Sunday, January 27, 2013

The fate of yesterday's guns (part 2)

A postcard from my collection, unknown date.

This follows on from Part 1, on guns in the Domain.

They face seaward, grim though antiquated, on their concrete foundations, near the flagstaff at Albert Park. Their touch-holes are rusted, their marks worn by the weather, their carriages rotting beneath them. These are the great 64-pounders, each gun weighing tons, which once stood ready for the defence of Auckland at old Fort Britomart. Muzzle-loaders, they never fired a shot in anger, though doubtless they often roared in amiable pretence when the gunners had rammed home the powder and ball for practice firing. Like age-worn, toothless hounds, blinded and inert, they lift their noses skyward, seeking to scent some associations from the dim past, sinister only in their appearance ...

There are two guns with a history now facing the Princes Street entrance to Albert Park, though their history is vague and there is no notice board to tell the public anything of it, as it was suggested there should be by this paper nearly seven years ago. All that is known of them is that they come from the Crimea, said to have been captured from the Russians at Sebastopol. You may weave a romance around them as you will ...

Stamped with the double-headed Russian eagle, whose feathers have since been soaked in the blood of wars and revolutions and of the Romanoffs, butchered to make a better Russia! -- they have sulked in Albert Park for 45 years.

There is also a French gun at the Park—a small bronze field piece, which, save for its greenish film, might have been cast only yesterday. This gun is said to have been captured at Waterloo, when the destiny of Europe and the whole world was changed by Wellington, with the late aid of Blutcher and his Prussians. It was presented to the city by Mr. Browning, of Epsom, who received it from the captain of a British ship trading here in the early days.

Nearby are relics of a later war—that of the Transvaal—in the form of two Boer field pieces. One of these is of German make, cast in 1892, and it is in a decidedly better state of preservation than its sister gun, which is of British manufacture. Other warlike exhibits here are two machine guns captured from the Germans by the New Zealanders at Flers, and a couple of trench mortars taken from the Turks on Gallipoli. They are small affairs, contrasted with the big cannon near them, but they are more significant of slaughter, for they bring vividly to mind a war which reckoned its dead by millions ...
Auckland Star 16 February 1927

Once the Albert barracks had been cleared away in the mid-1870s, the City Improvement Commissioners and the Auckland City Council looked to what could be done to create a beautiful park in the midst of the city. On a "kind of plateau" overlooking Coburg (later Kitchener) Street, Victoria Street East, and Bowen Avenue, a series of three flower-decorated terraces were proposed, crowned by a 75-feet high flagstaff, "set off with big guns" pointing toward the said streets. (Star, 5 March 1881) The first of the collection were Russian-made guns hailing from the Crimean War and the battle of Sebastopol.

The two Russian designed guns for the terraced battery are also to be placed there, one on each side of the flagstaff.

Auckland Star 24 August 1882

The Committee are determined to have a salute fired on the opening day. It has been suggested that as the guns in the Albert Park belong to the City Council, permission might be obtained to fire them. Men can be found willing to undertake this task, which would perhaps be attended with danger, owing to the age of the guns, which, it will be remembered, are trophies from the fall of Sebastapol.

Auckland Star 13 January 1890 

In 1889, relatives of the late Mr S Browning presented the "historical brass cannon" linked with the battle of Waterloo to the Council. The gun came into Browning's possession from off the wreck of the Wanderer, sunk off the New South Wales coast. In turn, it had been presented to the Wanderer's master by the British War Office. (Star, 22 April 1889)

Henry Winkelmann photo, October 1898, showing the Albert Park guns. Ref 1-W1872, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

Two Boer War "pom-poms or other guns" were added to the Albert Park collection in 1902, at the instigation of MP Mr Napier, making the request to the Minister of Defence. (Star 17 July 1902)

In 1905, two of the "Russian scare" forts of the 1880s, Fort Cautley (Fort Takapuna) on the North Shore and one at Point Resolution, were dismantled, and Auckland City Council agreed to add three 64-pounders and one 7-inch RML gun from the forts to the collection around the Albert Park flagstaff. (Auckland Star 1 September 1905)

"The last memorial rites at Auckland: the crowd in Albert Park during the firing of the final salute by the guns of the "A" battery at sunset, May 20, 1910."AWNS-19100526-13-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

The "old garrison artillery guns" at Albert Park, 1910. AWNS-19100811-3-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

Weekly News, 11 January 1912, AWNS-19120111-6-4, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

The collection at Albert Park reached its height with the addition of the two trench guns and mortars brought back to New Zealand as war trophies from the First World War.

