Historical Significance or Value
The John Street Doctors building is of national significance for its role in the development of New Zealand's medical profession in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.
Located adjacent to the site of the Wellington Hospital (1884-1882) and the former Alexander Maternity Hospital (1927), the John Street Doctors' is an integral part of a wider historical and medical landscape.
Constructed in 1877, the building was first associated with medical practice from 1894. Apart from the closures caused by the First and Second World War, the building has run continually as a medical practice since that date until 2003, making it the longest running medical practice in Wellington and one of the oldest doctors' surgeries in the country.
The building represents two distinct stages in the operation of community medical practices in New Zealand. First, the building is an early example of a doctor's residence and surgery. Its layout and chattels provide considerable insight into the working conditions of the live-in doctor typical of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Second, the building is one of the very first in the country to be used to house a 'group practice', a revolutionary new concept in late 1940s New Zealand. Changes made to accommodate the practice are still extant.
The John Street Doctors is also noteworthy for its role in the lives of two notable New Zealanders. The building was integral to the development of the career of eminent New Zealand doctor, Frederick Bowerbank, and is also associated with the New Zealand playwright Bruce mason, who wrote two plays during a brief stay in the building between 1952 and 1953. The building has considerable potential to provide insight into New Zealand's medical and social history. It provides immediate information on the spatial needs of both the private, live-in doctor and the doctors involved in the group practice.
(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:
The building is an important symbol of changes that took place in New Zealand's medical history throughout the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
The building is an early example of a doctor's residence. It demonstrates the typical, nineteenth century arrangement where the doctor's surgery was incorporated into the doctor's private residence. Insight into the constant demands made on the doctor during this period id provided by features such as the speaking-tube, which enabled patients to rouse the doctor at night. The attempt made by doctors to retain some separation of private and public life is indicated by the layout of the building, which provides for a separate access for the patients at the side of the structure.
The building is of further historical significance as it marks the advent of the development from the sole community doctor working from a private residence, to the group practice that is now common to community medical centres throughout New Zealand. Prompted by the constant intrusion into his private life, the then resident doctor, Dr W F Shirer developed the concept of the group practice and converted the building for the purpose in 1946. At that time the group practice was a revolutionary new concept 'a revolutionary and even subversive idea'. It allowed medical graduates to practice under the supervision of their more experienced colleagues, a new concept in a system that held that the training graduates received in the hospital was sufficient for commencing sole practice in the community. It also ensured that there were a sufficient number of doctors available to attend the ever-increasing patient numbers requiring medical attention.
(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:
The building is associated with the notable New Zealand doctor Fred Thompson Bowerbank. Bowerbank was a New Zealand pioneer in electrocardiography and the measurement of the basal metabolic rate. In conjuction with Clarence Meachen, he was responsible for the first blood transfusion service in the country and was knighted in 1946 for his contribution to the medical health of New Zealand armed forces during the Second World War. He also received the Dutch honour of grand officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau and was made a knight of the Order of St John. The house at 27 Riddiford Street played an important role in Bowerbank's development as a doctor. It is mentioned in his autobiography and was the site of Bowerbank's first long-term, sole practice. He remained there for 15 years until 1924 when he began specialising in cardiology and metabolic diseases.
The house is also associated with playwright Bruce Mason, the author of New Zealand's first televised play 'The Pohutukawa Tree'. Mason was the husband of Dr. Diana Mason and they both lived on the first floor of the building between 1952 and 1953. While resident in the building Mason wrote his play 'The Bonds of Love' and 'The Evening Paper'.
(c) The potential of the place to provide knowledge of New Zealand history:
The building's use as a doctor's residence and surgery, and its pivotal role in the development of the group practice now prevalent in community medical centres throughout New Zealand attests to the potential of the John Street Doctor's building to provide knowledge of New Zealand's medical and social history. Both the front of the building and the extensions to the east provide immediate information on the spatial needs of both the private, live-in doctor and he doctors involved in the group practice.
