Ghost walks (2) Te Aro

By ghost walks, I mean explorations of things that have largely disappeared from the city. My first ghost walk followed the route of the mostly hidden Kumutoto Stream. The Te Aro area of Wellington hasn’t so much disappeared as been successively transformed.

Te Aro in the 1940s

Te Aro in the 1940s – see below for reference

When Europeans first arrived, much of the Te Aro area was a low-lying swamp. The 1855 earthquake lifted the land so that it could be used initially for farming and then for housing. From the early days of the colony, Te Aro was where the labourers lived, while the ‘gentleman colonists’ and their families lived in Thorndon. Te Aro remained a working class residential area well into the 20th century when the area was incrementally taken over by factories and workshops, and more recently by office blocks and retail, and residents moved out to the suburbs. But now the area has become more residential again, with industrial buildings being converted into apartments and new apartment blocks springing up.

I wondered what signs were left from these various changes. I decided to walk through the area bounded by Cuba Street, Courtenay Place, Cambridge Terrace and the Inner City Bypass. I was particularly interested in the lanes off the main arterial streets of Cuba, Taranaki and Tory. The lanes were the result of the original Town Acres being subdivided, and would originally have provided access to rows of workers’ cottages.

Footscray Avenue

Footscray Avenue

I started my meander on a Saturday afternoon on Tonks Grove and Footscray Avenue at the top of Cuba Street, just inside the Inner City Bypass. A street drinker was sprawled out on a bench in the sun, while another one was working his way carefully around the fence of a heritage cottage. Tonks Grove is not, in fact, one of Te Aro’s original lanes, but was created as part of the Inner City Bypass work. Its cottages were relocated and renovated from nearby Tonks Avenue and other streets to form a ‘heritage precinct’. The Tonks were a prominent early settler family who built the houses for themselves and their workers. The renovated cottages seem to be mostly for holiday rentals, and the street has an odd unlived-in feel to it, the cutesy heritage-ness undermined by the burnt-out house at the end of Footscray Avenue and the traffic noise from the bypass.

Former Boys' Institute building

Former Boys’ Institute building

I cross over Cuba Street and wander through a car park, past the back of the former Boys Institute Building. NZTA went to the trouble and expense of relocating this building as part of the bypass work, but now it stands empty, occupied only by pigeons.

From here I turn onto Kelvin Grove. In the 1970s, David McGill wrote about the cottages in Kelvin Grove, Tonks Avenue and Footscray Avenue and their inhabitants. The streets had become run-down as a result of the then Ministry of Works buying up the cottages in anticipation of the bypass work. Interesting that it took over 30 years for the road to be created and the cottages renovated and relocated. There are no cottages on Kelvin Grove now, just apartment buildings with empty bottles of jagermeister lined up on the windowsills.

Trades Hall, Vivian Street

Workers outside Trades Hall 1932, see below for reference

I walk down Wigan Street, past the ‘funky’ Tattoo apartments and cut through more apartments onto Dunlop Terrace. Just across from where Dunlop Terrace meets Vivian Street is the Trades Hall buiding. In a nearby window, a poster tells the story of the suitcase bomb left in the doorway of the Trades Hall in 1984 that killed caretaker, Ernie Abbott, a crime that has never been solved. The building looks scruffy and the inscription on the stonework ‘labor omnia vincit’ is partly covered by a sign advertising a ‘fashion photo shoot experience’. ‘Labor omnia vincit’ (work conquers everything) seems to me to be a slightly odd motto for a union movement, extolling the virtues of work in a protestant work ethic kind of way, when you’d think they would be extolling the virtues of the worker and the need for decent pay and conditions.

Marion Street carpark and apartments

Marion Street carpark and apartments

There are some intriguing examples of apartment living in nearby Marion Street – in particular, the bizarre apartments on top of the car park. On the other side the street, behind the buildings on the street frontage are buildings that look like former factories that now seem to be converted into apartments. Some of the conversions look a bit rudimentary, from the outside at least. A large number of buildings here are yellow-stickered as ‘earthquake prone’, another phrase that seems odd to me – as if they are more likely to experience earthquakes than other buildings.

Theosophical Society building

Mural on side of Theosophical Society building, Marion Street

Marion Street

Marion Street

I walk up Swan Lane, at the side of the Marion Street carpark, so named because it ran behind the White Swan Hotel on Cuba Street, which no longer seems to exist. The hotel was rapped over the knuckles back in 1928 by the Wellington Licensing Committee which reported that more women were being served in the White Swan Hotel ‘than the Committee cared to hear of’. The Committee went on to comment that while it was ‘within the law’, it was ‘undesirable that women drinkers in hotels should be encouraged’.

