HISTORY OF BRITOMART
WELCOME TO BRITOMART Britomart is a roughly six-hectare rectangle on the waterfront of one of the most beautiful harbours in the world. It lies at the very heart of a buzzing international metropolis, the hub of Auckland’s transport network and a point of convergence for this modern, thriving city.
Gracious old buildings line its perimeter and striking new buildings are springing up between them. It’s a lively community of bars, restaurants, cafes, boutiques and public spaces, with a vibrant culture all its own.
But these few blocks of city land are also layered with an extraordinary amount of history. This is a place where for generations the forces of history have collided, sometimes brutally, to shape a place with enormous economic and cultural significance for both Auckland and New Zealand.
Britomart’s history is one of bloodshed and celebration, toil and triumph, prosperity and abandonment. It’s a story of ground broken, deals done, fortunes won and lost; an astonishing tale of boom and bust and boom again.
Read on and discover Britomart as it has long been, and is to this day: a place of constant change at the forefront of a young and dynamic city.
PREHISTORY The history of Britomart began hundreds of
later this would be named Point Britomart
millions of years ago when a vast area of
– but it would see some significant human
Gondwanaland sank and flooded with water.
It formed a giant basin that gradually filled with layers of mud and stone.
Pinpointing the dates and origins of the first Polynesian arrivals in New Zealand is
Over millions of years of erosion, global
difficult, but the first people probably arrived
warming and cooling, rising and falling sea
and settled here between 800 and 1200
levels and frenetic volcanic activity, the
rugged coast of the Waitematā Harbour took shape.
They came vast distances in search of new lands, navigating by the stars. Most
At the harbour’s southern edge, one of the
of the rich genealogical histories of Māori,
most prominent formations was a sharp
as these first peoples became, date the
headland extending into the harbour, with
Auckland region’s human beginnings to
bays on either side of it. A few million years
around the year 1100.
THE FIRST PEOPLE The ancestral Māori name for the Auckland
The Ngāti Whātua name for the headland
area is ‘Tāmaki-makau-rau’ or the ‘maiden
was Te Rerenga Ora Iti (‘The Leap of the Few
with 100 lovers’. The land was highly
Survivors’). One story tells of a battle here
desirable, with rich and fertile soil, plentiful
around 1680 where Ngāti Whātua raided
fresh water sources and access to abundant
the resident Ngāti Huarere people, forcing
marine resources. Many histories describe
the survivors to leap off the cliff to their
the region as fiercely contested among
freedom or deaths.
Māori tribes. The same method of attack is said to have The headland on the southern edge of the
been used here again in 1822 on a Ngā
harbour was probably the site of at least
Puhi raiding party, during the notorious
one Māori pā, or fortified village. It was a
strategic point, affording good views of the surrounding land and harbour.
There were also, however, long periods of peace in the region – until the arrival of
Today’s Britomart precinct is linked to
European settlers changed everything.
many ancient sites of historical and cultural significance for the Ngāti Whātua people, who trace ancestral ties to the land here.
A NEW ORDER In 1840 Auckland’s colonial history officially
A Royal Navy gunship called HMS Britomart
began with the gifting of 3000 acres of
was subsequently engaged in a detailed
land from Ngāti Whātua to the new British
survey of the Waitematā Harbour. During
the survey, the ship’s name was given to the headland, designating it Point Britomart.
The first signings of the historic Treaty of Waitangi had been made earlier in 1840.
In 1841 New Zealand’s first British fort was
Governor Hobson was based in the Bay of
established on Point Britomart. Its purpose
Islands in the far north and considering
was to control Auckland’s harbour entrance
sites for a new capital city.
and bring order to the growing settlement.
Ngāti Whātua leader Āpihai Te Kawau,
Fort Britomart continued to grow throughout
seeing the benefits of an alliance with the
the 1840s and 50s. During the New
new colonial order, invited Hobson to come
Zealand Wars of the early 1860s, it swelled
to Tāmaki. There he would be presented
to house many of the 10,000 British troops
with land for the building of his new city.
engaged in fighting Māori forces in the Waikato.
