Milnes’ Building

Built: 1877
Address: 34 George Street, Port Chalmers
Architects: Mason, Wales & Stevenson
Builder: Robert Bauchop

James P. Milnes’ store, Port Chalmers, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena. Ref: MS-5014/002/001.

In 1877 the Cameron family moved into their newly-built home, bakery, and grocery store in George Street, Port Chalmers. The building’s association with the grocery trade continued for more than a century, and today it is part of a precinct of Victorian and early twentieth-century buildings.

The Māori history of the locality reaches back centuries, through the people of Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe, and Kāi Tahu. The north-facing bay, Kōpūtai, is known as a tauraka waka, nohoanga, and wāhi tapu: landing place, seasonal settlement, and sacred site.

It was at Kōpūtai that Kāi Tahu and the New Zealand Company agreed the sale and purchase of the Otago Block in 1844, a pivotal point in the establishment of a colony by the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland. The town’s survey followed in 1846, ahead of central Dunedin, and the organised settlement of Otago began with the arrival of the first migrant sailing ships in 1848. The name Port Chalmers is taken from Rev. Dr Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), the founding leader of the church and influential social reformer.

Growth was slow in the decade that followed. About one hundred people lived at Port Chalmers in 1860. The next year the Gold Rush began, and by 1865 the township’s population numbered over 900. Shipping within Otago Harbour accounted for about 500 more people, over 90% of them men, and the port was one of the busiest in Australasia. Overseas routes provided essential transport and communication links, as did coastal shipping, especially before completion of the Christchurch to Invercargill railway in 1879. The global significance of the port grew through its association with Union Steam Ship Company, established in Dunedin in 1875. By 1891 the company had a fleet of 54 steamships and was the largest shipping company in the southern hemisphere.

Mana whenua connection to Kōpūtai continued throughout these developments. Reading about this can be found in Nyssa Payne-Harker’s thesis, Shared Spaces or Contested Places? Examining the role of Kāi Tahu Whānui in Port Chalmers and Bluff, 1848-2016.

Port Chalmers township about 1872. Burton Brothers photographers. Ref: Te Papa C.011806. The site of the Milnes Building is behind the wooden church in the left foreground.

The port in 1905. Muir & Moodie photographers. Te Papa PA.000180.

Andrew and Margaret Cameron were born at Paisley, near Glasgow in Scotland, and spent their early married life there, with Andrew working as a baker. They came to Otago with their four children in 1863 and settled at Sawyers Bay, where in 1864 Andrew established a bakery and general store.

The family moved to the Port Chalmers township in 1872, when Andrew took over the business and wooden buildings of Taylor & Kilgour. The bakery flourished – its success at least partly attributed to it supplying the Union Company.

The first commercial buildings of Port Chalmers were wooden, and timber constructions still dominated George Street in the early 1870s. By the end of the decade many of these structures had been replaced in more ‘permanent’ materials. In 1877, Andrew Cameron engaged the architects Mason, Wales & Stevenson to replace his existing buildings with structures in stone (for the basement) and brick.

Thomas Stevenson was the architect partner responsible for the design, which was conventional in both layout and form. On the ground floor were a shop, storeroom, and office, while on the first floor were four bedrooms, a sitting room (with two windows facing the street), kitchen, and bathroom. The facade was in the Renaissance Revival style, often referred to in architectural description of the time as simply ‘Italian’. It was the most fashionable style for commercial buildings, and its manifestation ranged from the elaborate to the relatively plain. While not ornate, the Camerons’ building did feature a distinctive arched pediment. Surviving architectural drawings show this with the date 1877 in relief, but in the end the plasterers were instructed to put ‘Established 1864’ in its place. This presumably refers to the business’s Sawyers Bay beginnings.

The original 1877 drawing by Thomas Stevenson, signed by the contractor Robert Bauchop. From the collection of Mason & Wales Architects.

