Notes of a James Smiths message boy; February 1920 to December.1921
This memoir was written in August 1978 by Don Ratcliffe who spent his early life at 287 Ohiro Rd, Brooklyn with his twin brother Bennet and his parents Isabella and Rueben Ratcliffe also known as Donald, who was a compositor with The Evening Post until his retirement in 1930. Donald and Bennet were born in 1906 and Don died in 1990, aged 84, so he was 72 when he wrote this memoir. Transcribed from the original hand written story by his 3rd daughter Cathie Ellis 22 November 2008.
James Smith Ltd 80 Cuba St. “Famous for low prices” This quotation was the signature to James Smith Ltd advertisement, before they shifted to their present building on the corner of Manners and Cuba Streets.
When they shifted I was there. I was employed as a messenger boy before and after school and was aged 14 years. The move took place on Saturday sometime in 1921. Saturday was a normal trading day to 1pm then. They moved from the Northwest corner of Dixon and Cuba Sts to the Winders building on the Southeast corner of Cuba and Dixon St.
My duties included sweeping out a couple of departments commencing work at 8am, and then attending WellingtonTechnicalCollege until 3.30 pm when I returned to James Smiths and was available for deliveries until 5.30 pm.
The WellingtonTechnicalCollege was then housed in part of the WellingtonEducationBuilding in Mercer St and a small building behind the public library in Wakefield St. There was an engineering workshop on the ground floor and a woodworking workshop on the floor above.
We lived at Brooklyn at the time and to reach my work by 8am I was able to travel on the trams on a ‘Workers Ticket’ providing I caught a tram leaving the terminus before 7.30am. This ticket cost one Shilling (ten cents ) for 12 rides.
I still remember the kindness of Mrs Chalk an elderly widow who was the tea lady, who had a cup of tea and a crust of bread for me before I began work after school.
I was paid the sum of 5 Shillings (50cents) per week for the first 3 months then seven shillings and sixpence( 75c. )for the remainder of the first year. Fifteen shillings($1.50) was paid if I worked all day during the school holidays. The pay increased to ten shillings per week, ($1) and twenty seven and sixpence respectively for the second year. This money may seem paltry in this day and age but it was the going rate at the time.
Returning to the day of the move, the first job was to shift the long counters across the busy intersection of Manners and Cuba streets remembering the trams were running across there both north and south and east and west. A friend of mine whose father was the foreman of the WCC gang laying these rails tells us the rails of this complicated intersection were forged in the United Kingdom.
The counters were mounted on small square trucks with larger wheels mounted across the centre of the square and smaller wheels back and front. This construction enabled the load to be turned and manoeuvred.
The stock and merchandise was transferred in wicker baskets about 3ft.6ins long, 3 ft wide and 3 ft high mounted on castors. I recall that early in the midmorning we retired to the Tiffin restaurant for a late breakfast of porridge, meat and fried potatoes, and bread and butter and tea, – a rare treat for the average youth in those days.
Winders building provided ample scope for an active and inquisitive boy as opportunity offered. The move started at 7am and was finally finished about 7pm- a twelve hour day that was amply recompensed for those times.
George Winder who had previously occupied the building was an Iron monger and Hardware merchant, who sold anything made of metal including watches, thimbles and builders hardware. His business like many others had deteriorated due to his inability to obtain stocks from overseas due to the dearth of shipping caused by the First World War.
The basement of the building used to be subject to flooding caused by the rising and falling of the tide. Winders building was built on reclaimed land. For some years after James Smiths first occupied the building there used to be a constant flow of water in the gutters on the corner. This was pumped up from a small sump or well below the normal level of the floor in the basement- thus keeping the whole area dry. On occasion the pump broke down and the basement was flooded but no serious damage was suffered.
IN the 1920’s James Smith’s was divided into various departments known by their names-
Haberdashery– for buttons, pins, elastic, ribbons, cottons, and other sewing accessories,
Manchester Dept covered sheeting and sheets, pillow cases, towels and mostly good made of cotton.
