Suburb histories

Waiheke local history

Local history of the Waiheke and Hauraki Gulf islands.

Māori history - Te Motu-arai-roa (The long sheltering island) 

Man o' War Bay, Waiheke Island with the scow Vesper about to leave. The history of Waiheke Island is not always as serene as its beautiful natural environment and relaxed way of life would suggest. In fact, its earliest history is at times bloody and brutal. In those early times Waiheke was considered prime real estate and those who chose to settle there found the island in high demand. Consequently the history of Māori settlement is one of waves of settlement and conquest by different iwi (tribes) with more than a little blood spilled along the way.

The Island was coveted for good reasons. Its natural environment was ideally suited for permanent settlement; rich fishing grounds, freshwater streams and forests provided ample food, water and building materials whilst the Islands hilly landscape and sheltered bays provided ideal locations for settlements. As if this wasn’t enough the Island was also strategically located in an important waterway (which we now call the Hauraki Gulf) and was at a crossroads for Māori seafarers journeying from the north, east and west.

The few sources available suggest the first settlers were Te Uri Karaka whose semi-nomadic fishing lifestyle gradually gave way to permanent settlement and the beginnings of agriculture. Next to arrive was the canoe of Toi the Navigator. The Uri Karaka welcomed some of his people to a feast and proved themselves less than hospitable hosts by murdering them. Toi wreaked bloody vengeance on the underhand inhabitants and control of the Island passed to his people. Around this time the island became known by its first name Te Motu-arai-roa (the Long sheltering Island) emphasising it’s use as a shelter from the storms of the open ocean.

Ngati Huarere from the Coromandel, a colony from the great voyaging canoe Te Arawa then assumed control possibly sometime in the 14th century. During their period of occupancy the amount of Pa (fortified villages) greatly increased and the population grew. Ngati Huarere suffered many challenges to their authority and different iwi settled on the Island including Ngati Paoa who arrived in the 18th century and eventually became the dominant iwi on the island. Despite these upheavals the Island prospered and by 1800 there were probably around 1000 people living on the Island all around the coastline. However, disaster befell the population in 1821 when the Ngapuhi warrior Hongi Hika from Northland laid waste to the Island and the inhabitants fled or perished. Eventually Ngati Paoa began to return to Waiheke and the population had increased to around 500 by 1830. It is at this time that Europeans begin to enter the scene in ever greater numbers.

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Early European settlement up to 1901 - kauri, farming and early tourism

The first hard evidence of Europeans setting foot on the Island was in 1801 when a logging ship from the Coromandel “The Royal Admiral” mapped the Northern Shore. Around this time the Island became known as Waiheke, meaning, “cascading waters”. It is possible that the name arose through confusion when early Europeans mistook the name of a stream on one of the beaches to be the name of the entire Island. The first well recorded visit to Waiheke was that of the Rev. Samuel Marsden in 1820, he recorded that Waiheke was “as large as the Isle of Wight and contained much good land..”

However it was wood, not land, which enticed the first Europeans. Waiheke was thickly forested and loggers were attracted by the abundance of timber trees, especially the great Kauri used for shipbuilding and building houses.

The Kauri trade was highly lucrative, however by 1850 it was all but over; the trees were logged to near extinction and only a few small strands survived. Meanwhile the increasing deforestation of the Island began as other trees were rapidly felled for house foundations, fence posts and firewood. There was also considerable mining activity, but the riches that had been uncovered at the Coromandel Peninsula were not repeated here.

The first land purchase by Europeans was In 1838 by Thomas Maxwell who bought landon the East Coast, adjoining Man’O’War bay. By 1845 the number of pioneering European settler had reached 45. Farming developed and clearing of the bush continued as land purchases and settlements increased. Most early settlements were on the eastern end of the Island and around Onetangi.

By 1868, only Te Huruhi (the area around Matiatia) remained in Ngati Paoa hands. There were now little more than 40 Māori remaining on the Island. In contrast, more signs of European inhabitation appeared. In 1876 the first Post office arrived and in 1882 the first school opened, it was located at Te Matuku Bay and had a roll count of 27 pupils.

The potential for tourism began to be realised early on in Waiheke’s history. By 1901 although only 162 people were recorded as residents in the census, city people flocked to popular bays for regattas and picnics. The first regatta was held at Man’O’War in 1882 and the first Onetangi beach races began in 1880.

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Early twentieth century 1901-1945 - subdivision, settlement and baches

Slowly but surely more trappings of ‘European civilisation’ arrived including the first Police Station in 1903 and connection to the Auckland telephone exchange in 1908. The west of the Island began to be settled by Europeans just before the First World War. Te Huruhi was broken up and sold and a farmer, Fred Alison, bought a huge swathe of land in Matiatia and Oneroa.

Subdivision of the Island for baches and permanent homes, particularly at the western end, increased; Ostend was subdivided in 1916, followed by Oneroa, Surfdale, Palm Beach and Onetangi in 1920. The small settlement at Omiha was also subdivided and named Rocky Bay although it wasn’t to receive a road connection until 1956!

In 1921 the first form of limited local government reached the Island when the Orapiu and Ostend Roads Boards were created to look after road maintenance. This was just in time for the Island’s first car, which arrived in the same year and was used to sell real estate.

