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January - February 2019

The Avondale
Historical Journal
Official Publication of the Avondale-Waterview Historical
Society Incorporated

A Canal along the Whau

Lisa J Truttman

It would be 170 years ago this year, 1849,

when the early Auckland newspaper the
Southern Cross urged, in a critique of
Governor Sir George Grey, that the
Governor consider linking the Waitemata
and Manukau Harbour. From that point,
over the next century and a half, the idea
of cutting a canal through the isthmus,
either at the Whau or at the Tamaki por-
tage, kept popping up in the public eye as
each generation of dreamers and entrepre-
neurs caught the fancy.

In terms of the Whau River Canal, unlike

the Tamaki portage option just north of
Otahuhu township, there was no reserve
land for the purpose, aside from the es-
planade set aside (now Endeavour Street)
at the southern end of a subdivision of
what was then Whau Township South by
the Auckland Provincial Council in 1857.
Unfortunately, the Provincial Council
went about this “canal tramway” in a
clumsy and ultimately futile fashion; the
northern end was drafted as leading from
the Whau River at what is today the junc-
tion of Delta Ave and Stock Street in
New Lynn, just down river of the bridge
at Great North Road, generally following

The artist at the NZ Graphic, having the year

before drafted a similar picture of what a
canal at Otahuhu would look like, did the
same for the Whau option in 1901.NZG-
19011130-1029-1, Sir George Grey Special
Collections, Auckland Libraries.

Next meeting of the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society

will be Saturday 2 February 2019
at 2pm, St Ninians Hall, St Georges Road, Avondale
The Avondale Historical Journal
Page 2
the line of Portage Road until it headed east to the Henry Atkinson, a retired Auckland Gas Company
esplanade. The northern part, though, was never set engineer living in Grafton who came to be better
aside as a canal reserve, and was subdivided and sold known as the donator of vast areas of land in the
from 1865 as part of the New Lynn sale that year. Waitakere Range for tree conservation, set his pen to
paper in mid August. He set out a series of sugges-
Thus by the 1880s, while the esplanade at Blockhouse tions for a business entity to form and take on the
Bay remained on maps of the area, the rest had van- mission of constructing a canal along the Whau river
ished as land was sold and settled, so the Provincial route, especially now the Karaka Bay idea had been
Council’s idea of a sweeping water tramway in the put forward by Bollard for that rail line.
area was lost.
Experts in the surveying and engineering fields wrote
In June 1900, John Bollard as an independent con- to the newspapers, endorsing the Whau Canal option.
servative MP for the Eden electorate in Parliament, The NZ Graphic followed this up with the artist’s
asked the Liberal government in the House what they impression that November, and this became the
were doing regarding the construction of a canal in the standard layout for all other Whau canal proposals
Whau portage. Bollard, from his days as chairman of from that time.
the Whau Highway District/Avondale Road Board,
was an ardent supporter of the idea of a Whau canal, By May 1901 Atkinson had put his thoughts on the
seeing it as a means to enhance the progress of Avon- matter in a circular, and the following year teamed up
dale and surrounding districts, as well as to help real with a commission agent named Arthur Furness, both
estate sales (which had been his business since the involved with the new Northcote & Birkenhead Gas
1880s). He followed this up with asking the Minister Company. Sometime either in late April or the first
for Public Works on 3 August with another project he week in May of 1903, Atkinson invited a group of
wanted to see; whether a survey had been made for a businessmen, and the MP for Eden John Bollard, on a
line of railway linking Avondale with Karaka Bay trip by brake to Avondale. It was reported that he’d
(Green Bay). Bollard may have felt that a rail link was been quite busy in the nearly three years since he
more feasible, but the government disagreed (there wrote that letter to the NZ Herald in 1900, going to
was, of course, already a railway wharf at Onehunga, “considerable trouble and expense in order to accu-
even though steamers had to wait for the tide to be mulate facts regarding the feasibility of the project, in
right to use it.) order to get the work undertaken by Auckland gentle-
men as a private venture.” They drove to Avondale
township, crossing the old wooden Whau Bridge,
then turned down Portage Road until they reached
Astley’s tannery. The men alighted, to continue
the rest of the way across country to Green Bay
(on foot, I imagine), while the brake turned around
to head back to Avondale, meeting up with them at
the other end of the proposed canal route. This
helped raise the first £500 towards the cost of a
survey of the route, and led to a subscribers’ meet-
ing of businessmen in Furness’ central Auckland
offices. A second trip was staged to the proposed

