Auckland: Soldiers of fortune

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.

A view looking over Onehunga and Manukau Harbour
toward Mangere, 1927. File photo / New Zealand Herald
A view looking over Onehunga and Manukau Harbour toward Mangere, 1927. File photo / New Zealand Herald

At midnight on December 28, 1956, the last tram left Onehunga terminal. Onehunga had ceased to be a place apart, the second biggest settlement on the Auckland isthmus, the town at the end of the tramline.

It had been absorbed by the city, as had other "Fencible" settlements, Panmure and Otahuhu, set up by Governor Grey in Auckland's first decade as a bulwark against a Maori attack that never came.

The Fencibles were retired British soldiers, many of the Irish, lured to the colony on the promise of a house and land in the hope they would
defend the colony if needed. They never fired a shot.

When the Governor went to war in the Waikato a decade later he did so with regular soldiers, not part-timers. The Fencibles owed the Governor
little in any case. The conditions they found awaiting them when they arrived were much less than they were promised.

All three of the old isthmus satellite towns had been population centres in pre-European time.

Otahuhu, at the narrowest gap between Auckland's two harbours, had been a portage since the arrival of the first canoes.

Panmure, overlooking the Tamaki River and access to the portage, had been the largest Maori population centre on the isthmus until the Nga Puhi musket raids devastated the area.

When Hobson was looking to found his capital on the Waitemata, the Government surveyor, Felton Matthew, briefly suggested Panmure, then known by its Maori name, Mokoia. But Hobson found no deep harbour there.

Onehunga was the main Ngati Whatua village in the late 1830s. The tribe had cautiously moved back to the north shore of the Manukau after the musket wars.

Once Auckland was founded the little port on the Manukau became its main link to the other early colonies. The journey from Port Nicholson, Nelson, Canterbury or Otago was very much shorter up the North Island's west coast to Onehunga than around East Cape to the Waitemata.

Though the treacherous sandbar at the Manukau Harbour entrance was capable of closing the port for days in bad weather, and restricted the port to ships of no more than 1000 tons, Onehunga was usually busy.

The Northern Steam Ship Company had four vessels on the run as late as 1953. But it had been a struggle to maintain coastal shipping ever since 1908 when the North Island's main trunk railway was completed, connecting the central North Island to Auckland and Wellington. Until
then the steamer from Onehunga to New Plymouth had been the connection for passengers going on to Wellington by train.

Onehunga survived on its famous woollen mills, established in 1885, but it suffered the proximity of freezing works not far away at Westfield and Southdown, and their discharges into the harbour.

Panmure, too, was still a town separated from Auckland by green fields when it celebrated its centenary in 1948 with a pipe band, an RSA dinner for descendants of the Fencibles and a gymkhana in the domain. It had become a "prosperous pastoral area" said the Herald report of the festivities.

Panmure, once the smallest borough in Auckland, was "a quarter of a square mile of farmlets surrounding a sleepy village that boasted little more than a church, post office, a handful of shops and a two-storey hotel that was widely known from horse and buggy days".

But after World War II, it would become the commercial centre for a large state housing area in nearby Glen Innes and have to cope with traffic flowing to the new suburb to the east, Pakuranga.

Beyond Pakuranga, the town of Howick, with barely 1500 people at its centenary in 1947, also prepared for the march of suburbia. Howick is perhaps Auckland's most historically conscious place, preserving a Fencible village to commemorate the soldier-settler families who arrived on the beach to find none of the promised houses and set about building shelters from manuka and flax.

Otahuhu's portage position would not allow it to keep early features from its founding, such as a stone bridge built by the Fencibles that had to be incorporated in a widening of the Great South Rd in 1929.

Most of its relics are buried, such as a button from a soldiers tunic that a Herald reader reported finding in his garden in 1938.

Old Onehunga
By Audrey Coubray, a well-travelled, recent settler in Onehunga.

In 1835, Onehunga welcomed its first settler, Thomas Mitchell, a Sydney timber merchant.

Twelve years later the population had grown to 1000, following the arrival of the Fencibles - retired British soldiers who came to New Zealand serve as a reserve force. In 1876, by proclamation,
Onehunga was declared a borough with a mayor and 16 elected councillors, responsible for planning and dealing with local problems.

Onehunga was the first place in the-then British Empire to elect a woman mayor. She was a Scots-born woman named Elizabeth Yates and she served as mayor for most of 1894, elected after ill-health forced the former mayor, her husband Michael, to step down.

A small enclave of Onehunga worthy of remembering is a property managed in trust for a former mayor of Onehunga, Edward Morton, who held the post early in the 20th century.

Morton bought land - a former small farm - and built a large house where he lived with his family for many years.

His two daughters inherited the property and lived out their lives in the big house in some style; they are remembered for driving their grand old car, probably an old Oldsmobile, around town with the younger
sister at the wheel, while her sister, gowned and hatted, took the back window seat, waving graciously to those who caught her eye.

These kindly ladies left their estate to be managed in trust by the city council, as a home for the retired elderly who were on limited incomes.

Since 1974, people have lived on this property where an iconic culture has developed: a caring environment where privacy, individual values and preferences are respected, and democratic principles are used to decide community affairs.

- NZ Herald

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