Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Street Stories 12: Trust not in cause and effect with names

Back to the Auckland City Street Names database.

Back in 2007, the database was updated regarding their entry for Benfield Avenue in Mt Albert.
"Part previously Old Counsel Road finishing at number 13, it was changed to West Street in 1912 and an extension connecting it with Williams (now Wilcott) was named Frederick Street. Frederick Carrington was the surveyor for the area. Following a murder / suicide in 1927, Frederick Street and West Street were renamed as Benfield Avenue in 1928. The Benfield estate subdivision had been advertised in 1884, by J.H. Daubeny. Mount Albert Historical Society Newsletter 3, March 2007, pages 7-8."
I've already rabbited on about why I think the "Frederick Carrington" bit is a research red herring. However, the library have set up another red herring with this entry, by including the reference to the 1927 murder/suicide of the Kiddell family, written about by Mary Inomata in the cited issue of the Mt Albert Historical Society's newsletter.

Mary, in her article, said she believed that West Street was renamed Benfield Avenue as a result of the event. The reasoning given was that "the great Auckland street names change did not occur until around the mid 1930s." There are problems with this. First, West Street, originally called Counsel Terrace until folks figured out that the western Counsel Terrace would never quite link up with Judge Rogan's Counsel Terrace across Gladstone Road to the east. West Street in Mt Albert was one of a number of West Streets in the 1920s in Auckland. There's at least one in Newton, and another in the Auckland CBD, for starters. Frederick Street was also in Onehunga (still is). Originally Frederick Street and West Street never quite joined, until property owners sorted out their boundaries, and even then, Frederick was much wider than West Street.

Still, Mt Albert Borough Council, along with other local bodies in the Auckland area, were being encouraged strenuously by both Auckland City and the Post Office to neaten things up. Yes, the 1920s. While most of the chopping and changing took place around 1932, there were name changes here and there in the decade before. Case-in-point -- Avondale's Racecourse Parade, renamed c.1924 from Leslie Street, because of Mt Albert's own Leslie (even though ours was the surname of a known land owner, and no one knows who Leslie was in Mt Albert, to this day). In 1927-1928, street names came to fresh prominence, due the the amalgation of Avondale and Tamaki with Auckland City, and the repetions which came to notice.

So, saying that the change to Benfield Street was due to an extraordinary event that may have needed dusting under a carpet, in case West Street was suddenly irreparably infamous, just doesn't wash with me. There have been other far more heinous murders in Auckland, including one earlier on in Kingsland. None of the street names appear to have ever changed before because of them.

Let's put it this way: Mary, who has lived around Mt Albert a great deal of her life, is entitled to her opinion, and I support that. What I don't support is a website database which is consulted by researchers and family historians and school children doing projects and is, effectively, the equivalent of writing up facts in stone taking up someone's opinion (and Mary stated that the cause-effect of the suicide and Benfield Avenue naming was what she believed, due to what she knew at the time) and then putting up the implication that this was indeed the case.

I know I'm sounding crotchety about the database just lately, but this, folks, is how urban legends and folklore begins, and once started, it is hard and frustrating trying to tell people that their favourite fact from the past is wrong "because so-and-so wrote about it, so it has to be true." I'd be happy if the library left out the bit about the murder/suicide red herring but I doubt they will, even if pointed in the direction of my post here, unless MAHS publishes something about it themselves.

At least, in years to come, when someone comes up to me and says, "Oh, look -- Benfield Avenue. That must be the only street in Auckland where they changed the name because of a murder/suicide", I can at least say, "Look back to March 2009. I tried to tell you something different then ..."

Just an additional -- the Auckland War Memorial Museum's Streets database uses Auckland City Library's database as a source. Thankfully, they haven't copied over all the update on Benfield Avenue.

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