Ponsonby's historic post office, the focus a dramatic murder case attracting international attention 83 years ago, will be auctioned by Bayleys on December 3.

The murder of the Ponsonby postmaster in 1920 created a legal precedent for the British Empire - and possibly the world.

The Ponsonby landmark features one of the few surviving post office towers from the Edwardian era in New Zealand.


The building, at the corner of College Hill Rd and St Mary's Bay Rd, was designed by the Government architect, John Campbell, and constructed in 1912 in an Edwardian baroque style in the same era as the Auckland Chief Post Office, Town Hall and Ferry Building.

It quickly became a focal point for the local community as wives, children and girlfriends anxiously waited for news of loved ones serving overseas in World War I.

Half the cost of the clock and its tower was paid for by donations from Ponsonby residents who decided a clock would be better than the original dome and cupola above the entrance.

The clock and the tower are listed as a publicly-owned timepiece in the building's heritage covenant and the clock, which is rewound once a week, is maintained by the Auckland City Council.

The clock tower has twice narrowly survived pressure from bureaucrats for its demolition.

It was rated an earthquake risk in the 1940s, but the Auckland City Council fought to save it.

The council was back campaigning in the 1970s when the Ministry of Works said cracks in the tower's parapet could be an earthquake risk.

Following the tower's demolition, the clock would be donated to the Museum of Transport and Technology.

But again a vigorous reaction by the council, residents and the Historic Places Trust resulted in the Postmaster-General authorising $11,000 to be spent on renovations.

New Zealand Post sold the building in 1992 to its current owners, Christchurch-based Portmain Properties, which enlisted the services of architect Jeremy Salmond for a proposed redevelopment of the building - including rooftop apartments.

The Historic Places Trust supported the plan on the basis that the building needed to be upgraded and its historic look would not be affected.

Resource consent for the redevelopment was granted in 1997 but the project did not go ahead.

Last year, New Zealand Post ended its long association with the building by moving its Post Shop out of the ground floor to new premises 100m away at 314 Ponsonby Rd.

The land area of the property is 408sq m. It has a 250sq m ground floor and 195sq m first floor.

The post office is a concrete and double-skin brick structure with plastered finish. It has double-hung timber window joinery and tongue and groove floors.

From the roof level there are panoramic views of the city, including full harbour views.

The city council gives the building a Heritage A rating, reflecting its status as one of the city's most important historic buildings. It also has an Historic Places Category 1 listing.

The post office is historic in another sense.

On March 13, 1920, the Ponsonby postmaster, Augustus Edward Braithwaite, was murdered in his house.

The keys of the post office were taken from his pocket, the building was broken into, and the strong room opened with a key and rifled.

The next day a detective sergeant left Auckland for the Fingerprints Department in Wellington, an 18-hour journey by the evening train.

He was carrying three post office cash boxes on which prints had been detected.

The following day a former prison warder told the police he had seen Dennis Gunn, 25, near the post office on the day of the murder.

Gunn's name and that of another suspect were transmitted by telegraph to Wellington.

Three days after the murder, a senior sergeant matched fingerprints on the cash boxes with Gunn's prints, recorded when he was arrested as a military defaulter.

Gunn could not account for his movements on the day of the crimes and on March 17 he was charged with the murder and burglary.

A few days later, a search in undergrowth 150m from Gunn's house turned up a bag containing money, a postal note, the postmaster's keys, a jemmy and three revolvers - one of which had been recently fired.

Marks on bullets fired from this gun matched those on two bullets in the postmaster's body. Police again matched the prints on the pistol with Gunn.

The five-day trial at the Auckland Supreme Court in May 1920 is famous as being a case in which identification of the accused was made entirely by fingerprint evidence.

Gunn was convicted, sentenced to death and hanged.

This was the first time in the British Empire, and possibly the world, the prosecution sought a conviction for a capital crime based almost entirely on fingerprint evidence.

The post office is being marketed by Bayleys agents Stuart Bode and Andre Siegert, and will be auctioned on December 3.