Serendipity, a Bakery sign, and the World War I Featherston Military Camp

Serendipity is always a good sign, one that things are going the way they should. Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery has enjoyed a sprinkling of it in the past few weeks. As you may know, the Gallery building was constructed in 1918, originally as a bakery. The baking was sold from a small hut on the corner of the road which is now my home.

I’ve always suspected it came from the First World War military camp about two kilometres north of Featherston, based on two pieces of circumstantial evidence (interestingly, it was always known as “The Old Camp Bakery”).

One was that it looked very similar to the camp buildings, most of which were demolished with the timber recycled timber, but in some cases taken apart and re-erected elsewhere. The second was that this happened at more or less the same time as the bakery building was built. It made sense that the bakery’s founder Joe (short for Josiah) Towersey would take the opportunity to use one of these buildings, which were used for both military purposes and the needs of what was a small self-contained sign.

As serendipity would have it, I’m finally about to repaint the hut which has undergone many changes over the years, including being moved away from the road in the early 1980s, but still retains some of its original weatherboard cladding. I borrowed my next-door-neighbour’s waterblaster to clean it and the other house (my studio) plus some brickwork.

About a week later Joe’s son Hartley Towersey, still only in his mid-sixties (he was born when Joe was in his sixties) came into the gallery with a friend to look around what had once been his home (although by that time it was no longer being used as a bakery).

Old Sign for Camp Bakery

A vague outline of the bottom half of the letters B, A, and K can be seen

Hartley recalled that once upon a time the word “Bakery” had been painted on the front of the hut and noticed that the waterblaster had removed some of the paint back to the wood, to partially reveal the first three letters of Bakery. It was immediately decided that I would paint the sign on again.

Hartley told me about a book called Gateway to the Wairarapa, an official history of Featherston and the South Wairarapa, published in the 1950s that had a photo of the hut with the original sign on it, which I could use as a guideline.

I visited the excellent Wairarapa Archive in Masterton to get a copy of the photograph and talked to historian Neil Frances who has a particular interest in the military camp. The photo wasn’t in the book, but a photo of the hut in a forlorn state in 1979 was in another Featherston history, Memories of South Wairarapa. However, the sign wasn’t visible in this grainy image.

We discussed the likelihood of the hut having come from the camp and Neil pulled out a document that lists all the people who purchased buildings from the camp. Joe Towersey wasn’t on it. Neil then remembered that the Archive holds a colour tinted photo of the camp, that would show the colours used on most of the camp buildings. These turned out to be the same as the present colour of the hut, which still had its original paintwork. There was also a description of the colours in an old book – creamy yellow walls, maroon facing, and dark grey roofs.

Corner of the Ever Increasing Gardens

Corner of the Ever Increasing Gardens showing the colour of the camp buildings

This was further circumstantial evidence that the building came from the camp. Neil also gave me a photo of the main road of the camp taken in 1917 from Featherston Military Training Camp 1917 which was published at the time the camp existed. One of the shops in the photo had a sign for “J Ware. The Camp Boot Maker” which looked to have the same font as the still extant outlines.

I took this away to help get the font right. Once back at the office I realized that I now had all the letters in the sign for Baker in “Boot” and “Maker” – and rang Neil back to mention this. I commented that in all likelihood the same sign writer(s) would have been employed for all the signage at the camp (with some variation in styles) and the likelihood of this being the exact font was very high.

Main Street Featherston Military Camp 1917

Main Street Featherston Military Camp 1917

This stimulated another important detail about the camp’s history in Neil’s well informed brain, which was that not all of the buildings were built by the government’s Public Works Department. Some shop owners at the camp paid for the construction of their own buildings, most likely using the same builders as employed by the Public Works Department to construct the military buildings, and in much the same style. Any of these buildings removed from the camp would not be on the previously mentioned list of private buyers of the camp’s military buildings when it was broken up, and the hut could quite easily be one of these.

It should also be noted that Joe had previous experience as a builders’ labourer in Wellington as an adolescent in the 1890s so pulling apart and reconstructing the hut would be easily within his capabilities.

While the question of whether the hut came from the camp will probably never be known for certain, the chances are extremely high.

A Footnote: I was always planning to keep the original colours on the hut when I repainted it. Too often people buy an old building because of the appeal of its age but over-renovate so that virtually all the original spirit is lost. There’s something to be said for continuity being good for the soul. Also, Hartley is well known in the Wairarapa as one of the founder members of the Ruamahanga River Band which has been going now for 40 years.

Joe Towersey and second wife Kathleen in 1965

Joe Towersey and second wife Kathleen in 1965

Click to enlarge the two links below to read about The Camp Bakery founder Joe Towersey taken from the book Memories of South Wairarapa. NB A couple of additional facts not mentioned in the book. Joe went to work for Bill Adams Bakery in Masterton, later to become Ernest Adams. The fowl houses at the back of the bakery (on what is now a separate property) were kept by Henry (Harry) Stretton. His wife Joy was the niece of Joe.

Joe Towersey history 1

 Joe Towersey history 2