28 March 2010

McLachlan’s gift

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Above: McLachlan Memorial on Puponga Point

A few weeks ago during my visit to the North Island I took a weekend bush walk with my mother and her friend Patricia.  Our destination was a place I’d never visited before – the broad expanses of Cornwallis, a sparsely inhabited narrow peninsula flung southwards into the Manukau Harbour with a splendid swoop of dawn-facing sand.  The peninsula is capped by a forested hill with a long pier at its base, and atop the hill, known as Puponga Point, is a 90-year-old monument to a forgotten settlement and a magnanimous gift. 

As the trees planted across the hilltop have grown over the decades since the monument was erected, the regional park managers have trimmed back a slice of the woods so the monument is still visible from the beach.  It’s an easy half-hour walk to the monument, and from the heights visitors have a fine view over the Manukau Heads and the western reaches of the harbour.

The monument records the gift of the surrounding land to the city to form part of the huge parklands that dominate the Waitakere Ranges.  It also commemorates the attempts by Scottish settlers to build a township on the Cornwallis peninsula in the early days of the New Zealand colony – an attempt that soon foundered.  The monument records the details:    

This monument records the arrival of the ship Brilliant in the Manukau Harbour on 29 October 1841 with a band of settlers for the Cornwallis Estate which was controlled by the Manukau Land Company whose manager was LACHLAN MCLACHLAN, father of the donor of this park JOHN MITCHELL MCLACHLAN, who was born on the estate on 18 October 1842.

And on the reverse:

Erected by the AUCKLAND CITY COUNCIL to commemorate the gift of the CORNWALLIS PARK of 1927 acres to the City of Auckland by JOHN MITCHELL MCLACHLAN in memory of his mother ISABELLA MITCHELL MCLACHLAN.  Unveiled on July 17 1918 by J.H. Gunson Esq, Mayor of Auckland – H.W. Wilson, Town Clerk – W.E. Bush, City Engineer.

John Mitchell McLachlan was the best-known scion of the settlement that failed to leave a permanent mark on the map of the young country.  The Cornwallis Estate was the site of extensive plans for development of a frontier settlement at the behest of the Manukau and Waitemata Company, a speculative venture akin to the New Zealand Company.  Town plans were drawn up, about 80 of 100 sections offered were sold and a rickety vessel, the Brilliant, was outfitted for what turned out to be a mammoth journey of ten months from the Clyde.  The ship was presumed lost by the time it finally sailed into the Manukau at the end of October 1841.

The 27 settlers who had remained on board during the long voyage, turning down the chance to jump ship in Cape Town, Melbourne and Hobart en route, were greeted with what must have been a bitterly disappointing sight.  Temporary raupo (flax) huts were being erected for the settlers by local Maori, but there was no other sign of civilisation.  The Company had even failed to properly secure ownership of the land on which Cornwallis was to be built.   

The early days of Cornwallis were marred by the all-too-common plight faced by colonists: drowning, which was known at the time as ‘the New Zealand death’.  Attempting to take medical supplies to a stricken missionary’s wife, Captain William Cornwallis Symonds and three others were thrown from their boat and drowned on 23 November 1841.  The news of Symonds’ death was reported throughout the colony, and Symonds Street in downtown Auckland was named in his honour.  The New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator of 8 December reprinted the reportage of the Auckland (later New Zealand) Herald, which included the following eye-witness account:

Captain Symonds, who was an expert and powerful swimmer, was observed to make the most extraordinary exertions.  He swam for more than an hour and twenty minutes encumbered with a particularly heavy kind of nailed boots, and two thick pea coats, (which latter he was seen attempting to take off), and had nearly gained the shore, when he disappeared. 

Following this melancholy loss, the new settlers at Cornwallis laboured to build a home for themselves under the leadership of Lachlan McLachlan, whose son would donate the Cornwallis land to the city some 75 years later.  Two further company vessels, the Osprey and the Louisa Campbell, brought a prefabricated steam-powered sawmill and more settlers.

The Cornwallis settlement struggled from the outset.  Despite rumours of coal being found nearby in 1843, there was little money to be made locally.  The sawmill closed in 1843, which removed a major source of employment for the settlement at a stroke.  Later that year the Daily Southern Cross published a scathing editorial, lambasting the Manukau and Waitemata Company for its failure to deliver what it had promised in its prospectus:

Of all the schemes devised for gulling and deceiving people, the Manukau Company was decidedly the most barefaced and impudent that we have ever heard of…  Many of these purchasers of ideal town allotments and fine imaginary country sections have been for the last three years in this country patiently waiting, in the hope that the Manukau Company would fulfil their promise to them, but we fear they may wait long enough before they hear any thing further of the Manukau Company.  

The inhabitants of Cornwallis soon drifted away, with only a few scattered dwellings remaining.  One such cottage played an important role some two decades later when the catastrophic wreck of HMS Orpheus on the Manukau Bar in February 1863 sent shockwaves through New Zealand and the rest of the British Empire.  While nearly 200 drowned in the wreck, a few lucky sailors managed to escape death and were rescued from the stormy shore by John Kilgour of Cornwallis.  Kilgour, a Scot, and his wife nursed the sailors back to health and assisted them to slip into Auckland clandestinely to avoid being returned to naval duties against their will.  

For decades the ownership of Cornwallis was neglected, until in 1903 when John Mitchell McLachlan bought the area with the intention of adding it to the city’s parklands.  The land was gifted to the city in 1910 after McLachlan’s death, but the hilltop monument was not erected for a further eight years, presumably due to the distraction of the Great War.  Cornwallis was isolated and hard to reach, and the Council began to allow the construction of holiday baches along the beach as early as 1916.  Emma Louise Joyce records that a series of baches existed along the Cornwallis beach until as late as 1977, when the Council’s programme of bach demolition that had begun in the 1960s was completed.

With the baches gone Cornwallis remains as a largely unsullied corner of Auckland, free from development.  Visitors enjoy walking the length of the beach, and enthusiasts fish from the pier.  McLachlan’s generous gift has meant that this unspoiled environment will be preserved for future generations of Aucklanders to enjoy.

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Above: Cornwallis viewed from the McLachlan Memorial at Puponga Point

Further reading:

The Dream that was Cornwallis

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