Story: Auckland region

Page 8. Timber town: 1870–1900

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Gold, kauri timber and kauri gum dominated Auckland’s exports until the 1900s.

Gold was discovered in Thames in 1868, and in the 1890s Waihī’s Martha Mine became the most productive gold mine in New Zealand’s history.

Milling companies cut a swathe through the forests of Kaipara and Northland, the Waitākere Range, Coromandel and south to Taupaki. In 1885 sawmilling was the largest source of employment in the region, with Auckland supplying 45% of the country’s timber production and 91.5% of timber exports.

The Melbourne-based Kauri Timber Company was the largest of several timber companies in the region. In 1900, the peak year for kauri logging, 16 million superfeet (37,760 cubic metres) of kauri was taken from Kaipara Harbour alone. Auckland’s air smelt of gum and new-sawn timber.

Felling giants

Visitors to Auckland admired kauri, described as the world’s best timber for all purposes. But some were shocked at the destruction of forests that had taken 800 years to grow. Geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter commented in 1867: ‘The woods are ransacked and ravaged with “fire and sword”… I was able to observe, during an entire fortnight, dense clouds of smoke whirling up, which arose from an enormous destructive conflagration of the woods nearest to town.’ 1


In 1873, the English novelist Anthony Trollope claimed that Auckland’s ports had been the making of the city. Reclaiming 250 hectares of the Waitematā foreshore and extending its wharves made Auckland a hub of coastal and overseas shipping. Boat building and marine engineering became important industries. Ferries linked the city with the North Shore, encouraging new suburbs and resorts.

Commerce and industry

While rural land around Auckland remained undeveloped, the city grew as a commercial centre. The Bank of New Zealand and the New Zealand Insurance Company were founded by Aucklanders in the early 1860s. By 1881 the bank was handling half of New Zealand’s banking business. Large-scale manufacturing broadened the region’s economy from the 1880s; the Colonial Sugar Refining Company’s factory at Birkenhead supplied New Zealand’s sugar. Working-class settlements grew on the city outskirts to serve new industries: railway workshops in Newmarket and brickworks and potteries in West Auckland.

High spending and hard times

Local bodies borrowed freely to fund the infrastructure needed for a city that was growing at twice the New Zealand rate. Business optimism rose after thousands of acres of former Māori land was offered for sale in the upper Thames valley and Waikato. Easy credit from the Bank of New Zealand and other institutions fuelled rash speculations in city subdivisions and Waikato land schemes.

The crash came in the late 1880s when land values collapsed in New Zealand and Australia, and investors found they were unable to repay bank loans. The construction industry went to the wall. Leading businessmen lost their fortunes, wages were cut by 30–40%, and buildings lay empty as settlers left for the gumfields or Australia. As a safeguard against Auckland’s cavalier approach to finance, the government became a guarantor of the Bank of New Zealand, and moved its head office to Wellington.

Two views

Mother Bauduy-Garesché, arriving from Louisiana, USA, in 1880, wrote: ‘The evening was beautiful and the approach to Auckland much finer than had been described to us ... and the people are amongst the nicest I have ever met – so kind and courteous’. 2 Visiting in 1898, the English socialist Beatrice Webb loved the harbour and the lush growth, but criticised the women for being ‘especially British-looking, with their swinging gait and general dowdiness of appearance’. 3

A civilised city

During the 1880s Auckland shed its raw colonial character to reveal a new ‘skin’. The ramshackle wooden buildings of Queen Street (the main street) were replaced by more dignified stone structures. People like James Mackelvie, who had made his fortune investing in the goldfields, became benefactors of the arts. In the mid-1880s a crowd of 6,000 watched the laying of the foundation stone for a new public library and art gallery.

Auckland’s commercial ethos was also tempered by the city’s lively religious life and the activities of leading suffragists like Annie Schnackenberg and Amey Daldy.

  1. Quoted in Dick Scott, The fire on the clay: the Pakeha comes to west Auckland. Auckland: Southern Cross, 1979, p. 65. › Back
  2. Quoted in Phyllis Goulter, Sowers and reapers: a short history of the Society of the Sacred Heart in New Zealand, 1880–1980. Auckland: Society of the Sacred Heart, 1982, p. 12. › Back
  3. Quoted in D. A. Hamer, ed., The Webbs in New Zealand 1898 Beatrice Webb’s diary, with entries by Sidney Webb. Wellington: Price Milburn for Victoria University Press, 1974, p. 17. › Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret McClure, 'Auckland region - Timber town: 1870–1900', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Margaret McClure, published 6 Dec 2007, updated 1 Aug 2016