Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5, 2002
The Harley Street Drill Hall
In February 1860 Nelsonians, concerned that the Land Wars in Taranaki might spill over into Nelson, formed a Volunteer Rifle Corps. Soon there were nine companies in the Nelson-Motueka area, but military reorganisation in 1862 reduced these to five, each comprised of about 30 men.
The Nelson Companies drilled on land in Nile Street West and on a government reserve in Hardy Street, near Albion Square. More formal parades were held at the Botanical Reserve in Milton Street.
The need for a permanent military headquarters soon became obvious, and in 1871 a drill shed was built on government land opposite the Police Station in Harley Street. The shed was opened on Saturday 2 September at 3 pm 'with seats for the ladies'.
The building, which was also referred to as the Nelson Gymnasium, was 80 feet long, 35 feet wide and was funded by £140 subscribed by the Nelson Rifle Volunteers and £100 from the Nelson Provincial Government. A further £50 was found for boxing gloves, Indian clubs, horizontal and parallel bars, a trapeze, rings and ropes, vertical poles, a vaulting horse, single sticks and other equipment.
The gym was open on Wednesday and Saturday from 3 to 5 pm and until 9 pm in the evening. Members of the Volunteer Corps had free use of the equipment and honorary members, elected by ballot, had access for five shillings a month, or seven shillings and sixpence per quarter. Even before the opening date over 40 boys from Nelson College had joined.
The new drill shed was converted into an impromptu ballroom following the Prince of Wales birthday holiday sports, despite its earth floor, which remained in that condition until it was asphalted in the mid-1930s.
Another occupant was the Salvation Army, which held its first services in the Temperance Hall on the north east corner of Collingwood and Bridge Streets on 3 February 1884. With a burgeoning congregation, the hall soon became too small and the congregation moved to the Drill Shed on 16 April 1884. This must have upset other denominations as, two weeks page 59later, the Salvationists were denied further use. Wiser heads must have prevailed as, within the week, this decision was reversed.
In July 1875 The Nelson Examiner recorded that the government had awarded a grant of £500 to enlarge the drill shed, build the cutter Aurora for the newly raised Nelson Naval Brigade and to provide a boatshed at Wakefield Quay. The boatshed was sited next to what is now The Boatshed restaurant on the Nelson side. Sold into private ownership in 1905, it was destroyed by a storm in 1957.
Tenders were called for a new drill shed on the same site in 1905, with that of £847/12/8 from Mr JA Stringer being accepted. It was less than the £902/19/- tendered by Scott's Estate. John Alfred Stringer was at that time a Pay and Quartermaster Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion Nelson Mounted Rifles. In later life he was a Nelson City Councillor.
During the reconstruction of the building the local Volunteers drilled on the Government Reserve, where the Monro Building now stands. With electric lighting added, the area was still in use by the Territorials in the late 1930s.
The new drill shed was opened on Wednesday 5 November 1905. The Nelson Evening Mail recorded that 'alterations and additions were made to the old drill shed' costing close to £1000. They comprised staff quarters of two storeys and an enlargement to the drilling shed, which was now ten feet six inches longer and five feet wider than the old shed. It now measured 90 feet by 59 feet 6 inches. The entrance from Harley Street was by a double door eight feet high and twelve feet wide, which has been replaced by a roller door. The building had 13 external windows and six large skylights, the latter partly funded by the Nelson Poultry Association. The building was declared open by John Graham, MHR for Nelson, and Colonel Wolfe, the Officer Commanding, Nelson District, who spoke in the absence of Lt Colonel Albert Pitt, the Minister of Defence. Colonel Wolfe noted that there were 19,000 Volunteers in the colony and 2000 in the Nelson Army District, which covered Nelson, Marlborough and Westland.
He singled out the Nelson Garrison Band for praise. That day the band paraded a new set of silver-plated instruments which it had purchased for £235. The newspaper reported that in the evening a large crowd attended a Promenade Concert presented by the Garrison Band and the Non-Coms Club in the drill shed.
A photograph from about this time shows the band, under the conductorship of Julius Lemmer, grouped outside the new drill shed. Its page 60wooden sidings and windows show that more extensive alteration came later and several broken windows indicate that vandalism is no modern phenomenon. A relic of past alterations can still be seen in the concrete foundations of the administration block, and a more modern toilet block is also sited in this area.
The doors at the St John Street end of the building were installed to enable H Battery New Zealand Field Artillery's artillery pieces to enter the building. From the start the doors were unsuitable, as St John Street was too narrow for the guns to be manoeuvred into the shed.
H Battery later had its own barracks in Fitzherbert Street, now Washington Terrace. These were built in 1912 by the Nelson firm of Chamberlain and Stannard Ltd at a cost of between £2000 and £3000. The two-storied building was sheathed with corrugated iron and comprised stables for 20 horses, a gun and wagon shed, forage and ammunition stores, men's quarters and offices. The permanent staff at this time comprised one sergeant, one bombardier, two gunners and six drivers.
In November 1912 the Nelson Evening Mail reported a battery parade in the Stoke vicinity. On parade were Captain Grace, the commanding officer, two guns, two ammunition wagons and 36 horses. At that time the unit was equipped with 15 pounder guns which, early in 1913, were replaced by new 18 pounders. The unit was later disbanded and its abandoned barracks were destroyed by fire in the late 1930s.
It is not known when the Drill Shed became known as the Drill Hall, but it was certainly by the 1930s when, because there was no other large hall in the city, it was used for Flower Shows, Poultry Exhibitions, Cage Bird Shows and Dog and Cat Shows.
Towards the end of the Second World War, the army established its main base in Rutherford Street and the Drill Hall became less important. In 1963 the Sea Cadet Unit, TS Talisman, moved from Dr WDS Johnston's old home in Hardy Street to the Drill Hall, which they still occupy.
The administration end of the building was damaged by arson on 9 January 1998. With help from the public of Nelson, the Royal New Zealand Navy, the Navy League and the Cadet Unit, the hall was repaired and the administration wing restored as a single story building.