Home' Greymouth Star : March 18th 2017 Contents Saturday Afternoon
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The hidden courtyard
Few people in Greymouth would even know it was there, but a historic
courtyard that has survived just a few metres from the pounding feet
of passing pedestrians in Mackay Street was once a hive of activity, as
PAUL McBRIDE reports.
The old National Bank chambers in Greymouth have had a couple
of incarnations in the 20-odd years since the bank relocated to new
premises. The popular Smelting House Cafe took up residence first,
and when that closed Stewart Nimmo Gallery moved in. But it is what lies
beyond that is of particular interest.
Originally sited on Mawhera Quay, the bank was rebuilt in central
Mackay Street about 1928. It included a courtyard out the back for the
smelting house, where gold collected at the bank was melted down as bullion.
The golden era of smelting on the site came to an end in the 1950s but
the old stone building remains, right alongside a cobblers shop located
behind the former Hannah’s Shoe Store, once used for boot and shoe repairs.
Both of these original buildings have been restored by Stewart Nimmo,
with the cobblers shop now being transformed into a florists and fashion
Ross Ashton once worked in the cobblers workshop, after serving his
time as a bootmaker on Mawhera Quay.
"I served my trade as a bootmaker, which normally took five years but
because back then I was doing a lot of overtime I served my time in four
years," Ross says.
"I was originally working for Ron Smith who had a boot shop on
Mawhera Quay. I was working with Bruce Tones and old Jimmy Campbell,
but as things started slowing down Ron Smith told me and Bruce Tones to
Ron Smith eventually scaled down his boot and shoe operation and
moved to the cobblers workshop behind the Hannah’s Shoes, working
directly for the company doing their boot and shoe repairs.
"Ron (Smith) was in the workshop and after a time was getting out so I
thought that was a good opportunity for me to go into the boot business. I
worked for nothing for Ron for three months to pay off the gear. I was also
working at the Dispatch Foundry at the time as well," Ross says.
The cobblers workshop was small but served its purpose.
In no time the sound of sewing machines and a tapping hammer were a
constant hum echoing around the courtyard.
"There wasn't much room — a couple of benches and shelves for the
tools and there was a sewing machine as well as the boot wiring feeding
set up. A fellow by the name of Potts used to originally have the workshop
and did the repairs years ago; he was working for Hannah’s.
"When I was working out the back Hannah’s was an agency for me. I had
one in Westport, one in Reefton and two in Hokitika. They would send the
boots and shoes down to be repaired, and I was repairing bags and satchels as
well. I was renting the workshop off Hannah’s and had a lot of agencies at the
Ross says he spent a lot of time accessing the courtyard through a gate
leading off Mackay Street and down a short alley to the courtyard area.
"Some nights I'd be working at 3am in the morning and the police would
call in and see me.
“Having the two jobs meant I was doing quite a bit of the boot repairs at
night-time. I got a lot of work from the police repairing their boots."
For Ross the boot making pinchers, hammers, heating lamps, wire and
nails were the main tools and accessories.
Repairing hobnailed boots and putting on Commando soles and heels
were carried out most days.
"The hobnails were going out when I was round there, but when I was at
Mawhera Quay it was mainly all boots. We used to do a lot of nail work and
we had an automatic nailer as well. You would hold the boot up and feed it
against this continuous wire, which would feed down all the time. You would
cut the wire and bang it with a hammer.
“The old-timers used to 'mouth' the nails — have a row of nails sticking
out their mouths and quick as a flash pluck a nail and bang it in the boot
with a hammer and just bang all the nails before replacing them with another
mouthful. There was a real art in it.
"When I first started some of the boots were sewn or stitched, real heavy
duty, but there was a lot of nail work back in those earlier days," Ross says.
Jeanette Coll started at the National Bank in Mackay Street in 1974, and
while the concrete smelting house was no longer melting gold the bank still
used the building out the back.
"It was a bit different out the back than it is today,” she recalls.
“We used to use the old smelting house as a storage room and put the
old files in sacks and store them out there. The room had a concrete floor and
when it rained the floor would be soaking.
“I hated going out there as it was pretty rough and there was long grass
everywhere. Every so often there was a clean-up done to tidy up the area a
bit. We'd go out a door at the back of the bank and there was a track to the
Jenny Boot started at the bank in 1959 and in her time the inside of the
bank had a covered glass surround with bars across the front where the two
"There was a little fence back then between Hannah’s and Haywrights, and
a doorway to go through to the back of the bank. The smelting house which
was used for melting gold was not operating then but the bank used to get all
their gold from up in Reefton.
The smelting house was basically used for storing files and where records
were kept for so long but there was a strongroom inside the bank. Out the
back was pretty untidy.
"Adam McFarlane was the bank manager when I first started and Mr
Balneaves. Dennis Anderson and Nel Saunders were working at the National
Helen Williams was initially doing ledger work at the National Bank when
she started there straight from school in 1956.
"We used to bring our bikes and park them in the alley between Hannah’s
and C G Moore's menswear shop, which his son Doug eventually took over.
We would go through the door which led into the courtyard which was pretty
run-down and then go through the back door into the bank."
Helen also remembers the boot shop in the courtyard operating and the
tapping sound of the boot repairer and machines operating.
"The boy Ashton was doing boot repairs back then and he would be sitting
there mending shoes. When I first started the smelting house for melting
down the gold had just about finished, as I recall.
"Above the National Bank was a flat which had been used by staff in
earlier times but it was the morning tearoom when I was there. You would go
up the stairs for morning tea and we used to push open the window looking
out on Mackay Street and climb out on to the roof and look out over the
parapet and call out to the customers.
"When I started work there Laurie Cottrell was the accountant, Alison
Batty (nee Anderson) and Neil Ellery were all working there. Adam
McFarlane was the bank manager - he was a very good boss but looking back
it was pretty dark and scary walking in the alley if you had to work late and go
out the back to get your bike."
Alison Batty has memories of the gold smelting in the courtyard when she
started work at the bank in February 1952.
"When I started they did the last smelting of the gold in the concrete shed
out the back. I remember seeing the gold ingots and picking them up later
on. They were damned heavy, about eight inches long and three inches thick.
After that last meltdown the Union Bank of Australia, on the corner of Werita
Street and Mawhera Quay, took over the smelting of gold. Both banks later
became the ANZ."
The courtyard then was mostly used for storing staff bikes and as a back
access entrance for bank staff.
"We would take our bikes down the alley between Hannah’s and C G
Moore's Menswear and put the bikes out the back. The little concrete building
where the gold used to be smelted was just a room, really.”
PICTURE: Stewart Nimmo
The once busy courtyard, forlorn and neglected a few years ago.
The former National Bank building, later the Smelting House Cafe, is now the
Stewart Nimmo Gallery.
PICTURE: Laura Mills
The newly-restored courtyard.
Inside the old Cobbler’s shop.
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