Discover Onehunga’s Rich History


Onehunga has a rich history of Maori and European settlement and trade. Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill, was highly valued among Maori and the setting for significant battles as a result. Meaning ‘burial place’, the name Onehunga acknowledges the many courageous and noble people who were lost and buried there. Upon European arrival, Onehunga became one of the country’s first and busiest ports, and an area  influential in the identity of early New Zealand.

The first known European settler on the Manukau Harbour was Thomas Mitchell, a timber merchant from Sydney. He sailed into the Manukau in 1835 and established a sawmill to process the accessible stands of Kauri for timber export to Australia. Mitchell negotiated with Te Kawau and his chiefs Kawae and Te Tinana of the Ngati Whatua for the purchase of thousands of acres of the Tamaki Isthmus together with exclusive rights for all the timber.

Mitchell died in 1836, his family returned to Australia, and the trustees of his estate sold the land in 1839 to Captain William Cornwallis Symonds, agent for the Waitemata and Manukau Land Company. Governor Hobson was subsequently to reduce their claim to a mere 1900 acres around Cornwallis.

Symonds laid out the township Cornwallis and the first settlers arrived from Scotland on the ship ‘Brilliant’ in October 1841 this being the first organised settlement on the Manukau. Some of these early families settled in Onehunga, the best known of whom were the Coldicutts, Brodericks and Foleys.

In 1844, pressure from settlers and emigrants dissatisfied with the Crown’s monopoly on purchasing Maori land, lead to Governor Robert Fitzroy to pass two Land Acts. The legislation allowed settlers to buy land direct from Maori land owners on payment of a small tax to the government. Onehunga was an area that proved attractive under these terms.

The first officially recorded land sale took place on 7 May 1844 when John Thomas Jackson purchased from Maori chiefs Wiremu Hopihone and Te Tinana a large block of land of approximately 163 acres known as Waihihi. The business centre now stands on part of Jackson’s farm land. Two years later he sold the land in parcels to Peter Imlay, Thomas Henry, and Samuel and Matilda Furley.

Many other land owners followed during the 1840s and established themselves in Onehunga, including Alexander Geddes, John Logan Campbell, George Owen Ormsby who built Onehunga Lodge at the western end of Arthur Street, Samuel A Wood, James Magee, and Robert and Margaret Forbes of the Forbes Inn.

Church of the Assumption

Governor George Grey revoked Fitzroy’s 1844 Acts and restored to the Crown the monopoly on purchase of Maori land. Land Commissioners were appointed to look into the legality of the European owners’ land titles to land that had been bought from Maori. All the early settlers of Onehunga were required to submit a claim to their land and in 1847 the Commissioners published their decisions on the entitlements. Some of the rulings they gave were arbitrary and unfair.

With rising unrest of Maori, Grey was determined to keep a hold on authority and recruited Fencibles from the military pensioners and discharged soldiers in Great Britain. They would be known as ‘The Royal New Zealand Fencibles’ also referred to as Pensioners and were to become permanent settlers as well as a back-up military force.

Onehunga was seen as a key position in the military and naval defence of the western perimeter of Auckland and thus became one of the areas for Fencible settlement. Captain Kenny, the commanding officer, was granted 40 acres and a two storied house with 10 rooms which he named ‘The Grove’. The land was positioned around what is now the centre of the present town, with the main entrance in Queen Street. The house was advertised for sale in April 1865. The next owner turned the residence into a private hotel and renamed it ‘Fernleigh House’.

Many descendants of the Fencibles still live in Onehunga. Many of them want to conserve the history of the district for future generations. In 1959 ‘Journeys End’, a private museum, was opened as a replica of an original Fencible cottage.

The Onehunga Fencible and Historical Society was founded in 1974 due to interest in the history of the District.

THE LAND WARS 1860 – 1865
Land Wars brought prosperity to Onehunga. With no access to the south by road, the port was the scene of concentrated and sustained activity. Many refugees were brought from down country. While the war lasted Onehunga prospered, but when the troops were withdrawn and the militia disbanded the boom days were over. A post war depression followed which created unemployment and hardship in the district.