The Council seems to have had a surplus of war trophy armament at one point.
A collection of old German machine-guns, of the type on exhibition in Albert Park, has been lying in the-basement of the Town Hall, unwanted for a long time. A suggestion that they be disposed of was brought before the City Council last night. The town clerk reported that some time ago he had communicated with the Officer Commanding, North Auckland Military District, asking what suggestions he could offer for the disposal of the guns. A reply had been received to the effect that it might be possible to get some of the country local bodies to accept them. A recommendation that local bodies near Auckland be asked whether they desired any of the guns was adopted.
Auckland Star 21 February 1930

By the mid 1930s, the fashion for military decoration in our parks as we've seen had worn thin.

From Council files, I learned that on 23 April 1936, a Mr Oldridge, Superintendent of Parks wrote a letter to the Parks and Reserves Department, Auckland City Council. In it, he provided a list of the guns mounted at that point at the park:

Four "large guns which were previously mounted at Fort Britomart" (by this, he would have meant the Fort Cautley and Pt Resolution guns);
Three "field guns, probably used during the South African War of 1899/1902";
"An old bronze gun" and "two Russian guns that should be regarded as antiques rather than weapons of destruction"; 
Also "two glass cases containing mortars and maxim guns captured by the New Zealanders at Gallipoli in August 1915"; 
Plus "one gun (German field piece) situated near the band stand at the Domain which can be regarded as scrap metal."

He suggested that most of these should be displayed near the museum, not in parks.

In a letter dated 22 October 1937 from the acting-Director of the Auckland Institute and Museum to the Town Clerk, it was suggested instead that the artillery trophies should be gathered together at North Head near Devonport, possibly to form the nucleus of a collection. The Town Clerk took the idea onboard, and replied to the Museum the following day that a suggestion would be made to the Defence Department for the establishment of an Artillery Museum. The Minister of Defence, Frederick Jones (left, image from Wikipedia), responded saying essentially: no. He listed among his reasons for his decision that: there was significant expenditure expected in transferring, remounting and maintaining the guns and other artillery pieces; there was no general public access at North Head; even if there was access, there was a lack of suitable site there for a museum; the old coastal defence equipment from the 1880s forts was "of doubtful historical value"; the guns should instead be offered to the Auckland Institute and Museum, or the National War Memorial in Wellington. Transferred there at Council's expense, of course.

The City Council then offered them to the National War Memorial at the Dominion Museum on 17 February 1938, and received the not surprising reply on 30 May 1938: No.

Nothing further seemed to have happened until 17 October 1940, when the Parks Committee determined that apart from what they called "the ancient gun", the rest as "obsolete weapons" were to be removed forthwith from Albert Park, with the City Engineer to report later on their disposal. The "ancient gun" was to be offered to the Museum. On 25 October, a further note on the files from the Committee dealing with Parks states that four "old 64lb muzzle loading guns" (the old fort guns) "are no adornment as no tradition is apparently associated with them." They were to be offered to the Ministry of Defence for "military scrap purposes in England." This offer was accepted by the Minister, Jones, on 12 November 1940, but a month and a half later came a further letter (23 December) from his office. "The large guns are steel or iron," he wrote, "the small gun is bronze. The bronze gun could be made use of locally ..." He referred the matter to the Auckland Board of the National Council for the Reclamation of Waste Material to decide whether the guns were of value as scrap.

On 15 January 1941, the Parks Committee advised the Mayor that no market was available locally for the iron and steel parts. However, they said, the bronze gun, two Lewis machine guns and two trench mortars "are of value" and "can be used by the Army in Auckland for training purposes."

