The Victoria Park Tunnel project transects Freemans Bay, one of the earliest areas of settlement in the city of Auckland established in 1840. Before European settlement, Freemans Bay contained remains of earlier Māori settlement.

Hessian sack filled with bark.

Māori settlement

Pā sites occupied the headlands of Freemans Bay and St Marys Bay long before European settlement. Te Koraenga Oka (Te Oka), occupied what is now Point Erin Park while Te To occupied the headland above the present site of the Victory Christian Church.

The Māori heritage overview completed for the project by Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei says the Te Oka provided a clean waka berth at any time and gave the best view up or down the harbour, and the shortest distance to cross. On the landward side was an easy slope to the ridge tracks that are now Jervois, Ponsonby and Karangahape Roads and Symonds Street.

The site is now a park and the location of the popular Pt Erin Baths. It will be linked by a new walkway to Beaumont Street, being built as part of the Victoria Park Tunnel project.

Te To, the headland on the eastern side of Freemans Bay, has been substantially removed over the years – much of it to reclaim the bay and to create Victoria Park in the early 1900s.

Westhaven retaining wall

Westhaven retaining wall

Other sites on the project route are Wai Atarau (the Bay of Reflecting Waters, which is now St Marys Bay), Wai Kuta (a stream from College Hill from which Māori collected kuta, a rush used for weaving) and Tuna Mau (a stream from Western Park abundant with eels).

There will be many references to the area’s Māori history in the design detail of the Victoria Park Tunnel project. The retaining wall along Westhaven Drive (pictured), for example, has an abstract fish design etched into it, paying tribute to the harbour that sustained Māori over several centuries.

European settlement

By the 1850s, within 10 years of Auckland being settled by Europeans, Freemans Bay was developing an industrial character with sawyers, brick makers and boat builders operating beside the water. By 1883 the bay boasted nine ship builders, three sawmills, a brass and iron foundry, glassworks, asphalt works and numerous coal and lime dealers. Working-class settlers built their cottages on the slopes behind the foreshore.

An artist’s impression of early Freemans Bay, before reclamation

An artist’s impression of early Freemans Bay, before reclamation. The arrow points to the Rob Roy Hotel.

Reclamation of Freemans Bay began in the 1870s and by 1901 the bay had been obliterated.

The Freemans Bay heritage landscape includes a number of buildings from this period: they are Rob Roy Hotel, the former City Destructor (now the Victoria Park Market), Freemans Hotel (The Drake), the Beaumont Street gasworks and the Campbell Free Kindergarten. Directly affected by the project are the Rob Roy Hotel, the kindergarten and a third historic structure, Jacobs Ladder in Freemans Bay.

The Rob Roy Hotel

The Rob Roy Hotel was built by Samuel Jagger in 1885/86 on the corner of Franklin Road and Drake Street (now Victoria St West). Its name was changed to The Birdcage Tavern after Tony White, Tony’s Restaurants owner and Auckland City’s mayor John Banks bought it in the 1980s. It was bought by NZ Transport Agency (then Transit New Zealand) in 2002.

The Rob Roy sits directly above the site of the Victoria Park Tunnel’s southern portal. It is being moved 40 metres up Franklin Road, out of the way of construction. Then, once the tunnel portal has been built, it will be moved back to its original location, which will then be on the tunnel roof.

The Rob Roy’s move is a significant milestone for the project. The move has been designed with input from Wellington company Dunning Thornton, which also supervised moving the Museum Hotel in Wellington to make way for Te Papa. The actual work is being done by a skilled team from the Victoria Park Alliance.

The hotel was built without reinforcing. Extensive strengthening work has been included in preparations for the move. This has upgraded the building’s seismic rating in preparation for whatever use the Rob Roy is put to in the future.

For the move, the building will be placed on runway beams just below ground level. Hydraulic arms will then push it gently and very slowly along the beams up the road where temporary foundations will be ready. This operation is likely to take less than a day.

The Rob Roy will remain on its temporary foundations for approximately four months. At the completion of the tunnel project, it will become the focus of a new public square at the bottom of Franklin Road.

Campbell Free Kindergarten

The derelict Campbell Free Kindergarten

The derelict Campbell Free Kindergarten

The Campbell Free Kindergarten on Victoria Park was Auckland’s first kindergarten, built in 1908 with financial help from the ‘father’ of Auckland, John Logan Campbell. It provided free pre-school education to children from Freemans Bay until the Auckland Kindergarten Association moved the service to Myers Park and the building was handed over to Auckland City Council in the 1950s.

The kindergarten was used as the clubrooms for the Grafton Cricket Club and then as a practise room for a pipe band. It has been unused for more than 20 years.

The building will be restored as part of the Victoria Park Tunnel project and approximately one third of its floor area will be used to house the electrical and communications equipment needed to operate the tunnel. The remainder of the building will be available for community facilities.

Jacobs Ladder

Jacobs Ladder is a 99-step walkway leading from Waitemata Street in St Marys Bay down the cliff face to the harbour. Originally built from kauri in the nineteenth century, it was replaced with a steel structure in 1968.

Before the motorway through St Marys Bay was built, the ladder provided access to the former HMNZS Ngapona, the headquarters of the Auckland Division of the Naval Volunteer Service. In more recent years Jacobs Ladder has been a well used commuting and recreational route between St Marys Bay and the central city.

Jacobs Ladder will be protected as part of the Victoria Park Tunnel project. It will be a key link off a new walkway being built between Beaumont Street and Point Erin. A new foot bridge will be built across the motorway between Jacobs Ladder and Westhaven Drive, restoring the historic access to the harbour.

Project archaeology

Archaeologists are monitoring digging associated with the Victoria Park Tunnel project and protocols have been agreed with iwi and the Historic Places Trust for managing any discoveries, particularly of ancient artefacts.

Freemans Bay, one of Auckland’s earliest European settlements.

However, the more likely ‘finds’ on the project will be from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Materials so far uncovered have included bottles and crockery remains from around the Rob Roy Hotel, the remains of a seawall and timbers thought to be from jetties. Rusted tools and machinery parts (left) have also been found.