In March 1966, an essay by Colin McCahon was published in the journal Landfall in a series called “Beginnings”. It looks back over 40 years to his very early days in Otago and is often quoted, as it is one of the few written pieces by McCahon to be published.
In one section, he recalls some shops built next to his house in Highgate, Dunedin and of the influence of watching the signwriting being done on the window of the Hairdresser and Tobacconist’s store next door to Mrs McDonald’s fruit shop and dairy. McCahon writes that following this he “did a lot of sign writing. Our house was in white roughcast but the doors to various backyard ‘offices’ were of wood and offered surfaces well suited to poster painting.”
It crossed my mind that perhaps these little shops were still there and I had the McCahon house’s Highgate address. I was very excited when I thought I’d found them, but the lovely people at the City Archives enlightened me to a newby researchers trap – the renumbering of streets. However the archivists were very happy to provide me with the following:
The McCahon house is apparently still standing, with some modifications, and is now XXX Highgate [several 100 numbers different the original address and at the far northern end of Highgate]. The shops which were beside it, with the owner’s house, have been demolished and replaced as far as we can determine. The information taken from the Valuation Rolls is as follows:
1923-4: Property bought by John K. McCahon
1926-7: William McDonald, the neighbour had a house and 2 shops on the site
1928-9: Annie McDonald occupant of neighbouring property with two shops
1929-30: McCahon house now owned by XXXX
Snooping further in the Stone’s Directories of the 1930s, in 1929 I found the first mention at this location of “Wm McDonnell, Hairdresser”. Gone again in the 1930 directory. Of course I gather you had to pay to be in the directory and with the crash of 1929 who knows what happened.
In the book “Above the Belt: A History of the Suburb of Maori Hill” by Jane Smallfield and Brian Heenan, there is a chapter on the ‘rise and decay’ of retail shops in this area and it notes that these small stores were still there operating as a fruiterer in 1961. Sadly there are no photographs to be found. I checked in the Hocken Collections and with Jane Smallfield and had no luck. Smallfield does clearly recall the shops when she lived in the area as a child though.
So I thought, as an exercise in crowdsourcing, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could locate a photo of these shops – especially from the 1920s and with the signwriting in place that so impacted on McCahon. I mean somewhere there will be a photo surely. Maybe the descendents of the shops owners??
Oh and the white roughcast house is still there (and you can just see where the shops were next door – replaced by a newish house).