Friday, December 16, 2011

Tunnelling under Albert Park

Looking east from Albert Park towards Princes Street, showing part of the gardens and the fountain (right); photographer Henry Winkelmann, 6 January 1921, ref. 1-W1710, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries.

Looking at the mown lawns and laid-out gardens, with what statuary has survived the cruel indignities of vandalism over the decades, it is at times difficult to comprehend that beneath all that are the remains of one of Auckland's bits of wartime history.

Map of the WWII Albert Park tunnels. Click to enlarge. NZ Map 6508, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council libraries

Come the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, precautions were hastily arranged lest our city suffered air raids, or attack by sea. One of the ideas was to create a vast system of tunnels beneath Albert Park to Wellesley, Kitchener and Victoria Streets, under Bowen Avenue to another part of Kitchener Street and across Waterloo Quadrant and Symonds Street to Constitution Hill; an air raid shelter complex capable of hosting 20,000 Aucklanders working in the city centre.

AUCKLAND, January 19.
A scheme to provide deep air-raid shelters for more than 20,000 people in tunnels under Albert Park and Constitution Hill is to be submitted to the Government through the Public Works Department by the Auckland City Council and the Auckland Central Committee of the Emergency Precautions Service. The Mayor and Chief Warden, Mr. Allum, said that various proposals were under discussion. Plans for a scheme prepared by the works technical group committee were nearing completion, and an early decision was expected. The scheme is complementary to one recently announced for making public shelters in 35 buildings in the central city area. If it is accepted by the Government the latter will provide 75 per cent, of the cost under the provisions of emergency shelter regulations. The proposed shelters consist .of three systems of timbered tunnels, two under Albert Park and one under Constitution Hill, with about a dozen entrances distributed so as to give easy access from various directions. The scheme provides for linking the two groups of tunnels under Albert Park with each other and by long connecting tunnels with the Constitution Hill group. This arrangement is meant to ensure that if some of the entrances were closed by bomb explosions a number of others would be available for egress, if necessary, at a distance. Mechanical ventilation, sanitation, and electric lighting are important features of the scheme. The steepness of the hillsides ensures ample head cover at a moderate distance inside each entrance …

Evening Post 20 January 1942 

AUCKLAND, February 4.
The Albert Park and Constitution Hill tunnel shelter scheme for 20,000 people has been approved by the Government, according to advice received by the Mayor and chief warden, Mr. Allum. The practical effect of this is that the Government will find 75 per cent of the cost, which is estimated at £120,000, and the remainder will be provided by local bodies contributing to the upkeep of the Emergency Precautions Service in Auckland. The Mayor said that surveys on the site were still in progress, but he hoped it would be possible to start work very shortly. It was believed that if three shifts were employed it would be possible to complete the scheme in about, four months. The tunnels would begin to be usable as shelters at a fairly early stage, and accommodation would increase as the work went on. Plans prepared under the direction of the city engineer, Mr. Tyler, provide for groups of galleries arranged gridiron-fashion under Albert Park and the Bowen Avenue reserve. Each group will have cross-galleries at intervals so that there will be no dead ends. The shelter galleries are to be large enough in section to take a wooden bench on each side, with standing room between for use when all seating is occupied. Electric light and sanitation will be installed.

Evening Post 5 February 1942 

AUCKLAND, This Day. Work was begun today on the construction of a system of tunnels that will radiate under Albert Park, as one of the city's main raid precaution measures. An increasing number of workmen will be employed as the work progresses, including all available City Council staff and outside labourers, working day and night to finish the job in four months.

Evening Post 12 February 1942 

Men Busy 24 hours daily
Working 24 hours a day, large gangs of men are making progress with driving a system of tunnels under Albert Park, to provide shelter for 20,000 city workers in the event of an enemy attack from air or sea. Seven main and two subsidiary drives are being made from points around the perimeter of the park, and an extensive system of cross-tunnels is included in the scheme to avoid the possibility of people being trapped underground through any one of the entrances being blocked by a direct hit. Under the harsh glare of electric lamps, far removed from the friendly daylight, men are constantly working in what to a stranger seems an inferno of noise.