Dress Dept covered bolts of serge tweeds linings and silks- materials to be made up into frocks, dresses, coats and suits
Mantles Dept covered ready made clothes- ladies costumes and overcoats and supplementary garments.
Hosiery covered stockings and gloves, the latter being as an essential part of the well dressed lady as stockings.
Ladies Underwear included the well boned and delicately shaped undergarments which were usually packed in long narrow shaped cardboard boxes (which today would comfortably house a long French loaf). Their distinctive shape made them conspicuous and they often formed the subject of my deliveries.
The Furnishing Dept consisted mainly of floor coverings of the linoleum type rather than the carpets of today. Floor covering for hallways could then consist of either linoleum or carpet runners which did not necessarily cover the area from wall to wall but left a border of wood of varying widths to be stained and polished.
Later as floe space in the Furnishing Dept became available beds, bedding and sitting room furniture, kitchen tables and chairs were added. When James Smiths was still in the Dixon/ Cuba St location MR A. P. Smith ( Mr Alex) father of the current Smith’s directors of the firm could be seen moving about the premises. He was a fair headed, cheerful bustling man with a slight stoop who would come through the packing room, that was my station, on the way to check the room that was behind the packing room, where incoming goods were checked against the invoices before being released to the various departments. He would bustle through blowing through his teeth and he always had a nod or a word for the staff.
A lot of purchases of the stock were made from warehouses in the city which have long since disappeared. They were a kind of middleman who unpacked and carried extensive stock which could be purchased at short notice by various retailers. These warehousemen were an established and substantial adjunct of commerce and such well known names as Sargood Son and Ewen, Bing Harris and Co, Ltd, Wellington Woollen Co., Macky Logan and Caldwell, and a firm by the name of Loughty, whose front man was a well built man of splendid physique who favoured well tailored light coloured suits.
Ross and Gendinning whose Mr Ross figured prominently in the public life of Dunedin, where the company was founded as were many of the merchants of the day including the Mosgiel woollen company.
There were others whose names escape me but who have now disappeared from the commercial scene. Lane Walker Rudkin of Canterbury is one who still survives, but more in manufacturing business than warehousing.
Other personnel at James Smiths in my day included the manager, Mr Edward Bear, who automatically became Teddy Bear to the staff. He was a short rotund man with a ruddy face and balding mousy hair who wore pinz nez glasses and who took quick short steps when he moved.
Mr O’Sullivan was in charge of the dress department and was a trusted employee of the company, who opened the premises for an 8 o’clock start and checked off the attendants as they arrived.
He was interested in athletics and a member of the governing body. I remember a kindness he showed me on one occasion. I had been competing in the Technical College Sports And OS as he was known had read of a minor success of mine in the Evening Post, College sports were news then, and enthusiasm often outweighed discretion among competitors, who myself included entered sprints middle and long distance races and field events as well, with reckless abandon.
I felt and must have looked tuckered out when I reported for work in the afternoon. OS suggested to my immediate supervisor that I be permitted to go home and recover. I was stiff and sore but after a hot bath and a good night’s sleep I was on the job next morning.
Mr Rutter a well groomed slight man with a distinctive moustache and who favoured light grey suits instead of the customary dark suits generally worn was the head of the Manchester dept.
Miss Shakes of the hosiery and glove dept remained a spinster all her life apparently , I read of her death in a rest home in the HuttValley. She was well in her ninties when she died.
Miss Thwaites was the mistress of the department of the long boxes, the Corset Dept,and my only brush with her occurred when under orders I was dusting some high lamp shades from a ladder when the disturbed dust fell on some of the reinforced and shapely objects.
The Mantles Dept was supervised by a middle aged spinster to whom youth, and I suspect, the male sex generally was anathema. We avoided each other as much as possible.
When I joined the company the packing and dispatch department was headed by one Bob Porter a sad watery eyed, drained sort of man who subsequently disappeared .
Dad’s narrative ends here and I suspect there is a page or two missing.
Evans Drapery the Cuba St Store.
The following Notes written by Llew Evans’ grandson Richard Byrne, with help from his uncle Richard Evans (Lew Evans’ son)
Joseph Llewellyn Evans 1884 – 1948 Founding Managing Director L Evans & Co Ltd, Wellington.
