Memories of the Signalman's House

The East family in the Signalman’s House

Nacy east in her wedding dress with bridesmaids

Bridal photo 1953 

On February 28 1953 Nancy East and Robert Biddle were married at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Devonport. Nancy was one of nine children who grew up in the Signalman’s House on Takarunga Mt Victoria. On her wedding day, a photo was taken of Nancy and her two bridesmaids, her sister Doreen and friend Patricia Lound, on the front steps of the house. 

Sixty years later Nancy and Robert Biddle, together with the two bridesmaids, returned to the Signalman’s House and replicated the photo on the front steps. These notes record their memories of life in the Signalman’s House. 

Nancy and Doreen were the daughters of Arthur East, the last signalman who lived in the Signalman’s House on Mt Victoria. Arthur East was signalman from 1934 and moved into the house in July 1934 with his family, including his wife Emma and five children. They went on to have four more children, who were all born in the front bedroom of the Signalman’s House. There were nine children in all, who lived with their parents and grandmother in the relatively modest four bedroom house. 

Arthur East died in November 1943 of an oedema on the lungs. He was a heavy smoker. He was aged 52. His widow was allowed to stay on in the Signalman’s House and lived there until December 1968. Her mother Anna Scott (originally Skotte) lived with the family. 

On her wedding day, Nancy’s bridesmaids were her younger sister Doreen (now Doreen Boyd) and her friend Patricia Lound (now Moore). A photo of the bridal party was taken in the bay window in the lounge of the Signalman’s House and on the front steps just before they left for the ceremony. The photos were taken at 2 pm. 

The wedding photographer was Anthony Henry, who went on to become well known. The bridal party travelled to the church in cars from local company Morris. 

Sixty years later, celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, Robert and Nancy returned to the Signalman’s House with the bridal party and had another photo taken on the front steps at 2 pm. Nancy is now 80 and Doreen is 77. Both sisters and one of their brothers John still live on the Devonport peninsula and Patricia Moore lives in Takapuna. 

Growing up in the Signalman’s House 

Nancy was about two when the East family moved into the Signalman’s House. Her brother John was just a few days old. Nancy remembers the births of some of the other children in the front bedroom. They were not told exactly what was going on but she remembers Donald, the last, being brought out of the front bedroom in a Gladstone bag after his birth. 

The East children were: Noel, Lulu (Hilda), Billy, Bonnie (Margaret), Nancy, John (born July 1934), Doreen, Jocelyn and Donald.  All of the East children went to Devonport Primary and Takapuna Grammar. (Robert also went to Takapuna Grammar.)

 Nancy and Doreen’s grandmother, Anna, was known by the “horrible kids” as the witch of Devonport because she always wore black. She did all of the shopping at a grocery shop down Calliope Road (not in the village because they knew the shop owner) and used to carry all the groceries up Mt Victoria. They called her Gran or Nan. 

Their mother, Emma, was born in 1901 and came to New Zealand as a young child with her family from South Shields in England. Anna had Swedish heritage and her surname was anglicised from Skotte to Scott.  Arthur East came from the same area in England, although they did not meet until later. 

Devonport was a nice place to grow up. Everyone called it “the shore” then, not the village. There were local grocery stores, butcher shops and everything that was needed to live. It was the same at Hauraki, Bayswater and Takapuna.

Their mother would go to see a film on Saturday night and they would have to brush Anna’s waist-length hair. 

As children they used to play cricket in the hall and they spent a lot of time outside, playing on the hill, using the tennis court and so on. They did not think of the house as being crowded, even with nine children and their grandmother there. Other people used to come to stay as well for extended periods. Nancy remembers her bedroom in the front room that is now the office, with three beds in it.  They did not think of the house as cold. There was a coal range in the kitchen which their mother cooked on. There were fire places in other rooms but they were not used. The lounge was kept for best. There was a lot of furniture in the house. 

They remember going up to the Signal Station with their father. There were a lot of steps to get up there and it was quite a climb. They used to polish the big telescope with vinegar and would get a teaspoon of condensed milk for doing it. Nancy remembers the signal cones that were used. 