The library in Queen Street, c1890.The Railway Terminus Hotel is in the background, at the corner of Princes Street

As the population increased, the omnibuses provided a passenger service from Auckland to Onehunga. Captain John Henry Hardington started the first regular public transport service in 1860 and by 1864 business had increased so much that the buses had to run hourly. With the advent of the railway in 1873, quicker and more comfortable passenger transport to Auckland reduced patronage of the buses.

A further step in local government was taken in 1862, when central government passed the Highways Act and the Auckland Provincial Council passed legislation to provide for the institution of Highway Boards in the province. The purpose of the Act was to facilitate the making and repairing of highways within the Province of Auckland.

The Highway Board of five was elected and were a fair representation of the Onehunga province. Dr John R Nicholson was elected chairman.

Money for maintenance was provided through rates. As these rates increased many improvements could be made to Onehunga. The most exciting development was the establishment of the rail link between Onehunga and Auckland in 1873.

Onehunga Railway Station. Alexander Turnbull Library

In 1876, the abolition of provincial government required new bodies to be set up and for this purpose the central government passed the Counties Act and the Municipal Corporation Act. From this, with a population of over 2,000 people, Onehunga became a borough.




Onehunga Borough Council Building, 1892.

John Dickenson Jackson was elected the first Mayor unopposed. The Council dealt with community issues such as the selling of the Onehunga water reserve in 1867. This greatly concerned locals and Dr Nicholson happily persuaded Council to stop the proposed sale.

The first Onehunga Racing Club race meeting was held on 10 February 1883 in Waikaraka Park. It is estimated some 500 – 600 people attended. The meetings went into recess in approximately 1891, but resumed in the Park in 1893. The Council, under pressure from people who had been granted grazing rights, stopped the Club’s races by planting macrocarpa trees.

Onehunga had the distinction of electing the first woman Mayor in the British Empire, Mrs Elizabeth Yates, in 1893. By virtue of her role, she also became the first woman Justice of the Peace.

Mrs Yates, Mayor of Onehunga 1893 – 1894

Donald Sutherland was Mayor after Elizabeth Yates. In 1904, a year before his term ended, he saw the modern electric tram into Onehunga from the Chief Post Office in Central Auckland on 27 September 1903. The Auckland Electric Tramway Company extended from the Epsom Barn to Onehunga Wharf.

Angus William Gordon was elected Mayor in 1905, followed by John Rowe who presided over the Council for the next 11 years. By 1913 an extensive drainage system was in operation.

In 1912 John James Boyd opened a zoo in Onehunga which later closed in 1922.

Over 460 men left Onehunga to help Great Britain fight the war on Germany. Eighty-nine were killed in action or died in active service.

John James Boyd, John Stoupe and John Park were the next successive Mayors. James Edward Cowell was elected Mayor from 1923 and held the position until 1927. He saw electricity introduced to Onehunga for both domestic and commercial use.

Laying sewage pipes in Captain Street.The traction engine was used for pumping out water. 1909

1927 signified 50 years since the founding of the borough and was marked by many jubilee celebrations.

The worldwide depression had begun to affect New Zealand’s economy by 1929 and unemployment and economic hardship was experienced in Onehunga, as it was everywhere else in New Zealand. By 1933 there were nearly 80,000 registered unemployed in the country.

During this time, a bond was forged between the people of Onehunga and their Member of Parliament William Jordan and his wife. In 1951 Jordan was knighted for his outstanding services to the unemployed and needy. In 1937 the Onehunga Business Association was incorporated to promote the business district of Onehunga and continues to do so to this day.

The Onehunga swimming pool, opened 1956.

In 1952 a new centre for the Onehunga sub-branch of the Plunket Society was opened in Church Street.

Following the death of Arthur Osborne a by-election was called and Hugh Watt was elected as Member of Parliament. Over 1,000 men from Onehunga served overseas during the Second World War. The Onehunga Memorial Swimming Pool was opened in 1956 and served as a lasting memorial to those who lost their lives.

