Volume 10

A Bridge too Far? The Burke Street Harbour Project that Bankrupted the Thames Borough

David Wilton

The Decline of the Goldfield.

Around 1870, the population of Thames, at around 15,000, rivaled that of Auckland, and the goldfield was regarded as the economic powerhouse of the province. By about 1920, however, bullion production had dwindled to a small fraction of the halcyon years of the early 1870s, and most of the miners, mining companies (and their capital) had moved on to other fields - many to Ohinemuri and Waihi:

'There was a time when no place in New Zealand was more talked of throughout the colony and beyond it, than the Thames. The cause of this was the extraordinary richness of the goldfield which was opened in 1867 and almost at once acquired a world-wide celebrity. ... At one time there must have been fully 20,000 people on the field, most of them within the borough. In 1880 the population of the borough was about 5000, and in subsequent years it fell still lower. At the census of March, 1901, it was 4004' (Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Unknown author 1902).

Potentially, Thames would have become just another gold-rush ghost town. However, as noted by Isdale (1967 pp.46-47):

'Thames failed to become a ghost town after the last trickle of Waiotahi gold died away in 1910 and deep levels were flooded out in 1913 [due to the Hauraki Pump operation striking a body of high-pressure water at a fault line] because of what was happening in the great swamp to the south.

Donald McCaskill, from his journal written in 1865, had seen the possibilities soon after his arrival in 1848, climbing a high hill and overlooking a vast expanse of swamp, 'perfectly useless land' which could be 'easily drained'. Others were to think the same. ...

The first settlers on the new-won land came quite early. On 18th May 1910, with the Waiotahi at its last gasp, a crowd gathered at Miners Union Hall in Thames [still in situ in Pollen St, between Cochrane and Albert Sts] to watch or take part in a ballot for 104 sections, totaling 16,398 acres. There were 1300 applicants. ...

Then came World War 1. In Thames, it took men away from mining, effectively wrecking the organised structure. To the Hauraki Plains, it brought soaring prices for their cream, to turn into butter. As there was a large town nearby, they went in their launches to see what kind of shopping they could do in Thames. They landed at the Shortland end, the long-neglected end. They un-neglected it to such effect that it woke up Grahamstown.'

The psychological effects of the decline of the goldfield lingered on. The dwindling population and reduced economic importance obviously struck a raw nerve with the remaining populace; especially with businesses who found fewer opportunities and their turnovers greatly reduced. The draining of the Hauraki Plains and the commencement of farm ballots in 1910 resulted in new business opportunities for Thames - at very least as a commercial and business hub to support farming operations:

'[Thames] lay sleeping, awaiting the magic kiss of a golden prince. It awoke to the warm breath of a cow licking its face. ... It was very pleasant to be making money again, and it rather went to some heads. The borrowing twenties [1920s] were a time of super-optimism and loans all over the world, so Thames could hardly be blamed for joining in. Loans were floated to the tune of around £300,000. Much of this went on a sewerage scheme which was needed and useful. £66,000 was for a harbor scheme, which was thought to be needed, but proved quite useless.' (Isdale 1967)

The ill-fated Burke St wharf project was intended to take advantage of this opportunity - to create a deep-water port capable of serving the new Hauraki Plains farming community, and that of the wider Waikato region, and providing an outlet for exports. Exactly who mooted the idea is lost in antiquity, but the origins are summarised by Weston (1927 p.269) as follows:

'Another ambitious scheme is that of the Thames Harbour. The recommendations of Mr Blair Mason were modified by the engineer, Mr E.F. Adams, to allow for a berthage of 15 feet at low water and 25 feet at high tide, and the estimated cost was £60,000. It was hoped that the whole harbour district, which extends nearly to Morrinsville, would support this proposal and a delegation from Thames stumped the country, putting the proposal before the people. There was great opposition to the scheme, however, and on a poll being taken, it was decisively defeated. Thames ratepayers immediately took the burden on their own shoulders and guaranteed the money, with a result that the harbour is now in the making and being steadily pushed to a conclusion.'