The building and chattels such as the hall seat provide insight into the conditions in which the doctors, and in particular the eminent New Zealand doctor Dr. Fed Bowerbank lived and operated.
While its rich social history has left relatively few marks on the physical structure, as the container in which this history was played out the building has considerable potential to provide insight into New Zealand's history. Examples of events that could provide such insight, and that would benefit from further research and interpretation, include the reason behind the recall of Dr. Shirer from active service during the Second World War, the experiences of patients who used the practice, and the lives that families of the resident doctors lead in the rooms upstairs.
(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:
Designed as the residence of a Wellington businessman the John Street Doctors' building is of considerable physical significance for the insight the structure provides into history of the building. The façade and layout of the building is an important indicator of its use as a combined private residence and surgery. The extensions to the east indicate the growing spatial needs of the doctors over time.
(i) The importance of identifying historic places known to date from early periods of New Zealand settlement:
Constructed by the soapmaker Herbert Gaby by 1877, the building was first associated with medical practice from 1894. Apart from the closures caused by the First and Second World War, the building has run continually as a medical practice since that date. The building is the longest running medical practice in Wellington and one of the oldest doctor's surgeries in the country.
(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:
For over a century the John Street Doctor's building has formed part of a wider historical and medical landscape. It is sited adjacent to the Wellington Hospital (1883). It is also close to the Alexandra Maternity Hospital (1927) and the Alexandra Home for Unmarried Mothers (1882), which are situated on the corner of John and Hanson Street, Newtown. Doctors based at 27 Riddiford Street regularly assisted staff at each of these facilities. The flow was two-way, as patients unable to receive treatment at the hospital, and residents of the Alexandra Home often used the John Street Doctors' service.
The building commonly known as the 'John Street Doctors' was originally constructed as a private residence on Town Acre 760, Wellington. The land on which the building stands was acquired from members of the Te Ati Awa iwi in 1839 by the New Zealand Company and was allocated to 28-year-old Pakeha speculator T. F. Knight. Knight did not develop the property and F. Collier, who received an official Crown Grant for the land in 1879, appropriated it. In 1872, five years before he received the Grant for the land, Collier sold the property to manufacturer Herbert Gaby.
With the assistance of a mortgage from Turnbull, Gaby developed the section. In less than a year Gaby had constructed and commenced operating a soap factory, a venture that increased the value of his property from £4 to £100. Gaby used the property solely for commercial purposes until 1877 when a dwelling, thought to be John Street Doctors building, was erected on the section. It is likely that the house was constructed by and for Gaby, the owner of the land. Its construction appears to have caused Gaby financial difficulties as less than a year later, Turnbull, Gaby's mortgager, acquired the house and land.
Turnbull sold the land within a month to Kitchen & Sons, a company that manufactured four types of candles and 'the purest soap in New Zealand'. The head of the company, Joseph Kitchen and his family lived and worked on the property, residing in the two-storey dwelling constructed by Gaby in 1877. The company expanded and by 1883 Kitchen & Sons had acquired a second factory in Wellington, a factory in Burnside, and a head office in Wellington's central business district. By 1891, surveyor Thomas Ward's map of Wellington shows that Town Acre 760 was a highly developed site with a house and six outbuildings on the property. Joseph Kitchen continued to expand the company and by 1892 it began manufacturing laundry blue and washing powders in addition to its other products.
Yet in 1893 a competing company, the New Zealand Candle Company, opened a factory in Kaiwarra (Kaiwharawhara). In less than a year it forced Kitchen & Sons out of business in Wellington. Joseph Kitchen sold the house, then occupied by company manager Lucas William, and part of Town Acre 760 to the New Zealand Candle Company. The soap and candle factory was demolished and the company Neilson, Murray & Frederick ran an iron foundry in its place until the 1940s. The house was sold separately in 1894 to Scottish-born William Copeland Alexander (1854-1907), a private medical practitioner.
