Friday, November 19, 2010

The Point of Historical Awareness

In the latter part of 1923, a movement came to be in the Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier. Led by Michael J Coyle, local politician and luminary both to that suburb and the neighbouring Mt Albert, a committee of determined souls went door-to-door, canvassing almost all of the over 800 ratepayers, and obtaining over 500 signatures to a petition asking the Auckland City Council to change the suburb’s name to Brighton.

What exactly they had against the existing name, I’m still not certain. I’ll be doing some more digging, when I can, for a piece I’ll put in an upcoming issue of the Point Chevalier Times. There were vague references to the name being less than attractive, full of negative connotations, and hindering progress.

In response, another committee was set up, bent on thwarting the first committee, and they too went around the neighbourhoods. They gathered just over 400 signatures. A win to the name-changers, you would have thought. But unfortunately for Mr Coyle and co, their enthusiastic helpers visited the same people in around 200 cases, crossing over each other. With a real total of just over 300 signatures, (many also signed the retention petition later), the Brighton-naming cause was lost.

This incident, though, is an important one. Much more important than at first glance. In the course of heading around and gathering signatures, the retentionists asked the people, “Do you know why Point Chevalier is so-named?” When the answer was “No”, they provided the information: the traditional story of Lt. George Chevalier’s marksmanship in a contest with Lt. Toker, somewhere in the district, possibly the late 1850s or perhaps 1861. How Chevalier won, and the men present that day huzzahed and declared their camp’s name as Camp Chevalier. People who had just started moving in to the suburb, at the beginnings of its development as a working-class housing area, were being informed as to its heritage values. All in order that one side would win the argument.

Along with this door-to-door campaign of knowledge spreading, the two Auckland papers and their editorial letters columns became a battleground between the two sides from the middle of November to early December. Out of that came published recollections from people who were alive back in the days of Chevalier and Toker. Those connected by family ties to the 65th regiment, the one both lieutenants were attached to. Those who recalled seeing old cottages, and remembered when Lt. Chevalier visited the homes of their families. From that forgotten debate a flow of information came which I’m still in the process of assessing and sorting.

I found the debate via a single file in Auckland Council archives containing only the pages of pro and con signatures, and the final Council decision on 5 December 1923 to go with the status quo. It was like finding a piece of pottery on an otherwise empty landscape, only to dig down further and discover value beyond measure.

There is also an untold message in all the words on the printed pages now photographed and viewed on a microfilm strip. That message is: in late 1923, Point Chevalier became aware of its history. It seems to have been a start of a series of start-stop phases for the suburb. Before then though, people had been finding relics linked with Point Chevalier’s past, and bringing them to the attention of the media and the community at large.
The tale of a button found on the battlefield of Waterloo is scarcely so interesting as the story of another of these ornaments to military tunics, and, indeed, almost a twin to that from the fields of Waterloo. This button may be a souvenir, or it may be part of the equipment of an historic regiment. At any rate, it was picked up by a resident of Point Chevalier on the grounds where the troops had their camp in the Maori War. The button is as the other in that it has "India”, a tiger or lion, "14" and "Waterloo" on its face, but the only decipherable letters the back are "London," the maker’s name being too much clogged by filth. The finder of this button is of opinion that it is of great historical value and he reads the inscriptions, together with the place where it has been found, as meaning that the brass fastener has been through at least three campaigns.
(Evening Post, 28 October 1919)

The button came from the 14th Regiment of Foot, stationed in New Zealand from around 1860. The maker was P Tait & Co, and the big cat emblem was a puma. Dating from 1751, the regimental history spanned campaigns both in India and the Napoleonic Wars, hence the Waterloo reference. Today, they are part of the West Yorkshire Regiment.

City Councillors used the traditional story when opening places of note in the suburb, such as Ellen Melville in November 1926, three years after the debate.
The story of how Point Chevalier got its name was related by Miss Ellen Melville at the opening of the new Point Chevalier Library on Saturday … The old Maori name was Te Rae, meaning, "the headland," but in 1860 and 1861 Lieutenant G. R. Chevalier, instructor of musketry in the 60th Regiment of Foot, set up a rifle range at the Point for training the regulars and the militia prior to the departure of the regiment for Taranaki, and the place has been called Point Chevalier ever since.
(Evening Post, 25 November 1926)

The next big phase of heritage recognition was 1961, nearly fifty years ago, when A H Walker put together Rangi-mata-rau. The Pt Chevalier Community Committee, established in the early 1970s, had periods of heritage appreciation, the latest one this past decade finally spawning the Point Chevalier History Group (encouraged by Padmini Raj of ther Pt Chevalier Community Library),  and later Historical Society. But those weeks in late 1923 – that was when, I feel, The Point (a shortening of the place name Mr. Coyle didn’t like at all) came to be aware more fully than ever before that it is an area with a history.

Oh, and if you need info on M J Coyle, leader of the Brighton committee, here’s his obituary as published in the Evening Post, 25 March 1941:
The death has occurred at Auckland of Mr M J Coyle, who had a notable record of public service on many local bodies for a period of over 40 years. Mr Coyle was born at Mount Eden 76 years ago, and spent all his life in Auckland. After passing through the Grafton School he learned the trade of coachbuilding, and set up a business of his own in Eden Terrace. Mr Coyle became one of the best-known men in public life in Auckland. His first experience was gained as chairman of the Mount Albert Road Board for seven years, and when Mount Albert was constituted a borough he became its first Mayor, and was twice reelected to that office. To the Auckland Hospital Board Mr Coyle gave 23 years' service, including 4½ years as chairman during the war period. Mr Coyle was one of the first members of the Auckland Drainage Board, and was chairman of the Point Chevalier Road Board, when that district joined up with the city. He served on the Auckland City Council for 10 years, on the Metropolitan Fire Board for seven, and on the Transport Board for three.


  1. The rifle range is recorded as archaeological site R11/2425 in the NZ Archaeological Association site recording scheme, and is located under Selwyn Village at the end of Target Street. The Military camp at Pt Chev itself is R11/2424.

  2. Hi Jono,

    R11/2425 is probably close to the second rifle range, that used by the naval and militia volunteers, from 1867. So far, the documented evidence I'm seeing might lean the site more to the Eric Armishaw Reserve area -- but it's early days yet. Checking ArchSite, it appears that the original rifle range, on the 127 acres from Meola Reef to the Great North Road haven't been identified -- unless there's info along those lines under R11/349, for example.

    Thanks for the comment though -- you've spurred me on to try to see if the Pt Chevalier Historical Society can sight some of that information for our records. Cheers!