The ambitious scheme effectively involved building an artificial harbour, consisting of a large 'dry' stone wall (i.e. un-mortared), enclosing an area of 114 acres (Thames Star 18 December 1952). The enclosure was to be dredged deep enough to give all-tide access for ships of a substantial size. However, there were problems with the dredging (including one dredge sinking and having to be recovered; as reported in the Thames Star 24 July 1936) and it appears the enclosure continually refilled with silt much more rapidly than was expected.

The news media tracked project progress, and, initially, prospects of a successful outcome appeared bright, despite some cost escalations (which had been actually allowed for in the budget, as contingency amounts):

New Zealand Herald, Volume LXII, Issue 18916, 14 January 1925, Page 7
[BY TELEGRAPH.—OWN CORRESPONDENT.] THAMES. Tuesday. A pile-driving ceremony was performed here today by the Minister for Marine, the Hon. G. J. Anderson, at the wharf which is being constructed at the site of the old Burke Street Wharf in connection with the harbour improvement scheme. Mr. R. Coulter, chairman of the Harbour Board, presided, and give a resume of the past history of the harbour. He stated that the old boards had only raised one loan of £10,000 on which they had carried on for over 50 years.
Consequently they were unable to make many improvements, but the present board had raised the sum. of £20,000, on debentures, as a portion of the £60,000 authorised for the completion of the present scheme, which was, however, only the first portion of the greater scheme they hoped to see carried out in the future. The board had placed orders with reliable firms for supply of the necessary plant and materials, and were in a position to push on with the work vigorously. Mr. Anderson predicted that in the near future there would be a good deep-sea harbour at Thames, from which produce from the Thames Valley would be shipped to the Home Country direct. He hoped to see steamers of 10,000 tons loading at Thames in the future. He said that his department and the engineer had every confidence in Mr. Adams, the board's, engineer, and it was only necessary for the Thames people to have confidence themselves. The Minister then started the pile-driver, and the work of driving the ferro-concrete pile was proceeded with. Sir James Parr and the Mayor, Mr. T. W. Rhodes, M.P., also spoke.
Auckland Star, Volume LVII, Issue 244, 14 October 1926, Page 16
The Harbour Board met on Wednesday. A statement submitted by the treasurer showed the board's finances to be very satisfactory. The chairman presented a statement of the £60,000 loan as at September 30. ...
New Zealand Herald, Volume LXIII, Issue 19491, 22 November 1926, Page 12
[BY TELEGRAPH. —OWN CORRESPONDENT. ] THAMES. Saturday. The Thames Harbour board met this week, the chairman, Mr. J. W. Danby, presiding. The secretary, Mr. V. E. Sanders, submitted estimates for the year ending September 30, 1927. The estimated revenue was set down at £11,800, including a balance brought forward of £7073. The expenditure was estimated at £7592, leaving a surplus for the year of £4208. Mr. Sanders said during the coming year the board would be carrying the full weight of the interest and sinking fund of the £60,000 loan, which would be covered by the surplus. There was no provision for a new wharf at Kopu nor at Shortland. In returning the balance-sheet, the Auditor-General referred to the fact that security to cover wharfage dues on Burke Street Wharf had not been lodged. The method of using time sheets for wages was also commented upon. The balance-sheet was adopted. The chairman expressed the hope that the dredge would be in commission within a fortnight. Mr. McCormack asked who was responsible for running the dredge and who was paying for the alterations. He said there should be a clause in the contract demanding that the dredge be maintained in running order for a satisfactory period. The engineer, Mr. E. F Adams, gave reasons for the delay in commissioning the dredge. The chief cause was the extensive nature of necessary alterations to the plant. The expenditure was necessary and it would not be long before the dredge was in commission.
New Zealand Herald, Volume LXIV, Issue 19575, 2 March 1927, Page 8
[BY TELEGRAPH. —OWN CORRESPONDENT.] THAMES. Tuesday. At a meeting of the Thames Harbour Board the chairman, Mr. J. Danby, submitted a statement concerning the progress of works since June. The statement showed that of the £60,000 loan to complete the scheme, £51,600 had been expended. The largest items, with the estimates shown in parentheses, were;— Dredging plant, £14,000 '(£13,106); wharf, £16,697 (£9000); and walling, £11,750 (£13,400). In connection with the expenditure of £16,697 on the wharf, Mr. Danby stated that £6000 of this amount was spent partly in the building of a wharf not included in the original scheme. It would be necessary to raise an additional £6000 on the original £60,000, as allowed by statute, to complete the -work. This, with the £8390 in hand, would provide £14,390 to complete the scheme, which was now well under way. The engineer, Mr. E. F. Adams, said the Scheme would be completed within the estimated cost.

