Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Carrying Histories of Auckland


by Jessica Parr and Linda Bryder*

The Auckland History Initiative (AHI) aims to support and promote the histories of Tāmaki Makaurau through student engagement, interdisciplinary academic research, strong relationships with our historical institutions and conversing with the Auckland public to invite them to learn more about the origins of their place in the world.

Acknowledging the te here tāngata or lineage of the Auckland History Initiative (AHI) is important. It provides the foundation upon which the people involved with the AHI stand. It also allows current and future efforts by the AHI to evolve from past patterns while still honouring the ideas and people of earlier research projects. The central purpose of exploring the history of AHI is to seek to understand the developments and contours of past research groups. Sustainability and engagement are two key tenets that the AHI looks to embody and neither of these can be adequately achieved without paying homage to past endeavours. Read the AHI mission statement here.

This article traces previous Auckland history research collectives that were associated with the History Department at the University of Auckland during the twentieth century. The narrative begins in the 1930s with a centenary Historical Committee which strove to promote the role of Auckland in the hundred-year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. This project highlighted the need for further investigation into Auckland’s past and laid the foundations for a second, related research venture, the Provincial History Project, in the 1950s. Again, Auckland was the focus of a third research enterprise. The Centre for the Study of Auckland History and Society was established in 1986, under new leadership and with refreshed ideas on how to engage with Auckland’s past.

Early efforts in the 1930s: Auckland Historical Research Committee

James Rutherford at the time of his appointment to the chair of history at Auckland University College. University of Auckland historical collection. Part 2. MSS & Archives 97/5. 6/1/1/1. Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services.

In 1935, Ernest Davis, the Mayor of Auckland, convened a conference in the Auckland Town Hall to consider the organisation of “the Centennial Celebrations”. The 260 delegates who attended the meeting unanimously agreed that the formation of a Historical Committee was required to undertake research into the history of Auckland. Under the leadership of Reverend A B Chappell and the City Librarian, John Barr, the Auckland Historical Research Committee (AHRC) was formed in August 1936. A leading member of the newly established AHRC was James Rutherford, an historian and Professor at the University of Auckland.[1]

The Committee defined its task “to investigate the history of the foundation of the Dominion in 1840, showing the significance of 1840 by reference to the events preceding it and the hundred years’ development since then; and, in particular, the part played by the Auckland Province and City in the history of the Dominion”.[2]

The main focus of the AHRC lay in compiling an annotated timeline of what was considered by the Committee to be significant events to complement forthcoming celebrations. As a result, most of the discussion centred on confirming dates and times, such as the clarification of when Captain James Cook declared possession of New Zealand for the British Crown. Interestingly, this fact-checking of dates raised questions around the language used by Cook and the legality of his actions.[3] However, this chronological lens left limited resources for any further historical analysis.

The research approach of the AHRC was underlaid by patriotism. The funding and context of this research effort was framed by the centennial celebration of the colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand. A lengthy written report was the main product of the AHRC, including a timeline of events in 1840-41 related to Auckland, the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/The Treaty of Waitangi and the proclamation of British sovereignty over New Zealand. A second important part of the project was identifying relevant repositories and archives.[4]

It is unclear how the AHRC members viewed their role after the centenary celebrations. It is likely that they anticipated an opportunity to be a sub-committee to the National Research Committee, a research initiative established by the New Zealand Government for the centenary. However, with the outbreak of the Second World War any further research into the history of the Auckland Province was put on hold.[5] As it happened, Auckland’s history would not be the focus of a research effort until 1955, with the formation of the Provincial History Project.

1950s revival: Provincial History Project

The Provincial History Project (PHP) was a revival of the 1930s effort to research the history of Auckland. With the end of the Second World War in 1945, the national movement to capture and write provincial histories of New Zealand was resurrected. Otago was the first to complete its provincial history in 1949 and projects were underway in Canterbury and Nelson. In comparison, enthusiasm to reinstate an Auckland Provincial history project was slow to take seed.

At last, in 1953, after public lamentation that Auckland seemed to be the only major province without a history, the Auckland City Council resolved that the provincial history programme should be revived. The Council appointed two leading academics from the University of Auckland (known then as the Auckland University College) namely, Professor James Rutherford from History who had served on the 1930s AHRC and Professor Harold Rodwell from Economics. The Council also sought funds from public and private sources to commission a manuscript on the provincial history of Auckland.[6]

Once the green light had been given by Council, Rutherford and Rodwell put together a small research group comprising of academics and archivists. The PHP had two key objectives. The first was to produce an edited collection on Auckland’s Provincial History. This book was envisioned to be an all-encompassing history of the Auckland province with the research and writing to be undertaken by small group of historians at the University of Auckland. Key members of this group included Keith Sinclair, Russell Stone, Keith Sorrenson and Duncan Waterson. Watch Russell Stone talk about the project here.

The second, related goal of the PHP was to catalogue and index the vast number of official reports, newspapers, books, photographs, and correspondence relating to Auckland’s history. Instrumental to this mammoth task was Gertrude Terry, cataloguer of the Auckland Public Library’s Reference Department.[7]

However, by the end of the 1950s, the PHP had effectively been abandoned without producing the promised tome on Auckland’s history. While the goals of the PHP were appropriate for the period, and in line with other provincial efforts, and the team compiled for the project was capable, the task was formidable and overly ambitious. Most obvious was the unrealistic 1960s publication deadline for the manuscript and the overcommitment of academic contributors, especially in the leadership ranks. Rodwell was already nearing retirement when the project officially begun in 1955, and Rutherford became increasingly consumed by research into his magnum opus, a biography of Sir George Grey.[8]

The area of the Auckland Province occupied approximately half of the North Island illustrated in this cropped map of the New Zealand’s provinces, 1853–1857. Malcolm McKinnon, ‘Colonial and provincial government – Colony and provinces, 1852 to 1863’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 August 2019).

