Tag Archives: Auckland

Stepping Back in Time – Howick Historical Village.

Tucked away in east Auckland is the suburb of Howick, here you can find a gem of living history – the Howick Historical Village.

Over the years the family and I have visited the village on numerous occasions, it is pleasant escape from the technology and mass produced entertainment which so very much a part of our lives today.  Although the bones of the place are immovable the addition of monthly live days and special events makes every visit different in some way.

By Pseudopanax at English Wikipedia – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26380935

The Village depicts life as it was in nineteenth century New Zealand with particular emphasis on the fencible settlement of Howick.  Colonial Howick was originally founded by Governor George Grey who concerned about the potential threats from both Maori and the French. He established a chain of settlements around the southern part of Auckland as both an early warning system and a line of defence for the burgeoning new town.

Governor Grey originally requested troops to man these settlements however, it was decided to send retired soldiers to settle the area as members of the Royal New Zealand Fencible Corps, these were men who had served in the wars of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.  To be eligible to emigrate under the scheme the veterans had to be under 48 years of age and of ‘good character’ with ‘industrious habits’.  If they qualified they were given free passage to New Zealand with their families, a cottage and an acre of land.  In return they were required to partake in certain military activities and after seven years the land and the cottage would be theirs. Although they were given a small pension they were also expected to undertake work of some kind in the new colony.

Between 1847 and 1854 some 2500 fencibles and their families arrived in New Zealand, doubling the population of Auckland at the time.  Other fencible villages included Panmure, Otahuhu and Onehunga.  The live days at the Village have volunteers dressed in costume doing activities you might see on any given day in a fencible/colonial village including soldiers parading, wood turning, blacksmithing, ladies doing the chores such as washing, sewing and baking.  There are also special themed days such as ‘A Colonial Christmas’ or an Easter egg hunt or a summer fete.

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The Village today is based around Bell House which was given to the Howick Historical Society in 1972, negotiations at the time then secured a further five acres of land which later became the seven acres it is today.  It took eight years of fundraising and working bees by many volunteers to turn it into a living museum.  Many of the cottages on site were donated and transported to the village, of which there are now thirty buildings.  It was officially opened on the 8th of March 1980.

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Today the village is enjoyed by school groups as part of their education outside of the classroom modules and students on school holiday programmes – children are encouraged to dress in period appropiate costumes, leaving technology behind.  Having attended during a school visit with my sons class, I can vouch for it being throughly enjoyed by all.  On that occasion, the students learnt how to churn butter, played games of the times, baked bread in a wood fired oven, drew water from a well and attended a session in a nineteenth century school.

A school group playing skip rope.
My son and daughter trying their hand at walking on blocks.
“Seriously?! This was the only way to get water?!” All round disbelief from the tweens.
Practising writing in cursive made doubly hard by using a ink pen.

One of the striking aspects of the village are the gardens which have in themselves become an important heritage project with links to the Heritage Tree Crops Association and Auckland Seed Savers.  Vegetables, herbs and eggs from the free range chickens are often available to buy at the main entrance.  Another less well known part of the village is its research library which contains many documents and photographs for the early days of Howick – a vital resource for those who interested in the history of the area or those researching family trees.

A traditional cob and reed roof cottage.
Inside the cob cottage.
A soldiers camp with two very unlikely looking soldiers…
A view of the village, looking over the green.


For more information on The Howick Historical Village go to:-


or for information on their collections you can search at the following link:-




Early Archaeology in Auckland – Otuataua Stonefields.

There are not many places within the city of Auckland where a person is able to get up close and personal with the early archaeology of the region, but the Otuataua Stonefields is one such place.  Although this small pocket is classed as a protected site, it is part of a much wider area called Ihuamato which sadly is under threat by developers.  The stonefields did not exist in isolation and whilst the archaeology is not obvious  to the untrained eye, it is undoubtedly there.  It would be shameful if the council allowed work to proceed with out a full archaeological investigation.  In general atitudes in New Zealand towards archaeology is a case of “there’s not alot of archaeology here” with the implication because we do not have the lengthy timeframes as elsewhere in the world it is not as important.  But this is erroneous and a result of a lack of knowledge –  there are over 50,000 archaeological sites listed in New Zealand…The stonefields and Ihuamato are an important part of New Zealand’s very early history and to say otherwise would deny a people their past and demonstrate a dismal lack of understanding.