Now, exactly where the guns went to after this point isn't all that clear at the moment. After I published Part 1, fellow heritage blogger Sandy (thanks, Sandy) who works at Auckland War Memorial Museum contacted me saying she'd had an email from Rose Young the curator there saying that the Waterloo gun "is the cannon at the top of the stairs near the doodlebug on level 2." So, the "ancient gun" as the Parks Committee in 1940 referred to it, is secure. There were news reports in late December 1941 that "Old guns in Albert Park dismantled as precaution against air attack" (Star, 31 December 1941) and ...

… the collection of artillery, Maori War, South African War and World War 1 ... which was previously grouped on the plot of ground in Albert Park below the flagstaff … All these are still buried under ten or fifteen feet of earth on the sites where they were once the outstanding features. They are likely to remain there until the manpower situation eases to the stage when time and labour spent in their removal would not be regarded as a waste of war effort. … the guns [buried] at the ruling of the reserves committee of the Auckland City Council. 
 Auckland Star 1 August 1944

But, in early 1977,only "two fortress guns" were reported in the news as being dug up at the park. So, if the guns at the park today are two of the four fortress guns (and there is a similarity, judging by the photo in the link, with the Newmarket gun), then where are the other two fortress guns, and the South African and Crimean artillery? 

(Update: 2 June 2023) Well, the two Crimean War guns were removed by Auckland City Council in October 1951, according to Peter Cooke and Ian Maxwell in Great Guns, The Artillery Heritage of New Zealand. The guns were given to the Royal Akarana Yacht Club, but eventually it was found that the sea air was corroding them. So, after sandblasting at Devonport in 1980, they went to Papakura Camp for a time, before one was returned to the Yacht Club, and the other sent to the Army Memorial Museum in Waiouru.

Unfortunately, in early June 2023, the one at the Yacht Club went missing, believed stolen.

As an end-thought, the Council responded on 14 April 1949 to a letter from a Te Kauwhata resident, who had asked if "the old bronze gun" could be obtained as garden ornament. (Similar to intentions for the Teutenburg heads in the 1960s). The enquirer was advised no, it was in "safe custody".

Council Archives file ACC 275 38-168.


  1. Wonderful detective work Lisa. I was wondering what the outcome would be from your investigations.

  2. Fantastic piece of work there Lisa.. quite a bit more to go on in that lot. Be interesting to see if the earth would yield anything! Glad my wee bit of information held in your search in some way at least :)

  3. Ahhhh, could the missing guns be entombed with the world's first Boeing plane, under North Head??? Indiana Jones, where are you now...?

  4. This could get the archaeology fans going ...

  5. One of the Crimean War guns is now at the National Army Museum, Waiouru.

    For more on the history of New Zealand's war trophy collection, I recommend my own modest history thesis: A. P Fox, 'Silent Sentinels. The War Trophies of the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force in War and Peace, University of Otago, 1987. There should be a copy in the Auckland War Memorial Museum library.

  6. There is a british Boaer War era gun at MOTAT military section, presently using agricultural wheels as the originals wooden ones are no more. The missing original wheels and condition of the gun suggests it was burried at one point. Regards Colin Jansen, Royal NZ Artillery Association.

  7. Thank you for that, Colin. I'll check it out next time I'm at MOTAT. Cheers!

  8. The German made Boer gun of 1892 was a 7,5-cm Krupp Feldkanone L/27 that belonged to the Oranje Vrijstaat Arillerie Corps (Serial no. 2). This specific gun was one of three (Nos. 2, 11 & 14) discovered submerged in the Rhenoster River on the farm Tierbank (near the Free State town of Lindley) by the Britsh Army on 23 March 1902. It is not known exactly when the Boers dumped these guns, but it is suspected that they were with Gen. Olivier's commando who escaped the large surrender at the Brandwater Basin in July 1900. One of its sister guns, No. 4, ca today be seen in a restored condition at the Wanganui Museum.

  9. That is indeed correct. Krupp No4 is restored and can be seen in the Whanganui Memorial Hall and Events Centre, which is open on weekdays and is free to enter. This gun has a considerable provenance, it being NZ's first trophy artillery gun from NZ's first international war, having been gifted by Kitchener to the 4th Otago contingent for exceptional performance in the Western Transvaal regions.You can read more about it's unusual story in my book "Our Gun" published 2014. Regards, Geoff Lawson