Shoring up, Helen Vause

The North Shore: An Illustrated History
David Verran
Random House, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869793128


David Verran’s illustrated history of the North Shore is the most comprehensive history of the region to date, and it is a significant heritage work for that reason alone. A historian and librarian, Verran is very much a “shore boy” who has called four suburbs across his favourite part of the country home at one time or another and currently lives in Takapuna. He has been a very active figure in and president of the North Shore Historical Society, which is reflected in his wide-ranging stories of the shore and many historic photos and paintings. In his own words, this book is not intended to be a definitive work but it is his attempt to present the history of the whole North Shore in a systematic way. His history reaches right back to the time of both Maori and European settlement of the Auckland region in its opening pages. He notes that those famous natural attributes of the region’s premium locations – miles of shoreline, lovely beaches and seafood, high sunny sites with great views – are still a very big drawcard.

This historian’s approach has been to cover the themes of communities, industry, local government, infrastructure, churches, sport, arts and architecture. These are nicely interspersed or broken up with five, brief highlighted sections on the way things were at loosely quarter-century intervals from 1911 through to 1938, 1959, 1989, 2010. This approach works well to move readers through the years (and to add contrast), providing a framework for the themes he works through to tell the local history.

A century ago in 1911, the population was 11,000; it was 25,000 in 1938. By the late 1950s, the population had more than doubled again but growth lagged behind that of Auckland city because there was not quick road access to the shore. But the opening of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959 changed all that, dramatically boosting growth and development. By 2010, North Shore City had a population of 229,000 (the fourth most populous city in the nation) before it was pulled into the new Auckland super city and a new era for regional politics.

This book covers the very rapid development of the region: the phenomenon of the ugly subdivisions that gave rise in the 1960s and 70s to whole new mini-suburbs, the demand for services and infrastructure challenging the gaggle of little borough council offices. Amalgamation of the North Shore forced another change onto local politics and much angst across the quite distinctive neighbourhoods from Devonport to Browns Bay, Takapuna to Birkenhead. Would everyone get a fair go in future, they wondered? Battles to retain identity, heritage and other things, run right through the story with a higher profile when things held dear (including independence from over the bridge or other boroughs) were under threat. The story of the fight against amalgamation into North Shore City put up by the feisty independent Devonport in the late 1980s gets a special section in its own right at the end of the book.

Twenty years on, Verran notes, North Shore people see themselves very much as shore people (as distinct from those folk back over the bridge) and the commuter rush every evening sees thousands scuttling back to the things they hold dear about the shore – beaches, open spaces, large private backyards and relaxation. Part of the big new city or not, their North Shore is a special place apart from the hustle and bustle, a place to escape to.  And the road home is still as congested as ever, the transport solutions having run consistently behind demand.

Across nearly 300 pages, the text (which is at times a bit dense) is brought to life on at least every second page by a great spread of illustrations: the people back to Ngapuhi elder Eruera Patuone, smiling Plunket mothers of nearly a century ago, politicians and many a charming faded group shot of sportspeople opening bowling greens, competing on the abundant waterways, playing on sports fields. It’s widely accepted that sport has been a big feature of life across the region and the chapter covering the “Sporting North Shore” gives a nice account of how each of the disciplines got up and going.

The story of the very early years of settlement includes a scattering of paintings from the mid-to-late 1800s. Scenes from the early 1900s show Maori and Pakeha dignitaries commemorating moments in local history. Early records of labouring depict milking in Beach Haven in the 1920s, logs floating from Torbay up the coast to be milled, haymaking on a farm in Glenfield in the 1950s, fruit pickers in the expansive rows of Birkdale strawberry fields around 1910, stacks of sugar bags at the Chelsea refinery.

Overall, the North Shore is not noted for lovely old buildings but there is a nice selection of those that have been retained. Naturally these include, but are not dominated by, some of the buildings that give Devonport its charming heritage feel. Of course beaches, ferries, wharves and waterways feature too.

The book almost works on two levels as both a solid read and as an illustrated overview for those with more limited attention span. However, it would have needed more little boxes and breakouts, graphics and other design touches to lighten the look and feel. The large format makes it very accessible and attractive but the floppy cover renders it a little tricky to handle and browse through. No doubt record-keepers and local people will have varying opinions on the accuracy and the emphasis Verran has put on people, places and events. But if you live on the North Shore, or have an interest in New Zealand history, you will want this book at home on your shelves to explore time and again.


Helen Vause is an Auckland reviewer.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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