To we grandchildren he was “Pop”. To friends and business people he was known as Llew Evans. He was a well known Wellington business person who developed valuable contacts with many different cultural sections of the population of Wellington.
Welsh Society, Masonic Society, Greek, Italian, Catholic, Anglican, Jewish communities, rich and not rich…he had time for them all.
Llew Evans, born in Trefeglyws, Wales, in 1884, came to Wellington after an apprenticeship to drapery firms in London. He made Jewish business connections in London which were helpful to him when he arrived in Wellington in 1904. Here he joined the firm of George and Kersley, drapers.
He was living with his wife May Evans (known to we grandchildren as Mater or Marty) in McDonald Crescent. Part of his job involved accounting for the takings of the firm he worked for and he and his wife realised that there was money to be made in the trade.
Llew Evans and a Mr Swartz set up the partnership of Evans & Swartz in 1911.
A 1915 advertising shows the name of the firm as Evans & Black – 144 Cuba Street – “Drapers, Milliners & Corset Specialists”. The German sounding name of Swartz required a change at that time. Mr Swartz was bought out of the partnership shortly after and the firm became L Evans & Co Ltd.
The sons of Llew Evans, Herbert (Mick or RM), Denys (DK), and Richard (Dick or RM ) joined the firm, as did son-in-law Frank Byrne.
Branches of the shop were to be found over the years at 140 and 80 Cuba Street, Courtenay Place on the corner with Cambridge Terrace, Lambton Quay, Willis Street, Porirua, Hutt Valley and Newtown.
The firm became a solid part of Wellington retailing and was appreciated by families especially. It was known as the “family drapers”.
The bar of this hotel facing Dixon Street was a hangout for “interesting characters”. It was called the Bistro Bar. One of the transsexuals of the time came from the Royal Oak bar and took a bolt of fabric from the doorway at L Evans and Co where goods were typically displayed. I saw this and ran after the person who hopped into a taxi parked on the taxi rank at the side door of “Woolworths” on Dixon Street. I yanked the door open and took the bolt of cloth…the taxi drove off – at least I had the goods back!
Some of the transsexuals were associated with “Carmen” of the coffee bar fame. Carmen was a good customer who purchased fabric for costuming her shows. The sex industry people were all good customers. The sex industry was centred on Vivian Street, just off Cuba Street.
L Evans and Co sold fabric at a time when the woman of the household had the time and inclination to make clothing and furnishings. Some of the fabric purchasing customers were the mothers of Wellington up and coming ballet dancers who made costumes for their daughters. The ballet schools of that time included Dorothy Daniels, Jean Goodman and Galina Wassili.
The Indian community purchased sari fabric which had been imported from Indian wholesalers in Fiji by the fabric buyer Ray Cox. Stage and costume designer Raymond Boyce would buy fabric for his shows. He could work magic from the bargain fabrics he found on the shelves and in the bins.
James Smith’s corner had a “traffic cop” on point duty, centre of the intersection. There is nothing new in our police force getting food perks. I once observed a delivery van for one of the confectionery distributors going through the intersection and the driver’s hand “delivering” a pack of product to the outstretched hand of the pointsman on duty.
The Imperial Hotel, located on the corner of Garrett and Cuba Streets where the army surplus store is was an after work drinking place until 6pm only, because of the law then. Other memories of the Imperial Hotel: After school in the 1940’s I would sometimes come to meet my Dad who worked at Evans and Co. The men would go to the Imperial to have a drink and a sarsaparilla fizzy drink would be handed out the window to me on the street! I needed the drink too as I had been busy counting the pennies on the count-up table at days end. All cash sales in those days!
Cuba Street was always busy as it was a major shopping street with tram lines that took passengers to Newtown. Other large shops were George and George and further up on the corner of Vivian and Cuba Street Street was Patricks Department store, important enough to have Santa at Christmas.