By 1929, however, Mr Adams must have been rueing his words:

New Zealand Herald, Volume LXVI, Issue 20216, 28 March 1929, Page 15
Having expended £66,000 in a port improvement scheme, the Thames Harbour Board has come to the end of its financial resources, and earnest representations for assistance were made to the Minister of Marine, the Hon. J. G. Cobbe, in Auckland yesterday. It was stated a further £4OOO was required to complete the dredging scheme, without which no benefit would be derived from the large expenditure already made. ' 'Our difficulties are very real,' said Mr. W. Danby, chairman of the board, who was introduced by Mr. A. M. Samuel, M.P. 'Thames is a tidal port, and over a great number of years we have had to put up with the disability of irregular shipping because of that fact. Only boats of shallow draught could use the port, and for years the people of Thames have been anxious to make improvements. They even went so far as voluntarily to pay fur a report by the late Mr. J. Blair Mason, and subsequently, commencing in 1920, the principles laid down in that report were put into effect. The work has been completed with the exception of the dredging, with which there has been unforeseen difficulties.'
The expenditure on the scheme was detailed as follows :—Dredging plant, £13,696; wharf, £18,717; walling, £16,050; dredging, £7206; harbour lights and beacons, £1115; contingencies, £5207; first year's interest and sinking fund on £60,000 loan, £4200; total, £66.223. The dredging yet to be done was an approach channel, 3000 ft. long, to give a mud runway. The quantity involved was 26,000 cubic yards, at an estimated cost of £4000.
The Prospect of Further Loan.
'The position now is that the work is almost within sight of completion, but we have no money to finish it,' said Mr. Danby. The Thames borough was now heavily rated, its public debt amounting to £317,000, and there was no prospect of the board securing the consent of ratepayers to the raising of a further loan. It was, therefore, asked that the Government should assist, either by permitting a dredger from the Hauraki Plains improvement works to dredge the approach channel, or by allowing the board to trade its equipment, which had cost about £14,000, in return for assistance by the Government in completing the work. The Minister: My information is that you should have power to raise up to about £2000 over the whole district. If it is a good scheme, there should not be much difficulty in getting the ratepayers to sanction the raising of a small loan to complete the scheme. Members of the deputation considered there was no prospect of a further loan proposal being carried. 'Well, we cannot do £4000 worth of work for you and take over £14,000 worth of equipment,' said the Minister. There would be endless criticism if we did that. The department does not look at all favourably on the suggestion to take over the plant. You can make representations to the Government, but you will probably be called on to put the matter before the ratepayers once more.' Undertaking by the Minister.
After conferring with the members of the deputation, Mr. Samuel said: 'We have now come to the stage where the Harbour Board should make an appeal to the Government for assistance. We ask you to place before the Government the position, that the Thames Harbour Board has now come to the limit of its resources without prospect of raising further money, and if we cannot get £4000, all the money has been spent without profit. We feel the matter is more one for the Government as a whole than for one department. We also feel certain the Government would say this is a case where something should be done, both in the interest of Thames and of Auckland. No fish now comes from Thames to Auckland, but a great quantity would come if we could get direct boats. The board is in the most unfortunate position of having the back-country against it, silting up is taking place, and it is necessary that dredging should he continued at once if the benefit of the improvement scheme is to be derived. 'I recognise your difficulties are great, and you have made out a good case', replied the Minister. He thought Mr. Samuel's suggestion was the right one, and he promised to make a full representation of the case to the Government. 'I cannot make any definite promise,' concluded Mr. Cobbe. 'All I can say is that, we will do what we can to help you.'

