A tale of Three Lamps

By Rowena Orejana

Soft gold light glows from three separate, vintage-looking lamps as Auckland Council's streetlighting arm, Transfield Services, tests them. It could be a scene from Charles Dickens' time, but today the lamps and their 11m post are stored in an Otara shed, waiting for their chance to shine.

David Gilbert is excited to be a part of an historic event. The Three Lamps after which the Ponsonby shopping area is named will again light up on August 10.

His company, Wrought Iron Product, made the replica of the post.

"My mother found a historical Ponsonby book. There was an original photo of the lamps from the 1800s, so I made a hand-drawn sketch based on that photo," he recalls.

The photo was that of the original 1873 lamp standard at the corner of Ponsonby, Jervois, College Hill and St Marys roads. As the shops, post office and hotel (which later became the famous Gluepot) grew around the intersection, it became known as Three Lamps.

"I was stoked," Mr Gilbert, 45, says of being asked to make the replica.

"I was really quite proud to do it. I spent a lot of my misspent youth around the Three Lamps area, seeing various punk bands in the Gluepot. I knew the area well."

There's a family connection, too. Cyril Callanan, great-grandfather of Mr Gilbert's wife, used to light many of the gas street lamps in Auckland and may have even lit the Three Lamps on his evening rounds.

The reinstatement is a legacy project from the former Western Bays Community Board, completed by the Waitemata Local Board. Its heritage leader, Tricia Reade, says residents wanted to bring back a sense of history.

"It was a fabulous meeting-place for all sorts of people in the 19th century. It was where they gathered and talked," she says.

In the late 1800s, Three Lamps was the starting-point for horse-drawn buses from Ponsonby to the city. People would sit on the lights' stone base; and politicians would use it as a platform for fiery speeches. The lamps were eventually removed in 1934 to the corner of the Ponsonby Club Hotel, later known as the Gluepot. The move drew opposition from residents who felt the lamps deterred reckless motorists in their old spot.

In 1937, the lamps were moved to the hotel veranda. In the 70s, the Gluepot became Auckland's most celebrated tavern and music venue; in the mid-90s, however, it was closed and rebuilt as apartments and offices.

"The residents felt when we lost the Gluepot, we lost a little bit of our history as well. So from a historical point of view, we are putting the lamps where the old Gluepot used to be," says Ms Reade, adding that the Cossar family, who donated funds for research into the Three Lamps history, have been instrumental in the project.

Ponsonby architect Philip Jones gave his time and talent, choosing Mr Gilbert's design.

The lamp replicas were made by a Christchurch company based on Mr Gilbert's sketch, but every component of the post was made by hand.

"Our company built the lamp from scratch; staying true to the era we were replicating rather than laser-cutting components," he says.

The post has been handpainted rather than spraypainted so it doesn't look too glossy. Drips of paint have been allowed to dry to make it more authentic. Basalt stones saved from the original base will be used as the new foundation. Two plaques will be attached to explain the lamps' significance.

"It's something I would be proud to take the kids to show once it goes up," says Mr Gilbert.

NZ Herald photo of Three Lamps in 1907Lamps' timeline

1873 Lamp erected at junction of Ponsonby, College Hill, Jervois and St Marys Roads

1890 City Council gives decides to cut cost and light only one lamp

1892 Gas Company gives concessions and lights all three

1902 Lamps replaced by electrical lights

1924 Lamp shades removed

1934 Lamp standard was removed from intersection

1935 A new standard was erected on the corner of College Hill and Ponsonby Roads, outside Ponsonby Club Hotel later known as (The Gluepot)

1937 Hotel is demolished and new one constructed. The head of the lamp standard is incorporated in the verandah where they remain today.

(Source: Historical Assessment by the Historical Places Trust)  

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- The Aucklander

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