AUCKLAND’S FAMOUS PARROT

In 1909 Robert Laidlaw created his mission statement ‘to build the greatest business in New Zealand’. Today, trading as simply “Farmers” New Zealand’s oldest department store chain still provides merchandise to shoppers across the entire country.

The Hobson Street department store became a central focus for shopping for generations of Aucklanders. The building survives as the Heritage Hotel but in its heyday the five storied building offered fine dining, spectacular city views and even a children’s playground. It had the country’s first escalators and the city’s first pet department. In 1936, a year after the pet department opened, a white parrot was donated by an old lady who was unable to care for him. At the time of the donation, the bird was already 90 years old.

Hector (Alexander Turnbull Library)

In 1946, to celebrate his 100th birthday, Hector was heavily promoted in a storewide sale. A three tier cake was baked for the occasion and on the last day of the sale every customer was offered a slice. As a result of this promotion, children took Hector to their hearts and each year that followed, Hector’s birthday was celebrated in every Farmers store. Hector had become a celebrity and people flocked to the Hobson Street store to see him. The feathered celebrity even went on tour around the various Farmers stores travelling in a pink limousine. Entertainers dressed in parrot costumes wandered around the central area of Auckland during Hector’s birthday celebrations. In other words, Auckland went nuts for Hector.

PROMOTIONAL TOOL

The owners of Farmers realized Hector’s fame was a valuable promotional tool and his name was used to advertise various Farmer’s events including the Cross Harbour Race. The first ‘Hector’s Harbour Race’ was held in 1959. It started at Farmers Devonport and ended across the water at the Hobson Street store. The 10 day event was popular with contestants coming from all over New Zealand who embraced a fanciful collection of craft including canoes, wheelbarrows, floating beds and bathtubs all in their attempts to negotiate Auckland harbour. There was even a guy who attempted to cross the harbour in an oversized kite but he ended up falling 30 feet into the water. A navel seaman even undertook the challenge in a 400 gallon tank, underwater.

The speed category was the highlight of the event with seaplanes, hydroplanes, speedboats and even racing motorbikes all making the attempt to win. One year, Captain Freddie Ladd in a seaplane competed with Lionel Fussell in his hydroplane to win the 100 pound prize. Freddie won the race with a time of 4minutes and 8 seconds. Not bad for the trip from Devonport to Hobson Street which can take up to an hour by car during peak traffic times today.

Hector eventually passed away in July 1977 at the staggering age of 131! Staff swore there were no ‘stand in’ Hectors. They agreed there was just the same bird all that time to greet shoppers with his cherry “hello”. Management decided not to replace Hector as he was too much of an act to follow. He was stuffed and today he sits on a perch at Farmers Head office in East Tamaki, Auckland.

Even as recently as 2009 commemorative mugs featuring the beloved parrot were on sale at Farmers. In 2014, Hector’s stiff remains were displayed at the Heritage Hotel’s Mother’s Day celebration to commemorate the building’s centenary and as a reminder of the many years the beloved bird spent welcoming people to Farmers Department Store when he was housed in the same building.

Ceidrik Heward

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