THE ESTABLISHMENT OF ONEHUNGA SETTELEMENT
The Onehunga area was strategically located with the portage to the west between the Whau River connecting to the Waitemata harbour and the other portage just north of Otahuhu linking the Manukau with the Tamaki River. This area was an important link for the northern Maori to the Waikato. Due to this and to the extensive views across the Manukau from Green Hill the colonists saw it as a strategic position for the defence of southwest Auckland. The Royal Engineers Corps whose headquarters were in Auckland circa 1846-1847 prepared the original plan of the village of Onehunga.
From December 1846 to April 1847 the village of Onehunga was surveyed and thirty-four blocks, ten acres each, were pegged out. The land was ploughed where possible within the boundaries of the proposed village, sawn timber was ordered and all was set in motion to begin building the Fencible houses. Everything came to a halt however while the government reconsidered other options for location of the settlements such as the Mahurangi. The result was a delay so that when the first of the Fencibles arrived in Auckland they were at first housed in Albert Barracks for three months and then in temporary sheds. The arrival of the Ramillies with the first consignment of Fencibles spurred on the decision to create a settlement in Onehunga.
36 GROTTO STREET
The depression which makes up most of the land area at 36 Grotto Street, Onehunga, is one of two features referred to by Ferdinand von Hochstetter in 1867 as “the grotto” and “pond”, 36 Grotto Street’s feature being the latter, and the former still just to the north, much of it today at 26-30 Heretaunga Avenue. Hochstetter described them as deep holes, where the roof of lava caves had broken and fallen in.
An undated “Plan of Onehunga” 2 shows both features and their surroundings firstly as reserve land (likely pre1876), and also as “school endowment land”. “The Pond” was part of a group of reserves which were Crown Land up to July 1872, when ownership for a time was transferred to the Superintendent of the Auckland Provincial Council.
THE POND, 36 GROTTO STREET, ONEHUNGA AUCKLAND.
The Provincial Councils were abolished in late 1876, and control of the reserves passed to the Auckland district’s Board of Education, as endowment lands. “The Pond” at Grotto Street was one of two sections sold by the Board before they began leasing the rest of their holdings from 1879.
William Barron became the first private owner of The Pond in March 1877. Little is known about him; except that he had lived at Onehunga for around 40 years by the time he died and was “an old and respected settler”. When he died in 1896, the property was left to his widow Caroline Barron, but she survived him by only two years. It is uncertain whether the Barrons lived on the property or not, but the original wooden house which was removed only after 1979 may have originated from the period of their ownership.
There were a number of owners over the next ten years. In 1898 the property was inherited by widow Margaret Caroline Caddy, who in turn transferred ownership to Arthur Penrose Caddy the following year. In 1903, the property was sold to Richard Thompson Talbot, and then to farmer James Rinaul in 1908. Rinaul was to subdivide the property from 1920, creating properties fronting onto Heretaunga Avenue. Part of The Pond is therefore today in private ownership. The reduced remainder of the property, still totalling nearly two-and-a-half acres, was then sold to William Davies in 1931, and again in 1933 to local butcher Philip Denize. William Leatham Donaldson bought the property in 1942, and his widow owned it from 1968 until late 1973, when it was sold to Hans Heilbron, a mechanic.
Dr Hayward notes that diatomite was mined by the owner in the 1940s and early 1950s and used to make a polishing powder called “Grotto Maid”, rather similar to Chemico. It was packaged in flat-topped containers and sold through shops and hawked off locally around Onehunga. Modifications within the Pond depression appear to relate to this period of time, when the owner obtained permits for the use of explosives to assist with his operation. A 1 m high concrete wall around the inside perimeter of the floor of the Pond on the north and east side may have been built as a dam to stop water flowing out of the lava flow and into the excavations. A “deep” drain in the southwest corner of the Pond may have also been dug at this time to help dewater the diatomite diggings.
In a 1940 aerial photograph of the property, the drain can be seen. The concrete wall can be seen in the 1959 photograph, along the northeast to the centre of the eastern part of the depression. This plastered concrete block wall remains.
THE POND, 36 GROTTO STREET, ONEHUNGA AUCKLAND
Reference was made in a Herald article in 1973 that The Pond “contains a heavy deposit of diatomaceous earth, used in making polishes.” By 1973, this earth, according to the report, held no commercial value as supplies were cheaper to import from Australia than those obtained from the Onehunga site.
It would appear that the site was first schedule in the Onehunga District Scheme in the early 1970s as a site of ‘historic and scientific’ interest. There are a number of letters on the site file between council and the owner at the time Hans Heilbron.
The Onehunga Borough Council tried to buy the section for use as a wilderness reserve in 1973, 12 but it wasn’t until 2006 that the property passed into Auckland City Council ownership. There were a number of buildings on the site at No 36. A house can be clearly seen in aerial photographs from 1940 and 1950. A permit was lodged in 1945 to erect an army hut on the site and the previous year alterations and additions were permitted for the house. The 1973 valuation notes that this was a villa constructed c1900. A demolition permit was granted in September 1984 to demolish the house and out buildings.
The site is generally one of geological and ecological value. But there are some built features that are of some value. Along the street frontage and side boundaries there remains a random rubble stone wall constructed from local basalt or scoria stone. The 1931 survey plan notes that the wall was then at least 20 years old. There are concrete gate posts marking the entry to the villa that use to be on the property. Remnants of the house foundations, walls and steps constructed from concrete blocks and poured concrete are located at what would have been the rear of the villa.
A low plastered concrete wall runs along the eastern and northern side of the depression. This is about 1 meter high with small buttresses at regular intervals. Why this wall was built is not clear, but it has been suggested (Dr B Hayward 2007) that this may have been associated with the extraction of diatomite.
The site has the potential to provide archaeological evidence of prior human activity and occupation. It is recommended that an archaeological assessment be carried out to determine these values.