History of Birkenhead District

Dr H. Halcrow Nicholson
Maori inhabitants of this district, who were attracted by the rich fishing grounds nearby, avoided the poor soils on the hills and settled on headlands around the Waitemata harbour margin, notably at Northcote Point (Onewa) and Kauri Point (Te Matarae-a-mana). Tribal warfare in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century periodically depopulated the region. In 1841 the land, as part of the great Mahurangi block, was sold to the new Government in Auckland.

The earliest Europeans included missionaries, kauri millers and gum diggers. Permanent settlers followed, and began clearing the hilly land for farming and orchards in the 1850s. The bush and scrub cover and clay soils demanded hard work, but eventually, the district became known for its fruit trees and strawberries.

Transport was always a problem into the twentieth century and a number of orchards with water frontages even had their own jetties. A wharf was built at Birkenhead point in 1882, and another at Birkdale (now Beach Haven) in 1888. A bus service to the Birkenhead wharf was running by 1910.

As Auckland grew, an estate southeast of Highbury was subdivided into housing sections in 1883, and named Birkenhead after a suburb of Liverpool noted for its elegant, expensive houses and sea views. Soon, large, handsome villas were built for successful professional and businessmen who could now commute by ferry to Auckland.

The opening of the New Zealand Sugar Company’s factory and worker’s village in 1884 substantially increased the district’s population so that Birkenhead Borough was established in 1888.

A nearby property gave its name ‘Highbury’ to the crossroads between Glenfield and Mokoia Roads where shops began to be established. Several large blocks of shops were established through the 1920s and 1930s. One of the earliest purpose-built self-service foodmarkets in New Zealand was opened by Tom Halcrow in 1949. Since then, the little cluster of shops has expanded into a sizeable shopping centre complete with mall.

Birkenhead and Northcote remained somewhat remote from the rest of North Shore and Auckland until the Auckland Harbour Bridge was opened in 1959. Properties were quickly subdivided and the strawberry fields and market gardens made way for the expanding suburb. New residents flooded in to the borough as they discovered the beauties and pleasant ambience of the Borough – and what was then the easy 15 minute drive to Auckland.

The bush-covered catchment area for the sugar refinery’s water supply stretched from Balmain Road in the west to Huka Road to the east. When the city water supply became available in the 1960s this land was subdivided and turned into the Chatswood estate, adding to the Borough’s population. Birkenhead Borough was promoted to Birkenhead City in 1978, and in 1989 Birkenhead, along with all the other North Shore suburbs became amalgamated into North Shore City.

References

Alec Utting (comp.). Life, Laughter and Love in the Early Years: Remembering earlier times in Birkenhead and Birkdale. Birkenhead Historical Society Inc 2004.

Birkenhead, New Zealand. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birkenhead,_New_Zealand

Muriel Fisher. A history of the development from the earliest days to 1968, of the North Shore borough of Birkenhead compiled by Muriel Fisher and W. J. Hilder. Birkenhead Borough Council, 1969.

Margaret McClure. The Story of Birkenhead. Birkenhead City Council, 1987.

North Shore City Council. Highbury Centre Plan, 2006.

The Birkenhead Historical Society Newsletter (quarterly).
Museum: 44 Mahara Avenue, PO Box 34419 Birkenhead.

The Museum is open 2pm to 4pm on Sundays. Stories and reminiscences from the newsletters are available at www.historicbirkenhead.com

THE CHELSEA SUGAR WORKS IN BIRKENHEAD


In 1882 the New Zealand Government offered a reward to the first company to set up a sugar refinery in New Zealand. A partnership was set up by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company of Australia, the Victorian Sugar Company and a number of New Zealand business men. The Chelsea site was selected for its area of flat land for the refinery, the fresh water supply from Duck Creek, its deep water for a port, and the building materials on-site, all within four miles of Auckland

Construction began in 1883 with 150 men who lived in tents making bricks by hand. One million bricks were used in the buildings and half a million for the dams across Duck Creek. 100 of the men stayed on to work at the refinery after it opened in 1884. Many of these men and their families were housed in a village of workmen’s houses below the present brick houses. The village was demolished in 1905 and the present duplex brick houses were built in 1909 so that tradesmen living on site could attend emergencies.

Before the introduction of bulk handling in 1958 and then computerisation, working conditions were extremely tough, relying on the muscle power of men and horses to lift the 70 and 140 pound sacks of sugar.

The history of the refinery is inextricably tied in with the history of central Birkenhead which was virtually a company town. By the 1940s, many houses on the slopes overlooking Chelsea had been bought by sugar workers with cheap loans from the company. The water catchment area was replanted with native and exotic trees, and the public has always had free access to the park-like grounds surrounding the factory.

The close links between the refinery, the sugar workers and Birkenhead remained until 1959 when the Harbour Bridge was opened. When the NZ Sugar Co Ltd Head Office was moved from Fort Street to the refinery in 1986, the Company very thoughtfully gave all the accumulated archives to the Birkenhead Library and these can be viewed by appointment.

References

Alec Utting (comp.). Life, Laughter and Love in the Early Years: Remembering earlier times in Birkenhead and Birkdale. Birkenhead Historical Society Inc 2004.

Chelsea Archives:
http://discover.elgar.govt.nz/iii/encore/search/C__Sbirkenhead%20chelsea__Orightresult__U?lang=eng&suite=def

Peter Luke. Sugar Workers, Sugar town: An oral history of Chelsea Sugar Refinery, 1884-1984. New Zealand Sugar Company Limited, 1984.

Chelsea Sugar: History of Chelsea http://www.chelsea.co.nz/our-story/

The Birkenhead Historical Society Newsletter (quarterly).
Museum: 44 Mahara Avenue, PO Box 34419 Birkenhead.

The Museum is open 2pm to 4pm on Sundays. Stories and reminiscences from the newsletters are available at http://www.historicbirkenhead.com/