Saturday, September 27, 2008

The township that never was: Whau Bridge

Have a look at a map. From the former Three Guys site, along Great North Road to the Ray White offices, then on down to Elm Street until you reach the racecourse; on down further over the fields where horses compete and kids play sport until you reach the Whau River. Then look along the river’s eastern bank until you’re almost at the new subdivisions at the bottom of Wingate Street. All of that area was once a well laid paper township called “Whau Bridge” which existed (but only truly on paper) from October 1859 until 1871 when, finally, the curving streets and cross-hatched pattern was eliminated from the land record.

An entrepreneur named James McKenzie purchased part of one of the original large farms in the district in 1859, that of the McDonald brothers. (The other part of the McDonald’s farm was leased from 1861 by John Bollard, from another owner). Across his purchase, McKenzie mapped out a bold scheme of a grandly curving road called Princes Street starting at Rosebank Road (the line of today’s Elm Street), continuing down almost to the river where a landing reserve was laid out (Whau Terrace), then up again back to Great North Road as Queen Street, close to present-day Racecourse Parade. Cross streets were drawn in: Spring Lane, Manukau Street, Middle Road and Albert and Victoria Streets. It is likely that McKenzie was hoping to cash in on the Whau Canal idea which was first proposed around 1858, and in the early 1860s was eagerly awaited. Much of what we now know today as the Avondale Racecourse would have been dense residential development had McKenzie’s venture paid off, and the canal built.

There were some early purchases – the Priestley brothers set up their Whau Hotel on the Rosebank-Great North Road corner, and possibly also the first post office near the Elm Street corner in a general store; a Frederick Prime purchased land around where the BNZ building is today, and tailor Charles Burke over time purchased the rest (including the streets, when the Whau Bridge layout was finally deleted from land records). But, the area is on a floodplain; traditionally, Charles Burke and his wife are said to have had to drain a raupo swamp there to create their farm, which was later to become the racecourse. There never was a canal. And, across the road, Thomas Russell and Michael Wood from 1863 were selling better sections, on clay, as “Greytown”.

After 1871, only three parts of the Whau Bridge township roads remained. Princes Street abruptly ended at Victoria Street, and became first Princess Street, and then Elm Street from the 1930s. Victoria Street remained just as a paper road, extending around where the Peninsula Inn is today, through to what remains of our Queen Street (called Leslie Avenue after a hairdresser in the early 20th century named Frederick Leslie who owned the BNZ corner site, then Racecourse Parade from 1925.) All the rest is now the racecourse.

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