Aerial view of the stonefields – the pale lines are stones piled along the natural ridges.


Two hundred years ago there were some 8000 hectares of volcanic stonefields in the Auckland area, today the 100 hectare reserve of Otuataua is all which remains.  Dated to around 1300AD and situated near the international airport the reserve was established in 2001 to protect this important part of the archaeological record and is one of the last places where we can see large scale remains of how people once lived and worked in the volcanic areas of Auckland.

When the first Polynesians arrived in New Zealand they bought with them the full range of tropical plants however New Zealand’s shorter growing season and colder temperatures meant that many of these tropical plants could not be grown.  Only plants such as the kumara (sweet potato), taro, yams and gourds had any success, particularly in the volcanic stonefields of Auckland.


At Otuataua it is possible to see low mounds of the volcanic scoria stone scattered throughout an area referred to as the mound garden used mainly to grow kumara they extended the growing season by about a month.

“The mounds were built as special garden plots, which used the stone’s heat absorbing properties to help warm the earth and retain moisture.  Archaeologists have found that these types of mounds often contain specially modified soil, with added organic matter and ground shell.”

(from ‘The Otuataua Stonefields – Official Opening Commemorative Brochure’ Manukau City Council)


The mound garden looking towards the later European dry stone wall.


It is safe to say that there is probably not a single stone which has not been moved by human hands.  Walking towards the sea, you come across an area of low hills and gullies.  The gully floors seem unnaturally free of stone, here the stone has been stacked on top of the hillocks to leave the gully floors free for cultivation.


The cleared gullies of the gardens as seen from the Pa – the Manakau harbour in the background.



Other interesting archaeological features at Otuataua include the Pa (hillfort or defended settlement) which utilises the volcanic cone.  Auckland has many volcanic cones, all of which were used and settled by the Maori throughout history.  Here at Otuataua it is no different.   Unfortunately this particular cone has been extensively quarried for scoria before the site became a reserve resulting in the loss of a large part of the Pa.   However, it is still possible to make out the terraces on the southern side – these are the level areas cut into the lower slopes and were where Maori lived.

                                                                 The remnants of the Pa.

A second interesting feature is the site referred to as ‘The Big House’.  On an outcrop about half way between the mound garden and the gullies is a rectangular outline of stone.  This is believed to be the foundation of what was once a large house or structure, nearby are several shell middens.  Having never been excavated it is difficult to say what this structure was used for but the presence of the shell middens on the slopes below would indicate meals were eaten here.  Perhaps it was a communal place to share food whilst working in the gardens?

All over Otuataua shell middens can be found, not surprising given the proximity to the coast.  Fishing, shell fish gathering and horticulture were the mainstays of the local economy.


A shell midden – the small white flecks are pieces of shell, note the deep rich colour of the soil, perfect for growing crops.



This large mound on the edge of the Pa is a very substantial midden…


In Polynesia crops such as kumara are left in the ground until they are needed however here in New Zealand with its cooler climate the early settlers found they could not do this as the kumara will rot.  Instead it became necessary to harvest the kumara and store it.  At Otuataua the visitor will occasionally come across a shallow depression in the ground, roughly rectangular in shape and usually found on slopes or ridges (for good drainage).  These are all that remains of the storage pits for kumara.  Originally these pits would have had timber walls and thatched roofs.  It is interesting to note that the storage pits here at Otuataua are outside of the defended Pa, obviously the people felt secure and safe here on the edge of the Manukau Harbour.

A reconstruction drawing of how a kumara storage structure may have looked.



