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Commemorative Trowel

Alison Sofield, Collections Volunteer


It never ceases to amaze me how a very small object can unlock so many interesting facts and pathways. In this instance a small silver trowel, nestling in its velvet lined box, when delving into its history revealed so much of early Whangārei history.


The trowel is a handsome piece, beautifully chased, with a fine greenstone and silver handle. It is inscribed as follows: “Presented to T.H. Steadman on the occasion of his laying on the foundation stone of the Municipal Buildings, Whangarei. Radcliffe and Burton Builders. Hugh C. Grierson. July 11th, 1912.”


People associated with this historic building in Bank Street, now sadly shrouded in a white plastic covering as a result of a disastrous fire in 2019, played a major part in the beginnings of our city.


Thomas Herbert Steadman was the Mayor of Whangārei during the early part of the 1900s. He was married to Minnie and they had one son, Noel, who was sadly killed in action during WW1.


Mayor Steadman spoke at length at the opening of the building as reported in the “Northern Advocate” of May 23rd 1913. Another speaker was Frank Mander, M.P at the time for Marsden, standing in for Prime Minister Massey. As a sideline, Mr Mander was the father of Jane Mander, the novelist. The first Mayor of Whangarei, Mr Killen, also spoke, acknowledging the work of the builders, Radcliffe and Burton, and the architect, Hugh Grierson.


Architect Hugh Grierson had a very distinguished career in designing significant buildings throughout New Zealand. He practiced before WW1. After the war, where he served in the Army, he stayed in England to continue his studies at the Architectural Association of London. He became an Associate of the British Royal Institute of Architects. With his partners Aimer and Draffin back in New Zealand they designed ‘stripped classical’ and, later, Art Deco buildings, including the Parnell Public Library, the Devonport Presbyterian Church, the Citizens War Memorial, Wellington, and most notably the original World War One  Sanctuary in the Hall of Memories at Auckland War Memorial Museum.


The silver trowel was made by Adolph Kohn, a manufacturing jeweller with a business in Auckland. He was well known for the manufacture of sporting trophies and medals. This particular trowel was donated to the Museum by Whangārei District Council.


It is hoped one of Whangārei landmarks can be restored to its former glory, with the clock tower that was upgraded in 1953, reinstalled. Early photos of the Municipal Building show the stripped classical style that Hugh Grierson often used, a rather plain austere building.


In 2017 the building exterior received a makeover to give it a more modern look, which makes the unfortunate advent of the fire two years later even more heart-breaking.


How many more early buildings in Whangārei hold interesting stories like this one started with a little silver trowel?