Auckland: News from home

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.

A lithograph based on an 1852 painting by P. J. Hogan which shows Commercial Bay, with Fort St on the waterfront and Shortland St behind. Photo / Supplied
A lithograph based on an 1852 painting by P. J. Hogan which shows Commercial Bay, with Fort St on the waterfront and Shortland St behind. Photo / Supplied

Ten years after the founding of Auckland the town already contained a third of New Zealand's population in an area that did not extend much
beyond today's central business district.

The main streets were Princes St, where government offices were located, Shortland Cres, the busiest, curving steeply up the hill from
the waterfront, Queen St, the least developed but with the gentlest gradient, and Wakefield St that led up to the cemetery when Hobson had
been buried.

Wakefield St was the newest and best address, boasting some brick houses. Its residents looked down on the busy little port where sailing ships tied up at the long wharf built from Queen St into Commercial Bay.

Ships were the town's lifeline to the world, bringing not only more migrants and manufactured goods but, just as important, news. Before the laying of telegraph cable, the settlement's only word from the outside world came in letters and British newspapers, several months old by the time they arrived.

Yet they were so keenly awaited that the mail bag was always the first thing unloaded when a ship anchored.

Every day the townspeople turned their eyes frequently to a telegraph pole, where the first sign of a ship would be signalled. The excitement of a typical sighting has been described by one resident, William Swainson, writing in 1852:

"Suddenly a ball appears on one of the (telegraph's) outstretched arms, signifying a sail in sight; but what may be her rig cannot yet be made out by the signalman. Now commences speculation.

"It may be the William Hyde, from London. She is a fast sailer and if she sailed at the time appointed she has been out 100 days. Or perhaps it is the Moa from Sydney. If so, she may bring an English mail.

"In the course of an hour the range of speculation is narrowed. A flag appears at the eastern yard-arm, indicating the coming vessel to be a brig, so it cannot be the William Hyde. But to the initiated, a favoured few, the oracle now speaks plainly.

"A stream of flags adorns the telegraph and indicates the "number" of the coming brig. Those who possess a copy of Marryat's Signals are eagerly consulted and speedily it is pronounced to be the brig John
Wesley, direct from England. "A few minutes after she has dropped her anchor a boat comes on shore; a number of bags are seen to be landed and it soon becomes known throughout the town that she has brought a
large English mail.

"Now comes a trial of patience. A large mail is rarely delivered within less than four hours after its arrival. The usual hour for closing the Post Office is 4 o'clock. It is now 2 o'clock. A notice makes its appearance on the door of the Post Office that there will be no delivery until tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock.

"Tomorrow morning comes. Long before the appointed hour, men, women and children begin to collect around the letter-box door and when the delivery commences there is a rush, a squeeze and a struggle, like the rush on the pit door of a theatre on the performance of a new and popular play."

Swainson explained that mail arrived like this on average only once every three weeks, and that was mail direct from England. Too often, he complained, the English Post Office put Auckland's mail on a ship bound for one of the other New Zealand settlements, Wellington, Nelson or Canterbury.

And then the letters and newspapers could be six to nine months old by the time they arrived. The Waitemata was a fine harbour but it was on the wrong side of the island for the coastal and international trade routes of the day.

Coastal vessels came into the Manukau and tied up at Onehunga. Swainson explained that a sailing from the Waitemata to New Plymouth or Nelson around North Cape took twice as long as it did from the Manukau, as did
a journey to Wellington via East Cape.

When representatives of the other settlements had to come to Auckland to see the Governor or, a little later, take their seats in the colonial Parliament, they usually disembarked at Onehunga and were taken 10km across the isthmus by horse-drawn coach.

All the way along the Manukau Rd by that time, the travellers would have seen farms and farmhouses, with scoria stone fences and little churches such as St Andrews at Epsom. They belonged to settlers with names such as Owens, Gillies and Dilworth.

- NZ Herald

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