At midnight on 28 December 1956, the last tram left the Onehunga terminus.

1959 was significant in local body elections. Labour had held office but the Onehunga Advancement Association was formed on a non-political basis.

By 1962 with a population of over 15,000 the borough was entering a new era of growth and development. The Council had issued permits for a spinning mill, carpet factory, wool scouring works, box factory, and a metal smelting plant as well as other factories and businesses. These added to Onehunga Woollen Mill, the fertiliser works, the Onehunga Timber Company and Sutherland’s Tanneries comprised a valuable industrial asset.

In 1963, the Council asked residents to subscribe to a borough loan scheme to complete sewerage reticulation in the western part of the district.

Transport patterns had also changed. Railway service patronage had fallen off since the introduction of trams in 1903 and the decrease in ships passengers in the late 1920s. Direct passenger trains between Onehunga and Auckland c eased on 28 July 1950. Motor car use increased significantly.

Fiesta week was held from 23 February to 4 March 1963 to celebrate Onehunga’s 120 years of progress. 1963 was also a landmark for the Onehunga Ladies Benevolent Society when it celebrated a century of service to the community.

It was now becoming apparent that a number of factors were altering the flow of traffic into the town. These were the rapid growth of Mangere into a closely populated residential suburb and the opening of the international airport in Mangere. Onehunga was a natural route for traffic and this meant more vehicles on the road, especially Queen Street. This in turn attracted more motorist shoppers from other Auckland suburbs.

In February 1970, Governor-General Sir Arthur Porritt officially opened the new Council chamber and recreation centre.

Council turned its attention to implementing another long term part of the District Town Planning Scheme presented in 1967. This was to convert a section of the main shopping street, Queen Street between Arthur and Princes Street into a pedestrian shopping mall; to provide alternative routes by means of a ring road system; and to expand off-street parking to meet the resultant demand. It hoped to create an attractive business and commercial centre that would bring prosperity and revitalise the centre of the town. The high density through traffic would be eliminated with its accompanying noise, pollution and danger to residents.

Queen Street became Onehunga Mall

In August 1972 a comprehensive plan was approved and in October the Council voted to change the name of Queen Street to ‘Onehunga Mall’. This was the name selected from over 60 suggestions put forward by residents. To provide for car parking and for the construction and provision of facilities in the Mall, the local business community agreed to pay an additional rate over and above the normal commercial rate. The Onehunga Mall pedestrian shopping precinct was opened on 2 April 1973.

The Borough of Onehunga celebrated its centennial in April 1977.


The Onehunga Carnegie Free Library opened on 11 September 1912. A grant for most of the construction of the library was given from philanthropist and New York industrialist, Andrew Carnegie.

The opening of the Onehunga Carnegie Free Library, 1912.

The structure and interior of the Carnegie Library was refurbished and reopened on 12 August 1988.

Onehunga was possibly the first New Zealand village to have a free library. In August 1957 the word ‘Free’ was deleted from the name of the library and replaced with ‘Public’. In October 1989, the Borough of Onehunga was disestablished and The Onehunga Library became a branch of Auckland City Libraries.


From ancient times, trade and commerce have centred on ports. As people and products gathered at waterfronts, communities formed around the activity-filled harbours.

The first early settlers arrived at the Manukau Harbour in 1835, purchasing land from native Maori and, in 1840 a fencible settlement was established. This force of retired soldiers was brought in to strengthen the defences of Auckland because many colonists felt in danger from hostile Maori.

The early settlement of Onehunga subsequently began to be established. From 1844 to 1863 the harbour was seen as an important communications link to the rest of New Zealand. The Onehunga Wharf was completed in 1958.

Onehunga was a frequent port of call for coastal vessels operating between other west coast New Zealand ports. Passenger traffic was also extremely popular in the late 1800s, with passenger steamers operating between many of the New Zealand west coast ports.

