Ghost walks (4) Shorelining

Pou whenua sculpture

Pou whenua sculpture

Much of Wellington’s CBD is built on land that has been reclaimed from the harbour. The shoreline as it was when Europeans arrived is marked out from one side of the CBD to the other by fourteen brass plaques set into the footpath. There’s also an Old Shoreline Heritage Trail, which I more or less followed on a still, cold Saturday afternoon, walking from Lambton Quay to Waitangi Park.

 I start my walk at the Pou Whenua sculpture at the bottom of Molesworth Street. There are very few people around at this end of the CBD, and everyone I see seems to be alone.

Pou Whenua are boundary markers. These ones mark where the boundary used to be between the Pipitea and Kumutoto pā. They also symbolise the waka that used to land at this spot. Not commemorated is Dicky Barrett’s and Wellington’s first tavern, built here in 1840. Dicky Barrett, a whaler who lived with the Te Ati Awa tribe, helped the New Zealand Company with its first land purchases, acting as translator.

IMG_7910Across the road from the Pou Whenua sculpture is the Old Government Buildings (there is only one as far as I can make out, even though it is named in the plural), now the law faculty of Victoria University. The building was built in 1876 on land reclaimed specifically for it, to house the newly-established central government. Early photos show it sitting isolated on its man-made peninsula.

It is built entirely of wood, carved to give the appearance of an Italian stone palace, famous (in Wellington at least) for being the largest wooden building in the Southern Hemisphere, trumped for world status only by a temple in Japan. It is mostly built of vast amounts of kauri. Two kauri trees have been planted outside the building, as if by way of reparation.

oldgovtbldgscrop1I go through the etched glass entrance doors and into a warm wood-panelled lobby that smells of wood smoke. I wander down a long corridor, old photographs displayed on the walls, and up some interestingly angled wooden stairs. I can hear muted voices behind closed doors. Back downstairs in the vault, a mannequin public servant pushes a trolley loaded with huge tomes.

The building was designed to house the entire public service of New Zealand, including the new Department of Lands and Survey. Outside, on the side of the building, is a plaque and information panel marking the spot of the national standard chain mark. This was used to standardise the length of the chains that surveyors used to measure out the parcels of land purchased by early settlers. Surveyors’ chains measured 22 yards, or 66 feet, the length of a cricket pitch. Each town acre measured by the surveyors of the New Zealand Company, was the length of ten chains by ten chains.

NZ surveyor

Surveyor and dog – see below for reference

Andro Linklater, in his book ‘Measuring America’ argues that the invention of the surveyors’ chain by English mathematician Edmund Gunter in 1620, gave rise to the notion of private property in England. Where land could be accurately measured, it could be owned. He describes the process by which land was measured and sold in the United States, suggesting that where people couldn’t measure their land, it was taken away. Like the Native Americans, Māori had no concept of private land ownership and, probably not helped by the imperfect translations of Dicky Barrett, had little idea that their early transactions with the New Zealand Company would lead to armed surveyors overriding their boundaries, measuring out plots purchased in London before the colonists had even set sail.

A little further down Lambton Quay, on the site of the present day Bowen House was another early hotel, this one owned by Baron von Alzdorf. His first hotel, built in 1843, was destroyed by the 1848 earthquake. He rebuilt his hotel in brick and claimed it was ‘indestructible’. Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case and he was the only casualty of the 1855 earthquake, killed by the broken glass of a mirror that fell when one of the hotel walls collapsed. There’s a small display in the foyer of Bowen House from an archaeological dig that uncovered the remains of the Baron’s wine cellar.

The first harbour reclamations took place along Lambton Quay, originally known as The Beach, and were little more than reinforcements, defences against the sea’s efforts to reclaim the rough track that ran along the foreshore.

Lambton Quay

Lambton Quay 1860s – see below for reference

Lambton Quay, Wellington

Present-day Lambton Quay

The uplifted land resulting from the 1855 earthquake provided new land for the city and also made large-scale reclamation of the harbour more feasible. Successive reclamations expanded the city outwards bit by bit, the early settlers overriding more boundaries, this time between land and sea.  This animation shows the gradual accretion of reclaimed land.

The spoil used for reclamation came from the hills around the harbour, as the town expanded both inwards into the hills and outwards into the sea. In the 1860s, a tramway was built to carry fill from the hillside behind Lambton Quay to the harbour.

Reclamation seems an odd word to me for the artificial creation of land. It seems to imply taking back something that has been taken from you. In the earthquake of 21 July, the sea carried out its own small re-reclamation of harbour land*.