Engineering and funding problems continued:

New Zealand Herald, Volume LXVII, Issue 20537, 11 April 1930, Page 14:
[BY TELEGRAM.-—OWN CORRESPONDENT. THAMES. Thursday. The harbour scheme was fully discussed at a meeting of the Thames Harbour Board last evening. Members agreed that the scheme had reached a position of stalemate and the only hope lay in Government assistance to complete the scheme. Finally it was decided to approach the Minister of Marine again for assistance after seeking the cooperation of the Thames Borough Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the members of the Harbour Improvement Delegation who had originally advocated the present scheme. Mr. R, Coulter, Mayor of Te Aroha, said he wanted to know whether the Thames people wished the board to go any further with the work failing Government assistance. Should they not go to the Borough Council and the Chamber of Commerce and give them a chance of voicing their opinion. They were paying the rate and were entitled to know what was being done.
'Deplorable State Disclosed.'
The chairman, Mr. Lowe, referred to the recent visit of the Port Waikato and the experience that vessel had had. When trying to get out after unloading she had stuck in the mud for two days. 'This discloses a deplorable state in our harbour,' he said. 'It is certainly necessary that something should be done.' However, the chairman continued, he could not see the up-country members of the board, for instance, advising their ratepayers to raise money by way of loan for the completion of the work. With regard to Government assistance, the officials had sent an adverse report. There were only two alternatives. One was to let the whole thing go, and all the money spent, £66,000, be wasted, or endeavour to raise more money to finish the scheme.

Local politics and parochialism raised its head once again, even within the local harbour board (from the same Herald report of the 11 April 1930 meeting):

Mr. Edwards (Paeroa) said £66.000 had already been spent and if the board did nothing that money would be wasted. Personally he had doubts as to the present scheme ever acting successfully, but he understood there were many people in Thames who thought it would, and were very keen to see it carried out. There was no question that something must be done.
Duty of the Board.
Mr. Donovan (Thames Borough) said the completion of the scheme was the duty of the board. When a deputation waited on the council for the request to raise the extra £6000 it had been stated this would be sufficient to complete the scheme. 'We have failed and it is our duty to find a way out,' said Mr. Donovan
Mr. Kennedy (Piako County) said the trouble was not the responsibility of the board, which had undertaken to carry out the scheme if Thames found the money. 'All we have got is a new wharf,' he added. Mr. C. W. Harris (Hauraki Plains) said the position was nothing short of a catastrophe. The ratepayers had provided £66.000 and got nothing for it. The board had acted all along on the advice of its engineer, and had done its best. The board should co-operate with the ratepayers and urge the Government to give assistance.
Mr. Coulter said the up-country members had opposed the scheme but felt they could not be a stumbling block in the way of the Thames people, who were spending their own money. Mr. Lowe said the borough had already accepted all the liability it could be asked to accept. The up-country representatives had helped to spend the money but had no liability. If the board was no good to the up-country why were the members represented on it.
'Harbour Does Not Interest Us.'
Mr. Coulter: We are quite willing to get out. We fought, tooth and nail to get Te Aroha excluded from the district. The harbour does not interest us and right from the start we have not spent the money. We allowed all matters to he dealt with by the local committee. The chairman said the whole of the waterways in the harbour district should lie under the board, which should collect wharfage from Paeroa, Te Aroha and the whole of the district, in the board's area. He considered the harbour district was too small. Each member of the board was equally responsible for the expenditure of the money. There was something wrong when out of £66,000 only £46,000 had been spent in work done, and the other £20,000 spent on machinery. ...
Finally it was decided that the board should make further representations to the Minister of Marine for further assistance toward the completion of the scheme and that the board should invite the cooperation of the Thames Borough Council, the Thames Chamber of Commerce and the individual co-operation of every member of the Thames Harbour Improvement Scheme Delegation.

From Economic Powerhouse to Bankruptcy in Sixty Years

Something had to give. As summarised by O'Neill (1973 p.87):

'After fifty years, the town of Thames was a vigorous and confident community. From 1921 to 1928, the Borough Council raised loans for the following purposes [amounts excluded]: sewerage, street improvements, flood protection, boundary adjustments, quarry, water race, Kopu Bridge ... Interest rates on the loans varied between 4.5% and 6%. Maturity dates ranged from 1936 to 1964.

