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HISTORY OF BRITOMART

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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.

history first.

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

years ago.

rugged coast of the Waitematā Harbour took shape.

They came vast distances in search of new lands, navigating by the stars. Most

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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

Musket Wars.

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.

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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

Governor.

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

colonial capital.

renewed conflict in Taranaki. By 1867 Fort Britomart lay all but empty.

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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)

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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.

side.

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,

port facilities.

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

today.

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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

go bust.

would be the heart of Auckland’s railway network for another 45 years.

The collapse of the suburban and then

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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

followed.

once more.


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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,

East.

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

agricultural machinery.

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

survive today.

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.

network.

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FALL FROM GRACE Britomart’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

increasing decay.

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 Auckland’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.

the city.

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.

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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

restored.

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’.

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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

station.

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.

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Britomart History Presentation