They were not well off. Clothes were hand-me downs. Dinner on Saturday was porridge and Sunshine soup. 

There was a carpet runner down the hall and they used to put damp tea leaves on the floor to sweep up the dust. 

There was a lot of army activity on Mt Victoria when their father was still the signalman. During the war, there was a camp down the hill and the army used all of the school’s out-buildings. Then after the war there was a transit camp (in what is now the Kerr St Artspace). 

When Arthur East died, the army put on a party for the children. They were allowed to invite three friends each. After the party all the children were taken home in big army trucks. 

Nancy and Robert Biddle’s memories of the house

Robert Fraser Biddle was called Fraser as a young child because his mother did not like the name Robert, but when he went to Takapuna Grammar he began to use his first name, so he is known as Robert, Bob or Fraser by some people. 

After their wedding, Robert and Nancy lived in Esmonde Road, Takapuna. Robert remembers Frank Sargeson from that time.  After a couple of years they moved back into the Signalman’s House with Emma East and the grandmother. Emma needed help as she still had a large family and her mother by then needed to be nursed.  

Nancy and Robert already had one child and their second, Roseanne, was born while they lived in the Signalman’s House. They stayed in the front bedroom, while the mother and grandmother probably shared what is now the middle bedroom.

They all remember that Nan was the one who made the decisions about what the children were allowed to do. Robert said he had to ask her permission when he and Nancy got engaged.

Nancy and Robert recall that there were two other sheds at the back of the house. Next to the laundry was a workshop and the toilet was out there as well (between the laundry and workshop). There was a tin shed used to store coal at the back. The toilet was always outside, right up until Emma East moved out in 1968.

Robert said that one night he went out the back of the house and there was a man out there. He did not think too much of it, but when he told the family they thought it was a prowler and Emma told him to run down to tell the local policeman. The man was picked up along Calliope Road and it turned out he was an escaped prisoner from Australia.

Robert had a vegetable garden along the north side of the house. There was a beautiful   lilac tree which flowered a lot on the area which is now the driveway near the bank.

There were no trees around the house then, and not many trees on the whole of the hill. Some of the big pohutukawa were there, but the view from the house was much better than it is now. They could see right along to the Navy base and see the ferries coming in.  The puriri trees on the slopes below the house now block that view and there have been a lot of trees planted on the hill above the house.

Doreen recalled that they could wait until they saw the ferry just at the Navy base and then would run down the hill to catch it.

They had a couple of chickens. One of them called Charlie used to follow Nan down to the bottom of the hill.

In those days the house was painted Harbour Board grey. Possibly darker grey around the windows. Quite plain. They did all the inside decorating – wallpapering etc.

Nancy nearly burned the house down once. She had put washing in front of the lounge fire to dry and it caught fire. The fire spread to John’s record player. She smelled smoke as she walked down the hall and managed to put the fire out before it spread. That was about 1957.

John liked to play Mantovani on the stereo in the lounge, sit in the dark with the windows open and look at the city lights at night.

Every Christmas there was a fair on the Windsor Reserve with a ferris wheel and entertainment.

The drainage inspector, Mr Wrack, lived in a house further up the hill. It was right on the road on the corner and the situation was a bit dangerous so that house was demolished in the 1960s.

When Emma East had to move out of the house in December 1968, she moved to Stanley Bay, then May St and then to Church Road. She died in 1990 at the age of 89. 

Doreen moved out of the Signalman’s House when she was about 25. She lived in Old Lake Road, then Birkdale, and now lives in Ngataringa Road. Their brother John lives in North Ave.

In the early 1960s, Nancy and Robert moved out of the Signalman’s House and into what had been the Biddle family home in Roberts Avenue, Hauraki. They still live there. Robert had five brothers and he purchased the Roberts Avenue house for 2,500 pounds. They had five children, four daughters and a son.

Robert (now 83) was a builder. He worked on Frank Sargeson’s house on Esmonde Road when the extension room was added. He did a lot of building work around the area and he later became the council building inspector. He was the foreman on the first Takapuna Library building and later when he was building inspector he was in the office that he had built. 