Onehunga wharves

The opening of the North Island Main Trunk Railway in 1908 had a profound effect on the pattern of shipping in the Manukau. The efficiency of rail transport eroded the use of the harbour.

In 1913, responsibility for the Manukau Harbour and the Onehunga Port was transferred from the Marine Department and the Auckland Harbour Board.

During the 1950s, there was an increase in the tonnage of goods handled at Onehunga and this trend continued until the mid 1960s. In 1982, the Port also began handling containers.

The Manukau Harbour is one of the most extensive inlets on the west coast of New Zealand, with a water area of 394 square kilometres. However, navigation is restricted to several clearly defined channels due to a number of factors. A large part of the harbour consists of tidal sand bars, a curving sand bar is situated several miles offshore across the harbour entrance, and the harbour entrance is extremely narrow.

The sinking of the HMS Orpheus on 7 February 1863 was the worst maritime disaster in New Zealand history and a dramatic event in this Port’s history, highlighting the limitations of the Port of Onehunga. The 1,700-tonne steam corvette hit the middle bank, the Manukau Bar, at 1.30pm. By 9pm the mast, where most of the crew had taken refuge, went down; only 70 of 250 passengers survived.

Painting depicting the wreck of the HMS Orpheus (Richard Brydges Beechey, 1863)

Today the Port is close to a large and growing industrial area in South Auckland. This proximity has assisted the Port in continuing to service a steady flow of coastal traders and the local fishing fleet.

A signal station, situated on South Head (the southern point of the harbour), is operated by Ports of Auckland to assist vessels entering and departing.

Mangere Bridge under construction, c1913





The growth of Onehunga has been closely associated with Mangere. The first Mangere bridge was opened in 1875, and a new Mangere bridge was opened in 1915.

Work began on the current bridge in 1975. After the longest running industrial dispute in New Zealand, and problems over a deteriorating structure, the bridge was opened to pedestrians and traffic on 19 and 23 February 1983 respectively.

Onehunga Primary School. The opening of the new building in 1901.


Onehunga Primary School was opened in 1901, Te Papapa School in 1913, and Onehunga High School in 1959.


Mr. and Mrs. Robert Buchanan were well known Onehunga benefactors in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1922 Mrs. Buchanan invested a sum of money with the Public Trust to fund the Buchanan Prize. This prize would go to children who had not only done well in their work but had shown excellent behaviour and co-operation at their school. The prize was to pupils at Onehunga Primary and Te Papapa Primary and was to enable them to purchase books when leaving those schools and entering others. At Onehunga Primary these names were recorded on the Buchanan Honours Boards, the first two of which are situated in the Onehunga Community House. The first one dates from 1922 – 1952 and the second one from 1953 – 1979.

The Buchanan Boards after restoration

The first board was a very grand affair with a beautiful oak frame and the initials ODS for Onehunga District School carved on the top. The second newer one was just a plain board, no frame, just stuck incongruously to the first one. Both boards were in very poor condition, split in several places and infested with borer. In 2010, thanks to a Discretionary Grant from the Maungakiekie Community Board, they have now been fumigated, and completely restored. The restorer, Jonathan Maze, has copied the frame of the first one for the second board, and now both are in place in the foyer of the Onehunga Community House.

If members of the public would like to view these restored pieces of Onehunga history, Tony Broad, the Community House co-ordinator, is at the Community House, 83 Selwyn Street Onehunga, Monday to Friday 8.30 a.m. till 12.30 p.m.

Until about 1847 the beach was the main trading centre. It was there that all the trading with Maori took place. Matilda Furley was prominent among the early traders with her pork pies and her husband Samuel’s bakery bread. The Furleys along with a number of others, had taken advantage of Fitzroy’s pre-emption waiver of 1844 to buy land and settle in Onehunga.

The founding of the Fencible settlements from 1847 accelerated the building of shops. From 1848 the main trading centre moved to Princes Street and remained there for the next 10 years. The Royal Hotel opened in 1848 near the bottom of Princes Street.

