Thomas Rice Gillman: Onehunga Medical Hall


That Mr. Gillman ‘s willingness to help those afflicted with pain or illness was not disapproved of by the medical fraternity was evidenced by the fact that the Medical Hall was used by them for consultations.

Thomas Gillman and daughter Augusta Gillman. 1907

The part played in the early days of Onehunga by a chemist of Mr. Gillman’s experience and general knowledge is difficult to appreciate in those latter days when the Welfare State ensures medical practitioners a guaranteed fee for their services.  Mr. Gillman was actively engaged in his profession from 1868 to 1912, and during all those years he was consulted by sufferers seeking amelioration from all manner of ailments, and his advice was freely given to many who were too poor to engage a doctor, even when fees were as low as 2/- and 2/6 a visit.  Mr. Gillman was frequently called on to treat sick horses, cows and dogs and did so gladly and competently until a veterinary surgeon put up his “shingle” in Onehunga about 1890.

Mr. Gillman was among the first of his profession in Auckland to have regard to the need to keep abreast of the times. Consequently, when he observed from the reading of overseas journals that chemists and druggists were stocking their premises with goods that hitherto were considered outside the province of such a business, he was not slow to follow suit. He not only imported new and improved drugs, but introduced hot-water bottles, teething powders, toothpastes and photographic accessories. In about 1895, for the better extraction of teeth, he imported for his own use a set of dental instruments of a newly designed type which were coming into general use in England and America.

Naturally, many of his fellow-chemists in Auckland were apprehensive lest the standards of their profession would be lowered if they followed Mr. Gillman’s example.  But he countered the objections by pointing out that grocers were stocking proprietary medicines, cough lozenges, throat tablets and the like, and in this way were making deep inroads into the fields previously regarded as being reserved for chemists and druggists. The lead he gave was soon adopted generally throughout New Zealand.

Mr. Gillman’s interest in flowers and shrubs had been stimulated by his botanical studies while still a student. He qualified in a year when botany was a new and important subject in the pharmacy examination syllabus, the object of the examiners being to arouse interest in the curative properties of many herbs, the use of which had fallen into neglect by the middle of the nineteenth century. Mr Gillman was a great gardener and looked for new kinds of vegetables to grow. Eggplant was one new vegetable. He believed in steaming his vegetables and among other treatments tried steaming flax (Phormiun tenax). For much of his life he had ideas of improving the dressing of New Zealand flax to win a prize offered by the New Zealand Government. He had an old timber-planing machine, which he adjusted in various ways, the aim being to strip the outside tissue off without breaking the strength of the fibres. One of his sons remarked that the look of the contraption would preclude any chance of any award being granted. However on at least one occasion Mr Gillman made the voyage to Wellington to interview officials on the matter.

But Mr. Gillman’s personality made a favourable and immediate impact and his unfailing kindliness to the afflicted soon won for him the esteem and affection of his fellow¬≠ townsmen. He had been but a short while in the locality before he was approached by deputations representing various interests, urging him to offer himself as a candidate for the Onehunga Highway District Board, which consisted of five members.

The new Board chose Mr. Gillman as chairman at its first meeting in July, 1873. He was a Board member again in 1874 – 75.

All this involved him in loss of time from his business, which suffered in consequence. Patients, he added, who had waited hours for an aching tooth to be pulled would surely vote against his re-election! The votes cast for Mr. Gillman were insufficient to secure his re-election.

In light of his capable management of the Board’s functions, and his sound record in public affairs, a large deputation of representative citizens urged Mr. Gillman to contest the Mayoral election, or, at least to stand for a seat on the new Council. But he declined. His business was expanding steadily he told his friends, and he was resolved not to neglect it again.

Mr. Gillman carried on his business until he retired in 1912. For many years he had been assisted by his daughter,Miss Augusta Kezia Gillman, who was also a member of the New Zealand Pharmaceutical Society. Mr. Thomas Rice Gillman died in 1918 , aged 90 years.


The old shop named “The Medical Hall” was built and used as a pharmacy prior to Thomas Gillman’s time. It was erected for Mr H T Watts, chemist and druggist. After Thomas Gillman purchased the business, and in 1868 during the reorganisation, he found it desirable to add an overhanging verandah, which the building inspector said could not

be permitted on account of the age of the structure. However Edgar Gillman, then an architect for the New Zealand Co-op Dairy Co. inspected it and found that all the framing was of Australian hardwood, and that iron rods anchored to the back walls would safely take the strain. The verandah held all right but the old place was an eyesore, especially the Church Street side including an old shed where the imported medicine bottles used to be stored. They came, imported in huge barrels, and children used to enjoy seeing them unpacked and washed.

The Medical Hall was regarded as a most imposing building when it was first erected. The frame was constructed of Huon pine – a particularly good example of Australian hardwood. Supplies of this timber were landed at Auckland from Tasmania by the ship “Chelydra” as early as October 1840, and met with a ready sale in a town where new buildings were springing up in all parts. Huon pine was still being imported, mainly for frame purposes, until the 1860’s. The weatherboarding of the Hall was heart kauri, which was milled by Matthew Roe at his Huia mill.

At Mr. Gillman’s retirement in 1912, the business was acquired by Mr. B Wharton. Other occupiers, not in chronological order were Edward Golding, W. McLean, F. R. Fallwell, C A Robinson, J. Clark and T. Fallwell. Mr. N. B. Middlebrook was still in business on the site in 1960.

Bibilography. Extract from ” Manukau Progress” papers March 1960