Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Poor old Britomart ... They chuck in the sea": the demise of Point Britomart 1872-1885

Customs Street East, and Point Britomart, 1876-1878. From Auckland Harbour Board Album 68, page 1, Bill Laxon Maritime Library, Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland.

The Government start
Some work in this part --
Poor old Britomart
They chuck in the sea --
The contractor falls out
Each tide comes about
And carries earth out
To shoal each wharf T."

"Asmodeus", 20 February 1880 (from Auckland Star 2 March 1880)

I spotted the image above at the Maritime Museum, and loved it at first sight. Obtaining it for the blog was more expensive than getting similar images from the Auckland Library, but the museum's image is not cropped as are two identical images at the library (see below). Auckland Library date their photo as 1876, whereas the museum library has 1870s. I would say, judging by the state of the earthworks, combined with what's known about the businesses on that part of Customs Street, that the period is more-or-less correct, but I'd add 1876-1878.

Ref 4-576A, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

 Point Britomart, or "Soldiers' Point", 1850s. Fort Britomart at the tip (right), St Paul's Church to be seen in the centre. Ref 4-7130, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library.

Poor Point Britomart. Like Bell Hill in Dunedin, it was in the way of connecting the east and the west of a young city. Unlike Bell Hill (and likely because of the nature of the hill itself), Britomart was destroyed right back to the merest of stumps at Emily Place.

The destruction of Point Britomart began in March 1872, with the demolition of Fort Britomart and the beginnings of the blasting down to break the cliff apart. The intention appears to have been just to cut through the point, preserve Emily Place and St Pauls Church, and then use the rest as fill for the eastern reclamations.

The cliff on which Fort Britomart is situated is composed of mostly heterogeneous material, and the shale and clay which form the greater proportion of the earth to be moved completely nullify all calculations of the mass to be thrown up—and that the more as the whole material is pervaded by dykes of hard substance. The large blast on Saturday morning was no doubt good, and had a certain effect; but, from the reasons said before, it had not the result anticipated. The cliff was broken into large masses, which after all require the further influence of powder to break them up.

Auckland Star 13 March 1872

By July, however, there were problems.

For some considerable time past we have carefully watched the progress of an immense cutting, which has been made between Emily Place and Fort Britomart. This, we were informed, was to be filled up by a solid masonry wall, which was to prevent Emily Place, the houses built thereon, and St. Paul's Church itself from coming bodily down upon the railway site beneath, when Fort Britomart Point should be removed. We have had occasion, at various times, to point out the danger of the cutting, to life and limb, in its present state, also the danger attending the slip which lately occurred near Jacob's ladder, and the danger of Jacob's ladder itself … The trench in question has been gradually getting deeper and deeper, extends for some two hundred feet—if not more—and is ten feet wide. On looking into this trench (which has been carried down a distance of forty feet) one cannot help thinking of the Great Wall of China in connection therewith. … We do not know who is the great engineering genius who planned the work in question, but we do know that a more reckless waste of money, or a more chimerical piece of jobbery, never came under our notice.
NZ Herald 26 July 1872

By July 1873, Point Britomart was described as “almost disappeared”. (NZ Herald 11 July 1873)

Ref 4-2700, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

Fort Britomart is gradually melting away under the hands of the pick and shovel men. In addition to the removal of the eastern face, an attack has lately been made on the western side, through which the navvies are delving on a parallel with the unfortunate retaining wall. A line of rails has been laid down on the Breakwater road round the Point, and the earth is removed in trucks to the embankment forming in Official Bay. The mode of operation on the western side is as follows: A short tunnel is bored into the cliff capable of admitting a waggon, and a timber roof is fixed and perforated with a square trap or hole. The waggon is placed under this trap, and workmen above loosen the earth which falls through into the truck below. This mode effects a great saving in labour, as no exertion is required in filling the waggon. As the work above proceeds, so is the tunnel driven further in, which will in course of time leave a deep cutting. This will be the limit of the excavation, all the earth to the north of this line will be removed to make way for improvements. Already a large area of land has been reclaimed, which before long will be utilised. The permanent way is already laid and gravelled as far as the Breakwater, while at the foot of the same several tons of railway iron is stored for future use.

