23 May 2014

Weathervanes, wind vanes and weathercocks

In an effort to improve my photographer’s eye, I often go through periods when, during my daily strolls, I make a point of looking in a particular direction or hunting out certain things. For example, I might spend a whole week looking down (hence my recent fascination with fungi) or seeking out street art or exploring Auckland’s heritage buildings.

During recent days of looking up, I have discovered yet another fascinating aspect of Auckland’s architecture, the embellishments that adorn the city’s turrets and towers, spires and steeples, and this blog on weathervanes is one result – there will be another, about all the other ornamental turret toppings I've found.

Considering they are used to indicate wind direction, it comes as no surprise that weathervanes (also known as wind vanes and weathercocks) are usually found on the highest points of buildings. According to Professor Wiki, the earliest known weathervane (possibly built around 50BC) was a bronze Triton (in Greek mythology, the messenger of the sea) atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

Ferry Building weathervane. This wonderful image was taken by John McKillop and is used with his kind permission.
Ferry Building, Quay Street
New Zealand’s weathervanes have no such claims to fame though one of our Auckland weathervanes did literally stop city traffic recently. On 17 April 2014, the remnants of tropical cyclone Ita swept across Auckland, causing huge storm surges to flood waterfront homes and the weathervane on the top of the Ferry Building in Quay Street to sway rather alarmingly. To prevent potential damage to life and limb if it toppled, the street was closed to traffic, and the weathervane has since been removed. Hopefully, it will be repaired and reinstated very soon.


Though their function was purely practical, many weathervanes are themselves beautiful pieces of art and frequently reflect the buildings for which they were designed. The ship design on the Ferry Building is a perfect example and here is another.

Colonial Ammunition Company Shot Tower, Normanby Road, Mt Eden
In 1885, in response to the threat of war with Russia, the Colonial Ammunition Company established New Zealand’s first munitions factory. At that time, their site was far enough away from the built up inner city to be suitable for the manufacture of dangerous goods. Nowadays, the tower is surrounded by commercial buildings and inner-city housing developments. Though activity at the factory increased during the Second World War, when staff numbers rose from 230 to 900, the demand for ammunition steadily decreased and the company closed in 1982.

As this advertisement from the Dominion newspaper (25 November 1916, p.6) shows, the company was very proud of its 140-foot-high state-of-the-art tower, which was used to drop molten metal to make shot. Luckily, the tower and its oh-so-appropriate rifle weathervane (below, left) have survived the wrecking ball and remain a unique part of Mt Eden’s heritage.

Mt Eden weathervanes: at left, on the Colonial Ammunition Company's Shot Tower; at right, on a local building



Mt Eden Village, corner of Essex and Mt Eden Roads
The suburb of Mt Eden is also home to another rather wonderful and very typical weathervane (above, right). The use of a cockerel in a weathervane is where the alternative name ‘weathercock’ originates and is a classic weathervane design, with its origins possibly in Christianity. Apparently, Pope Nicholas issued a decree in the 9th century commanding all churches to display the symbol of a cock on their steeple or dome (the cock is symbolic of Jesus’ prophecy of Peter’s betrayal, Luke 22:34), but there is some evidence that the cockerel appeared in weathervanes before that time and it may simply represent the rooster crowing at daybreak.

According to Auckland City Council’s ‘Mt Eden Heritage Walks’ brochure, the Mt Eden building:

… was erected prior to 1905. Photos show that this side of Mt Eden Road was almost completely unbuilt, rural land in the late 1880s. Designed in a classic Italianate style, this building was a significant addition to the village streetscape, and reinforced this intersection as the hub of the village.

There is nothing to explain the weathervane, unfortunately.

Corner of Carlton Gore Road and George Street, Newmarket
I’ve also found nothing about this next weathervane (on the right in the picture below) of another cockerel and the archetypal compass points. The building is a modern one, currently occupied by the Personalised Plates company, and the weathervane may just be the ornamental addition of an enlightened architect.

Left: on the Royal NZ Foundation for the Blind workshop building; right, on the Personalised Plates building
Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind Workshop Building, Newmarket
Not far from Personalised Plates is an older example of a weathervane, on what was the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind workshop building. This building, and the adjacent residential school for the blind, were built in 1909, to provide a sheltered environment for blind people to live, study, learn skills and earn a living.

The design on the weathervane, of a man sitting weaving with cane, appears to reflect the fact that craft industries such as cane basket weaving and furniture making were the principal occupations offered at the Blind Institute until well into the 1970s [Greg Newbold, Quest for Equity: a history of blindness advocacy in New Zealand, Dunmore Press, Palmerston North, 2008].

St Mary’s College Hall, New Street, St Mary's Bay
On the other side of town stands the beautiful old hall of St Mary’s College (above), which has atop its tower a combined wind vane and cross. St Mary’s College is the oldest still-functioning secondary school in New Zealand, founded originally on a different site by the Sisters of Mercy in 1850 but relocated to its present site in Ponsonby in the early 1860s. A wooden chapel dating from that era is still in use but this building, the St Mary’s College Hall, was part of a new school, erected in 1929 at a cost of £36,000, in a picturesque Spanish Mission style on the northern side of the property.

Grey Lynn Library, 474 Great North Road, Grey Lynn
My immediate thought when I saw this turret topping was ‘Quidditch Snitch’. However, though the snitch was first introduced to the game of Quidditch in 1269 by Chief of the Wizards’ Council Barberus Bragge, the folks of early 20th century Auckland were not at all familiar with the world of Harry Potter and his fellow wizards so the similarity must be sheer coincidence.

The Grey Lynn Public Library was designed by architect W. H. Gummer, built of brick in the Georgian style, and opened in December 1924 by then mayor Sir James Gunson. The building continues to be used as a public library and the attached building, on which the snitch sits, as the local community hall. Though the snitch is not your typical weathervane, I have no doubt that its wings were intended to show the direction of the prevailing wind. Sadly, the innovative designer’s name remains a mystery  Rowling, perhaps?