During my visit to the stonefields, trying not to lose both the kids and the dog I was walking along the edge of a eroded shell midden when my eye was caught by an unusual stone.  Unusual because it was not scoria and was very smooth on one side.  The flip side was shaped to fit into the palm of your hand and although I am not much of an expert I am reasonably certain this was a rubbing stone for turning root vegetables such as taro or fern roots into pulp.  A necessary procedure if you wanted to eventually eat it.


See the following article for more information on Otuataua  – Photo-essay: Ihumatao and the Otautaua Historic Reserve


A Day Trip to Kawau Island

Blue sea, blue sky, warm sunshine and a gentle breeze.  It was a perfect day for a trip to the beautiful island of Kawau in the Hauraki Gulf .

Kawau Island is roughly 8 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide, its highest point is Mt Grey at 182metres above sea level.  Kawau is Maori word for cormorant.  For those wishing to experience island life access is by ferry.  The ferry to the island leaves from Sandspit, just north of Warkworth.  Full of day trippers slathered in sunscreen it visits the various wharves dotted along the sheltered side of the island delivering the mail, groceries and other goods.  For the visitor it is a good introduction to an island which has only two short private roads and where the majority of properties rely on access to the sea.  Neighbours visit neighbour either on foot or by boat and kayak.


School House Bay – there is no longer a school on the island. The few school age children go to school on the mainland.

Island History

Prior to the Europeans Kawau was often fought over by local Maori.  During the 18th century a ‘pirate’ like group of Maori lived on the island – there are at least three known pa sites (two on Bon Accord Harbour and one in the north of the island).  According to tradition the Kawau Maori would attack other Maori travelling around the island, something which was not tolerated for long.  Eventually, other local tribes from the mainland banded together and attacked the Maori of Kawau.  The island tribe was completely massacred and tradition says a large feast ensued at Bostaquet Bay where parts of their enemies were cooked and eaten.  A tapu was placed on Kawau making it no-go area for Maori – the tapu is still in place.

The next important phase of the history of the island began in 1842 with the discovery of copper and manganese.  Miners were brought in from Wales and Cornwall to work the mines and smelting works.  The population of the island at this time was approximately 300.

The remains of the smelting works can be seen in Bon Accord Harbour just along from the present day yacht club.  On a small point between Dispute Cove and South Cove there is also the ruins of pumphouse constructed to alleviate flooding issues.  The pumphouse would not look out of place in Cornwall.  In 1844/45 the mine produced some 7000 pounds of Copper which represented a third of Auckland’s exports for that year.  Unfortunately issues with flooding, shipping and infighting resulted in the mines being closed down in 1855.

In 1862 Sir George Grey, then the Governor of New Zealand paid 3,700 pounds for Kawau Island and turned it into a private retreat.  He turned the former mine managers house into the imposing mansion you see today and imported many exotic plants and wildlife to the island.  In 1888 Sir Grey sold Kawau and Mansion house had several owners and in 1910 it became a guest house and a popular retreat for Aucklanders.  The last private owner sold the house in 1967 to the Government for inclusion in the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park.

Mansion House, Mansion House Bay – the ferry drops people off here to swim, picnic and walk island paths.

However it was not until the late 1970s was a plan put together to preserve the historical character of the island and thus the house.  Today 10% of the island is in public ownership as the Kawau Island Historic Reserve (and includes Mansion House and Bay) which is administered by the NZ Department of Conservation.   One of the many ongoing issues faced by the island is the damage done to the native flora and fauna by Sir Grey’s introduced species, namely the wallabies and possums.  Both animals have been responsible for the destruction of much of the native bush.  However, slowly but surely the tide is turning and now there are kiwi, bellbirds, tui, kereru and more returning to the island.  Kawau Island is in fact home to two thirds of the entire population of the North Island weka.

One of the many weka who frequent the picnic benches…


The Place I Call Home

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.

Early History

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.


Traces of a shell midden.

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.

This headland seen from the beach at Kendalls Bay is thought to be the site of an important pa (defended settlement).


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.


The view to the city and harbour bridge from Birkenhead wharf.


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.

There are still some impressive groves of the mighty kauri standing in the area.

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.