Robert Bauchop won the building contract; at the time he was one of the busiest and best-known builders in the town. Under a second contract he built a stable and large bakehouse at the rear of the section.

According to his Otago Daily Times obituary, Andrew had ‘ever a cheery word for friends, and rarely left them without a quiet joke’. He was closely involved with the local Presbyterian Church but less interested in local politics and societies. Margaret and Andrew had three sons and a daughter. Their youngest son, Andrew Cameron, became the Presbyterian minister at Andersons Bay, and in the early twentieth century was a prominent public figure, known for his leading roles in founding Knox College and the Presbyterian Social Service Association, and as a vice-chancellor and chancellor of the University of Otago.

Detail from a William Williams photograph, c.1890s. Ref: Alexander Turnbull Library 1/1-025830-G. The front of the building is indicated by the arrow.

Another of Margaret and Andrew’s sons, James Muir Cameron, took over the Port Chalmers business when Andrew retired in 1884. He ran the store for over twenty years. One incident that made the court news was a disagreement between two of the bakers, with one throwing a stone that wounded the other above the eye.

James Pickford Milnes bought the business in 1905, and it is the Milnes name that remains most associated with the building’s history. James was a Yorkshireman and had worked as a farmer at Akatore in the Clutha District. When they took up residence, James and his wife Mary Ann had six children, ranging in ages of one to twelve. A seventh child, Robert, known as Bob, was born in 1907. One of his childhood chores was cleaning out large pits where thousands of eggs were preserved for use in the bakehouse.

Photograph of grocer and baker’s van, Port Chalmers. D.A. De Maus photographer. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena. Ref: MS-5014/002/002.

A photograph from around this time shows the horse and cart used for bread and grocery deliveries. For many years Dick Thurlow was employed as the driver. Change eventually came in 1920, with alterations made to the stables and storeroom so that motor deliveries could replace the horse-drawn service. This building work was designed by Salmond & Vanes and carried out by Love Brothers.

A branch store opened along the road at 12 George Street in 1917. This became the cake shop, although its function might have varied over the more than thirty years it operated. Milnes were the local agents for Ernest Adams cakes.

A section of a block plan from 1932, showing in red the site of the Milnes’ Building and outbuildings on the left, and the second store to the north near the Mount Street corner. Drawn by George Duncan. Colour edited. National Insurance Company records, Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena. Ref: MS-2081/037/00.

Advertisement from the Evening Star, 8 November 1934 p.3. Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

James died in 1926. For a few years Thomas ran the business with his brother-in-law,  Peter Lawson. In 1933 the registered company Milnes Limited formed for the stated purpose of operating as ‘bakers, grocers, storekeepers, confectioners, restaurant and refreshment room proprietors, and wholesale and general merchants’. The largest shareholders were Thomas and his brother Bob, with smaller holdings by their mother Mary Ann and sister Nellie. Thomas moved to Clinton and after his sudden death in 1941 Nellie increased her stake in the business.

Nellie managed the finances from the office adjoining the shop. Ian Church records that she sold children bags of broken biscuits for a penny, and her niece revealed at her funeral that she sometimes broke the biscuits herself so that she had enough to give them!

The building has undergone many alterations. A suspended verandah was added in the 1940s, and in 1947 the exterior walls were replastered. Most of the old mouldings were removed and Art Deco/Moderne touches added, including a circular motif at the centre of the pediment. The name ‘MILNES’, added to the parapet in relief lettering, can still be seen.

Despite these changes the building still reads as Victorian from the street: the window openings and proportions , the door, the surviving dentil cornice, and the shape of the pediment, are among the original features.

The bakery was in use until the early part of the Second World War, when baking shifted to the other George Street site. This operation closed in either 1953 or 1954.

Bob Milnes had a house in Island Terrace, but Nellie was resident on site until about 1965. The following year she transferred her shares and Bob ran the shop on his own until his retirement in 1967. By this time the grocery had converted to self service.