The second trip to the proposed canal route via

the Whau River in July 1903, where the partici-
pants had to get out of their boat just shy of the
Whau Bridge, walk to the bridge overland, then
take a lift to Astley’s tannery, before getting out
to walk again to Green Bay.

NZG-19030725-247-1 and NZG-19030725-

246-1, Sir George Grey Special Collections,
Auckland Libraries
The Avondale Historical Journal
Page 3
route (which, this time, the NZ Graphic captured in
photographs). Ultimately the Waitemata & Manukau
Canal Promotion Company was incorporated in
August 1903.

The Promotion Company did get William Henry

Hamer, engineer for the Auckland Harbour Board, to
provide a free report and plans for the canal proposal,
and certainly attracted enough of the popular imagina-
tion that it seemed the canal was about to start at any
time. But it didn’t. While Atkinson remained involved
in the Promotion Company and was one of the direc-
tors, and while it looked like the company was follow-
ing his four point plan (gathering information,
assessing the revenue to be gained), the company
failed in two fundamental steps.

In 1904 they purchased 70 acres of land in New Lynn

close to the proposed route at an amount higher than
the company’s total capital from shareholders, and
they failed to acquire either sufficient finance to un-
dertake the project themselves, or get agreement from
the Harbour Board that the latter would do so instead.
The Harbour Board were unable to do this without agreement to the Harbour Board, and after both sides
power to acquire land under the Public Works Act made alterations Russell then announced in April 1913
(this was later granted by an Act in 1908), without that he would send a copy to his New York investor
administration over the foreshore of the Manukau friends for their approval. That was the last anyone
Harbour (acquired in 1913) and without monies raised ever heard of that agreement, and the promised inves-
by loans that could only be approved by ratepayers. tors. Russell later told newspapers that he’d been
The project went nowhere, and the Promotion wasting his time with the Harbour Board, as if that
Company wound up in 1907. body was the reason why nothing happened.
In 1912, David Bruce Russell came onto the scene. After the war, and a brief period selling milking ma-
Born in Shortland Street in 1862, he had spent most of chines in the United States and Canada with a New
the 1880s travelling in Australia, the Far East and the Zealand company, Russell returned, and from mid
United States as a light operatic singer with entertain- 1920 started his canal campaign again. This time,
ment troupes. From the early 1890s to 1911 he lived in though, he faced the results of a Royal Commission.
Guadalajara, Mexico, involving himself deeply with The Inland Waterways Commission Report decided
the resident community of American businessmen and against recommending the Whau option for a canal,
investors there, taking advantage of the money- instead backing that at the Tamaki Portage (about
making opportunities offered to foreigners by the capi- which, for a number of years before his death in 1921
talistic regime of Porfirio Diaz. During the popular even Henry Atkinson had also made favourable
uprising against that regime in 1911, Russell left comments).
Mexico and returned to his country of birth. Here he
bought a property at Canal Road, married into John This seems to have discouraged Russell for a time, but
Bollard’s family by wedding Marion Beatrice Bollard in 1925 he came back, meeting with the Harbour
at St Jude’s in 1913, and once Richard Francis Bollard Board, who said that IF (a very big IF) he obtained
became an MP in 1912 obtained a degree of political concession rights from all the parties involved in such
influence which he used to obtain a very brief position a project (railways department, local government, cen-
as resident agent in the Cook Islands from 1914-1916. tral government, etc.) then they wouldn’t object.
Russell, of course, took that as a stamp of approval,
In 1912, Russell saw an opportunity in the Whau dubbed himself a “concessionaire” (although he didn’t
Canal proposal, talked with members of the defunct have one), commissioned a consulting engineer and
Promotion Company, and used his charisma to con- proceeded to write letter after letter to the Marine and
vince a group of Auckland businessmen that he was a Public Works departments in Wellington, travel to
skilled civil engineer (he wasn’t), that he’d had a hand meet them there, and write to prime ministers. When
in building railway, bridges and harbours from Prime Minister Gordon Coates stopped off at hotels in
Calcutta to Mexico (he hadn’t) and that he had friends central Auckland on his way to Dargaville, Russell
in New York eager and waiting to invest around was there, using a charm offensive to promote the pro-
£2 million in a canal in New Zealand (rather doubt- ject. He wrote constantly asking for plans the govern-
ful). He did manage to present a draft concession ment didn’t have. Then begged for the government to
The Avondale Historical Journal