Overhead, the stout timbers that line and support the tunnels are dimly seen, and at the face of grey sandstone, earth or clay, men stand or crouch, chiselling away at the stone with pneumatic tools. Operators have their heavy picks against the face, and the tunnel is filled with a deafening roar that ceases when the air-pressure is turned off only long enough for them to change position and make a fresh attack. Other workmen shovel the spoil into trucks, and rails run back to the entrance, where the spoil is converted by a hoist into a hopper, and discharged into waiting motor trucks. For all the sense of unreality underground, with endless noise and dampness underfoot caused through seepage, there is a feeling of real security from any possible raid. The timbers that line the roof and sides of the tunnel are mounted in such a way that the immense pressure from above serves merely to set them more firmly to position, and ventilation is good, special shafts having been provided.

Ultimately the doors of the tunnels will be covered with scoria, seats will be provided, a more permanent system of electric lighting installed, and first-aid posts built. A special feature will be blast-chambers, with stout walls designed to prevent the blast of near misses from penetrating deep into the tunnels, and injuring occupants. Because only a limited number of men can work at any one face, work is being done on some tunnels from both ends, and also from the middle. This is made possible by sinking shafts down from the surface to tunnel level, and working from there to connect with the tunnels being pushed forward from the perimeter. An emergency water supply, for use for fire-fighting, should the main supply be interrupted, is contained in a reservoir built in Albert Park. It will hold 100,000 gallons. 

NZ Herald 14 May 1942 

Auckland. —Tunnellers this afternoon fired the shot which finally pierced a tunnel 2000 feet long under Albert Park, extending from Victoria Street to Constitution Hill. The Mayor (Mr. Allum) and the City Engineer (Mr. Tyler) shook hands through the final opening. The tunnel and side tunnels will provide air-raid accommodation for 20,000 people in the heart of the City. 

Evening Post 12 August 1942 

After all the hard work, the shelters were opened in October 1942.

The Mayor of Auckland, J A C Allum, photographed with a group of officials at the entrance to the Albert Park Tunnel. Photographed in October 1942 by the Weekly News. Ref. PAColl-0783-2-0064, Alexander Turnbull Library.
Auckland Shelters.
The air-raid shelters under Albert Park were inspected by the Governor-General, Sir Cyril Newall, yesterday, a Press Association message reports. His Excellency made a detailed inspection along the route, and at the plan board made careful inquiry into the practical aspects of dealing within a few minutes with a very large crowd. One point he made which should be given the widest publicity, the message says, is the tendency of people in the first rush to stop at the end of the access tunnels. This would soon block the entrances. The Mayor informed him that wardens would be posted to keep the stream moving rapidly inward. 

Evening Post 5 December 1942 

Two things, however. One: after all that, we weren't bombed from the skies or shot at from the Waitemata Harbour. Two: the tunnels cost money, quite a sum for maintenance, let alone all that electricity. The other councils in the area which contributed towards the tunnels both in their construction costs and ongoing maintenance, began to get edgy as the war wore on, and it became apparent how far back from the front our country turned out to be. The EPS was questioned, and the decision came to fill in the tunnels.

The Auckland central committee of the E.P.S. decided today that as soon as labour is available the public shelter trenches will be filled in and the Public Works Controller, who is the city engineer, has been given instructions, the Mayor said, to begin the work as soon as possible. There will be no objection to people filling in their backyard trenches. The tunnels are to be maintained in the meantime. 

Evening Post 11 August 1943 

But wait! some said in Auckland City. We have traffic problems (due to being a city designed for horse-and-cart, rather than the ever-increasing in numbers motor car). How about preserving the tunnels, and having traffic drive straight through?
AUCKLAND, This Day. P.A.
Representatives of the Auckland local bodies in conference this morning viewed with favour a proposal that a traffic tunnel as a new outlet from the city should be constructed under Albert Park, where there is at present an extensive tunnel shelter. The Mayor, Mr. J. A. C. Allum, submitted a comprehensive report containing four recommendations, firstly that the City Council seek Government authority to construct a tunnel as proposed by the city engineer at. an estimated cost of £276,000, secondly that the council undertake to fill in the side tunnels at an estimated cost of £30,000 without subsidy from the Government or contribution from the local authorities, thirdly that the Government be requested to contribute £75,000 towards the cost of the works outlined, and fourthly that the Government and contributory local bodies be requested to allow the council to take over without payment all the existing plant and equipment, arid whatever portion of the existing tunnel work which may be of value in constructing the traffic tunnel. The delegates decided to recommend the scheme to their local bodies as a reasonable one. 

Evening Post 17 November 1943 

But -- this was thought about, and found to be an idea with nowhere to go.