Professor Keith Sorrenson later observed that writing provincial history had been largely a South Island phenomenon, which were more manageable in scope. By contrast Auckland Province was already an outdated concept as well as being a vast and diverse region. In his 1978 lecture “The Futility of Provincial History”, Sorrenson also argued that New Zealand historians in Auckland were more interested in exploring bigger issues such as race relations, constitutional developments, politics, national history, and international relations than in local history.[9] Local history did not appear to have intellectual kudos at this time.

The work of Gertrude Terry and the archivists involved in producing an index of sources on the history of Auckland was a success from the PHP. It was this foundational work in the archives that would prove immensely valuable for future history projects. Emeritus Professor Russell Stone, an eminent Auckland historian and key member of the PHP, described the work of Terry as “providing the seed bed for Auckland History”.[10] Russell Stone was unusual in seeing the value in local history and Auckland history in addressing major historical questions.

New approaches, 1980s: Centre for the Study of Auckland History and Society

Almost twenty years later, the History Department at the University of Auckland established a Centre for the Study of Auckland History and Society (CHAOS). This new research programme was not linked to the 1950s provincial history project and was instead a part of a broader trend within academia to develop research centres. More importantly it was linked to a new trend in historical scholarship which was the rise of social history. The new Centre was prompted by the commissioned report (link report) into the social history of Auckland by American scholars Clyde and Sally Griffen.

Clyde Griffen had already published on the history of social and urban development, and the University of Auckland invited Clyde and his wife Sally to New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship to examine local archives and suggest projects in Auckland’s social history. On his departure, Griffen suggested in a memorandum the proposal of a research centre to continue work into Auckland’s history.[11]

The possibility of a research centre focused on Auckland’s past was viewed by members of the History Department as a timely development as it could build upon the work completed for the Griffen’s report and the relationships built with various archivists and librarians in institutions outside the University. It was also felt that there was growing interest in local history within Auckland’s communities and that the History Department could constructively contribute its expertise to this public trend.[12]

First Newsletter of the Centre for the Study of Auckland History and Society. Photo: AHI

At the inception of CHAOS, it was envisaged that this research centre would stimulate interest in the history of Auckland. It would be interdisciplinary with an historical focus on the Auckland region, adopted from the Northern Archives and Records Trust’s definition as being from Wellsford to Pukekohe. Members of the History Department believed that a centre on Auckland history would make a worthwhile contribution to the Auckland community and at the same time involve the community. The Centre would collect, record, and publish information on historical projects; initiate new projects; make available professional help to local bodies, organisations and businesses undertaking historical research; organise seminars and conferences for people interested in Auckland history, and encourage the teaching of local history in schools by offering help and advice to teachers.[13]

CHAOS continued to support Auckland history until 1992 when, like previous Auckland research projects, a lack of funding and the overcommitment of academic staff resulted in the Centre no longer appearing viable. Once again, it was in the area of source material that the Centre would leave its legacy. Not only does the Griffen’s Report remain a rich document in approaching Auckland’s social history, but the Auckland Bibliography:He Pūtea Kōrero mō Tāmaki-makau-rau, constructed by the Centre, also provides a comprehensive bibliography of publications on Auckland’s past. The Auckland Bibliography was compiled as part of the later work of the Centre and was a project led by Professor Raewyn Dalziel.

Into the 21st century: The Auckland History Initiative

Fast-forward to 2019 and once again Auckland’s past has become the focus of a new research initiative at the University of Auckland. Just over a year ago in 2018, the Auckland History Initiative (AHI) was established (see Arts Insider Spring 2018) and the formation of this research initiative was publicly annouced at the launch for Russell Stone’s book As It Was. This interdisciplinary collaboration will focus on understanding the physical and cultural development of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

Explore recent research

Read more about the AHI Summer Research Scholarships for students

Upcoming AHI events – engage with your past

Special thanks to the following people for their contribution to this history: Russell Stone, Keith Sorrenson, Graham Bush, Raewyn Dalziel and Gary McCullough and to the Librarians at the University of Auckland, including Elizabeth Nichol, Ian Brailsford and Nigel Bond.

 * Jessica Parr worked as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Auckland History Initiative and Linda Bryder is a Professor in History at the University of Auckland. 

[1] Meeting Minutes, Historical Committee Centenary Celebrations, 1940, folder 1, box 19, A-42 James Rutherford Papers, James Rutherford Papers. Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services.

[2] ibid, 3.

[3] AHRC, “Centennial Dates and Events: A Symposium,” folder 4, box 20, A-42 James Rutherford Papers. Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services.

[4] Graham Bush, “A major history project that never made it,” NZ Legacy (2014), 26:2.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] Interview with Russell Stone, 5 March 2019.

[8] Bush, “A major history project that never made it”

[9] Keith Sorrenson, lecture transcript “The Futility of Provincial History,” 17 February 1966. Private Collection of Keith Sorrenson.

[10] Interview with Russell Stone, 5 March 2019.

[11] Memorandum “re: Proposal for a Centre for the Study of Auckland History and Society,” 14 May 1985, folder Auckland Centre Proposal Development, box 3. Administrative Archives, the University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services

[12] ibid.

[13] Draft proposal report “Centre for the Study of Auckland History and Society,” folder Auckland Centre Proposal Development, box 3. Administrative Archives, the University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services