Pukeahu Anthology

Mt Cook Barracks and Hickety-pips

David McGill is a social historian who provides a glimpse into the military history of Mount Cook in these passages from The Compleat Cityscapes (2012). From the first troops of the 96th Regiment in 1843 to the Royal Tiger Hotel, to the first glimmerings of the location as the site for a university in 1901, McGill paints an interesting picture of military life in Pukeahu. He also explores the unrivalled quality of the prison-made bricks, and muses over the unique architecture of the Mount Cook Police Barracks on Tasman Street.

Arrows in the Bricks, Tasman Street, 2015.
Arrows in the Bricks, Tasman Street, 2015.
Photographer: Rosie Percival.

The Mount Cook Police Barracks on the corner of Buckle and Tasman Streets is much more than a load of old red bricks. It has direct links with New Scotland Yard and end-of-the-century British architecture.

It is a case study of one man’s successful conservation campaign. Most of all, it is a major remnant of the remarkable Mount Cook brick-building industry, surviving proof that convicts were more than just mailbag makers.

Look at that magnificent rake of the retaining wall, says architect Grahame Anderson lovingly. And those rosettes in the quoins of the barracks — I’ve never seen anything like them anywhere. These prison bricks with the arrow trademark stamped on them are the best bricks we ever made.

It was the arrows that pointed Anderson towards the preservation of this last explicit example of prison-made bricks. He was architects’ representative on the council’s historic places subcommittee back in the early seventies, when the barracks came up for discussion. Anderson said he had noticed the quaint arrows on the walls. That, it turned out, was all anybody knew about the barracks.

Anderson found out enough about the barracks and the bricks that built it to convince the authorities that it should be preserved.

There might be 150,000 arrowed bricks here. Late last century there were three or four million bricks on the National Museum area above, where convicts cast bricks under a warder the Post had heard was a tradesman without equal. The reputation of his bricks was actually tested by the forerunner of the DSIR, which confirmed their unparalleled quality, but couldn’t say why. Anderson attributes it to the man in charge and perhaps convict pride in being allowed to do a good job.

Whatever the reason, the convict bricks were too good for their own good. The commercial brickmakers working the Mount Cook cliff objected to the convict competition. You could see their point when the government preferred the prison bricks — not only were they better, they did not show up in the costing of government buildings.

The government also ensured that the arrows did not show up. Convict bricks built the General Assembly Library and the harbourmaster’s office, but you won’t see the arrows. Only the police barracks did not hide its illegitimate origins, at least of those buildings that have survived. The ruins of the Mount View Mental Asylum in the grounds of Government House not only have prison arrows, but also names, dates, and such curious hieroglyphics as a dinky colonial house and a crazy windmill.

The complaints of the commercial brickmakers were finally recognised in the late 1920s, when the government offered £100,000 for a museum and art gallery on the site, if the citizens could raise an equal amount. They did, in six months, quite possibly to the government’s chagrin.

The museum/art gallery complex was actually the site of the partially completed Mount Cook jail, an awesome construction designed by acting colonial architect Pierre Burrows. It was begun in the 1880s, but seems only ever to have held 20 Maori prisoners, following the second Parihaka incident.

The barracks were built in 1894. It was thought they were designed by Burrows, until Anderson discovered he had gone off in a huff to practise at Hunterville! A E King seems the likely designer of this stern, four-square block with street walls 24 inches thick. At the time it must have assumed symbolic dominance for Inspector Peter Pender and his 83 men, who had their work cut out trying to control the rapidly expanding Te Aro flat below.

It was built only a few years after the new New Scotland Yard, and in much the same style, considered at the time a daring design, notably in the black and white banding round the windows. In those days it was quite something for a colony to be up with the swinging London fashion.

It was helped by the brick boom. Wellington by then had swept the fear of earthquakes under its foundations. Fire was naturally considered a worse risk following the 1879 inferno that gutted 30 wooden buildings in the Royal Oak area.

Earthquake proofing from San Francisco allowed the brick boom to continue up to the 1931 Napier quake.

Not that this magnificently made barracks showed any sign of quake wear, except in later and much poorer additions. It remained a police station until 1956, and a police clothing store until 1972, when the land was handed over to the museum. No mention was made of the barracks building, and it could easily have been demolished before we knew what we had, if Grahame Anderson hadn’t got curious.

Since 1972 the museum has treated it as a dumping ground for stuff it doesn’t want to display, like that row of stags’ heads you can see through a window from Tasman Street. A truly horrible stench seeps out of the cells, where the museum keeps insects alive on decaying meat.

