Auckland: Best foot forward

By John Roughan

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Aerial view of Grafton Bridge, 1936. File photo / NZ Herald
Aerial view of Grafton Bridge, 1936. File photo / NZ Herald

A visitor to Auckland at the start of the 20th century would have
found a town still living within walking distance of Queen St.

Nearly all of its commerce and industry was still confined to the Queen St valley and nearby Freemans Bay. Much was on the waterfront.

Commerce St and Quay St had been established on the fill of Commercial Bay and a railway had been laid from lower Queen St to run east into Mechanics Bay on spoil from the demolished Britomart Pt.

Freemans Bay had yet to be reclaimed. Water still covered the area where Victoria Park sits today. Factories and boatyards lined the water's edge.

All the waterfront, as photographs show, was rough and ugly. It was also undoubtedly smelly - Auckland's raw sewage still drained into the
harbour.

But fine houses had been built on the sunny slopes and ridges behind the bays. As the settlement had grown its housing had gone eastward on the Grafton and Parnell ridges, and westward along Victoria St and up College Hill to Ponsonby Rd, or from Upper Queen St and Pitt St to Karangahape Rd, extending along the Great North Rd to Surrey Cres.

The better-off built grand villas on the ridges and higher slopes with views of the harbour. The lower paid lived in smaller cottages closer together on the lower slopes of Freemans Bay and Grey Lynn or in the gullies of Newton and Arch Hill.

Their rooms were lit with kerosene lamps or candles. Their hot water came from a copper boiler in a wash house out the back. The lavatory had its own shed in the backyard.

Horse-drawn trams ran on rails along the main roads. One route started at the Waitemata Hotel on lower Queen St, went to Wellesley St then turned and was pulled up the ridge to St Matthews Church with the help of an extra horse.

From there it made its way to Karangahape Rd and followed the ridge around Ponsonby Rd to Three Lamps, then went down College Hill and around the waterfront to return to its starting point.

An eastern service went up to Symonds St and down Khyber Pass to Newmarket, returning via Parnell Rd.

But for most people it was just as easy to walk. They walked to work, to church, to school, to shops, to shows and dances, according to historian Russell Stone.

To walk from Parnell or Arch Hill to Queen St was nothing out of the ordinary. They wore leather boots and every household had a cast iron
cobbler's last for footwear repairs.

Walking remained the main mode of transport until electricity driven
trams were introduced in 1902.

The Auckland City Council was reluctant to give the trams a licence to run on Sundays. Council historian Graham Bush records that it relented after a poll of citizens. But the trams were to stop during the hours of service, 11am to 12.20pm and from 7pm to 8.20pm.

Also in 1902, Queen St was asphalted and the first automobile was not far away.

Bush records that the first commercial motor vehicles were licensed in 1904. By 1910 the 147 registered vehicles were still heavily outnumbered by bicycles and horse-drawn commercial vehicles.

Traffic rules were still practically unknown. Driver licensing did not
become mandatory until a motorist was involved in a fatal accident
in 1912.

Speed limits were up to local councils: 9 mph in parts of Auckland, 10 mph in the Borough of Parnell, 12 mph in Mt Albert Borough. It was not until 1917 that an Auckland bylaw ordered slow moving traffic to keep as far as possible to the left.

Cars were still too expensive for most people. Trams, trains and
ferry services continued to shape Auckland's growth into the 1920s.

The inner city had become crowded and run down by the turn of the century. Housing followed electric tramlines along roads such as New North, Dominion, Mt Eden and Manukau, beginning the intensive settlement
of areas such as Westmere, Pt Chevalier and Mt Albert.

Mt Albert grew from a population of just over 2000 in 1901 to 17,500 by 1926. More expensive land in Remuera, subdivided since the 1890s, was also being taken up. Remuera grew from 2000 to 10,000 people in the
same period.

Many of the new houses were the stand-alone villas that have been renovated in the inner western suburbs in recent years.

References: Decently and in Order, G.W.A. Bush, Collins, 1971. Logan Campbell's Auckland, R.C.J. Stone, AUP, 2007.

BRIDGING THE GAP
A rickety footbridge had been built across Grafton gully to the Domain and the new hospital in 1884 but in 1907 work began on the vehicle
bridge that still stands today.

Grafton Bridge was built of steel-reinforced concrete, a "new wonder material" in the early 20th century according to Matthew Wright who
features the bridge in his book Big Ideas: 100 Wonders of New Zealand Engineering.

"The decision to use the new material sparked a good deal of debate," he writes, "and eventually prompted the addition of masonry, as much
for psychological as aesthetic purposes. None of it was needed for structural reasons."

When completed in 1910 Grafton Bridge was hailed as the highest single arch bridge in the world, though Wright says ratepayers who resented the cost called it "Myers' Folly" after the mayor, Sir Arthur Myers.

The bridge bore Auckland's traffic for a century until 2008 when it had to be strengthened for city buses.

PRIDE OF THE TOWN
There was no bigger symbol of Auckland's new century prosperity than the Town Hall that opened in 1911. The city had survived without one from its beginning. Whenever the subject was broached it had been dismissed as a municipal luxury.

The council operated from rooms above its library and art gallery, the surviving City Gallery, which had opened in 1888, the first in New Zealand. In 1906 the council under Mayor Sir Arthur Myers was able to go ahead and raise an £80,000 loan for a proper town hall on a wedge of land where Greys Ave met Queen St - long considered the obvious site.

A design competition attracted 48 entries and Australian architects J. Clark & Sons were selected. Their design was not universally admired. Council historian Graham Bush records that one critic went to the expense of building a model to show that the building would look, "exactly like a deformed wedge of cheese or a decrepit flat iron".

When tenders for the construction were called they all exceeded the budgeted cost and an additional £30,000 was raised. According to Bush, Myers appeased criticism by promising the project would give work to the unemployed.

Though the building's distinctive tower was part of the original plan, its clock was not. The clock was donated by Myers nine months before the opening on December 14, 1911.

Auckland began 10 days of celebratory concerts and other events. The Herald of December 15 glowed that, "Auckland has a Town Hall second to none in the Dominion, a building which provides not only for the urgent necessities of the present but for the assured necessities of its great future."

- NZ Herald

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