The postal service in Onehunga was set up in 1848 to accommodate the Fencible settlements.

The first post office building was shipped from Russell and re-erected in Queen Street 1850, then a new building was opened in 1902, on the corner of Queen and Princes Streets. The next Post Office replaced the former building 70 years later, and was located at 142 Onehunga Mall.

The first bank followed the wake of successful business development and commerce. It was opened when the Bank of Auckland built a branch in Princes Street in 1864 but was later closed in 1867. The premises were later bought by Mrs Furley who conducted a bakery and confectionery from the premises. A savings bank opened in 1886, and the National Bank began trading in 1892.

The Royal Hotel, Princes Street, 1885.


In 1844, Robert and Margaret Forbes opened ‘New Leith Inn’, the first licensed accommodation in Onehunga.

In 1848 the two-storied Royal Hotel was built with its popular ‘Long Room’, with stage and seating for 200 people. This became the venue for local affairs and entertainment. The premises were completely destroyed by fire in 1887, but were rebuilt by the proprietor Mrs Elizabeth George.

The Royal Oak Hotel was the third public house to be built in Onehunga and the first brick building to be erected in the district. It was situated at the junction of Manukau and Mt Smart Roads. It lost its license and was closed in 1908. Other hotels which followed were; the Commercial Hotel near the beach on Norman’s Hill Road, opened in 1856, the Prince Albert Hotel in Queen Street in 1858, and following its demolition, the Onehunga Hotel in 1959, on the same site. The Victoria Hotel on the corner of Victoria and Grey Streets opened in 1862 (later closed in 1906). The Exchange Hotel, on the corner of Hill and Princes Streets, opened on or before 1863, but burnt down in 1871. The Railway Terminus Hotel on the corner of Queen and Princes Streets, on the site previously occupied by the Courthouse Hotel, was opened in 1871 and later became known as The Post Office Hotel.

The strategic position of Onehunga on the Manukau Harbour and its abundant supply of fresh water made it an eminently suitable place for the establishment of industry.

Thomas Mitchell, a Sydney timber merchant, operated from 1834 – 1837. The Manukau Steam Sawmill built in 1842, to harvest the large stands of kauri, was the first of its kind in New Zealand. It closed a year later due to difficulties shipping out the timber.

The Onehunga Iron Works (now New Zealand Iron and Steel Company)

The first established industry with permanent buildings was John Bycroft’s flour mill and biscuit factory, built in 1854. The second was James McIntyre’s Clyde Iron Works. Many other industries also opened up around the area.

The reclamation programme on the foreshore started in the early 1960s was continued in the next 20 years in the area south of Nielson Street between Galway Street and Waikaraka Cemetery, together with Pikes Point east and west. Now approximately one third of the borough is zoned industrial. Strict environmental regulations have been laid down setting out acceptable performance standards in such matters as air, noise and water and soil pollution.

Industry continues to make an important contribution to the economic stability of the region and is a major source of employment for workers living in the district and surrounding areas.

THE 1980s
In October 1988 Onehunga Borough Council announced that Onehunga Mall shopping precinct was to undergo major transformations to achieve an attractive town centre and substantial upgrading of the precinct was undertaken. This included the repaving of all walkways; the installation of the associated drainage system; extra sheltered seating; extensive landscaping and the erection of a large block fountain which sheltered people from the prevailing winds.

To ensure the new facilities were enjoyed, Council established an Onehunga Shopping Centre Management Committee with representatives of Onehunga Borough Council and the Onehunga Business Association. In 1987, a Heritage sub-committee was formed to help protect the history of Onehunga.

Onehunga Borough Council Waterworks celebrated 100 years of service on 4 August 1988.

The three boroughs of Onehunga, One Tree Hill and Ellerslie became wards of the greater Auckland City Authority in 1989.


Extracts from The Onehunga Heritage by Janice C Mogford, used with the permission of the publisher Auckland City Council. First published in 1977, revised in 1990. (Edited by the Onehunga Business Association Incorporated.)

*Source: Ports of Auckland


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