More schools began to appear too, at Ostend, Surfdale, Blackpool and Oneroa. As subdivision continued throughout the twenties so did tourism, the Island’s TT motorcycle races became a popular attraction during the 1920s and 1930s and people flocked to the Island for holidays and day trips. Roads were limited in number and quality and there were few vehicles to drive on them so water transport was very important. This meant wharves were scattered across the Island, the first to be built was at Cowes Bay in 1905 and others included those at Ostend, Orapiu and Surfdale. Matiatia wharf was not built until 1923. Although development on the Island slowed during the great depression of the 1930s it boomed during the Second World War. Building restrictions on the mainland during the war were not applied to Waiheke which was still, according to G. Ingham “an unknown or forgotten land …and laws and regulations were nobody’s concern”. People could still build as and where they wished on the Island. All through the war new houses and baches were built, Oneroa developed particularly quickly and became the largest village on the Island, as it remains today.

Also during the war the defence establishment at Stony Batter on the Island’s far east, was built to help defend Auckland from sea invasion. Thankfully never called into the action, the complex network of tunnels and gun emplacements which were built can still be visited today.

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Post-war Waiheke 1945-1987 - a growing concern

By the end of the war the permanent population of the Island was still only 835. The road boards remained the only system of local government at this time but with the popularity of the Island increasing Auckland City Council bid to assume control of the Island in 1947. This idea was resolutely rejected by the Islanders and was not to surface again for many years to come. In the meantime Waiheke continued along its own unpredictable path.

The island was still a basic and relatively remote place to live. Electricity was still unknown, commuter ferries were non-existent and there was no form of island-wide local government. All this was to change in the next ten years which saw a real growth in population and an increase in facilities.

The first bank was opened in Oneroa in 1947 and the first local paper The Waiheke Resident began in the same year. A workers passenger ferry to Auckland began in 1948 (very much slower and more stomach churning than the easy commute today). Telephones were installed in 1949, a high school arrived and roads began to be sealed in 1954, the first licensed hotel arrived in 1956 (the Onetangi Beach Hotel) and finally electricity arrived, covering the whole island by 1957. By 1955 the population had risen substantially to 2144.

Another major change around this time was the consolidation of the wharves; as roads improved more wharves closed down with services switching to the wharf closest to Auckland – Matiatia, a situation which remains today.

With all this development a local government which covered the whole Island became necessary. This finally occurred in 1955 when the Waiheke Road Board was created. However it wasn’t until 1970 that Waiheke finally gained fully comprehensive local government when the Waiheke County Council was formed.

Whilst it continued to be popular with tourists the Island developed an interesting mix of permanent residents. These new residents included artists, writers, ‘alternative lifestylers’ and other refugees from city life. They were attracted by Waiheke’s unbeatable combination of a beautiful environment and cheap housing. In general the population was poorer with more unemployment than the average for the mainland. Waiheke and Waihekeans acquired a variety of interesting nicknames and reputations with the Island being called amongst other things a hippie haven, a floating loony bin and a "beneficiary island". In complete contrast and to make the mix still more varied, the Island also became a popular spot for retirees.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the population continued to grow. By 1978 it had reached 3,500 and by 1986 4554 permanent residents were on the island.

In 1973 The Gulf News, now an Island institution, began publishing and in 1977 Goldwater Estate Winery was established the first of many wineries which were to change the face of the island.

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1987-2004 - fast ferry and “suburbanisation”?

Although only a short distance away from Auckland, the country’s largest urban centre, Waiheke still remained remote from the mainland in many ways. The Island still had an independent local government, the Waiheke County Council, and the old, uncomfortable ferries that went between island and city still took well over an hour.

Locals were divided over whether closer ties with Auckland would be a positive or negative for the Island; they were to find out at the end of the eighties when a fast ferry service was introduced in 1987 and the Waiheke County Council was amalgamated with Auckland City in 1989.

With integration into Auckland City and easier accessibility to the city many people came to regard Waiheke as an island outpost of Auckland. The trip to the island now took just 35 minutes. Commuting to work in Auckland, which had once been for the hardy few, was now relatively straightforward and Waiheke subsequently became an attractive place to live for more people.

This led to an initial population burst in which the population grew by 25% between 1986 and 1991. The new arrivals were often white-collar, full-time workers and relatively affluent which saw the demographics of the Island begin to change with the proportion of beneficiaries and the elderly living on Waiheke decreasing with each subsequent census. Meanwhile, real estate prices began to climb, gradually at first before skyrocketing in the last few years.

Architecturally, island houses now range from older, simple wooden baches to huge, modern architect designed wonders (or monstrosities depending on your opinion).

Tourism remains as important as ever for Waiheke’s economy. The growth in the wine industry has been the single biggest change in this area. Wineries have proven to be very popular destinations for visitors and other new tourist industries have grown side by side with the vines. Waiheke is in demand as a venue for weddings and corporate functions and the island has also become a luxury destination for wealthier visitors. Expensive, high-quality accommodation has sprung up around the island catering for this demand. The olive industry and olive trees have also flourished on the island, with around 20,000 trees producing top quality olives and oil.

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Oneroa today

Despite the increased affluence, the perceived ‘suburbanisation’ and the island’s current ‘trendiness’ Waiheke is not yet just another Auckland suburb. Indeed, there is still no reticulated sewage system or water supply other than rainwater tanks and the eastern end of the island is still sparsely populated and dominated by agricultural land. Although the first supermarket arrived in 1996, there are, as yet, no signs of some of the other common trappings of urban civilisation such as fast food restaurants and traffic lights.

Waiheke still retains a beautiful and relaxed semi-rural environment with a strong community focus and vigorous local democracy. Maintaining this community spirit and enviable environment under the pressure of increasing popularity and development demands is the island’s biggest challenge for the future.


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