When Dr. Alexander purchased the building in 1894, Newtown was a thriving commercial suburb, and Riddiford Street was at the centre of local business activity. It was also at the hub of Wellington's health facilities as, in 1881, a new 'state-of-the-art' hospital had opened on Riddiford Street to the south of the John Street Doctors' building. From this prime location Dr Alexander lived and operated as a private practitioner until his death in 1907. Dr Alexander used the ground floor of his residence as a surgery and consulting room for his patients. To create more space he constructed a two-storey lean-to on the east elevation of the building. He used the ground floor as an office and the first floor as an extra bedroom for his growing family of five children. The incorporation of the doctor's surgery into the private residence was typical of contemporary medical practice and meant that the doctor was literally on call at all hours of the day and night. By the time of his death in 1907, Dr. Alexander had established a prosperous medical practice in the building. His widow, Annie Porter Winks, sold the house and practice to the eminent doctor Frederick Thomas Bowerbank (1880-1960).
Bowerbank became a New Zealand pioneer in electrocardiography and the measurement of the basal metabolic rate. In conjunction with Clarence Meachen, he was responsible for the first blood transfusion service in the country and was knighted in 1946 for his contribution to the medical health of the New Zealand armed forces during the Second World War. He also received the Dutch honour of grand officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau and was made a knight of the Order of St John. An important New Zealand doctor, Bowerbank established his career in Dr. Alexander's former residence in Newtown.
Bowerbank first immigrated to New Zealand with his wife Maud Pick in 1907. Prior to immigrating, Bowerbank had served as an assistant in a practice in Bury, Lancashire, and as a house physician in London. After practising for a short period in unsuitable premises in Adelaide Road, Bowerbank bought Dr. Alexander's former residence. Upon purchasing the house, Bowerbank notes in his autobiography that he was 'advised to pull it down and build a new house but the state of my finances made such an undertaking impossible'. Instead he commissioned a patient, builder P. Bydder to modernise the building. Like Dr. Alexander, Bowerbank used the majority of the ground floor rooms as a surgery, office and waiting room. The upper storey and the northern side of the ground floor were reserved as his private residence. Bowerbank developed his practice and skills and in 1912 became visiting physician at the nearby Wellington Hospital. Bowerbank enlisted for military service at the outbreak of the First World War. Appointed officer commanding the medical division of No. 2 New Zealand Stationary Hospital, Bowerbank left for Egypt in 1915. Before leaving he placed a notice on the gate of 27 Riddiford Street telling his patients to visit any of the other medical men in the suburb. Bowerbank returned in 1918, having earned an excellent medical reputation. He remained at his Newtown practice until 1924, when he gained his MRCO in Edinburgh and began specialising in cardiology and metabolic diseases. In 1924 Bowerbank sold his house and practice to another up and coming doctor, Dr. William F. Shirer (1899-1975), who was then working as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital.
Shirer expanded the building by adding an extra surgery in 1935. The practice flourished. When Shirer enlisted in the Second World War to serve with the 22nd Field Ambulance in the Solomons, the desperate shortage of civilian doctors in Newtown forced the Director-General of Medical Services to request his release to civilian practice. On his return, Dr. Shirer attended to an average of 60 and 70 patients per day, combining in-house surgery with numerous home visits. The constant work and continual intrusion on his home life eventually prompted Dr. Shirer to experiment with what was then a new concept - the group practice. Although now a routine system, medical practitioner Dr. Ian St George notes that in 1946, Shirer's concept of the group medical practice was 'a revolutionary and even subversive idea'. It allowed medical graduates to practice under the supervision of their more experienced colleagues, a new concept in a system that held that the training graduates received in the hospital was sufficient for commencing sole practice in the community. It also ensured that there were a sufficient number of doctors available to attend the ever-increasing numbers patients requiring medical attention. The Shirer family moved out of the residence at the time the building was converted into a group practice and the upstairs rooms were let to nurses and doctors associated with the practice. At its peak, up to five doctors worked in the building.
