Gilbert Steel Hill

‘Mr Oriental Bay’

Currently for sale on Oriental Parade is number 246, a three storey block of flats. It was built by Gilbert Steel Hill in 1929. Gilbert grew up in a house on the  same site (see his mother Margaret’s story here [insert link]) and no doubt the location had some bearing on his interests and hobbies. He was born in 1868 in Glasgow and emigrated with his family to Dunedin and then came on to Wellington. He was known in the family as Gib.

In 1888 he called a meeting for those wanting to form a football club. The meeting was held in the Oriental Bay boating club’s shed. The club became the Oriental Football Club, as most of those who joined were sailing lads from the boating club. At the following meeting they chose the colours black and white. In 1894 they used a former salt warehouse on Taranaki Street as a gym. But the salt proved a problem as players with cuts showed a reluctance to practice falling on the ball. The club exists to this day, known as the Oriental Rongotai Football club.

Gilbert became something of everything: a champion swimmer and diver,  a champion roller skater (40 miles on wooden wheels in three hours and 50 minutes), and a Wellington representative soccer player. He was a member of the Wellington Rowing Club and he founded the Wellington branch of the Royal Life Saving Association.

Gilbert was also something of a stunt man. He would allow his wrists and ankles to be strapped before he was put in a sack weighted with stones and tied up. Then he was taken to Thorndon Baths and thrown in the deep end. How did he escape? ‘Ah, that’s my family secret, I’ll never tell anyone’. Family folklore says he performed this trick for Bernard Freyberg at the Te Aro baths too.

In 1915, the world’s fastest swimmer Duke Kahanamoku visited New Zealand. At a formal reception held by the Mayor, Gilbert as chairman of the Wellington Centre of the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association of New Zealand welcomed Duke on behalf of the swimmers of New Zealand.

Gilbert married Ellen Hill (no relation) in 1898. Her family were the brick makers from Mt Cook. Read about them here https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/101171453/old-brick-building-with-historic-quirks-on-the-market.

The couple lived in a house behind his mother’s on Hill Street off Oriental Parade, which was later renamed Baring Street so as not to confuse it with Hill Street in Thorndon. Their children were Gilbert, Melva, Linda, Esma, Ngaire and Vida. Gilbert worked initially as a law clerk and later as an estate agent. He purchased the house at 246 Oriental from his sister Margaret and replaced it with the flats known as Coburn House.

After the death of his wife in 1943, Gilbert lived in the top floor flat until his death in 1966. He was aged 97. Gilbert was cremated and the ashes placed with his wife in her family plot at Karori cemetery but is not named on the headstone. Long life ran in the family with his daughters Melva and Esma living to the age of 98, and Vida until she was 101.

Plot:*Public/A/452A

Coburn House, 246 Oriental Parade. Date1978 Photographe rCharles J Fearnley CollectionCharles Fearnley Reference 50003-988Holding Institution Wellington City Libraries.
Daughters of Gilbert & Ellen Hill. Private collection.
Wellington Amateur Swimming Club 1899. Private collection.

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