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Laurie takes a spin down memory lane

Flagstaff Team

Laurie Spinley has lived in Devonport for all but two of his 83 years, and cheerily agrees he has probably been around for long enough to rate as an old-timer around town. He talks to Helen Vause about his family connections to the area, which stretch back to the 1860s.

The view from Laurie Spinley’s home, on the side of North Head, offers a spectacular vista across Devonport. An outlook that encapsulates the memories across the decades.

He’s pleased to have the opportunity to share colourful stories about life, family, business and tales of Devonport. A couple of hours slip by easily, nattering in the corner of his living room.

His mother’s family has been in Devonport since the 1860s, and Spinley grew up in the house his grandfather Lawrence Coleman built in the 1880s, at 56 Calliope Rd. His mother Henrietta (Hettie) was a Coleman, the seventh of 10 kids. She married Laurie’s father Harold Spinley in Devonport in 1917. Laurie was the youngest of three, with two older sisters.

A couple of generations of Colemans lived around the neighbourhood. They were well known as builders, but one branch of the family were the local undertakers. As more kids came along, Lawrence Coleman had simply built on out the back of the Calliope Rd home to accommodate a household of 12. The addition became 2 Roslyn Tce.

Laurie’s father Harold came from across the harbour. He’d been a successful newspaper photographer in the early 1900s. But when his family established a taxi company in Newton Gully, Harold set aside his camera and became a cabby in the ‘Spinleys’ Silent Sunbeams’ fleet.

After he married Hettie, Harold’s driving skills were further utilised when he became the local milkman in Devonport during the war years. After the war he worked for the Devonport ferry company.

“Stanley Bay was a wonderful place to grow up. It was a beautiful spot and we kids had so much freedom. It was very family oriented and everyone seemed to know everyone.

“Of course news travelled fast in the community in those days. Mum used to say that you had to be very careful in Devonport about what you said and who you said it to, because there were only 10 families in the town and they all had 10 kids.”

It sounds like a perfect childhood, but these were the World War 2 years. Surrounded by water, there was a constant sense of a perceived threat to this blessed little spot. Laurie remembers the air-raid shelters in the playground at Stanley Bay School and the trenches in his own backyard. He recalls as well that all the mums were nervous.

“It was exciting to a small boy but it was scary too. It was a military town, with the Navy here, and the army just up the road. We thought we got all the news, and everyone was dead sure the Japanese were coming. All the talk was about what we would do when they came, not if they came.”

No invasion occurred, but there was plenty of excitement. Laurie was about eight years old when the Americans came to town and literally rolled into Devonport.

“They arrived very early in the mornings, bringing landing barges right onto the beach. They rolled their trucks right off the front to drive north. I’ll never forget the sight. And I remember too we had a legendary fish and chip shop – whenever they came through here, the Americans were all over that place at all hours for a feed before heading north.”

Not long after the war ended, school was out for young Laurie and the working world was calling. He was just 14 years old when he went to work on the roads, shovelling metal. They were hard, long days for a keen strong kid. But a couple of nights a week, he had his head down at a trades school getting the qualifications that would lead him into construction.

The property bug bit early and at age 18 he managed to buy his first house on Waiheke Island for 60 pounds, well before he’d established his building company, L.J. Spinley Ltd.

The company grew and employed many tradesmen. The houses, blocks of flats, motels and factories they built all over the North Shore are too many for Laurie to recall. Before the Auckland Harbour Bridge was finished in 1959, all materials had to be ferried across from the city. Once the bridge opened up the Shore, Laurie and his team were working flat tack, across the region, in those early development years.

“As a young man, I worked like crazy all over Auckland. Just getting out there and getting on with it was my life.”

But a friend thought it was time Laurie, by then aged about 30, had a girlfriend: an introduction to Jocelyn was arranged.

“She was 10 years younger than me so just a girl really. But I was totally taken with her.

I was intrigued by her too, when she rode off on her motorbike after our first encounter. We only met a couple more times and within three weeks I’d asked her to marry me.”

Getting married brought changes to his tough working life.

“Mum said I’d have to alter my ways now that I had a new wife. She reckoned no woman would put up with the way I was living. I’d been rising at five in the morning for a 6.45am start and I’d never be home before seven at night.”
If he was going to have a family life, Laurie figured it was time for a different route in the property world, and he turned his attention to investing.

He was buying land, putting up buildings, buying buildings and holding on to some of them – in line with his strategy to be a longterm investor. He became well known to real estate agents as a serious investor and he built a substantial property portfolio.

“About 40 years ago, I remember I had 66 tenants. I had rest homes, flats, houses, motels and factories. They were very busy times and we were a busy family.”

Laurie and Jocelyn had three sons – Denton, Aaron and Anthony. In the 1970s, the family moved up into the big friendly house backing onto North Head. It spreads over a couple of levels, with panoramic views.

These days, the boys are long grown and gone and the pace of the family property business has slowed considerably. A large holding was sold just a few years ago, realising some millions, but there are still investments to keep Laurie busy.

He’s kept up a cracking pace in business, but technology has got ahead of him. Computers and cell phones are not his thing. He says Jocelyn is the brains of the family, that she’s a very capable woman and “she is all over all of that stuff.”

“I say I’m going to retire before I’m 85. I’ve got other things I want to do, like maybe learn a language and learn about music. But I’ve had a great innings and I guess you could say I’ve been successful. As mum would have said, it’s been an approach of faith, patience and humility.

“We’ve certainly had a great life here in this community. Devonport is such a special place to live and it would have to be one of the strongest communities in the country.

“I feel very fortunate that we’ve had the means to live here, and to have had so many happy times in this house with so many people.”

For 25 years, the family shared their home with a stream of international students.

“We treated them like our own kids and we took them all over the country. We were able to give them a wonderful time and we have very special memories of those years.

Once recalls Laurie, a student party in his living room needed livening up a bit with a party trick.

“I stood on my head and drank beer. And they loved it.”

Today the family living room is a lot quieter. But it’s not at all hard to imagine Laurie Spinley as the life and soul of the party.