Blockhouse Bay Grocery and General Store opened c.1917

Talk by Frances Winchcombe Booker, 1 December 2004

Introduction: From 1917 to 1922 the Store was owned by Percy Fowler, followed by L. & W. Wood; then in 1924 Mr Simons, followed by Mr Walters; 1927 to 1938 it was owned by the McMurray family; and 1943 to 1952 by W. G. Winchcombe & Co.

In 1938 McMurray built and moved into a brand new brick building on the corner of Blockhouse Bay Road and Kinross Street, which consisted of a huge storage basement, a very large shop with living accommodation at the rear, and five bedrooms and bathroom upstairs.

The builder was Meyer Bros, who lived near the bottom of Bolton Street. The bricklayer was Kershaw Bros. The building was double brick, so it was a large bricklaying job for that time. There was a bad leak in the north wall, caused by the strong southwest wind driving the water up the iron and under the flashings. This leak was fixed by Roy McLeod with a capping over the north wall parapet and a long flashing down the slope of the roof iron.

Four Square Grocery

The Four Square Grocery and General Store in 1947.

This was a general store under the Four Square banner, and also included the Post Office and one bowser (petrol) on the Kinross Street side.

My father, William G. Winchcombe, leased the business from McMurray, opening for business on the 3rd December, 1943.

Bill Winchcombe owned a wood and coal business in Marton (Rangitikei) from the early 1920s until he moved to Auckland in 1943, which was quite a transition for our family.

On the day we actually moved into the shop, which was a Saturday, Doreen Lindsay (Maureen Exler’s mother) arrived at midday with a beautiful lunch for all of us, which as you can imagine was much appreciated.

Arthur McMurray Senior and his son, Arthur, stayed with us in the living accommodation for several weeks showing us the ropes, which also was much appreciated, as I had to learn the Post Office routines. The deal was sealed with a handshake as there was no documentation in those days, and it was called “a gentlemen’s agreement”.

Bill Wood Senior, who had been the McMurray’s driver, stayed with us, and we inherited Ella Glasgow as a part-time shop assistant — she was invaluable as she knew the run of the place. Cynthia Jones also worked for us.

At the time we took over the business, the staff consisted of Mum and Dad, myself mostly in the Post Office, my sister Eileen (who used to do the bread orders orders) and the three other helpers, so it was a very busy business.

One of Bill Woods’ duties (and a very important one) was a twice weekly visit to the City Markets for fruit and vegetables, etc. Quite often I would take advantage of a ride into the city in the van for some shopping and a fellow passenger was Mr Shadbolt Senior, who wore a very unclean tweed overcoat tied at the waist with binder twine. He was odiferous and, needless to say, there were days I did not enjoy my trip as I had to sit in the middle!

My father was the designated Post Master, but yours truly did the hands-on. Some funny stories came from the Post Office. One of our fortnightly duties was the paying of the various pensions — these were paid in cash — officially the post office was not supposed to open for business until 9 a.m., but as soon as the shop opened at 8.30 a.m. there was a queue expecting to be paid out their money — very irate they were, too, if we were a bit late opening up! Some recipients could not write so they had to sign with a cross which I had to initial and witness.

With shop work as well, I worked 16 hours on many a day. I think we opened for half a day on a Saturday. Although we closed at 5.30 p.m. each night, we still had customers knocking on our door after hours.

Yvonne Pooley, who was a well-known disabled identity, would arrive at the shop door on her horse accompanied by her dogs and Dad would go out and take her order and one of us would fill it, then she loaded it into the saddle bags.

One of the Postal duties was the reception of cables from overseas servicemen to local families. To save problems for the serviceman, they were able to choose messages which were numbered They were allowed to pick three numbers per cable. When the War ended on VJ Day, an additional number was issued, informing family of the serviceman’s return. Families in New Zealand used these same cable numbers and they were invaluable to families and servicemen alike, especially when they were on active service and unable to get mail out.

A task, which my father handled with compassion, were those received from the War Office advising families of sons who were either missing, wounded or killed. When the War finally ended in September 1945, my father arranged for the shop exterior to be decorated with bunting.

The Post Office performed many tasks. We did banking with the old orange Post Office Savings Book, postal money orders, stamps, telegrams and cables, everything, and all handwritten. I got tennis elbow writing down telegrams. The phone for the cables was a separate phone which was kept in little more than a wooden cupboard, which became very hot at times as we got a lot of cables.

The Post Office issued the ration books and vouchers for petrol for essential industries ie., farmers, etc. I recollect that a pig farmer, La Rosa, in Green Bay, had petrol vouchers surplus which he allowed Dad to give to people who were short. One of the wartime jobs for my father was to balance the ration coupons with supplies. An onerous task and it took many hours.

