The geneology of Auckland street names

By Alan Perrott

Alan Perrott delves into the genealogy of Auckland’s streets.

Alan Perrott researches up on the history of Auckland's road signs. Photo / Thinkstock
Alan Perrott researches up on the history of Auckland's road signs. Photo / Thinkstock

Every day I leave Surrey Hills Estate, wander through the home of the six-horned sheep to Dedwood, and then head down a slope remembering a celebrity who rather took our fancy.

This is Auckland's history in road signs. And, as retired history professor Russell Stone says, while they are barely acknowledged, these signs are likely to linger longer than any of our crumbling buildings.

All it requires is a little attention and any journey can teach you more about where you are than simply your location. It's a rare street or landmark that doesn't have a story behind it.

Take Shortland St, a typical inner-city thoroughfare now known better as a soap opera. But the show's producers may have thought again if they knew it was named after a colonial secretary who was pretty universally written off as pompous, incompetent and tactless.

Okay, he had one mate, Felton Mathew, the Londoner who was put in charge of naming our oldest streets.

But he's hardly great company, as his contemporaries labelled him "venal" and connected him to Shortland via some rather dodgy land purchases.

When Shortland was finally sacked by Governor Fitzroy, he was for some reason rewarded with running the Caribbean islands of Nevis and Tobago.

Unfortunately for Mathew (he pronounced it "May-thew" thank you very much), he met his maker in Peru. Not to worry though, he lingers as an avenue in St Johns.

Then there's Mt Hobson, which, as everyone should know, is named after our first governor. But did you know that Hobson also helped escort Napoleon into exile, then sailed to the West Indies where he chased pirates, was captured twice, escaped once, and contracted yellow fever three times? It was so much fun that after being retired he practically begged the head of the Admiralty, Lord Auckland, for another command.

In return, the lord got a city and a New South Wales county named after him, while his family, the Edens, got a volcano, a suburb, a stadium, several roads, the odd cafe, and an Australian town.

And how about Mt Roskill? My favourite origin theory here involves a mad Irishman who liked to spend his days climbing to the top to preach the gospel, a notion which dovetails nicely with the suburb's old Bible-belt reputation.

Anyway, as I said, I like to see my path to work as a trip through time. And it always starts with a failed attempt at property speculation, the Surrey Hills Estate.

It all began in the 1840s, when land to the west of the Auckland settlement was chopped into small farms. Two English booze barons, James Williamson and Thomas Crummer, saw pound signs and bought up enough land to establish Surrey Hills Estate with the intent of grazing it until property prices shot up.

Unfortunately, their long-term scheme fell foul of the 1880s depression and they had to subdivide for far less profit than they'd hoped.

If it was any consolation, they did get to name the major roads after themselves and their mates like Mssrs Pullen, Mackelvie, Murdock and Rose.

They named the rest after their favourite bits of home. There was nostalgic comfort to be found in living on a road named Sussex, Norfolk, Lincoln or even Douglas, the Isle of Man capital and home to the above-mentioned, multi-horned sheep.

Their work was finished with nods to a few classy, artistic types like Dickens, Elgin and Arnold, a poet whose father was headmaster at Webb Ellis' Rugby School.

Surrey Cres was left as the only reminder of the original estate and the suburb was renamed Grey Lynn in honour of former governor Sir George Grey, who had become a latter-day champion of Auckland. Then, in a possible comment on the boozing that had funded Grey Lynn's creation in the first place, its new residents voted the suburb dry in 1905.

So, having travelled from Surrey to the Isle of Man, I now find myself on Ponsonby Rd, or as it was known until the 1880s, Vandeleur Rd, for the divisional commander who served under Wellington at Waterloo. Colonel Ponsonby, in turn, served under Vandeleur.

At one time Ponsonby Rd not only stretched to the Three Lamps corner (unimaginatively named for the three lamps that sat atop a large stone) and the Ponsonby Club Hotel (aka the Gluepot - because once you went in you couldn't get out) but also west towards the former slaughteryards of Westmere. This section was eventually renamed, as was the custom of time, in honour of brand new governor-general, Sir William Jervois.

