May’s confectionery works

Built: 1900
Address: 249 Cumberland Street
Architect: George William Gough (1863-1936)
Builder: Not known

This building dates from the last year of the nineteenth century. It has one particularly striking feature: a sculpture of the Royal Standard in relief on its pediment.  Why is it there? The answer to that question proved harder to pin down than I thought it would be…

In the late 1800s the site of the building was a vacant one next door to the Dunedin and Suburban Tramway Company (which had buildings on both sides of the street). Harry May, of the confectionery firm H. May & Co., erected it as a factory in 1900. It was completed around October that year at a cost of £4,000 to £5,000 for both the building and machinery. It was well appointed for its time and had electric lighting throughout.

At the age of 30, Harry May had confectionery shops in both Rattray and Princes streets, as well as his new factory. Sadly, his enterprise ended in tragedy. May quickly found himself in a financial quagmire and took to forging other men’s names to endorse his bills, to the extent that he was later described as a ‘wholesale forger’. On 4 June 1901 he was found drowned at the St Clair baths. He left a wife and three children.

Why the Royal Standard? Its presence is puzzling and it does appear to be an original feature of the building (it can be seen in a 1906 photograph). A likely explanation is that May used it in his branding, and that he chose the symbol for its patriotic appeal at the height of the Second Boer War. I haven’t been able to link May directly to the ‘Standard’ name, however, Dunedin architect G.W. Gough is named as the architect of the ‘Standard Confectionery Works’ in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand  (1905) and it seems probable that this refers to May’s factory. I haven’t found any other Dunedin businesses from around this time named ‘Standard Confectionery’.

George William Gough (1863-1936) was both a civil and a naval architect, meaning he was often designing boats and ships rather than buildings. According to the Cyclopedia  he was born at Manchester and educated at Rothesay in Scotland. He studied naval architecture under the shipbuilders Napier & Sons and Henderson & Co. in Glasgow, and civil architecture with George Melrose in Rothesay. After working in Canada and the United States Gough took charge of an architect and surveyor’s office in Falkirk. He arrived at Dunedin in 1886 where he worked for the engineers and ironfounders Begg & Wilkinson before establishing his own business. Among his ship designs was the steamer ‘Tarawera’, which catered to tourist traffic on Lake Te Anau. His buildings in Dunedin included the Denton Hat Mills, the superintendent’s house in the Botanical Gardens, the North End Boating Club pavilion, and brickworks at Andersons Bay. Some of his drawings survive in the Hocken Collections.

The Cumberland Street building is a nicely proportioned if fairly basic example of Renaissance revival design. The use of unrendered brick with contrasting cement facings on the façade is characteristic of the period, although this effect is currently lost as the facade is painted a single shade of blue. Decoration includes a simple cornice, and the pediment with its sculpture is flanked by volute consoles, while two finials have been removed.

When I took a look into the alley next to the building (where the factory once had an enormous chimney stack), I noticed a faded sign on the wall: ‘Stand….Ware…’. My first thought was ‘ah-ha!’, this is a reference to the elusive ‘Standard’ brand and its ‘Warehouse’. This seemed to be confirmed when I found an early photograph that tantalisingly showed part of the sign. The plot, however, thickened.

R. Wilson & Co. took occupancy of the building (under lease) from 1901, as an extension to their Moray Place factory which was used as a ‘complete grinding, sifting, cleaning and mixing plant for treating coffees, spices, teas, etc’. The name of their leading brand of tea? ‘Stand Out’!

Here’s an advertisement from 1906:

So the sign is for tea rather than lollies, and for ‘Stand Out’ rather than ‘Standard’. Wilson’s emphasised that their tea was ‘hill grown’ in Ceylon, and that their factory processing was a great advance, as ‘no germs or dirt can get into air-tight tins’. They also ran a coupon competition for many years.

Many other firms have occupied the building since then. From about 1919 to 1930 it was owned and occupied by the timber merchants G. Howes & Co. and named Howes’ Buildings. They let part of it to the motor and electrical engineers James J. Niven & Co. A hanging verandah was added in the 1920s, along with new shop fronts. Later occupiers included the Otago Electricity Board and the engineering suppliers Myles Walker Ltd (c.1935-1976). Sun & Snow, adventure equipment specialists, have been in the building since about 1985. Perhaps readers will share memories from these more recent years in the building’s colourful history.

The building as it appeared in the 1920s. Note the chimney stack at the right rear. Photo (detail): S.C. Smith. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/2-046491-G.

Newspaper references: Otago Witness, 12 June 1901 p.40 (‘Sad Death of Mr H. May’); 6 June 1906 p.39 (illustration); Evening Post (Wellington), 26 July 1901 p.8 (sale of buildings); Taranaki Herald, 26 March 1906 p.6 (advertisement); Poverty Bay Herald, 5 September 1906 p.4 (advertisement).

Other references: Cyclopedia of New Zealand, vol.4 (Otago and Southland Provincial Districts), 1905; Telephone directories; Stone’s  Otago and Southland Directory ; Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directory ; Dunedin City Council rates, permit, and cemetery records.

10 thoughts on “May’s confectionery works

  1. longwhitekid

    There was a Standard Confectionery Works owned by an A. Grant in the 1910s, but perhaps not related as it was in Main Street West, Palmerston North, I think. There’s a possibility he bought the business or brand, I guess. Although “Standard” was just about as generic a name as you could get really.

    Reply
    1. David Murray Post author

      Thanks for that – I also found some references for similarly named outfits in other towns but they seemed to be unrelated and the dates didn’t fit with the Gough reference. Yes, ‘Standard’ was a very generic name. I remember reading years ago that after the car firms Standard and Triumph merged in the 1960s, the Triumph name was kept even though Standard was the dominant partner. This was because the perception of the word ‘Standard’ had shifted away from ‘a level to aspire to’ and towards ‘ordinary’.

    2. longwhitekid

      The coincidences one comes across in the research phase quite often are real head-shakers in retrospect. The ability to conclude shouldn’t be underestimated but that logic also sends us down the wrong track at times. This is exactly the kind of story I like – a bit of mystery and tragedy. It could be interesting to look more into May’s life and what actually happened, one day. Did he suicide, or was he murdered by an angry creditor or one of his forged dupes? Interesting.

    3. David Murray Post author

      I agree – the question marks can be very engaging and it’s good to recognise that they’re still there. Poor Harry’s death appears to have been suicide, with the jury compassionately (for his family) returning a verdict of ‘accidentally drowned’. You can read more about it in the Otago Witness report.

    4. longwhitekid

      Yeah, it looks like there was no foul play. It’s unlikely a disgruntled enemy would get up at 5 a.m. to track someone and knock them off…but not entirely out of the question!

  2. MRose

    I live in this building at the current time, and have been looking for its history for ages. Thank you for supplying this information!

    Reply
  3. Mr R Hughes

    I have a 19th century photo of the W. May Baker and Confectioner shop, shows Mr Baker and his wife and child,the photographer is S. Collins Of Dunedin, it is not dated however but would be 1880s circa I would think.

    Reply

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