The 3000 acres, with the Britomart headland roughly in the centre, were duly
However, the new colony was increasingly
gifted. On 18 September 1840 Auckland’s
expected to fend for itself. Many soldiers
first Union Jack was flown on the headland
were recalled to Britain and the troops that
to mark the site of New Zealand’s first
remained soon moved on to the site of
renewed conflict in Taranaki. By 1867 Fort Britomart lay all but empty.
A C B
KEY: A Quay Street B Queen Street C Customs Street D Breakwater Road (now Britomart Place) E Foreshore Street (now Fort Street)
CHANGING THE LANDSCAPE The departure of the army and the removal
along the harbour front: Freemans Bay,
of the colony’s capital to Wellington left
Commercial Bay and Mechanics Bay.
Auckland’s economy depressed and many people struggling. For a brief period late in
Most of Britomart as we know it today, the
the 1860s Fort Britomart housed the city’s
block of land bordered by Queen, Customs
orphans and abandoned children.
and Quay Streets and Britomart Place, was underwater in 1870. Originally part of the
But the discovery of gold at Thames, 80
seabed in the middle of Commercial Bay, it
kilometres south of Auckland, together with
was built literally from the ground up in the
increased borrowing for development in the
1870s and 80s.
provinces, saw Auckland’s fortunes begin to change again. A proper port was needed to
In 1871 Fort Britomart was demolished and
service the growing city.
the dynamiting of the headland began. Point Britomart was reduced to a vast quantity of
The bay to the east of Point Britomart,
rock and rubble that, along with the city’s
known as Commercial Bay, had always
rubbish, was used to fill in the bays on either
been the main port of the new settlement.
Thirty years earlier, Surveyor-General Felton Mathew had drawn up plans for the new city
This enormous exercise in labour and
that included a large area of reclamation for
horsepower took until 1886 to complete,
resulting in the reclamation of more than seven hectares of land. No trace of the
Mathew’s old plans were now called
headland, whose site is now occupied by the
into service. Point Britomart would be
new Britomart Car Park Building, remains
demolished and three bays reclaimed
BOOM AND BUST In 1882, the first area of reclaimed land to
Despite the depression, a new railway
the north of Customs Street East was ready
station was built on reclaimed land at
to be leased. A crowd attended the auction,
the centre of the Britomart quadrangle.
which was for 19 allotments on a 50-year
Even a struggling city needs infrastructure
lease. The mood was optimistic and all lots
for progress, and some industries –
sold for sums far higher than expected.
merchandising, warehousing and the extractive industries of gold, kauri gum and
However, much of the new land was to lie
timber – were continuing to flourish.
empty for the next few years. Booming in the 1870s, by the mid-1880s Auckland was to
Completed in 1885, the station at Britomart
would be the heart of Auckland’s railway network for another 45 years.
The collapse of the suburban and then
the urban property market saw most of
Economic recovery was slow, but the
those buoyant bidders forced to sell their
explosion of the young city’s population –
Britomart properties before the century
from 88 in 1840 to 180,000 just 60 years
was out. Some lost their fortunes; all were
later – helped Auckland pick itself up and
chastened by the long economic slump that
become a hustling, bustling boom town
BUILDING BRITOMART By the early years of the new century,
The Chief Post Office, a grand symbol of
a cluster of multi-storied merchant
civic advancement, opened to a large and
warehouses and stores had been completed
excited crowd in 1912. It was the postal
on the northern side of Customs Street
and communications hub of the city,
handling banking, mail, telegrams and pension payments. Ministers of Parliament
They were modern, imposing buildings,
conducted electoral business here and
loosely classical in style, and confident
Auckland’s radio wireless service was
statements of commercial prestige and
located on the roof, providing contact with
permanence. They were used to store,
ships at sea.
sort and display goods ranging from locally extracted gum to imported spices, tea and
Britomart was also the transport hub of the
city. Ferries, trains, trams, trolley buses, horses and the new automobile brought
It was a prime location, close to the now-
thousands of people through the area every
thriving port and to Queen Street, rapidly
day. Ships moored at the wharves brought
emerging as the city’s main retail centre. By
goods from overseas, as well as immigrants
1910 virtually all of Customs Street, Quay
arriving to start new lives in the colony.
Street and what is now Britomart Place had been built on. Many of these buildings
These wharves also witnessed the
emotional departure of soldiers to World War I, the heady arrival of large numbers of
For a few decades, Britomart as we would
New Zealand and American servicemen in
largely recognise it was the epicentre of
World War II and the bitter confrontation of
the city’s mercantile industry and its global
the 1951 waterfront workers’ strike.