In the early 1980s the building's future was threatened by the development of the nearby Wellington Hospital. Town Acre 760, on which the John Street Doctors is located, was designated 'Hospital Purposes'. Part of the section was taken as part of the hospital but the building was allowed to remain. In 2001 the building was sold to the Child Cancer Foundation Incorporated and is now known as Child Cancer Foundation House.
It is probable that the original building was designed and constructed by Herbert Gaby, owner of Town Acre 760 and manager of the soapworks at the rear of the property in 1877, the year in which the house is believed to have been built.
Known modifications to the building were made by P J Bydder in 1909, N R Lightbody in 1935 and 1946, G Donaldson in 1957, E Weldon in 1960 and H Marshall in 1965.
Located on Riddiford Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Newtown, Wellington, the John Street Doctors' building sits on a section reduced from its original 0.4 hectares (1 acre) by encroachments on the east and south side by the Wellington Hospital grounds, and on the west by the roadway. There is no sign of the soap factory, iron foundry or the stables that were originally located on the property.
Sited close to the street, public access to the John Street Doctors' building is obtained via a straight, narrow concrete path that leads to the front door of the building. A driveway, paved in concrete, is located on the north side of the house. Originally a right of way was used by the iron foundry workers, the driveway passes the doorway traditionally used by patients to access the waiting room and surgery and culminates in a concrete parking lot at the rear of the building.
The John Street Doctors is constructed around a timber frame and the exterior is clad in lapped weatherboards. The roof is made of corrugated iron. The decoration on the house is restrained, consisting of simple eave mouldings and wide corner boards. The building is a two-storey cottage with a single bay on its north side. The earliest available plans, which date from 1891, indicate that the bay was in place by this date. According to heritage consultant Michael Kelly, while the original house almost certainly encompassed the full width of the current building, the differing widths of weatherboards used in the bay indicates that it is an addition that swallowed up the north side of the original house. The original portion of front façade of the house features two 'half-dog-house' windows on the upper storey. The verandah that previously extended across the south wing of the house had been glassed in. On the extreme south side a rectangular, concrete garage dating from 1960s is extant. Originally based on an 'L-shaped' plan, the house has had numerous additions at the rear which served to accommodate the doctors' increasing needs for more surgery and office space.
The additions to the rear of the building have not affected the original layout of the interior, which remains similar to its state in 1909. Access to the building is through the front door of the building that, prior to 1946, was reserved for the doctor's private use. Inside the entrance porch is the original door to the house. On the north side of the hall is a wooden staircase. At the end of the entrance hall is the reception desk. The large room on the ground floor of the bay used as a drawing room by Dr. Bowerbank, is now used as an office by staff form the Child Cancer Foundation. The original surgery in the northern wing, complete with fireplace and chimney, is also used as an office. The dining room is now a waiting room, while the kitchen has been converted into a surgery and the pantry into a storage facility. The hallway running along the rear of the south wing to the toilets remains and features timber lining. The original porch at the rear remains extant. The first storey now leased as a private residence to tenants, was not accessible. It is presumed that the layout of the first floor remains similar to the layout in 1946, when the building was converted into a group practice.
The remains of the 'speaking tube', located adjacent to the front door of the building.
The hall seat located in the entrance hall of the building which originally belonged to Dr. F T Bowerbank.
The interior of the building including the stair, the front rooms, the original hallway and back porch and the original surgery and waiting room.
Land Transfer. Town Acre 760 allocated to T F Knight by the New Zealand Company. Town Acre 760 listed as unimproved land valued at £4 in the Wellington Ratebook.
Office extended to accommodate new medical equipment and is covered with a flat roof.
Dr W F Shirer commissions builder H Marshall to alter the dwelling. Two toilets are added to the east elevation next to the existing toilets.
Concrete garage constructed on west elevation of building.
Dwelling transferred to Doctors D M Mason, Dr W Farquhar, J J McDonald & I K Campbell.
Change in use. Dwelling sold to the Child Cancer Foundation Inc.
Land acquired by F Collier (Collier's Crown Grant for Town Acre 760 was confirmed in 1879)
F Collier sells Town Acre 760 to Herbert Gaby who constructs a soapworks at the rear of the section. A mortgage was taken out to Turnbull by Gaby. The land value to Town Acre 760 increases to £100 in the Wellington Ratebooks.
