape Road in the 1950s, their specialty being Maryland Chicken in a Basket. How sophisticated we felt dining there after our usual fry-ups at the Silver Grill in Customs Street. 

A free bus from Wyndham Street took one to Hobson Street, the home of the Farmers Trading Company. A trip to Farmers was an all day event. Traipsing from floor to floor, either via the stairs, or by way of clankinglifts with uniformed elevator operator announcing the goods on each floor as they jerked their lifts to a halt. 

On the rooftop playground children rode about in pedal cars while their mothers ate lunch at the top floor cafeteria. Sorting through the wares in the bargain basement was a must before the shoppers left Farmers for the day.  Farmers closed its doors in 1991 after 77 years of service to the public.

In the latter years of World War II, Auckland’s streets were invaded by gum-chewing American servicemen. The fifties saw another group of uniformed lads cut a swathe down Queen Street’s late Friday nights.

Compulsory military training enabled the C.M.T. intakes to parade the city decked out in their No.1s, or ‘best blues’ as they were often referred to. Girls, dressed in skirts that fanned out widely over stiffened petticoats and elastic waist-cincher belts, making tiny waists even smaller, stood giggling in groups as the uniformed boys strutted by.

Pan American and TEAL flying boats were moored at Mechanics Bay and served the public from the very heart of the city. Whenuapai RNZAF Air Base was then the civilian airport for NAC and BOAC and their aircraft shared the tarmac with the Air Force aircraft.

Things seemed more orderly in those days of rattling trams and passenger ferries crossing the harbour. Those days of crisp white tablecloths, silver cruets and waitresses in snowy white ruffled pinnies and caps. A time when street photographers waited on corners to snap smartly dressed women and dewy-eyed couples holding hands.

Where every store had a chair at the counter for weary shoppers to rest while their purchases were properly wrapped as they waited for their change to be returned from the cashier via the Lamson overhead chute.

Aucklanders dressed their streets majestically in 1954 to welcome the first ever-reigning sovereign to come to our shores. The city looked appropriately regal to greet Queen Elizabeth II.

1954 also saw the trams disappear to be replaced by trolley and diesel buses bringing with them sickening fumes. The opening of the harbour bridge in fifty-nine marked the end of the joy of travelling over the water by ferryboat.

The fifties were also the days of the infamous six o’clock swill, but nevertheless, they were a time when a woman could walk the streets at night in relative safety. They were days with the sounds of steam engines shunting and tooting, delivering passengers and freight to and from the city, the pungent sulphury smoke smell lingering in the air long after their departure. Days when radio was king and Aunt Daisy, Jack Mayberry and Phil Shone were household names. When Marina interviewed all the important overseas celebrities and tickets for her live radio shows were much sought after.

Auckland, once a city of style, is now cluttered with towering glass buildings that block out the sun and all those wonderful views. Auckland, comfortable and prosperous city of the nineteen-fifties, now, in the twenty-first century, aloof in the midst of lofty corporations.

Auckland’s Queen Street in the 1950s with its convoy of trams.


About the writer: Gwyneth Jones had her first novel While Their Souls Slumbered published in 1998, and was then writing for the magazines New Zealand Memories and Rainbow News.

When Coal Was King, the history of the Pukemiro and Glen Afton townships and coal mines was published in 2002, the first in a series of four that will record the ‘History of the Waikato Coal Mines’. The second, The End of an Era, the history of the Glen Massey township and coal mines was published in 2010, and she is currently working on At the Coal Face, the history of Huntly, and Rotowaro: Lake of Coal, the history of Rotowaro and surrounding districts.

Gwyneth was President of the Uxbridge Writers in Howick for some time before moving to Tauranga, where she is now a much-valued member of Tauranga Writers.

‘Auckland: City of Style’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers, and was Highly Commended by judges Susan Brocker and Tommy Kapai Wilson.



This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

Discuss This Topic

There are 0 comments in this discussion.

join this discussion