Swan Lane

Parallel steps, Swan Lane

A barefoot man is playing a guitar at the top of a flight of stairs. I notice an unsavoury-looking doorway piled with bags of rubbish, and it occurs to me that this is probably the back of a place where I eat quite often on Cuba Street.

Leeds Street

Street art, Leeds street

Back on Marion Street, I cross Ghuznee Street and go down Leeds Street towards the former Hannah shoe factory – one of the first apartment building conversions in the CBD and home to Goldings, my almost favourite bar in Wellington.

My plan was to stay on this side of Courtenay Place but I decide to cross over to check out another lane – Luke’s Lane – where work is going on to stablise the teetering liftshaft. The concrete liftshaft, described by the council as a ‘remnant’ of an abandoned development, has stood mostly unnoticed, owner unknown, for 20 years until it developed a lean after the quake on 20 July. There’s an interesting discussion about its origins on the Eye of the Fish blog.

Lukes Lane liftshaft

Lukes Lane liftshaft

I re-cross Courtenay Place and walk up Egmont Street, another narrow lane that runs parallel to Leeds Street. I walk past the attractive brick bond store building – more apartment conversions, more yellow-stickers – and past the National Candle factory, probably one of the few factories left in the Te Aro area.

Egmont Street

Egmont Street – surely not that earthquake prone…

In Furness Lane that runs towards the yellow and blue Briscoe’s store, a man holding a big can of yellow Resene paint is covering over tagging on a yellow wall.

Martin Square

Martin Square 1939, see below for reference

I continue up the bleak wide expanse of Taranaki Street, past unprepossessing office blocks and car showrooms, to Martin Square. Martin Square used to be one of Te Aro’s slum streets. Nowadays, it is home to a uninspiring block of apartments and a mix of small car repair and printing businesses. On closer inspection a couple of decrepit-looking garages, turns out to be a pair of old cottages, both yellow-stickered. A carved stone name-plate says ‘Leicester Cottages’.

Martin Square

Leicester Cottages, Martin Square

On the opposite side of Taranaki Street on the corner with Abel Smith Street was the Royal Tiger Hotel, another disappeared hotel. The hotel was beseiged by rioters during the watersiders strike in early November 1913, part of general unrest in this area and presumably because ‘free labourers’ were using the hotel. There’s a car showroom there now. I walk up Abel Smith Street, back to my starting point.

Royal Tiger Hotel

Royal Tiger Hotel – see below for reference

NZ Topo database, Crown copyright reserved

NZ Topo database, Crown copyright reserved

To be continued…


McGill D and Tilly G (2012) The Compleat Cityscapes
McGill D (2003) Wellington – a capital century
Yska R (2006) Wellington: biography of a city
NZTA website, Wellington Inner City Bypass, Heritage Buildings 
Papers Past

Photo references:

Houses in Te Aro Flat, Wellington. Orchiston, Bruce Elwyn, 1914-2005 :Photographs of New Zealand slums. Ref: 1/4-086866-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Wellington Trades Hall. Waterside workers entering the Trades Hall in Vivian Street, Wellington. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 12. Ref: PAColl-6348-37. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Orchiston, Bruce Elwyn, 1914-2005. Martin Square, Wellington. Orchiston, Bruce Elwyn, 1914-2005 :Photographs of New Zealand slums. Ref: PAColl-6013-5-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Exterior view of the Royal Tiger Hotel, Abel Smith Street, Te Aro, Wellington, including two unidentified men standing outside and talking. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/3147-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

8 thoughts on “Ghost walks (2) Te Aro

  1. Pingback: Ghost walks (3) Te Aro continued | Rising to gale

  2. Enjoyable commentary on this area, thank you, and well researched and referenced as well! Keep it up – I enjoy Te Aro, and so I will read on in your blog. Thanks, Maximus

  3. Very interesting informative tour of the area,with Martin Square there is also #47 and 49 which is the only largley intact late 1870’S house left in the square

    • Thanks Brendan, glad you enjoyed the post. Is 47 and 49 the building with the ‘upholstery’ sign on it? It looks in better condition than the very sad-looking cottages.

    • Hi David, your exhibition sounds really interesting, great that someone is showing Leicester Cottages some love :-) Unfortunately I’m in Australia for the next few months so won’t be able to check it out, but all the best with it.


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