Bob Milnes in the old bakehouse at the time of his retirement in 1967. Reproduced by permission of the Otago Daily Times.

In later years Nellie was known for her involvement with the meals on wheels service, and for being a keen golfer. She died in 1991. Bob moved to Queenstown where he died in 1994. His son Robert owned and operated a new supermarket at Frankton.

The old Port Chalmers store became Dent’s Mini-Market in 1967, under Charles and Pearl Dent. From about 1971 Lex and Daphne Taylor ran it as Taylor’s Mini-Market, as part of the Four Square chain. Robert and Linda McLean took over in 1980, changing the name to Port Chalmers Discount. In the mid-1980s Foodstuffs, the owners of Four Square, decided to build a New World supermarket on the opposite side of the street. This opened in December 1985 and the old shop closed.

The store in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Duncan Montgomery.

Later occupants have included Port Chalmers Trading and the Tuanako Private Training Establishment. A new venture on the site, Milnes Market, launched in 2008. Since 2012 the ground floor has been occupied by 2gpysies furniture, homeware, and giftware.

In 2020 the current owners received a Dunedin Heritage Fund grant for earthquake strengthening and fireproofing, which will hopefully secure the future of the building for many more years to come.

Milnes9

Milnes8 small

Milnes1 small

Acknowledgments:
Special thanks to co-owner Rebecca Wilson, and to Mason & Wales Architects. Whenever researching Port Chalmers I’m also reminded of the debt owed to the late Ian Church.

Newspaper references:
Bruce Herald 6 July 1865 p.3 (population). Otago Daily Times 7 February 1872 p.2 (Andrew Cameron), 9 May 1877 p.1 (tender notice), 25 June 1877 p.4 (tender notice), 30 July 1877 p.3 (‘City Improvements’), 14 May 1902 p.6 (Andrew Cameron obituary); 18 August 1905 p.4 (assault); 21 April 1920 p.6 (alterations and motor deliveries); 1 December 1967 p.11 (‘Mr R.B. Milnes’); 10 December 1985 p29 (opening of Port Chalmers New World); 28 February 1994 p.5 (Bob Milnes obituary). Evening Star 14 May 1902 p.3 (Andrew Cameron obituary); 19 August 1905 p.6 (assault); 24 August 1905 p.5 (for lease). Grey River Argus 23 June 1891 p4 (size of Union Company fleet).

Other references:
Church, Ian. ‘A Grave Story – The Milnes Family’ in Rothesay News, vol. 20 no. 1 (November 2007) p.12.
Church, Ian. Port Chalmers and its People (Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1994)
Church, Ian. Some Early People and Ships of Port Chalmers. Dunedin: New Zealand Society of Genealogists, c.1990.
Church, Ian. Sawyers Bay, including Sawyers Bay School 1861-2010. Port Chalmers: Sawyers Bay School 150th Anniversary Committee, 2011.
Stone’s Otago and Southland Directory
Wise’s New Zealand Post Office Directory
Telephone directories
Port Chalmers rates records (with thanks to Chris Scott)
Dunedin City Council permit records and deposited plans

8 thoughts on “Milnes’ Building

  1. Diane Everest nee Gazeley

    So wonderful reading the story of the old port building, I remember the shop well going to get the shopping and looking at all the things they had. Happy times.

    Reply
    1. David Murray Post author

      It’s been a while. I never intended such a long break but when I haven’t been busy I haven’t felt in the right headspace, and while the research goes smoothly enough I get stuck creakily fussing over the prose. I’m full of good intentions for the rest of the year – we’ll see how that goes!

  2. David Still

    Thank you David. A great read and your research is appreciated. I look forward to other stories.

    Best wishes

    Dave Still

    Reply
  3. Alastair Milnes Downey

    An interesting and well researched post.

    My great-grand father Thomas Ingham Milnes was a brother of James Pickford Milnes

    Alastair Downey

    Reply

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