Thursday, September 2, 2010

Keeping Auckland's treasures safe during WWII

The Auckland Star of 1 August 1944 published an article on the gradual return to the public eye of various collections of the city's treasures. While air raid shelters were created in the depths of city buildings, tunnels under Albert Park, and Anderson-style bomb shelters dug in school grounds, precious objects were buried (such as the statue of Sir John Logan Cambell from Campbell Crescent, the statue of a Maori chief from the Maori Centennial Memorial atop One Tree Hill, and artillery spanning the Land Wars through to World War I from Albert Park, beneath fifteen feet of earth at the sites they graced before the war).

The first four folios of William Shakespeare's woerks, books printed by William Caxron, and a number of fifteenth century volumes, "rare books of New Zealand interest, manuscripts of histrorical importance, and the bound issues of early Auckland newspapers" were placed in twenty large cases, and sent to a large basement of a ferro-concrete building in Te Awamutu from August 1942 until a few months before the Star report. City Librarian John Barr made regular journeys south to make sure the collections had come to no harm while in storage, in waterproof wrapping.

The authorities at the Auckland War Memorial Museum found a number of storage places, "over a fairly widely dispersed area," including the specially-strengthened basement of the Museum itself (some of the natural history specimens), a 10 feet deep hole at the back of the museum for flammable specimens (those stored in spirits), a stone building and private house in the suburbs, and "more of the material was stored in a brick fire-resisting farm institution in the Papatoetoe district."

The museum's greenstone collection from the Maori section was secreted "in a cave-cum-tunnel in scoria country on private property in the South Auckland district," formerly used as a storage place for explosives. An air-circulating plant was specially installed, "and the entrance barred with a strong steel door embedded in concrete."

The museum's research collection of insects was placed in the safe-keeping of the DSIR plant research station at Mt Albert. 

For those collections remaining at the museum, some were rendered safer in case of aearial bombardment, such as the thatch removed from various native houses on display. As at the time of the report, all the exhibits were back at the museum and on display, apart from the insects (still being used and studied at Mt Albert.)


  1. Did NZ ever have any 'contact' during the war? I am sure not, though NZ certainly made its contribution to the 'war effort'. While it is amusing that preparations were made, I suppose if Australia fell, NZ might have been next. Gee, you could have a bullet train between Auckland and Christchurch, 15 minutes to Wellington, 30 to Christchurch.

  2. I'm not sure "amusing" is quite how I'd describe, even now, the descriptions of NZ's preparations in case of aerial attack. That's what all this was about. They knew, back then, that if it came to an actual invasion -- then, it was all gone. They knew what happened at Pearl Harbor, and then they'd have heard the reports about Darwin's bombing. I suppose they hoped that if we were ever blitzed down here, that help would come over the hill, so to speak, in the nick of time.

    The Japanese might not have stayed here long, any rate. Too many cranky wetas.

  3. My father, who was a fireman, used to say there was a period after the fall of Singapore when it was widely believed that invasion was likely. Precautions were widespread, from digging shelter trenches in some school grounds to arming the air force's Tiger Moth trainers with small bombs. There were blackouts and an air-raid warning system put into place. It may seem amusing now, but it was serious stuff back then. Fortunately, the worst that happened were things like some overflights by scout aircraft launched from Japanese vessels and occasional German submarine coming too close to the coast. Your post provided a fascinating insight to a rarely-examined aspect of troubled times … that weren't really all THAT long ago.

  4. Thanks, Phil. Good to hear from you again!

  5. Weren't some Japs meant to have come ashore and milked some goats? Or was that an urban myth?

    Great post L! Very interesting.


  6. Thanks, Sandy. I've heard about that story somewhere, but can't for the life of me think where. It'll be one of those things where, in days to come, I'll come across it with an "Ah ha!"