FALL FROM GRACE Britomartâ€™s heyday as the commercial and
The 1970s and 80s saw a gradual shift in
transport centre of the city was not to last.
the makeup of the Britomart area. Drawn by
The demand for more railway land saw the
the lower rents, the community that moved
train terminus removed to a new building in
in was more bohemian in character. Shops,
Beach Road, just half a mile away. It was the
restaurants, bars and nightclubs opened in
beginning of the 20th-century decline for
buildings around the perimeter of what is
Britomart as a transport centre.
now the Britomart precinct.
The redundant station was redeveloped
But despite the interesting mix of people
as a bus terminal, which opened in 1937.
and businesses, Britomart was suffering
However, throughout the 1940s and 50s the
from lack of investment and fell into
use of ferries, trams and buses continued to
diminish in favour of the car. The bus terminal and car park became Trams were eventually phased out and
run down and filthy. The Post Office moved
with the opening of the Harbour Bridge to
out of the CPO Building in 1988, leaving
motor traffic, the use of ferries declined still
it languishing and eventually derelict, a
further. In 1958 Aucklandâ€™s first car parking
shelter for homeless people and birds.
building, Britomart Car Park, was opened
There was a fire, muggings, a rape and a
next to the bus terminal to accommodate
murder. Britomart had become unsafe,
the growing numbers of private vehicles in
unlovely and largely unloved.
In the following years the lower Queen Street area became less fashionable, with the new Town Hall and cinemas attracting the stylish crowds further up town.
SCHEMES AND DREAMS Plans were being developed, however, for
In 1995 the New Zealand Historic Places
the rejuvenation of the downtown waterfront
Trust gave increased formal heritage
area. Many of the proposed schemes were
protection to the historic Quay and Customs
focused on progress at the expense of the
Street East areas.
area’s heritage. Nevertheless, the Council’s ambitious new A lucky escape in the 1970s saw the area
development plan proposed the part-
on the far side of lower Queen Street
destruction of a number of the heritage
chosen as the site for the large-scale
buildings at Britomart, with the remainder
modern Downtown complex, leaving
dwarfed by 11 vast new towers. This
Britomart relatively untouched.
proposal attracted heavy criticism and was abandoned in 1997 after contractual
Another proposal, by development company
difficulties with the developer.
Kupe, would have seen the destruction of most of Britomart’s historic buildings, but
Eventually, after extensive public
was shelved when Kupe fell victim to the
consultation and an international design
1987 sharemarket crash.
competition, a new proposal came together that would see Britomart rescued and
In the 1990s there was a drive by the
Auckland City Council to redevelop and revitalise the area and address the growing transport problem in the city. It bought up all the Britomart properties that it didn’t already own, including the CPO Building, and announced the launch of the ‘Britomart Project’.
RESTORATION The new vision for Britomart was to allow
Today Britomart is beginning to relive its
the development of a lively and diverse
former glory. Around half of the heritage
precinct-based community, while remaining
buildings have been fully refurbished and
sympathetic to the area’s special heritage.
tenanted, including the CPO Building, now
The master plan included an underground
gateway to the busy underground railway
rail station and transport interchange
centred around the historic CPO Building. At the centre of Auckland’s train, bus and After stiff international competition, the
ferry networks, Britomart is once again
private Bluewater Consortium won the right
the transport hub of the city. Its evolution
to buy the Britomart development. The
into a vibrant mix of restaurants, bars,
Bluewater Consortium was contracted to
offices, shops, galleries, cafes, hotels and
refurbish the heritage buildings, develop
apartments is now well underway.
several major new buildings and create a network of public spaces.
The 21st century will see Britomart’s restoration as a thriving urban centre: one
Bluewater Management Company later
that celebrates New Zealand’s unique
bought out its partners in the Consortium
history and culture and provides a heart for
and changed its name to Cooper and
the city once more.
Company. Cooper and Company has a contract with Auckland City Council for the long-term ownership and development of the Britomart precinct, including 150year leases on the historic buildings and renewable 50-year leases on the new buildings.
Discover the fascinating past of the Britomart precinct, one of Auckland’s richest historical areas.