Most of the shops at this end of Lambton Quay are closed on a Saturday and the people I see are waiting at bus stops or wandering about in groups with the slightly aimless air of tourists who have seen the things they came to see. Further down, more shops are open, and I pass groups of women laden with shopping bags.

Old Bank Arcade, Wellington

Old Bank Arcade

Some of the earliest reclamations took place at this end of Lambton Quay. In 1859, land at what is now the corner of Lambton Quay and Grey Street was reclaimed for the Oddfellows Hall. A little further on, the Bank of New Zealand purchased land from another early reclamation to build its first building. This building was replaced by further bank buildings at the turn of the 19th century. These were saved from the threat of demolition in the 1990s and are now the Old Bank Arcade, a small-scale, upmarket shopping mall. The Old Bank Arcade reminds me of arcades in the Yorkshire towns where I grew up, with its polished wood, window displays and clattering cups from the cafes.

I go down a level to look at the remains of Plimmer’s Ark, tucked away under the stairs. Plimmer’s Ark was the wreck of a ship called the Inconstant, purchased by John Plimmer, a prominent early settler. Plimmer moored the Inconstant here, before the land was reclaimed, where it served as a wharf and bonded store. The Ark was uplifted and tipped over in the 1855 earthquake, but put right again. It was later swallowed by the Bank of New Zealand land reclamation, and recently rediscovered when the buildings were redeveloped.

Plimmer's Ark

Remains of Plimmer’s Ark – see below for reference

 There are some glass display cases and information panels, along with a recording of ‘John Plimmer’ recounting his life story which starts up and stops, seemingly at random. He seems to have a pronounced kiwi accent, which seems a bit unlikely for an early settler. One of the glass cases shows the layers below the building: foundations, fill, rubbish – china and glass mostly – beach, then bedrock. It takes me a while to notice that the decayed timbers of the Ark are beneath my feet, visible through glass tiles. It looks wet down there and I wonder if that is the water table, or if the timbers are kept moist deliberately.

Plimmer's Ark

Plimmer’s Ark under glass

John Plimmer, along with his dog Fritz, is of course immortalised in the statue at the bottom of Plimmer Steps on Lambton Quay, opposite where the Ark would have been moored. In 1848 he sold his house, at the side of the steps, to Dicky Barrett, who turned it into a later incarnation of his hotel. Some time afterwards, John Plimmer’s sons built a new Barrett’s Hotel on the same site.  This was demolished in the 1980s.

While Lambton Quay originally ran along the foreshore, Willis Street ran slightly inland, so the buildings on the seaward side of the street backed onto the harbour. The first government-funded land reclamation was carried out here, between Mercer Street and Chews Lane. Chews Lane was originally a strip of water between two reclamations, known as Harbour Passage. Now, following recent redevelopment, it has become a narrow canyon running between high buildings, reflected back on itself at the Willis Street end by the tall glass building opposite.

On the corner of Chews Lane and Willis Street was the five storey Hotel Windsor which, truncated by 3 storeys, was clinging on to life as The Malthouse when I arrived in Wellington. Now only its wrought iron balcony remains, incorporated into the new development, and the Malthouse has been reincarnated on Courtenay Place.

Hotel Windsor, Willis Street

Hotel Windsor, Willis Street – see below for reference

Even more than Lambton Quay, Willlis Street is a street of disappeared hotels. Hotel guests could fish from the upstairs balconies of the Empire Hotel, built in the 1850s on the site of what is now the black State Insurance Tower. On the other side of the road was the Carlton Hotel, originally the Aurora, built in 1848. A little further down is the site of the seven storey Grand Hotel, demolished in 1980 and replaced by the unprepossessing Grand Arcade Tower which seems to be perpetually for lease.


The Duke of Edinburgh Hotel has suffered a similar fate, its name living on in the ugly 1980s Duke’s Arcade with its weird fake first floor windows which were perhaps meant to evoke the spirit of the building it replaced.


Despite the successive reclamations and the changing uses in Lambton Quay and Willis Street, these streets have remained, along with Manners Street and Courtenay Place, the somewhat strung-out heart of the CBD. The route created by the original line of the shore is still the main thoroughfare, at least for pedestrians and buses.

Several narrow lanes running off Willis Street and Manners Street would once have linked these streets with the harbour. Bond Street was home to the Customhouse and Exchange Buildings, Wellington’s oldest buildings at the time they were demolished in the late 1950s. The fight to save them marked the start of the heritage conservation movement in the city. They were replaced by the fine car parking building that now bleakly dominates Bond Street, Cornhill Street and Lombard Street, reducing them to the status of access lanes and bin storage.

