Volume 11

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

David Wilton


This article is a continuation of Part I (Volume 9 2016) and Part II (Volume 10 2017) in previous Volumes of this Journal, and records a brief archaeological survey of the Burke St wharf and harbour project conducted in the latter few months of 2016. Some of the Figures from Parts I and II are repeated, as they are key features of the archaeology of the wharf and harbour facility, and help make Part III a comprehensive article on the archaeology of this Thames heritage landmark.

The article is based on one by the same author in Archaeology in NZ 60 (4) December 2017.

Archaeology of the Burke St Wharf and Harbour Project

At first glance, the archaeology of the wharf appears to be confined to the array of ferro-concrete piles, 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 1: Close-up of wharf piles at low tide, showing stubs of timber piles, probably from the original 1870s construction.

Figure 2: Large timber piles at landward end of wharf structure;
probably also 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 designed to provide a barrier against silt buildup. (The seabed 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 (See Figure 8 in Part II in The Treasury Journal Vol 10, 2017) which was constructed at roughly the same time, which shows the intended placement of the harbour enclosure walls.

However, there is archaeological evidence that at least part of the enclosure structure was built. According to local surveyor Morrie Dunwoodie (Personal communication, July 2016) who was involved with the Moanataiari reclamation and subdivision in the 1970s, the landward (eastern) wing of the harbour enclosure was used as the base of the western sea wall for the subdivision. The northern and southern wings of the harbour enclosure (i.e. 'laterals') are still in situ, and can be negotiated on foot, almost to the outer ends, at low tides.

Figure 3. Burke St harbour - lateral breakwater walls indicated
(photo taken by Eric Gosse from the top of the Thames WW1

Figure 4 Southern lateral wall, taken at low tide.

Figure 5 Northern lateral wall, leading to beacon (taken at low tide).

A brief archaeological investigation was carried out over the period October - December 2016 to attempt to determine how much of the harbour walls structure was actually built. A detailed investigation of historical sources was also carried out. Numerous records of meetings of the Thames Harbour Board in PapersPast recounted progress on the project between 1926 and the 1930s, when Thames Borough was placed under the control of a commissioner. The project commenced with great optimism and fanfare, but the tune gradually changed as time passed. Delays and engineering problems meant that, by early 1928, the loan money had all been expended and no further funds were forthcoming. Appeals to central Government were heard sympathetically, but no further funding was offered. In November 1928, matters came to a head:

...An important report by the engineer was considered in committee at yesterday's meeting of the Thames Harbour Board. It caused a long discussion. The local committee also made a special report, which was discussed in camera, but this was released to the Press afterwards, together with a statement from the chairman, Mr. J.W. Danby. The report follows: The local committee held a special meeting to consider the engineer's report on the development of the harbour improvement works. In view of the position therein disclosed, and the financial position of the loan account, the committee recommends as follows:—(1) That the engineer be instructed to cease dredging operations, and take steps to have the dredger placed in a position of safety, and all engines, and gear protected. (2) That the western wall and beacons be completed. (3) That the engineer submit a report and estimate of the cost of completion of the railway siding, and that, if practicable, this work be completed. ...

In February 1929, harbour board engineer E.F. Adams resigned:

The Thames Harbour Board suspended operations toward the end of last year on its harbour improvement scheme, then in an uncompleted state, after the expenditure of approximately £64,000. ... At a meeting of the board last evening; the engineer, Mr. E F. Adams, tendered his resignation in the following terms: — "As by mutual consent we terminate today my engagement with the Thames Harbour Board. I wish to convey to you my appreciation of the assistance you have given me in the very considerable difficulty we have experienced in getting value for money expended on the harbour works.
'That the available funds ran out before the works were completed was unfortunate. That further funds are available to complete the works is more unfortunate still. The economic value of this port is not realised, for had its potentialities been appreciated there would have been established locally ere now a strong and independent agency handling imports to the benefit of the board, the town and the district.

Despite the fact that the harbour was not completed in accordance with the original plans, attempts were still made to use it:

New Zealand Herald, Volume LXVII, Issue 20537, 11 April 1930, Page 14:
... 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. ...
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.

It appears that, by September 1928, the landward and both lateral walls had been completed and that work had started on the seaward wall. However, by November 1928, the scheme had run out of money, but the engineer was instructed: "That the western [seaward] wall and beacons be completed."

