Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Tale of Two Mills

I've been looking into the story of the mouth of the Oakley Creek for some years, now. I've already released the product of that research, Terminus and posted it online via Scribd. But the centre of the obsession was the old Star Mills of Waterview.

To the right is a map from LINZ records of the Oakley Creek, drafted as part of the land transaction records to do with John Thomas from 1859. The yellow circle is the site where, I believe, any archaeological remains of the Star Mills are likely to be found. There were two mills, one built c.1859, burned down in 1873, and the second which replaced it, and disappeared from history c.1909.

But these are not the "two mills" of this post's title.

At some point, someone in the Auckland Central Library found a photograph of a mill (below). Perhaps they thought that it looked somewhat like a scene from Oakley Creek. The fact that the Star Mills existed was fairly well-known -- it's been a part of the fabric of our local knowledge since A. H. Walker wrote about it in Rangi-Mata-Rau in the 1960s. They added the following information to it:

"Showing the old mill on the banks of the Oakley Creek at Waterview built by John Thomas around 1859 and burned down in 1873. A second mill, known as Star Mills, was built by Thomas Barraclough and John Thomas Junior. It was converted to a tannery by the Garrett brothers before 1878, and was demolished about 1910." (Photo reference 7-A2820, Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries)

But, it just never looked quite right to me. It was used in a report on the Star Mill by Robin Mason and Peter McCurdy, who naturally went by the caption on the photograph, and subsequently used in displays during talks by Robin Mason to the Avondale Community Board, Friends of Oakley Creek, and West Auckland Historical Society in 2006. WAHS even published it in their newsletter. But -- still, I wasn't convinced that this was Oakley Creek.

Then, in the latest issue of Memories magazine (June/July), I found a familar photograph on page 8, in an article on Captain Ninnis of the Kawau Island copper mines, from the "Muir Collection". It seems, after Kawau, he turned to flax-milling. The caption to that photo, identical to the Special Collections one, reads: "The Flax Mill with the water wheel, built by James Ninnis and Dr. Purchas at the Waitangi Falls, Waiuku, later used as a flour mill."

I was delighted, but cautious. I checked with Special Collections, showing them the two photos, and they found this one (below) in thier Waiuku files:

This (A8084) is captioned: "WAIUKU. Flour mills at Waitangi Falls. From Waiuku Museum."

From there, I went to the Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. They have another version of the above photo, even more of the building cropped out, from the "Botany Division 1971". The focus of the photo wasn't so much the mill building, it was the plants around that stream. Another faded photograph at the museum showed the mill, identical to the Special Collections photo, at Waiuku. 75% sure now that the Special Collections photo had been mis-captioned, I returned to Auckland Library, to hunt for further proof. I found it in B. D. Muir's 1983 book Waiuku and District: The Romantic Years. There, on a page beside a description he's taken from the Weekly News of 1889, was the photograph in Special Collections and the Memories magazine.

So, we are now left with just two photos of the Star Mill, and both (from the NZ Graphic, two different dates) show only the second Star Mill, by then converted to being part of a tannery, possibly housing the tannery's steam engines. (Photo ref: 7-A1683, Special Collections)

Of course, the site of the old mills at Oakley Creek are right in the path of the SH20 motorway, so all this discussion over which photo is which is most likely moot. But at least I know now my gut feeling was correct.


  1. Excellent work, well done!
    It's such an easy thing to accidentally mis-label historical items, or perpetuate a story, until it becomes 'fact'.

  2. Absolutely, Jayne, and thanks. Folks should keep in mind: this is not Special Collection's fault at all, nor should anyone poke the finger at any other archive or library when this happens. It just does. At least I now know what's what, and Specials have said they'll change the caption. These things take time (especially the electronic online bit), but -- it will happen.

    So, while others were marching in our anti-Super City hikoi on Monday, I was standing waiting for the bus held up by the hikoi to get to the museum, chasing the photo accreditation. Someone who knows me asked if I minded waiting longer than usual for the bus. I replied something along the lines of: I've waited 3-4 years to find out the truth behind the photo. What's another half-hour?

  3. Oh no, these type of errors aren't intentional and no one is really to blame; people just take the title or label of something in good faith from a source and then it's done.

  4. My great great great great Grandfather is John Thomas

    1. Hi James,
      John Thomas was my great great grand father.I guess you feature on a different page of the Thomas book ?

  5. Good to hear from you, then, James. Cheers!

  6. I have a pencil print I says on front THE OLD MILL WAITANGI...ON BACK IT IS HARD TO READ....HAPPY TO PHOTOGRAPH..