Thursday, December 13, 2012

The real Auckland Zoo anniversary

Back in April this year, I photographed the commemorative sign displayed in the grounds of the Auckland Zoo, and believed what it said:

"This park established by the Auckland City Corporation was officially opened by the Governor General of New Zealand His Excellency Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Jellicoe of Scapa GCBOM GCVO on the 17th day of December 1922."

But ... the date is wrong.

Back in 1922, December 16 was Saturday, December 17 was Sunday.

Auckland municipal zoo officially opened to-morrow afternoon by the Governor-General.
Auckland Star 15 December 1922

A report on the position at the Auckland Zoo was submitted to the City Council last evening, when the Mayor (Mr. J H Gunson) stated that the preparatory work was well advanced, and arrangements had been made for the initial collection of exhibits. All the available financial provision had been absorbed in the work authorised and practically completed. Despite the fact that the Zoological Park was in a very early stage of development, the Mayor said there was sufficient of interest to justify a visit by the citizens, and particularly the children. On Saturday admission would be free, when the Governor-General would officially open the Zoo at 3 p.m.
Auckland Star 15 December 1922

Despite the threatening weather and frequent light showers, numerous people journeyed to Western Springs this afternoon to witness the official opening of the new Zoo by the Governor-General. Lord Jellicoe, who was accompanied by Lady Jellicoe and suite ... The Governor-General made the official declaration of opening, after a short and pleasing speech of characteristic sympathy and humour. The National Anthem was then sung and the people dispersed for an inspection of the animals and grounds ... 
Auckland Star 16 December 1922

The official opening of the Zoological Gardens at Western Springs on Saturday by the Governor General Lord Jellicoe was an event to be remembered ...
NZ Herald 18 December 1922

Even the Parks Committee at the time, patting themselves on the back, recorded in their minutes that the zoo was opened on Saturday 16th December.

So ... what happened? Why is there a large commemorative sign at the Zoo with the wrong date?

All I've been able to work out so far is that someone in 1924 made the mistake. It appeared first in the first issue of Municipal Record which came out on 15 March.

The finest collection of animals and birds in the Dominion is to be seen in Auckland's Zoological Park, situated at the Western Springs, Grey Lynn. The Zoo was opened on the 17th December 1922 ...
Municipal Record p.7

The Parks Committee around July that year put forward the recommendation to the full Council (which met 7 August) that a commemorative stone be arranged for the zoo's main entrance at that time at Old Mill Road. The main gate, completed early in 1923, looked like this:

AKC 033 5327-004, Auckland Council Archives 

AKC 033 5327-001, Auckland Council Archives 

Municipal Record, 15 March 1924, pp.10-11

On 8 August, the City Engineer was instructed via memo from the Town Clerk:

"You are instructed to have a suitable commemorative stone of the opening of the Zoological Park placed at the main entrance: the stone to be a slab of about 12' x 2.6" bearing an appropriate inscription."

Works file, ACC 219 22-267, Auckland Council Archives

15 August, quotes were sought from W Parkinson & Co, J Bouskill and McNab & Mason. Parkinson's quote of £130, dated 20 August, was accepted.

"We hereby tender to supply according to plan in Ebony Granite, all flat surfaces polished and mould and champfers fine axed, together with inscription and coat of arms in relief ..." The Mayor and chairman of the Works committee decided to go with gold lettering instead of letters in relief. I checked the rest of that particular file, which featured works at the zoo down to 1935, but there was no further record of the commemorative sign. The next record comes from a photograph said to have been taken in 1927 -- and the sign, with the incorrect date, is in place.

 Ref 767-17, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

So, from around the end of 1924, until the reorganisation of the grounds, closing the Old Mill Road entrance in favour of today's Motions Road entry -- thousands upon thousands of Aucklanders and visitors to our city would have passed through that gate, and under that sign, with its error not realised.

 Ref 580-4124, (7 April 1960) Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

 Ref 580-4125 (7 April 1960), Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

The error was also repeated by Graham Bush in his history of Auckland City Council from 1871-1971, Decently and in Order, although he cited as a source the very newspapers from 1922 which would have given him the correct date.

The zoo administration didn't celebrate anniversaries of the opening all that much until 1972, when the zoo turned 50. Derek Wood was the zoo director then -- and went by what the sign said, as did his predecessors. 

Every child in Auckland seemed to be there, and the monkeys had more peanuts than they could eat in a month, as the city zoo threw open its gates yesterday to celebrate its 50th birthday ...
NZ Herald 18 December 1972

But, when it came time for Wood writing the zoo's history, Tiger by the Tail in 1992 -- he got it right.

On 16 December 1922 Mayor James Gunson rose to address a sizeable crowd at the official opening of the Auckland Zoological Park, and proudly proclaimed that they were gathered in connection with 'an undertaking of which, six months ago, we did not have any idea.'
Tiger by the Tail, p. 11

Still, when the entrance was changed in the early 1970s, that commemorative sign with the wrong date wasn't discarded, or somehow corrected. Instead it was placed on display, in its own garden setting, for yet more Aucklanders and visitors to troop on by, as they still do today, to read it if they chose to pause -- and look at the wrong historic date.

Here's hoping things are put right in time for the centenary in 2022 ...

Update: Auckland Zoo is still getting the date wrong, as seen in the Herald today.


  1. They need to correct it and recognise the 1924 error is that an error. Thanks Lisa this needed to be blogged!

  2. You really can't take anything for granted, even supposed facts from the 1920s. I wonder if some have realised the error over the years but nothing was done about it.

  3. It was realised 20 years ago, when their own history was written (sound of me thumping my head against the brick wall). Ah, well ... I think I'll go along on Sunday the 16th December 2012, the real 90th birthday, take some shots, and if any are any good, pop 'em on the blog. They can do whatever they like a day later.