In 1931, the total debt of the Thames Borough Council and Harbour Board stood at $652,126. The unimproved value on which the borough was rated in 1921 was $560,000, but this figure was reduced to $300,000 in 1931 and the capital value on which the Harbour Board loan was levied was reduced from $1,600,000 to $1,200,000. In other words, the debts amounting to over $600,000 were double the rateable assets. About half the amount borrowed was from government institutions and the other half from the public.'

By 1931, the situation had become critical:

'When Mr Sydney Ensor was elected Mayor in 1931, he immediately approached the Prime Minister ...and pointed out to him the Thames' problems of public debt and diminishing valuations. The Prime Minister undertook to have the matter enquired into ... A conference was held in the Public Trust office, Wellington on July 30 1931. ... To show how bad the position was [Mr Ensor] quoted figures for one estate. For the two years 1929-31, the rent received was $112. The rates charged on that estate for that period amounted to $248 which were the Borough rates only and did not include the Harbour Board rate. When rates exceeded the earning capacity of the property, the position was hopeless, he said.' (O'Neill 1973)

Central government's response was to appoint a commissioner to manage the affairs of the borough. The Thames Borough Commissioner Act (1932) was passed; and described by the Department of Internal Affairs annual report to Parliament as follows:

'The Thames Borough Council has been financially embarrassed for some time past, and, the position having become acute, it was brought before the Department with the object of some remedial provision being made. ...
The Supervisor of Local Bodies Audit in the Audit Office had previously made a local investigation, and suggested a scheme of settlement for dealing with the financial position which had arisen. Following on this report, the majority of the principal creditors and the Borough Council entered into an agreement to meet the extraordinary position which had arisen and to ultimately stabilize the finances of the borough. On the basis of the scheme of settlement and the agreement, legislation was framed and passed by Parliament under the heading of the Thames Borough Commissioner Act, 1932. The principal features of the Act are:
(a) Provision, subject to certain safeguards, for the control of the Thames Borough until May, 1935, by a Commissioner in lieu of a Council;
(b) Appointment of an Advisory Committee representative of the Borough Council, to advise the Commissioner;
(c) The Commissioner to act in consultation with the Advisory Committee, but to have supreme power in respect of the making, levying, or recovery of rates. Disputes between the Commissioner and Committee on other than rating matters to be determined by arbitration;
(d) The rights of the debenture-holders were modified (in accordance with the agreement) by ...'
(AJHR 1933 I H-22)

The Borough Council was retained as an advisory body and Mr Ensor remained as mayor. The commissioner control arrangement was originally only going to last until 1935 (i.e. three years) but remained in place until 1947. Further Acts amending the original 1932 Act were passed in 1934, 1937 and 1940, enabling this to happen:

'The Commissioner shall continue in office until the Mayor and Councillors of the borough elected at the first general election to be held after the thirty- first ·day of March, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, come into office.' (Thames Borough Commissioner Amendment Act 1940)

Over the period 1932 - 1947, two commissioners served in the appointment: Mr C.L. Grange, formerly Town Clerk of Invercargill (1932 - 1938) and Mr A.L. Burk, former Town Clerk at Green Island, Dunedin (1938- 1945: Auckland Star 25 August 1938 p.6).

Mr Grange returned for another term as commissioner in January 1945 (NZ Herald 19 January 1945 p.6) and continued in the appointment until commissioner control ceased in 1947. Mr Ensor served as mayor from 1931 to 1959 (a record for Thames Borough) and was still serving as deputy mayor at the time of the goldfields centenary in 1967. Council elections must have been held, as O'Neill (1973) lists the councillors who served during the period of commissioner control, and several of them changed during that time.

Nearly seventy years have passed since commissioner control ended, and it has been difficult to get first-hand accounts of the political and social flavour of the period, apart from those who were children at the time. However, newspaper accounts do give some insight: it appears that the Commissioner got on well with the Mayor and councillors, who were albeit acting in an advisory role, and the town's affairs were managed in a business-like, yet cooperative and compassionate manner. When Mr Grange departed to a new position in 1938, many tributes and presentations were made to him. For example, the Thames Star of 8 August 1938 reported:

A large and representative gathering of Thames businessmen and others filled the Miners Union Hall on Saturday evening; the occasion being a farewell smoko tendered to the Borough Commissioner, Mr C.L. Grange, who is leaving to take up a position in Auckland. The Mayor stated that that those present were gathered to do honour to one who had served the town well. ... The name of C.L. Grange should be written in the history of Thames, and all honoured and respected him. ... [he] assured him of a hearty welcome whenever he visited the town. (Applause).