1876 - 1877
The first reference to a dwelling on the property. The value of the land remains at £100 which may suggest that the dwelling was constructed prior to this date.
Ownership Change: Part of Town Acre 760 on which the building now known as John Street Doctors, is located to Turnbull (holder of the mortgage on the property). Turnbull sells the land to Kitchen & Sons.
Ownership Change: Kitchen & Sons' business and property acquired by New Zealand Candle Company.
The New Zealand Candle Company sells part of Town Acre 760 to Dr W C Alexander. Dr W C Alexander begins operating a doctor's consulting room and surgery from the building.
Ownership Change: Workshop, stables and boilerhouse erected at the rear of Town Acre 760 by Herbert Gaby.
A two-storey lean-to (unrecorded) added to east elevation. Grd fl. the lean-to was used as an office, 1st fl. used as a bedroom. The row of casement windows still visible on the east façade was constructed at this time.
Ownership Change: Agreement to sell building made between (the estate of) Dr. W C Alexander & F T Bowerbank.
Bowerbank commissions builder P J Bydder to alter & repair the bldg. New door installed nth elevation to allow access to Dr's waiting room. Cottage verandah glassed in with casement sashes.
Door to upstairs servant's bedroom closed and new door opening onto the landing installed. A new bathroom is added upstairs.
Building officially transferred from Dr W C Alexander to F T Bowerbank.
Bowerbank leaves to serve in the First World War and the Doctor's consultancy and surgery is closed.
Bowerbank returns and reopens the building as a doctor's consultancy and surgery.
Ownership Change: Building transferred to Dr W F Shirer.
Dr W F Shirer commissions registered architect N R Lightbody to alter the building. A two-storey lean-to added to east elevation. This addition extended the upstairs bedroom but covered over most of one of the dormer windows
Dr W F Shirer leaves to serve in the Second World War. Locums continue to run the doctor's practice in the building.
Dr W F Shirer released from military service to reopen the practice in the building on the request of the Director-General of Medical Services
Group Doctor's practice established on Grd Fl. Dr W F Shirer & family move out of 1st Fl and it is rented to registered Doctors & nurses associated with the group practice.
Single storey addition and stair (east elevation). Windows to top ofinternal east wall of surgery.
Building transferred to Dr W C Shirer (son of Dr W F Shirer).
Dr W F Shirer commissions builder G Donaldson to alter the building. Minor changes made to kitchen.
Dr W F Shirer commissions builder E Weldon to alter the building. Changes made o internal arrangements of the office extension and surgery at the rear of the building.
The two-storey building is constructed around a timber frame and the exterior is clad in lapped weatherboard. The roof is made of corrugated iron. The interior walls feature exposed timber lining and the floorboards and staircase are made of wood.
1st October 2004
Report Written By
Archives New Zealand (Wgtn)
Archives New Zealand (Wellington)
T Ward. City of Wellington, Wellington 1891
T Ward. City of Welington, Wellington, 1900
Te Aro Ward Ratebooks 1872-1877
27 Riddiford Street, 'Bldg Permit Record form'.
Plans, alterations/additions and drawings and District Scheme Review.
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
Beasley, A. W. 'Bowerbank, Fred Thompson 1880 - 1960', updated 22 June 2007
Irvine Smith, 1948
Frances Irvine Smith, Streets of My City, Reed, Wellington, 1948
Land Information New Zealand (LINZ)
Land Information New Zealand
CT 351/276, Wellingon Registry
Deeds Index 35/331 & 2/760 Wellington Registry.
Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand Houses 1800-1940, Auckland, 1986, Reed Methuen
St George, 1998
Ian St George, A special general practice: the story of John Street Doctors, I. St George: Wellington, 1998.
L. Ward, Early Wellington, Wellington, 1928
F Bowerbank. A Doctor's Story. Wellington 1958.
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Central Region office
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.