Smith & Caughey’s and the best days of my life


It was the first time ever that me and my Dad were going out on our own as a special event into town.

We jumped in the old orange mini that was our family car and drove all the way from Dairy Flat to Queen street to watch The Empire Strikes Back.

We never went to Queen Street, and I had only seen Muppet Movies before.

The Empire Strikes Back was a paradigm beyond paradigm for my limited cinematic experiences.

Me in my best green sweater. Dad in his only shirt with buttons.

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As he walked and I skipped to the St James theatre we passed throngs and crowds of people standing around the Smith and Caughey’s shop front watching a special Empire Strikes Back display they had put up with life sized models of C3-PO and RD-D2 on the Snow Planet Hoth.

I had never seen anything like it.

It was a poor mans Disneyland and it was the best day of my life.

Decades later I was living on Queen street and would take my daughter to the Smith and Caughey’s Santa 5 years and a row.

Each one more magical than the last.

Smith & Caughey’s has been an anchor on Queen Street for as long as I can remember.

Whenever I wanted something special, I’d go there.

It had an old school service and class about it that was charming and cool.

I bought a great mustard jumper there once.

It managed all the kindness and generosity of rich grandparents.

The best days of my life are attached to that place.

It felt like a gut punch hearing that it was closing.

Thank you for the memories.



  1. Yeah I feel the same it’s pretty sad that grand old dame is leaving the fort. Great of you to share your experience, so well described ” all the kindness and generosity of rich grandparents”. It was a great comfort of some kind of old fashioned stability and graciousness. When my mum was dying, with only a day more to live, I went there for a little break to take a breath. Thanks MB.

  2. It was H & J Smiths in Invercargill for me. When I was a wee kid I’d go upstairs and play with all the lovely toys I’d carefully take off from the shelves to give them a proper going over until I was dragged off. Then the staff would patiently put them all back again good as new.
    Greed, killed off H and J Smiths and no doubt Smith and Caughys. Filthy greed allowed to languish in the hands of psychopaths.
    liam cunningham ( Game of Thrones.)
    “Your enemy isn’t carrying all their belongings in a plastic bag. Your enemy is carrying an investment portfolio. Wake the fuck up!”

  3. Farmers store in Auckland did it for me. Hopping on their free bus just up from Queen Street that would take you up the steep climb to the shop. (The store also boasted the first escalators in Auckland which were opened in 1955.) And they had a great light tearoom upstairs At Christmas they had a huge Santa Claus for many years. Then strangeness crept in during recent years and someone found it creepy.

    But something else in Auckland has been kept – the Civic Theatre.

    Glory days for little NZ when we had dash and determination but always having to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the international financial system. depressions and ‘gold’ rushes etc.
    …Thomas O’Brien toured extensively in many countries to observe cinema architecture before employing Melbourne architects Bohringer, Taylor, and Johnson to design the Civic. They were already well know for the theatres they had designed in Australia but today the Civic remains the only example of their work with an intact auditorium.

    The Civic therefore has a specifically Australasian architectural significance. The decorative plasterwork which adorns the exterior and interior of the building was the work of Arnold Zimmerman, a swiss born decorator and scenic artist who arrived in Sydney in 1923 and whose work came to the attention of the architects.

    The Civic was constructed by the Fletcher Construction Company​ in only 33 breakneck paced weeks from July to December 1929. Over 100 men worked on the production of plaster buddahs, elephants, panthers, horses, eagles and decorative mouldings out of 500 tons of plaster cement, 20 tons of modelling clay and 500 tons of fibre. The scale and workmanship involved in the huge task were at the time quite unequaled in New Zealand’s building history….

    The Civic Theatre was built relatively late in terms of the great period of ‘atmospheric theatre’ building. Unfortunately the opening coincided with the onset of the depression and the cinema never prospered. O’Brien was struggling financially, due to resources being sorely stretched on construction and operation. With rumours of insolvency, late in 1931, O’Brien left for Australia where he later died in 1948.
    Thomas Alexander O’Brien was born in Thames on 11 June 1888, the son of Thomas O’Brien, a local police constable, and his Scottish-born wife, Rose Ann Gray. Details of his early life are sketchy, but it appears he went to Australia at a young age…. O’Brien probably obtained theatrical experience in silent movie houses in Australia, then returned to New Zealand in 1916 to manage three Wellington theatres for New Zealand Picture Supplies.

    Formed in 1913, New Zealand Picture Supplies was an amalgamation of two rival cinema and film-distribution companies, Hayward’s Picture Enterprises and John Fuller and Sons. The company imported films from Britain and the United States and distributed them throughout New Zealand.

    O’Brien held a variety of managerial positions including national publicity manager, film manager and eventually exhibitions manager. By 1919 he was living in Dunedin, and in the early 1920s he purchased the Empire Theatre in Stuart Street. By 1925 he was in Auckland…
    By the end of the decade Thomas O’Brien’s cinema chain was the third largest in New Zealand.

    …O’Brien brought the atmospheric cinema to New Zealand in September 1928 when he opened the New Empire Theatre in Dunedin. Built at a cost of nearly £100,000, it seated over 2,000 people. Much of the decorative inspiration had been provided by the Capitol Theatre in Sydney.
    In 1929 O’Brien secured a long-term lease over the abandoned city markets site at the corner of Queen and Wellesley streets in Auckland. He persuaded a handful of wealthy and influential local businessmen to finance the construction of an atmospheric theatre which would be New Zealand’s largest, seating nearly 3,500. O’Brien then convinced the Bank of New Zealand to advance a loan of £180,000.


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