A latte and history lesson, please

By Jim Eagles

Here's a question for you: where can you find a community centre with rooms named after a brothel-keeper, a communist agitator, a nude dancer and a pub? Ponsonby of course.

Throughout its history Ponsonby has been one of the most colourful areas in the country, a place where politicians and priests, criminals and community activists, artists and activists have habitually rubbed shoulders.

Go there for a weekend and as well as the cool cafes and trendy boutiques you can also take in an amazing slice of history.

The Ponsonby Community Centre is historic enough itself, having been the first in the country when it opened in 1970, housed in an old infant school block built in 1881.

Just to be sure it retained the spirit of the community, the locals have named the computer room after notorious madam Flora McKenzie, and other rooms after Johnny Mitchell, campaigner for the poor, Freda Stark, who danced clad in gold paint, and the Gluepot, the area's famous pub.

If that inspires you to learn more, it's a pleasant walk to 17 Ring Tce - a site now occupied by fancy apartments - where McKenzie ran her brothel.

Locals remember the famous madam as a generous woman who contributed to community causes and even provided a recipe for a Ponsonby Kindergarten Cookbook.

To make a whisky toddy, she advised, add whisky to hot water!

Then you can wander down into Freeman's Bay where Mitchell was chairman of the Primary School Committee for 27 years. In places like Georgina St and Runnell St - where he was living when he died - you can still find the old council houses he persuaded the authorities to build for the poor.

Back up on the top of Ponsonby ridge are the Harbour View Flats, once home to Stark, notable for her exotic dancing, but also for the sensational murder of her female lover.

And at the corner of Ponsonby and Jervois roads are the apartments and shops which now occupy what in its day was Auckland's most famous pub - the Ponsonby Club Hotel, alias the Gluepot, where Mick Jagger, Che Fu and Hello Sailor once performed.

If you want to get a taste of that history you could get a copy of Ponsonby Heritage Walks, a booklet put out by Auckland City and Ponsonby Road Promotions, and guide yourself.

Or you could do as my wife and I did and stay at the Great Ponsonby Bed and Breakfast Hotel where host Gerry Hill likes nothing better to show guests the cauldron of history bubbling beneath the tranquil facades of its lovely old buildings

This elegant mansion, he points out, was once a transvestite brothel. That house saw a clash between police and anti-eviction protesters during the depression. Over there Vogel's bread was first made. That restaurant was a sly grog shop where Basset Rd machinegun murderers Ron Jorgenson and Frederick Gillies used to hang out.

Down the street the country's first mosque shares its parking space with a church.

One character especially associated with Ponsonby is our first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, who lived at 63 O'Neill St for eight years after he arrived from Australia. It's obviously a special place because it has also been home to All Black great Bryan Williams and author Albert Wendt.

Savage was the area's MP for 21 years and after his death a drinking fountain was erected at the top of Dedwood St - Dedwood was an earlier name for Ponsonby - in his memory.

Unfortunately, as Hill points out angrily, the grassy plot where the fountain stands has over the years been blocked off by the erection of the Plunket Rooms and public toilets, "so it's hard to find and hardly anyone knows it's there".

He would like to see the fountain moved to a reserve just behind the Leys Institute, another Ponsonby icon, donated to the area by two philanthropic brothers, and still in use as a library, gymnasium and community meeting place.

It's a glorious building but to me the most special part is the children's library, probably the first in Australasia, which has been preserved with the original shelving.

The institute is in St Mary's Rd, a name which testifies to the area's powerful links with the Catholic Church, dating back to Auckland's earliest years when Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompallier bought land for a church, convent and school.

At 53 St Mary's Rd you can see one of Auckland's oldest houses, built in 1852, which served as an early school and later the home of the Bishop.

Behind it at 30 New St is the brick Bishop's Palace, built in 1894.

On the other side of New St is the famous St Mary's College, where many of our greatest singers received their training, and home of one of the city's oldest churches, the beautiful St Mary's Chapel built in 1866.

The presence of a Catholic school led to a strong Irish influence in early Ponsonby, which you can still see in street names, the names of some of the old families and the healthy number of dens of iniquity, including one of the city's few surviving billiard parlours, the Ponsonby Snooker Centre.

It's run by the Hanlon brothers, who don't actually play pool themselves, having been warned by their father, "If I ever catch you anywhere near that billiard salon I'll boot your backsides so hard your feet won't touch the ground before you get home."

Instead, with a fine touch of Irish logic, they bought the business and turned it into a place where it is now acceptable for school children and women to go.

A pool parlour owner who doesn't play pool was a challenge to me, since I consider myself New Zealand's worst player, so I was keen to test my lack of skill against Elias Hanlon.

Our match was a marathon struggle, ending when Elias fouled the black, which he claims makes him the new holder of the worst player title. But I reckon it takes a rare skill to allow the customer to feel he's a winner.

I'm sure the Irish influence is also the reason why Ponsonby has always been a grand place to go for a drink. The Gluepot may be no more but just over the road is the Alhambra which is just as historic and has just as good an atmosphere.

The building is a piece of local history having been built in 1910 as a skating rink by shipwrights of the Matson Line while their ships waited for cargo.

When we dropped in for a late night drink, after a fine dinner at SPQR, we found a band that also looked a bit historic being made up of notable musicians of yesteryear, including that great keyboard player Rufus Rehu.

Even the customers seemed fairly historic - some looked older than me - and a few actually danced to the music. One old guy even tried to pick up my wife while I was chatting to Rufus.

Yep. That's Ponsonby for you.

 

 

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