Both Doreen and Nancy thought the hill looks different now from their day. There used to be more sloping ground in front of the house. The bank has been cut away for more school rooms to be built. Robert ran his car off the road and down the bank there once. There were oak trees along the east side of the tennis court and a path on the south side where they could walk down to the school. The fence around the house was similar to what it is today. At the front there was a gate in the middle, posts and wire. Around the south, west and east sides it was concrete post and wire.

Patricia Moore

She was a bridesmaid because she worked with Nancy at Vanite Garments at 40 Hauraki Road. Nancy had had other jobs before that.

Vanite Garments was set up by Patricia’s mother in a flat under their house. Up to 10 women worked there. They sewed high-class ladies’ blouses that were sold in shops such as Smith and Caugheys. Blouses were a big fashion item in the 1940s and 1950s.


Notes taken by Karren Beanland
09 445 8451 

Thursday February 28 2013


Fleet Weather 

By Jack Roper (grandson of Signalman George Taylor)       

This year’s spring and summer seasons have been a real disappointment to most of us.  Very few clear, warm, cloudless days, but lots of rain, wind, cloud and colder temperatures.  We could say that spring and summer as we have known them, have been a “fleeting experience”.

When I was very young, I seem to remember that summer was always fine and warm, with lots of clear blue skies and lots of sunshine.  My Mother, on such days would often say, “Oh, this is fleet weather”.  Not fleeting weather, but fleet weather.  So I asked her, what did she mean by describing a brilliant summer day with such words.  I invite you to journey back in time over one hundred years and in your imagination discover with me the reason for her words “Fleet Weather”.

My Mother grew up in Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore, along with her brother and sister.  The family lived on the slopes of Mt.Victoria in the signal master’s house, half-way up the road to the summit.  This historic building is still there in its original state, and is now the Michael King Writers’ Centre.  Her Father, George Taylor, at the time was signal master on Mt. Victoria.  From this signal station on the summit, he would observe the shipping movements through a long, tripod-mounted brass telescope, and control their movements by an array of different flags from a special mast.  No telephone or radio communications in those days in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s.

During this time, there was what was called the “Russian Scare” – an anxious time concerning Russian naval movements in the Pacific.  As a result of this, the adjacent mount of North Head had been fortified with gun emplacements.  Centrepiece to this was a huge, what was called a “disappearing gun”, concealed below ground, in a specially constructed concrete pit, where it could be loaded, raised, aimed and fired, then lowered again to be serviced and re-loaded.  These armaments are preserved on North Head as historic items, and are on view to today’s public.  Such was the prevailing anxiety over possible hostilities   which ultimately and thankfully never eventuated.  However, all this sets the stage for my explanation.  As a response to this situation, a special and important event was planned.  So important, in fact, that the almost completed rail link between Wellington and Auckland was hastily connected by the temporary laying of a section of rail.  This was to enable a special train called the “Parliamentary Special” to transport MP’s and dignitaries from Wellington to Auckland for this occasion. 

Now imagine with me, because it is 8th August 1908, some twenty-one years or so before I was born.  Picture with me in your mind’s eye, my Mother in her early twenties.  She is standing on the top of Mt. Victoria with her family.  Her signal master Father is searching the distant horizon through his large telescope.  It’s a brilliant day, the sky is a cloudless blue. The sun is shining, and the Waitemata harbour is shimmering under its rays. Then on the horizon a white dot appears, then another, then yet more and more.  Then as they come closer and enter the harbour, they become ships of the United States Naval Fleet.  They are on a world wide goodwill visit, and presumably showing support in anxious times.

So, a brilliant day – the Waitemata at its magnificent best, and a long line of white ships, sixteen in all, which was to become known as the Great White Fleet.  It was welcomed by a crowd of people, thought to be around one hundred thousand, people from Auckland and many who had travelled by boat and train from all over the country.

My Mother was so excited by this spectacle that throughout her long life, and even as time dimmed her memory, she would always, on a perfect day say, “Oh, this is fleet weather!”

March 2012


Flagstaff article about the Biddle wedding