Exchange Building, Bond Street

Exchange Building, Bond Street – see below for reference

Cornhill Street

Manners Street is crowded.  I am in the realm of the young, clutching drinks from McDonalds, drifting in groups in and out of shoe shops.

I take a detour down Taranaki Street to look at more remains: buildings from the Te Aro pā that were discovered in 2005 when work began on a new apartment block. The highly fragile ponga and flax remains of the pā buildings were preserved by the European buildings built on top of them. Now, they are kept under glass, held together with resin. The display boards do not say what the buildings might have been used for – they look too small to have been dwellings. Like the excavation of Plimmer’s Ark, the excavation here worked down through accumulated layers: European rubble; Māori middens of shells, bones, clay pipes and buttons; marine gravels. The automatic glass doors of the display room keep opening hopefully every time someone walks past outside, but no one else comes in to look.

Te Aro pa

Remains under glass

The pā was occupied by several hundred people at the time that Europeans arrived. The uplift caused by the 1855 earthquake drained the swamp, removing a rich source of food for the inhabitants. This, along with pressure from colonists, disease and other events caused the population to dwindle rapidly. Work began on reclaiming land in Te Aro in 1884, the fill brought in from a quarry in Oriental Bay along a specially-built railway line.

I walk back up Taranaki Street to the dispiriting Te Aro park. The tiled pools and strange sculpture at the end were created in the early 1990s to symbolise the return of Māori to the city. The sculpture is supposed to be the prow of a ship, but it looks more like a truncated fortification, blunt-nosed and forbidding. Nearby, pigeons and seagulls are pecking at bread scattered over the grass beside a ‘do not feed the birds’ sign.

The Courtenay Place area was only developed after the Te Aro swamp was drained and has gone through several incarnations since, from slum area, to warehouses, to entertainment district catering for the displaced drinkers of Lambton Quay and Willis Street. I wander down Blair Street, across the New World carpark, and past the clattering skateboarders to Waitangi Park. This was once the site of Wellington’s morgue and the ‘Destructor’ – the municipal incinerator with its two towers belching out smoke.  The ‘Destructor’ operated until the 1940s, when the council took to filling gullies with rubbish instead of burning it.  Like the kauri trees outside the Old Government Buildings, Waitangi Park, with its recreated wetland planted with flax and grasses filtering the waters of the newly uncovered Waitangi Stream, can be seen as a reparation for the earlier uglification of the harbour here.

Wellington destructor

Wellington destructor – see below for reference

I walk down to the harbour, and look out over the boats moored in Chaffers Marina. The light is fading and it’s starting to get colder. I head to Oriental Parade for a coffee, passing one of the shoreline plaques set into the footpath on my way.

old shoreline

NZTopo database, Crown Copyright Reserved

*There was some alarmist speculation in the media about buildings built on reclaimed land suffering more damage in the July 21 earthquake, citing the damage to the new  BNZ building by the harbour, when in fact a significant proportion of the buildings in the CBD are built on reclaimed land, and the vast majority of these were undamaged. As I understand it, like other modern buildings, the BNZ building is designed to move in an earthquake, but unfortunately its fittings weren’t, and that is what caused the superficial damage to the building.


Anderson G (1984) Fresh about Cook Strait: an appreciation of Wellington Harbour
Department of Conservation (2011) Old Government Buildings Historic Reserve
Grapes R (2000) Magnitude Eight Plus: New Zealand’s Biggest Earthquake
Kernohan D (1994) Wellington’s Old Buildings
Linklater A (2002) Measuring America
McGill D and Tilly G (2012) The Compleat Cityscapes
Te Ara online enclyclopedia
Yska R (2006) Wellington: biography of a city

Photo references:

Girdlestone, Hubert Earle, 1879-1918. Surveyor and dwelling. Ref: 1/2-081605-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Lambton Quay, Wellington. Denton, Frank J, 1869-1963 :Collection of negatives, prints and albums. Ref: 1/2-003926-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Remains of the barque Inconstant, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Williams, Edgar Richard, 1891-1983 :Negatives, lantern slides, stereographs, colour transparencies, monochrome prints, photographic ephemera. Ref: 1/2-140203-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Former premises of Bethune & Hunter, Bond Street, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 1/2-065507-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Willis Street, Wellington. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 6. Ref: PAColl-5932-04. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Wellington Destructor, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19080312-6-4.