NZ Herald 17 September 1873

Beach Road, which passes through what was Point Britomart, was underway to The Strand by October 1874, and nearly completed by 1876. Most of the work of the first stage of removing Point Britomart was done by 1880.

Ref  932-2, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

The remaining cliff, however, proved to be unstable.

The Government intend to remove the dangerous hill between the Britomart and the present railway station, which for some reason has been allowed to remain for a considerable time a standing menace to the safety of pedestrians on the reclamation road. The stuff will be placed along the southern side of the intake, and it is estimated that Custom House-street will be widened by ten or twelve feet when this is completed. Work is to be commenced without delay, and will probably be finished about three months hence. It will be entrusted to Mr Fallon, who has obtained a reputation for the faithful performance of his contracts.

Auckland Star 30 September 1881

A number of children are in the habit of adopting the dangerous practice of getting over the retaining wall at the bottom of Emily Place which guards the cliffs of Britomart, and sitting on the face of the slope, to the imminent danger of falling down on to the Beach-road below. A group of children were so engaged yesterday afternoon, the grass covering the face of the cliff preventing them from noticing their close proximity to it, though it was plainly observable to those in tho vicinity of the railway station below.

NZ Herald 13 May 1882

There was a major landslip from off the remains of the point into Fort Street in April 1883.

The culmination of the demolition of one of Auckland's earliest geographic landmarks -- was the destruction of one of Auckland's historic, St Paul's Church in 1885 (seen as right, top, above). I've already written about that, here.

What can also be seen here is blacksmith George Leahy's Customs Street workshops (at right). Leahy was born in Gibraltar, and spent some time in Ireland before coming to NZ in 1855. He served during the Land Wars in the Royal Irish Victoria Rifles, and gained the rank of captain. (Obituary, NZ Herald 14 May 1920). Up until January 1874, he and his brother Michael were in business together at the Etna Forge, West Queen Street. George Leahy continued in business on his own, first at West Queen Street still, then in December 1875 he applied to Auckland City Council for permission “to erect an iron building for a smith’s shop on an allotment of his in Custom-house-street.” (Auckland Star 13 December 1875) He received permission 30 December 1875. By March-April 1876, he’d moved from West Queen Street.

Mr Leahy, blacksmith, of Custom-House-street, has turned out a very useful looking agricultural machine for Messrs B. Porter and Co., of Queen-street, who are to send it to the Hon. Mr Chamberlin, for use on his land. It is an iron roller, with shafts, for two horses, and is intended for crushing titree and fern, previous to burning it off. The actual work is done by two hollow openwork cylinders revolving independently on the same axis. Each cylinder is 3ft 6in. diameter by about the same length. They are composed of bars of iron fixed at intervals round two pairs of circular frames. It is said that the bars of iron, while revolving so effectually, crush the under-growth that its utter extermination is secured. The machine is prettily painted red and black, and the workmanship is of a superior nature.

Auckland Star 21 June 1876

His move to Custom Street timed in with his successful tenders for work for the Auckland Harbour Board, for ironwork from June that year.

In the mid background, just beside Leahy's shed, can be seen a sign for "B Keane, Bricks, Lime, Sand ...". This would be Barney Keane, recently shifted (1875) from Brickyard Bay to Customs Street, near Holdship's timber yard (which can also be seen in the Maritime Museum's image). Above that, a substantial warehouse and offices at Commerce Street for the ASN Company (Australasian Steam Navigation Company).

All up, a wonderful image, and a glimpse at a past forever lost.


  1. Great post Lisa it's filled in all of the questions I had about Britomart. And to think I used to work in Emily Place never truly realising I walked on one of Auckland's most historic areas. Wow.

  2. Yes a great post! I'm trying to understand what volume of earth was removed in completing this change. Just with horse, cart, & manual labour.