For the majority of the time I will be blogging about either New Zealand or Cornwall and if you read the page which tells you about me, you’ll know why. But as a first post I thought I would share a little of the early history of the place I call home. I live in a small suburb on Auckland’s North Shore – Birkdale. Wedged between the greater suburbs of Birkenhead and Beachhaven it tends to be forgotten a little or included into the either of those other suburb and to be honest, the story of Birkdale is inextricably tied to the stories of both Beachhaven and Birkenhead.
The isthmus of Auckland (Tamaki Makau Rau) is thought to have been first settled around 1350. A combination of fertile soil for horticulture and two harbours with abundant resources resulted in a thriving population. On the volcanic peaks (Mt Eden, One Tree Hill etc) which dominate the Auckland skyline there is ample evidence of these early settlements.
The area of Birkenhead, Beach Haven and Birkdale was densely forested and as a result not as heavily populated but it was the sea which drew people to the area. The sea provided an abundance of resources for Maori from flounder in the Kaipataki Inlet, shellfish from Oruamo Creek and the shark fishing grounds just below Kauri Point. Evidence for this can be seen in the form of coastal shell middens found all around the coast.
Occupation sites are difficult to pinpoint but there is some evidence from oral histories and archeologically of an important pa (hillfort) called Te Matarae a Mana in the area of Kauri Point/Quarryman’s Bay during the 1700s. In addition it is believed there is at least two other headland pa in the area, although all trace of these no longer remain.
The musket wars of the 1800s decimated the local populations of Maori and by 1844 the area of Beach Haven was sold to the new settler government and became deserted. Eventually, European settlers began to arrive hoping to carve out a new life for themselves. One of the first families to arrive was the Gruts from the Jersey Islands in 1857. But life was much harder than many anticipated, the heavy clay soils and dense bush took its toll.
Although the city seems so very close to this part of the North Shore, back then before the harbour bridge the only way to market was by ferry/boat as the overland route was long and arduous. The first ferries ran from what is now downtown Auckland to Birkenhead in 1854 and remained a vital lifeline for people up until the Harbour Bridge was completed in April 1959.
In the 1870s several families had a breakthrough in the form of growing fruit trees, and by the 1880s some thirty orchards were recorded in the area around Zion Hill in Birkenhead (then known as Woodside) with more being established towards Beach Haven and the present day Birkdale. During the late 1800s it was discovered that strawberries grew particularly well in the area. Strawberries and fruit in general, quickly became a major part of the economy.
The whole community were involved in the strawberry picking – Birkdale Primary School was known to be lenient about homework during the picking season. The strawberry fields became so well known that people would ferry over from the city at the weekend for strawberry afternoon teas and in 1898 the Thompson family began making jam in Birkenhead which eventually became New Zealands largest jam company of Thompson and Hills.
This prosperity encouraged even more people to settle the area and in 1888 Birkenhead (which then still included Beach Haven and Birkdale) became a borough and its first mayor was elected – Charles Button.
One of the most impressive features of the North Shore bush is the magnificent Kauri (agathis australis) trees. Around the roots of these trees it is possible to find a resin called Kauri gum. This gum forms when the resin leaks out of the cracks in the bark, it hardens when exposed to air and lumps will fall from the tree eventually fossilising. In appearance it looks very similar to amber.
Maori had many uses for the gum, fresh it could be used like chewing gum (kapia) and as it is highly flammable it made a good firestarter. When it was burnt and mixed with animal fat it became the dark pigment in moko tattooing.
For the European colonists the export of Kauri gum was of major importance, for Auckland as a whole it was the main export for most of the second half of the 19th century. Between 1850 and 1950 some 450,000 tons were exported to England. Its principle use was as a varnish. Kauri gum when heated mixed easily with linseed oil and at lower temperatures and by the 1890s some 70% of all oil varnishes in England used Kauri gum.
The people who harvested the gum were often transient living in rough huts or tents, it was hard work and not very well paid. Even so, in the 1890s 20,000 people were recorded as being engaged in gumdigging throughout Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel. At one point digging for Kauri gum even became a weekend activity for the city side dwellers of Auckland with many catching the ferry to Birkenhead to dig for gum around the suburb. It became such a problem with roads being potholed and private farms dug into, that local authorities brought in special measures to control the matter.
As it was the quality of the gum in Birkenhead was not as high as elsewhere and eventually the gum ran out, the last permit was issued to a Mr Wheeler of Verran’s Corner in 1931.
From this point on the history of the area now becomes one of entreprenurial settlers, families and a sugar factory.