Page 4

do surveys they didn’t see any need to do or with At the 1928 election, the Reform party lost power, and
which to be involved. When Russell succeeded in hav- Sir Joseph Ward was quite uninterested in Russell or his
ing an engineer from the Public Works Department project. For a while in the late 1920s to early 1930s, he
meet him at the river to discuss the project — he was pushed the idea of the Pollen Island aerodrome, but as
disappointed and “hurt” when the engineer advised the this didn’t happen either, all his efforts were for nought.
government that, really, the Tamaki option was best.
Russell’s last attempts came after Michael Joseph
Russell was then provided with another copy of the Savage and the Labour Party came to power from 1935,
commission report which had stymied his plans years but Bob Semple wrote polite but dismissive letters in
earlier. response to Russell’s entreaties. Increasingly unwell and
losing his eyesight, Russell donated papers to Auckland
He continued to tell some quarters that “American Library in 1938, and died in 1940.
finance” was still possible. Privately, he tried convinc-
ing the British company constructing the Arapuni By coincidence, the line of the proposed Whau Canal
Dam to get their London investors to back him. That was where an anti-tank ditch was dug out during the
went, predictably, nowhere. This didn’t stop Russell, Second World War. There were other brief spurts of
who went into publicity overdrive. He published a interest, from both the public and professional engineers
mock-up newspaper, illustrating his plan of turning in the canals through the isthmus idea up to the 1980s,
the Whau River into an “inland sea”. The Avondale when the Auckland Regional Authority finally put much
and New Lynn Borough Council continued to support of the speculation to rest: the idea had come and gone,
him, and he did gather well over 2000 signatures in and had its day.
support of “his canal” when he displayed a plaster
model of the scheme at the Auckland Winter Exhibi- In 2010, as part of the legislation bringing the new
tion in 1927. But he rapidly lost support from the gov- Auckland Super City into effect, the old 1908 Act giv-
ernment, especially after he was advised by Coates ing the now defunct Auckland Harbour Board powers to
that his last ditch method of finding finance, premium take land for the purposes of a canal was repealed.
bonds, was considered a lottery at the time and there-
fore illegal. Little is left of the Whau reserves for the canal here,
except Sister Rene Shadbolt Reserve, and Endeavour
Russell’s main line of support, Richard F Bollard, died Street in Blockhouse Bay. There is still a reserve dating
in August 1927. Coates did not appear interested in back to 1850 at the Tamaki Portage, but — at this stage,
stepping into the role as a replacement political spon- it is likely to remain just a historic anomaly in the land
sor. When Russell tried seeking nomination as Reform record.
candidate for Auckland Suburbs, he failed.

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The Avondale Historical Journal

Published by:
the Avondale-Waterview Historical Society Inc. (since September 2001)

Editor: Lisa J. Truttman

Society contact:
19 Methuen Road, Avondale, Auckland 0600
Phone: (09) 828-8494, 027 4040 804
email: or
Society information:
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