Cuba Street Memories. contributed by Joy Stephens
Cuba Street was a big part of our family’s life for about two decades. Our father, T.M. Stephens (Tom) was a chartered accountant and moved into offices on the second floor of the Crown Building, above Hope Brothers’ menswear shop (corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets) in the mid 1960s. For many years the building had one of those terrifying old clanking, creaky lifts with black iron doors through which you watched the lift ascend or descend within the building- I hated it and always took the stairs when I could.
Working in the Hope Brothers’ shop at street level was one Ivan Vodanovich[JES1] , former All Black and All Blacks coach from 1969-1971. I imagine that when he was on the shop floor, he was quite a draw-card for men like my father who would pop in to talk about how the All Blacks were doing and buy their clothes from Ivan as well. I must have been about 10 when I was given an autograph book and as the ‘All Blacks coach’ was about the most famous person we knew, I went and got his autograph. I no longer have the book, but his autograph: ‘I believe in the future of NZ Rugby’, sat strangely among the other ‘Roses are Red, Violets are Blue’ ditties of the era.
Rather reluctantly our mother, Joan (Ioanna) Stephens worked with Dad in the office- accountancy wasn’t her chosen calling but she was clever and obviously good with numbers, so that’s how it was. With a working mother, I spent quite a few school holidays in their offices- reading, playing with dolls, destroying their paper clips and wandering around the Cuba Mall. Farmer’s toy department, the London Bookshop (near the Matterhorn entrance) and Woolworths across the road were favourite haunts.
I remember walking down to the Te Aro Post office (then at the corner of Ghuznee and Leeds Streets) with Dad to collect the mail- he had the same PO Box 6422 for years. A friendly, well-liked man, Dad would tip his fingers to the corner of his hat to those he knew in the street. ‘Getting the mail’ would be punctuated with boring-to-a-child chats en route. The Te Aro Post Office was demolished in 1977 and a new one opened on the corner of Ghuznee and Taranaki Streets.
A holiday treat was lunch at the Matterhorn. Mum was friendly with the Swiss couple who ran it and I’m sure that, while they catered for Kiwi appetites, the coffee was good enough for Mum and the food was interesting. I invariably got two mince toasties- crunchy bread rolled around succulent, tasty mince. We loved to sit outside in what seemed to me like an extraordinary tiny garden flanked by concrete walls. Sometimes on Friday night we would have steaks cooked over a grill, chips and salad at the steak bar on the top floor of the James Smiths’ department store.
Looking back I think that Cuba Street gave our Greek mother the ability to have some of the foods she missed. Our birthday dinners were usually a rotisserie chicken from Fuller Fultons Delicatessen, just a few doors down from Hope Brothers. The chickens rotated in a rotisserie strategically placed near the front of the shop and would smell particularly delicious on cold wintery Wellington days. There would also be a crayfish (no doubt from one of the Italian fish shops further up Cuba Street) and a cake from Aida Konditerei. One time she came home on the train with a live crayfish wrapped in newspaper which we then had to dispatch in cold water in the laundry sink.
Most of the family food shopping was done locally in Ngaio or Crofton Downs, but Cuba Street would provide treats- custard squares from the Dorothy Cake Shop, kalamata olives (the best in the world according to our mother) from Fuller Fultons and later the Dixon Street Deli, and real coffee from the Faggs coffee shop in lower Cuba Street- we always woke up to coffee percolating on the stovetop.
When I was 14, I worked at the National Bank in the school holidays- now the home of Logan Brown. I think even then I was impressed by its soaring architecture and couldn’t understand why a bank was in such a splendid building.
According to my older brother, Mum was very friendly with Madame Louise who ran Le Normandie as they both went to the French Club. He also remembers Carmen and friends marching down Cuba Street around 5pm on Friday nights from Carmen’s Coffee lounge in Vivian St to drink at the Bistro Bar in the Royal Oak. It was apparently a real spectacle.
New Zealand in the 1960s was grey and conformist and our parents were just working hard to support a family, and in my mother’s case deal with frequent bouts of homesickness. Looking back, that was probably the modus operandi of many in the street- but clearly there were many people who didn’t fit in the squares – what a shame they didn’t relax and enjoy each other a bit more.