Dad usually was the person who drove around to our customers and collected their grocery orders, telling them what was on special at the time (remember very few people had a telephone to ring their orders through to us). Each area had to order on a special day of the week, and then orders were delivered the following day. We delivered to Green Bay, Ridge Road, Halsey Drive and Tiverton Road, with cash on delivery.

My mother worked very hard, mostly behind the scenes, and in October 1945 my father employed a housekeeper, Mrs Hardy, which made a great difference to all of us, as we did not have to worry about preparing meals, etc., after knocking off work.

Bryan and I were married in 1946, and in 1947 Dad found that the Post Office created too much work and requested the P & T Department to make other arrangements.

The Post Office business was moved in 1947 to a wartime wooden ex-Army hut and opened for business a short distance from our store, at 519 Blockhouse Bay Road. Until 1962 this office was known as “non-permanent” post office — an agency in other words.

This was replaced in 1962 by a purpose-built, modern brick building on this site. This brick building became a “permanent” post office. During the process of building, the hut was moved to a site behind St. Saviours Church in Heaphy Street, where it continued its post office function. After its closure as a post office, the hut was moved again to the corner of Matata and Taylor Streets, and converted to a dwelling which is still there today.

The brick Post Office operated until 1989, when it became Post Bank only, with the Post Shop in the stationers next door.

In 1947 Maureen Lindsay worked for my Dad and, later, Joe Eades. I left in 1946, moving from above the shop to Donovan Street, housesitting for friends who were on a trip to the U.K. and in December 1947 we moved back with our first daughter, Anne, into the shop accommodation. My youngest sister, Jacqueline, was born in December 1947 so it was a full house. We moved into our own new home at No.48 (now No. 81) Donovan Street, and during 1948 Dad put in a manager, Arthur Titchener.

The girls had to wear white smocks and the men wore white aprons, with the manager wearing a white jacket. Dad was very progressive, and in 1949 decided that he would go self-service, which was very new. This meant a totally new working environment for us — no more serving across the counter, no more weighing out groceries as goods came pre-packaged. We were the third store in New Zealand to change to this concept of shopping.

The changeover was done over a weekend. We closed the store Saturday morning and re-opened for business on Monday, 6th October 1949. We had one checkout, operated by my Mother, and she said to me when I walked in the door on opening day with my newborn second daughter, Gayle, "Do you want to have a go?"

We all enjoyed the new system immensely, as it made everything easier with a lot of the stock being pre-packaged. And I think the customers enjoyed it as well, because these type of food markets still exist today.

After Bill Wood left us in January 1951, we employed as delivery person the husband of one of our new assistants, Jean Davis. Unfortunately he was dishonest, so my Father dismissed him but did not prosecute as Jean was an invaluable member of the staff. An SOS was sent to my husband, Bryan, who immediately took over driving the pre-War International Van which was fitted with air balloon tyres which made it very unstable.

On one occasion when staff was short, I was commissioned to actually drive the van on deliveries, helping my husband. I drove and he sorted the various orders in the back of the van, I turned from Donovan Street into Whitney Street and went into a speed wobble on the hill. A loud yell from my husband, who said “Don’t touch the brakes!” I obviously obeyed because we stopped on the side of the road safely. Needless to say, I never drove the van again.

Bryan had driven armoured cars in Italy and was a very experienced heavy vehicle driver, which was just as well, because on one occasion it was necessary for him to drive from Blockhouse Bay to International Harvester’s service garage in downtown Auckland without a clutch. This he did through tram and vehicle traffic without a mishap.

Later I heard the McMurray boys rolled the van in Donovan Street. Mr Arthur McMurray Senior had bought the van new in 1938, but the reason for fitting balloon tyres will ever remain a mystery!

In 1952 Dad put the business on the market, selling it back to the McMurray boys, David and Arthur, and their sister Nancy McRobie. David and his wife, Elsie, and family moved into the living accommodation upstairs.

Father then purchased another Four Square store on the corner of Grafton Road and Khyber Pass, but my parents remained living in the Bay, building a house at 46 Donovan Street living there till the late 1960s. After Eileen’s death in 1965, Bill moved to Trinidad Street till his death in June 1970.

Now in 2004, the building is a video store and travel agency, with the Westpac Bank built where the downstairs living accommodation was. The ramp leading to the bank is where the petrol bowsers were situated, and now professional health rooms are in the basement at the back. Vodophone and Westpac have installed apparatus on the roof, and upstairs is not now occupied.

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