Signalman’s House


The Michael King Writers Centre is based in the historic Signalman’s House on Takarunga Mt Victoria in Devonport.

Takarunga is one of Auckland’s volcanic cones and has a long Maori history. It also played an important role in the development of the port of Auckland, after Pakeha settlement.

In Maori, the mountain on which the house stands is known as Takarunga or “hill standing above”. It was once fortified and occupied by successive iwi over several centuries. On the northern and north-eastern slopes, terraces and pits associated with dwelling areas and kumara storage can still be seen.

Michael King Writers Centre

Flagstaff Hill

  • A signal station to assist the passage of shipping was established on the summit in 1842, and the new colonists named the mountain Flagstaff Hill.

    Its sweeping views of the Waitemata Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf made it an ideal location. Ships in those early days could take as long as three days to tack into Auckland after first being sighted, and the signal station played an important role in the life of the young city of Auckland. Signals hoisted on the flagstaff not only guided ships into port, but were followed closely by residents and merchants who lived in the city. Different flags were used to identify different vessels, giving inhabitants information about the ships that were due to arrive.

    Flagstaff Hill was renamed Mt Victoria in the 1840s, and declared a public reserve in 1880.

    In January 1930, the signal station on Mt Victoria was discontinued for reasons of economy. The function was moved to King’s Wharf, although the flagstaff remained in position. In 1934 King’s Wharf was dismantled and Mt Victoria again became the main centre for signalling operations. As technology changed, a new signal station tower was constructed on the summit in 1954. By 1970 radar with a range of 45 miles had been installed. In June 2000 the signal station became fully-automated, with the radar monitored on screen from the Ports of Auckland operations centre on the Axis Fergusson container terminal.

    The whole of Takarunga is registered under the Historic Places Act 1993 as an archaeological site, which protects it from modification, damage or destruction.

The House

  • The first signalmen lived in a tent or a raupo hut on the top of Mt Victoria and later a house was built on the summit. The summit was fortified because of the Russian scare in the 1880s and it was eventually taken over by the Defence Department. In 1898 the Auckland Harbour Board decided to build a new house for the signalman on the current site, about half way down the southern slope of the mountain.

    Architect Edward Bartley was asked to prepare plans and specifications. The house was built in the same year.

    The house is built in the style of a New Zealand Victorian ‘corner bay’ villa but with some significant variations. It features a hip roof with an unusually steep pitch, showing to advantage the fine slate roof with terracotta ridge capping. In most houses of this era the kitchen was incorporated under a lean-to, but unusually in this case the kitchen situated at the rear of the house was also roofed in the hip form. Skillion roof construction has been used over the bathroom and, in both the kitchen and bathroom the ceilings with their visible rafters follow the roof shape.

    In many of its details, the house could be described as ‘transitional’ and its decorative features anticipate the spindle work and bracketing of the Edwardian era that came some 10 years later.

    The conservation report prepared before the renovation of the house describes it as ‘a well-proportioned and elegant building. It illustrates how an architect innovates within an accepted architectural style to produce a building that is both original and an improvement on the basic form.’

    This same report speculates that Bartley may have opted for the steeply pitched roofline because he wanted to take advantage of the house’s prominent position on the hillside. ‘Evidently Edward Bartley was neither afraid to experiment with unconventional planning, nor with an eclectic approach to design detailing. This has led to a design which stands apart from other villas of the period.’

    At the back of the house, a lean-to verandah connects with the outside wash-house, now converted into a writer’s studio. This building was the larger of two original out-buildings, the second of which no longer exists.

    The conservation report further notes that the Signalman’s House is significant because of its unusual status as a surviving purpose-built dwelling associated with a nineteenth-century signal station, its relationship with the Auckland Harbour Board, its place in the history of the establishment of Devonport, its association with a number of people of historical interest, its importance as an interpretation of the villa style and its landmark value in Devonport.

    The first signalman to live in the house was John Fisher. The last signalman to live in it was Arthur East, who died in 1943. His widow and family continued to live in the house until the 1960s, when the Harbour Board’s lease on the site expired. At that time, the house was managed by the Devonport Domain Board and later by the North Shore City Council.

    The Michael King Writers Centre has published a booklet on the history of Mt Victoria/Takarunga and the Signalman’s House. It is available for purchase for $10 including postage within New Zealand. To buy a copy of the booklet, please contact the centre.

The Signalmen

  • The very first signalman, naval officer Lieutenant Robert Snow of the Colonial Stores Department, was officially appointed in February 1842 with the added responsibility of being in charge of the naval stores depot on the waterfront.

    He held the position for a short time. By May 1842, boatman Gilbert Adams was acting signalman and he was formally appointed later that month. He remained in the position until November 1843, when he stood down because of poor eyesight. Thomas Duder took over at that point and in due course became one of the longest serving and best-known of the signalmen.

    Duder was an Able Seaman from Devon, who served on the HMS Buffalo. While the vessel was in New Zealand loading kauri spars for the Royal Navy, it was wrecked during a storm in Mercury Bay in July 1840 in which two of the crew died. Along with a number of other crewmen, Duder opted to stay in the new colony after the wreck, when he was discharged from the service.

    This was not his first time in New Zealand. According to Duder family history he had previously visited and admired the Waitemata Harbour.  After his discharge, soon after the new settlement was proclaimed as the capital ofNew Zealand, he moved to Auckland. He was initially employed as a coxswain in the service of the Harbour Department under the first Harbourmaster, Captain David Rough. Records show that he made several purchases of land and began farming before his appointment as signalman in 1843. While he was the signalman, he held grazing rights on Mt Victoria.