All that will change, as Anderson oversees the restoration of the original barracks. It may be a police museum linked by steps to its big brother above. An Historic Places Category B rating makes it safe as a monument to the best brickmakers we have had.


Former Mount Cook Police Station, Buckle Street, Wellington, 1956.
Former Mount Cook Police Station, Buckle Street, Wellington, 1956.
Photographer: Unidentified for the Evening Post. EP/1956/1396-F. Alexander Turnbull Library

Mt Cook Barracks is the oldest military post in New Zealand.

Not the police barracks, but the other end of Buckle Street, where the Navy is tucked in behind the conservation section of the museum, there are actually remnants of the 1847 barracks built to house Imperial troops, occupied thereafter in unbroken sequence by the Militia, the Armed Constabulary, the Permanent Militia, Defence Headquarters, Headquarters Central Military District, finally Headquarters home command. From a few brick and wood structures on this few hectares of former hill, the defence of this nation was determined.

The first soldiers on Mt Cook were probably the 96th Regiment, from the 1843 Wairau Massacre scare; joined about 1846 by the 65th, the Royal Tigers after whom the nearby pub is named. They came with their families from service in India, brought out to meet the challenge of Te Rauparaha and his 190cm nephew Te Rangihaeta.

The first Royal Tiger hotel went up in 1860 and the soldiers undoubtedly spent more time there than they did on any battlefields, regimental records indicating that it was a nightly chore for the guards to trundle sodden soldiers back to the barracks in a wheelbarrow.

Too much could be made of the fact that 80 percent were Irish in the 65th, though it could have been the reason why they got on so well with settlers and Maori both, the Irish being known for their friendly disposition. They got their nickname of hickety-pips from the nearest Maori could approximate the name of their regiment — ‘hiki-tipi.’

Locally, they fought the bloody seven-day skirmish up in the Horokiwi Valley against Rangihaeta’s men, at a point along the Paekakariki / Pauatahanui Road known subsequently as Battle Hill.

The Hickety-pips also distinguished themselves as firefighters, when they were called out to a fire on April 27, 1856, begun in a store in Bond Street and threatening to raze the young settlement. The grateful citizens presented them with two magnificent silver salvers. This was Wellington’s first volunteer fire brigade, the first official one not being formed until 1865, the year the Tigers returned home to Plymouth.

When an officers’ mess was constructed in 1970, the original 65th barracks was demolished but some of its pit-sawn timber was incorporated into the entranceway.

Around the barracks, a fortress was built by a Mr Mills, slicing off the top of Cook’s Mount and sinking 18,000m of Tasmanian hardwood, which later proved the devil’s own job to demolish. Huge gates were set in to both ends of Buckle Street and placed under armed guard day and night.

The barracks were used in the late 1860’s as temporary quarters for immigrants but in 1871 demolition was got under way using prisoners from the Terrace Jail, digging the foundations for their own quarters. Only one wing was ever built, by 1874, and the prisoners never got to experience the fruits of their own labour. Outraged Wellingtonians made sure of that. Dick Seddon eventually admitted to Parliament in 1897 that there had been a ‘blundering on the part of someone in the matter’ of erecting a jail on ‘the noblest site in Wellington.’ That year one publication went appropriately further and called it ‘a criminal blunder.’

A reporter looked over the completed wing and gave it the thumbs down, particularly the women’s quarters, which he said were dark and dungeon-like and a place where ‘no gentleman would dream of stabling his horse.’

The Army was delighted to be stabled there, for it took over the building in 1901, Dick Seddon having rejected a suggestion that this three-storey edifice might make a good university because he feared a stigma would attach to every youth who entered its portals. The Army had no such scruples, proudly naming it Alexandra Barracks, reoccupying the old sight, you might say. Defence Headquarters occupied the women’s quarters, despite the reporter suspecting it would ‘breed consumption in the strongest woman.’ Soldiers were chuffed to move from the dilapidated dormitories into the luxury of a single, strong-bricked cell.

In 1927, the citizens finally won and the place was demolished. However the brick barracks and the hill itself, which lost about 45m during development, live on in the bricks made there. The Mt Cook police barracks and the General Assembly Library are notable examples. The Drill Hall put up in 1880 was from the same stock.

A new Drill Hall went up in 1907, volunteers helping to build it and contributing their pay of two shillings and six pence per diem to its materials. Its floor played host to much drilling, but also to the annual soldiers’ ball and to many of the 75 victims of the wrecking of the SS Penguin off Wellington in 1909.

The drill hall is the only readily identifiable building left from the nation’s old defence HQ. Veterans of the last world war will remember enlisting there and may be interested in seeing its survival.