A couple of representative articles reporting the business of the 'council' during the period are as follows:

New Zealand Herald, Volume LXIX, Issue 21311, 12 October 1932, Page 12
[BY TELEGRAPH —OWN CORRESPONDENT] THAMES, Tuesday. The first meeting of the Thames Borough Advisory Committee was held last, evening, when the commissioner, Mr. C, L. Grange, discussed the estimates, which were adopted. They provided for a rate of 2s 6d in the pound on the unimproved values. There had been a great deal of discussion on the question of rating, said the commissioner, who referred to a suggestion by one section, the Chamber of Commerce, that the rate should not be more than 1s 6d in the pound, while another section said 2s, including the Harbour Board rate. He did not know the basis on which they founded their figures, but he had gone very thoroughly into the matter, and failed to see how he could possibly levy less than 2s 6d. 'That would provide for payment of half the interest duo for the year ending July 14 next and half the amount of the sinking fund. He had made full provision for maintenance of the borough services. The amount provided for roads had been increased to allow for the bituminising of Queen Street. ...
The question of the Mayor's honorarium was considered by the Advisory Committee when considering the estimates. 'Don't let sentiment interfere with your business," was the advice of- the Mayor, Mr. S. Ensor, as he retired prior to the discussion. It was agreed that the Mayor's position necessitated provision of a certain sum to meet the many calls which his duties and office involved. It was finally decided to offer £65 honorarium for the year. When the Mayor returned, he stated that the circumstances necessitated substantial cuts. He could not accept more than £60. The Mayor's offer was accepted.

Auckland Star, Volume LXIII, Issue 293, 10 December 1932, Page 7
(By Telegraph.—Special to 'Star.') THAMES, this day. As the result of an appeal made by the Thames Commissioner, Mr. C. L Grange, more rates have been paid during 1932 than in previous years. Asked if many property owners were taking advantage of a 'clause in the Rating Act which gave power, when valuations were disputed, to place their own valuations on the land—the Government to take it over at the price stated in the event of reduction not being made —Mr. Grange said the position was no different in Thames than elsewhere. 'There has been a certain number of cases,' he said, 'but in no instance has a ridiculous price been placed on a property. In all parts of New Zealand vacant town sections are a responsibility to the owners, and there have been instances where the Government has been requested to take over the property to relieve the owner of rate responsibility. As far as my recollection goes, there has been no case where a Section has been valued by the owner at less than £50. That would be for a piece of land that in normal times would be worth, say, £150. In such cases the values for rating purposes have had to be reduced accordingly. The real old mining spirit is being displayed in the town,' he continued. 'The appeal to the people to pay their rates has met with a response that has been astonishing. I cannot speak too highly of the spirit of the people.'

What Went Wrong?

Figure 5: Local sculptors and white-fronted terns still make good use of the 1920s harbour 'folly'

There were fundamental engineering problems associated with a scheme to build, and operate, a deep-water port at the shallow end of the firth of two major rivers, each with significant flows and frequently subject to major flooding. The dredging and drainage of the Hauraki Plains would have exacerbated this, by freeing up silt from ongoing maintenance of major drains created during the original project, plus the internal drains that prospective farmers needed to complete to break in their own farms. The ongoing dredging requirements to keep even the tidal wharfs open during the early days of the goldfield should have provided a warning that 'silt never sleeps'. As summarised by a Thames Star article (18 December 1952 p.7):

But perhaps the cause of one of Thames' biggest flops, financially, was the old, old story of mud and silt from the Waihou River, which even today is a bug-bear. ... The Burke Street wharf was uncompleted, even when shipping was using it, which was only for a short time before the mud crept up on it.