As for greater Ponsonby, it was first known as Dedwood, a fantastic name of mysterious origins, although there is some thought that it comes from a farm on Shelly Beach Rd. Still, if Dedwood itself is, well, ded, its name lives on as a terrace in St Mary's Bay.

I now leave Ponsonby Rd and head down Franklin Rd into Freemans Bay, an area named after James Freeman, Hobson's secretary, and a man who Sir John Logan Campbell said was "the most disgustingly immoral swindling scoundrel in town". Another pillar of the community, it seems.

Happily for property values, Franklin Rd has much posher origins.

Socialite celebrities weren't regular visitors to our shores back in the olden days, but the Franklins came close.

Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin was a heroic naval officer and Arctic explorer who became lieutenant-governor of Tasmania in 1836. His second wife, the beautiful Lady Jane Franklin, was a vivacious Princess Diana-like figure.

After undertaking all manner of works of charity and exploration, they were the "It" couple until they were shoved out by opponents who didn't share their enthusiasm for reforming the island's harsh penal system.

So, in 1843, they boarded the good ship Rajah and stopped off in Auckland on their way home.

Being a rough-and-tumble type, Lady Jane left hubby at the hotel and set off up the track leading to Dedwood. That track eventually became Franklin Rd, our most famous boulevard of Christmas lights.

Sadly it was all downhill from there for the Franklins. In 1845, Sir John launched his third voyage to the Arctic wastes and promptly disappeared.

More ships and lives were lost in the various rescue attempts than had left on the original expedition. His widow's highly public woe inspired a ballad, Lady Franklin's Lament, which has since been recorded by the likes of Pentangle, John Martyn and Sinead O'Connor.

Once at the bottom of Lady Jane's road, I catch sight of that lush legacy of old Dedwood, Victoria Park, just one of many infrastructural tributes to the royal couple of the day still littering Auckland. You must remember that in those times we weren't so much New Zealanders as Brits abroad.

Victoria's lovely park owes its existence to the complete lack of dunnies in its neighbouring suburb. Next time you're crossing its grassy expanse you might like to consider the 51,000kg of poop that was dumped there every week during the 1870s.

From here, my journey is a royal one, with Victoria St leading to Albert St before arriving at one final historic tangent, Wyndham St. Once more, it's a throwback to Napoleon's Waterloo.

One of the most famous actions of the battle was the scrap for control of a farmhouse, Chateau d'Hougoumont, and it was Lt. Col Henry Wyndham's battalion of Coldstream Guards who were charged with keeping the Frenchman's armies out.

The vital moment came when they stormed inside only for a small group of defenders, including Wyndham, to charge back, close the farm gate and trap the attackers inside. The incident freaked the good colonel so badly that he apparently never closed a door again.

Despite this heroic connection, by the late 1800s Wyndham St was mostly known as home to most of the city's lawyers and, while the Depression might have buggered the grand plans of Williamson and Crummer, the vultures did pretty well from the misery. The road became known as Wind-Em-Up St.

Now, I'd have to say that's a fair whack of history to cram into a 40-minute walk - and that's without getting all bogged down in detail.

The sad part is that so much of it is forgotten. Then again, says Stone - the source of several of these tales - this failure probably reflects the origins of most Aucklanders. We are migrants. Our city may have always been the biggest show in town, but it seems few were born here.

"I've spoken to a lot of large groups," he says, "and I've asked them to put their hands up if they had two grandparents born in Auckland. Very few ever do. So, in the most basic way, this is a city without history because most of us simply never knew it. Our families haven't been here long enough for the old stories to be passed down, which is a shame, because Auckland has such an exciting history. In the end, it means we lose a lot of our identity."

So, next time you take a left, you might want to take note of what the sign says - and then find out what it's really telling you.

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