The Heart of Colonial Auckland 1865‑1910
Random Century, Auckland, 1992, $29.95
This book takes a lively look at early Auckland, after the capital was transferred to Wellington in 1865. Concentrating on the lower end of the Queen St gully and the slopes each side, using reference material mostly gleaned from the NZ Herald, it describes the buildings and some of the events which shaped what used to be the whole of Auckland.
Although the author describes the site of early Auckland as ‘a vast triangle of land’, there is no map to define its extent. Indeed the lack of maps, apart from a key map showing the location of the main buildings mentioned, is a disappointment.
The narrative is liberally seeded with carefully selected photographs of buildings and street scenes, the majority excellent. The captions are so extensive and so crammed with information as to form a separate storyline, and, in order to maintain the thread of the main narrative across three or four pages of illustrations, I found it preferable to read all the captions for each chapter before or after the text.
There is an interesting parallel with the present day in the boom/ bust/ recovery cycle which Auckland experienced almost exactly 100 years ago. The construction industry has always been a thermometer registering the chills and fevers of the economy, and the period covered by the book is filled with familiar- sounding tales of capital gains and collapse. In its early years the BNZ, described sarcastically in the Herald as ‘the great institution in Queen St’, proved to be just as much a victim of its own greed and unwise lending practices as in the 1980s and 1990s, and had to be rescued by the Government in 1894.
The chapter on ‘The Rich’ deals with money-making schemes followed by the consequent charitable bequests, and the elegant mansions that were built around Symonds St and Princes St. The chapter on ‘The Poor’ describes the slums off Chancery St, tells of crime, vagrancy and prostitution, and the worthy institutions set up to counter these evils. The vast numbers of artisans, labourers, foremen, clerks and shop assistants needed to keep the colony functioning are not mentioned apart from a passing reference to the sale of land in Freemans Bay, Ponsonby, and Newton. We are not told where they lived, nor even whether they had moved out of the central area by then.
The book is filled with facts, dates, costs and names of buildings and architects, put neatly into context with a wealth of diverting and sometimes frivolous social comment. The sheer number as well as the quality of the design of a large number of the buildings leaves one filled with admiration for the faith of the owners as well as the skill of the architects.
The Heart of Colonial Auckland 1865-1910 does not set out ‘to be exhaustive, but … to capture some of its fabric and flavour’. I enjoyed reading it.
Burwell Hunt is a Wellington architect.