In the author's view, another significant factor was parochialism, and nostalgia for the halcyon days when Thames was a national economic powerhouse. There are many examples of parochialism which show up in the PapersPast articles presented above. Also, the Diamond Jubilee booklet (Weston 1927) indicates that many of the 1867 'originals' and their offspring were still in town sixty years after the opening of the field. Mining was still carried out on a commercial scale (albeit small) through to the 1930s. (A share float for a New Una Company took place in 1932 -see article in The Treasury Journal: The Una Gold Mining and Quartz Crushing Company.) In the 1920s and '30s, the town effectively still had a 'bonanza' mentality.

Thames-ites were always quick to remind Aucklanders of how much they owed the town for rescuing the provincial economy in time of need (notwithstanding the fact that the gold rush was effectively over by the early 1900s). To be fair to the Auckland Provincial Council, once it was convinced that the Thames goldfield was a productive one, it did fund two wharfs, several tramways (including one from Tararu wharf to Grahamstown), a water race from the Kauaeranga River, the first 'Big Pump', and numerous smaller projects, before it was disestablished in 1876. It was somewhat ironic that the parochialism was effectively reversed when other local bodies such as Paeroa and Te Aroha were reluctant to participate in the harbour project, and refused to bail it out when it started to get mired down (no pun intended)!

The piles installed during the 1920s harbour scheme remain today, as a monument to the failed project. They do have other useful purposes, however, such as providing a platform for local sculpture, and a place for a new generation of Thames-ites to 'hang out'.

Visible Archaeology of the Burke St Wharf

At first glance, the archaeology appears to be confined to the array of ferro-concrete piles, mostly shown in Figure 1. Some of these have timber baulks bolted to them, and date from the 1920s harbour project. However, closer examination, at very low water, reveals an almost parallel structure of stubs of timber piles amongst the ferro-concrete, plus a few large timber piles tucked in close to the sea wall (partly concealed by flax bushes). The timber piles are likely to date from the original Goods Wharf of the 1870s, but have not been further investigated (e.g. dendrochronological dating may be helpful).

Figure 6: Close-up of wharf piles at low tide, showing stubs
of timber piles. These are probably from the original 1870s

Figure 7: Large timber piles at landward end of wharf
structure. These are probably part of the original
1870s construction.

The plan for the 1920s harbour project included a harbour enclosure structure, consisting of dry (i.e. un-mortared) stone walls, which were meant to provide a barrier against silt buildup. (The space inside the walls was supposed to be kept dredged.) No engineering drawings or historic photos of this were located and it was uncertain as to whether it was actually built. The best historical evidence is a plan for the Thames sewerage system, which was constructed at roughly the same time, which shows the intended placement of the harbour exclosure walls.

Figure 8: Extract from map of 1920s sewerage scheme, showing schematic of harbour layout (taken from interpretation panel at Shortland Wharf)

However, there is archaeological evidence that at least part of the enclosure structure was built. According to local surveyor Morrie Dunwoodie (Pers comm, July 2016) who was involved with the Moanataiari reclamation and subdivision in the 1970s, the rear (eastern) wing of the harbour enclosure was used as the base of the western seawall for the subdivision. The northern and southern wings of the harbour enclosure are still in situ, and can be walked along, almost to the outer ends, at low tides. Whether or not the western (outer) wing was ever built, and if so, whether it's still in situ, is still subject to investigation.

Figure 9: Burke St harbour breakwater walls indicated.
(Eric Gosse photo, taken from top of Thames WW1 monument.

Figure 10: Southern wall of harbour enclosure, at low tide


Grateful thanks to Althea Barker for supplying photos and articles from local paper editions not yet available from PapersPast


  • Isdale, A. M. (1967). History of "The River Thames", County Chronicle Press, Manurewa.
  • O'Neill, L. P. (1973). Thames Borough Centennial: 1873-1973, Thames Star, Thames.
  • Unknown author (1902). The Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Auckland Provincial District), The Cyclopedia Company of NZ Ltd, Christchurch.
  • Unknown cartographer (c1868) NZ Map 4531 Thames Illustrated Mining Map
  • Weston, F. (1927). Thames Diamond Jubilee Souvenir: 1867-1927, Thames Star, Thames.


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