The abandonment of the proposal to construct a traffic tunnel under Albert Park was agreed to by the City Council on Thursday on the recommendation of the .Mayor, Mr. J. A. C. Allum. The recommendation was made in a report in which he advised that the Government was prepared to contribute £45,000 on condition that the money was applied either to back-filling of the existing air-raid tunnels or towards the construction of a traffic tunnel. As the Government was responsible for 75 per cent of the cost of back-filling the tunnels, the Mayor said it would be seen that its estimated liability, namely, £43,500, nearly equalled the amount of the present offer, and conferred no material advantage on the council. Mr. Allum said the cost of maintaining the tunnels was now considerable owing to the natural deterioration of the timber. He recommended that the Auckland Metropolitan Emergency Precautions Organisation be requested to back-fill the tunnels as soon as possible. The recommendation was adopted. 

Evening Post 15 July 1944 

Auckland Air-raid Tunnels.
The filling of the air-raid tunnels under Albert Park, Auckland, has been started. After several months' preparation a certain amount of material was packed into position on Friday, and it is hoped to have operations fully under way this week. When a joint tender of £54,437 was accepted for the work last April a condition of the contract was that the fillings should be completed within a year. Until now the contractors have been engaged in opening a quarry, testing materials, and installing equipment in the tunnels to handle specially-made wet clay bricks, which will be used for filling. According to an estimate made some time ago, about 5,500,000 of these bricks will be required.

Adjustments to equipment in the tunnels have delayed the start of filling operations longer than anticipated, but it has been possible to place a number of the bricks in the main tunnel running from Victoria Street to the foot of Constitution Hill. The actual start was made at a point almost under Princes Street. Some of the bricks were taken by motor-lorry from Victoria Street and others were carried by trolleys from the Parnell end. Trolleys will be used for practically all the transport when the work is fully under way. It is anticipated that about 15 men will then be employed. 

Evening Post 20 August 1945

Many sources state that the unfired clay bricks came from New Lynn. Perhaps a fair amount did -- but much of the clay came from Pt Chevalier, near the old quarries alongside the Oakley Creek, from land purchased by Albert Crum and a consortium to quarry the clay and truck it out to the tunnels (see valuation field sheet files for Morrow Street, Auckland Council archives).

The story of the tunnels isn't yet over, what with reports of subsidence, entrepreneurs talking of creating a tourist attraction there -- and just general curiosity into one of Auckland's hidden engineering feats.

You'll find a lot about the tunnels online:

Exploration by the Intrepid Binary Brothers (my favourite link)

The sealed up tunnels, 1949. Ref. 7-A13963, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Council Libraries


  1. So much money, but I suppose they made people feel more secure. Interesting that it was such a short time between completion and a decision that they were redundant.

    1. It was not just a sense of security. There was a very real threat of Japanese air raids until well into 1943. The tunnels would have provided some protection to the citizens.

  2. Wonderful post Lisa - I'd love to visit these if they were ever opened

  3. So would I, Cat -- but they'd have to do a lot of digging!

    Agreed, Andrew -- it became a white elephant quite soon.

  4. I've long been fascinated by this wartime project and your posting provided a lot of new information (to me, anyway) and some interesting photos, particularly the 1949 one where the entrances were still much in evidence. Out of curiosity, did you discover where the "waiting motor trucks" dumped all the stuff from the original excavations?

  5. I wondered about that too, Phil. After the silly season's over, if I remember, I'll see what Council Archives might have recorded about it.

  6. It's a bit like the rumours surrounding North Head tunnels! Are there NONE that are unsealed?

  7. The North Head tunnels are, apparently, partly open. The rumours around them was to do with airplane parts and ammunition storage, as I recall. Albert Park's mainly just clay bricks.

    1. The majority of the tunnels in North Head are open still. The rumoured massive underground facility is a myth. But there definitely are additional tunnels - I recall playing in their entrances in the early 1970's, before earthworks hid them.

  8. At least some of the soil excavated to make the Albert Park Tunnels was used to fill a small gully that lay between the Myers Kindergarten and Queen Street. This created the large area of lawn that can be seen today.
    This piece of land had not been part of Myers Park when it was created in 1916 and it was only about 1941 that the City Council was finally able to purchase it. Up until that time there was only a narrow entrance from Queen Street with scoria rockeries on each side. At the same time the gully was filled in the rockeries were removed and the Art-Deco entrance gate was created.