    In an odd turn of events, in 1847 Duder was accused of the murder of the first signalman, Robert Snow, and his family – his wife and six-year-old daughter – in their home on the Devonport waterfront. Duder and his wife Margaret lived nearby in a house on the slopes of Mt Victoria. Needless to say, a huge scandal ensued.  Although the murders had happened in October, it was not until two months later that Joseph Burns (a former shipmate of Duder’s from the Buffalo) was arrested and charged with an assault on his common-law wife, Margaret Reardon. At his trial in March the following year, Burns confessed to the murders alleging that Duder and another man had been involved. Margaret Reardon gave evidence to support this claim and Duder was subsequently arrested. However, within a few days both Burns and Reardon confessed that they had lied and the charges against Duder were dropped.

    Shortly after the trial, Burns was paraded down Auckland’s Queen St, taken by boat across the harbour – seated on his coffin – and hanged on the Devonport waterfront, close to the site of the murders. He was the first Pakeha to be hanged in New Zealand. Before the execution took place, he asked Duder for forgiveness for the false accusation. Today, a plaque marks the site where the murder and the execution are believed to have taken place (although recollections passed on through local families suggest it may not be in exactly the right place). The plaque can be found on the waterfront opposite Mays Street.

    In spite of this brush with scandal, Duder became a highly respected member of the Devonport community as well as a successful businessman. A local street has been named in his honour. He had eight children and his descendants are still prominent in the Devonport community.

    By today’s standards, life as the signalman on Mt Victoria was not easy. Accommodation was in the form of a tent or raupo hut and unsurprisingly both Snow and Adams had complained of the cold up on the summit during their respective terms as signalman. Eventually this situation was rectified, but there were other problems. Reports show that in 1856, Duder was working 15 hours a day. Some years later, between 1867and 1868, by which time he was in his early sixties, Duder wrote letters to the Provincial Government requesting that a pension be paid. His petition was refused, thus with no pension he held the position until a few days before his death in 1875, aged 69. A.J. Holland, about whom little information can be found, was then appointed to the position.

    In February 1880, John Lander (written in some places as Landers) was appointed signalman. A native of Kent, Lander had led a seafaring life from boyhood arriving in New Zealand in about 1834. For a time he traded between the Bay of Islands and Sydney, and came to the locality that was to become Auckland long before there were any signs of settlement. In its obituary the New Zealand Herald reported that he served during the Waikato war of 1863 as a mail carrier, and ‘had many narrow escapes of being captured by the Maoris off the Miranda’. In 1873, he received a medal from the Humane Society for saving a woman from drowning in the harbour and also for ‘rescuing other persons’. In total, Lander worked for the harbour board for 30 years, initially as assistant wharfinger (wharf keeper or manager) and then as signalman. He died in the 1890s, aged 83, leaving eight children.

    The next appointment was Captain John Fisher who came to New Zealand in the 1860s in command of the barque Bella Mary of Hobart. Later he transferred to the command of another vessel, before joining the Auckland Harbour Board. He was Harbourmaster for about 10 years before becoming signalman in 1893, a position he held until his death in 1905 at the age of 76. John Fisher was the first to occupy the new signalman’s house when it was built in 1898.

    George Taylor followed. Born in England, Taylor sailed to New Zealand in 1871 and then crewed on coastal ships until he joined the Harbour Board in 1876. He began his 47-year career with the Board as a coxswain on a six-oared whaling boat which carried harbour pilots out to incoming vessels. After service on the whale boat, he was appointed bosun of the pilot cutter Vindex, which would cruise outside the harbour entrance transferring pilots to incoming ships. It would remain outside the harbour for up to two weeks at a time, coming into port to re-provision and re-embark the pilots.

    Taylor was reportedly in sole charge of the signal station from 1905. The photo at left shows Taylor with his family on the front steps of the Signalman’s House. From the left are Celina Taylor, Helen Louisa Taylor, George Taylor (top) and Alfred Taylor. The photo was brought to the Michael King Writers Centre by the son of Helen Taylor (Jack Roper), the grandson of the signalman, who remembers visiting the house. *See under Memoires of the House for a story by Jack Roper.

    In his first seven years on the job Taylor averaged 82.5 hours a week on duty. In 1912, the harbour master recommended the appointment of an assistant signalman to ease his workload, but the assistant was not appointed until afterTaylor’s retirement at the age of 78.

    After 18 years in the position, and in recognition of his long service, he was given a year’s leave of absence on full pay, a letter of appreciation from the Harbour Board and a marble clock that was presented to him by a number of grateful ship owners.

    On his retirement, the Harbour Board appointed three signalmen to work on a roster. One of these was Arthur Young who was a signalman from 1923 to 1931. He had worked for the Harbour Board from 1908 in various jobs starting as a night officer on a salary of £150 per year.  Auckland Harbour Board correspondence suggests he may have had to move out of the Signalman’s House due to his wife’s ill health.

    In August 1930, the Signalman’s House was occupied by a member of the Devonport Steam Ferry Company Ltd, who paid the Auckland Harbour Board a rental of 15 shillings per week.

    Harry Lappen (sometimes spelled Lappin), was appointed signalman in 1934 when the signal station reopened after the Depression years.

    The last signalman to occupy the house was Arthur W. East, who was appointed in 1934. Like most of the others before him, East was born in England. Joining the merchant service at an early age he spent four years mines weeping with the Royal Navy in World War I before serving on New Zealand merchant ships, including the Union Company steamer Hauraki. In 1925 he joined the Harbour Board and served on Queen’s Wharf and Tiri Tiri Island before being stationed on Mt Victoria where he remained until his death in 1943 at the age of 52. East’s widow remained living in the Signalman’s House until 1968, when the Harbour Board’s lease on the property expired. His children attended Devonport Primary School, located just below the Signalman’s House on Mt Victoria. Some local people remember being at school with his children.

Memories: The East Family

  • 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

  • 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