By February 1929, the engineer had resigned. Was the seaward wall ever completed? It is doubtful that a responsible engineer and project manager would commit to work that they knew they had no prospect of paying for; however, it may require archaeological evidence to determine whether the seaward wall was partially or fully built, or not built at all.

The survey conducted during the last quarter of 2016 utilised shore-based observations at low tides of the 'super moon' period, an attempt to walk to the end of the southern lateral wall, drone coverage at low tide and sonar depth sounding from a small boat around high tide.

Figure 6. Google Earth view of Burke St wharf area - 2001 aerial photo taken at or near low tide. This shows lateral walls, the beacon at the western end of the north lateral, estimated location of seaward wall (if built) and GPS track from the 17th October attempt to walk out to the end of the southern lateral wall.

Figure 7. Beacon at seaward end of north lateral wall
(Photograph taken at spring low tide, 'super moon' period)

Walking out to the end of the southern lateral wall didn't produce any definitive results, as the end of the wall was below low-water mark and one could only get to within about 20m of the (estimated) end. It was possible, however, to observe the northern lateral wall and that the wall appeared to end at the beacon.

A drone was used to try to locate wall structures at or below low tide mark. Due to choppy and murky water conditions, it was not possible to identify and wall structures below water level, but some interesting photos of the wharf structure were obtained.

Figure 8. Burke St wharf taken from seaward side by drone, 22nd Oct 2016.

A small boat with a 'fish-finder' sonar depth-sounder was used during December 2016 to attempt to locate the harbour walls around high tide (for safety reasons related to operation of the boat). The harbour walls could be readily detected under-water, and showed as a narrow 'step' on the fish-finder screen. Unfortunately, there was no way of recording results, nor was it was not possible to properly coordinate wall detections with a GPS waypoint (even with the motor off, the boat had drifted a few metres before a GPS waypoint could be recorded). However, an attempt was made to record a waypoint for the end of the southern lateral wall, and this was done by means of numerous passes over the immediate area. The waypoint recorded correlated closely with that estimated from Google Earth.

The depth sounder clearly showed evidence of the two lateral walls (a clear 'step' of about one metre high and one metre wide on the screen). Numerous passes were made between the ends of the two lateral walls (as shown in Fig 21) but there were no indications of a seaward wall. If there were a few seaward wall rocks laid near the end of the southern lateral, the basic depth sounder used was not capable of discriminating them from the end rocks of the southern lateral.

The above was the extent of search possible with readily available local resources. More definitive data may be obtained using a more sophisticated sonar system, with recording and GPS capabilities, or by using divers or under-water techniques. However, it should be borne in mind that proving something didn't exist is very difficult, and it is usually easier to start with the assumption that something did exist and then demonstrate that the probability of that is low (as per the statistical concept of the null hypothesis).

Figure 9. GPS track (in red) of boat sonar search, conducted 2nd Dec 2016. The two lateral walls were readily detectable using the sonar, but there was no indication of a seaward wall (estimated path showed by dotted black line).
A GPS waypoint with estimated +/- 5m accuracy was obtained for the end of the southern lateral wall (WP 130).

Within the bounds of the limited search resources available, it is concluded that the seaward wall of the Burke St harbour enclosure was probably not built. If this is the case it would indicate competent and responsible management on the part of E.F. Adams, the project engineer and manager, in that he didn't commence new work when there was little chance of payment for it being possible; despite instructions from the political masters (Thames Harbour Board).

One area of risk that impacted on the project, which can largely be attributed to the engineer, however, was the home-made dredge:

' ... a specially built plant, which is now moored alongside the wharf and has an appearance somewhat suggesting a houseboat. It was designed by Mr. Adams, in collaboration with Niven and Company Limited, and its marine engines have been constructed by the Harbour Board's engineering staff.' (NZ Herald 20th May 1926).

There were numerous instances of it breaking down, delays while parts were obtained, and, as a suction dredge, it had difficulty in coping with the hardness of the sea floor around the area of the harbour basin. Project risk management, in terms of business and technical risks, can only be described as poor. E.F. Adams mainly worked as a gold mining engineer - a field where business risk was inherent!

One unforeseen consequence of the period of Commissioner control is still apparent in the early 21st century. The requirement for the Commissioner to follow a policy of austerity in order to reduce debt meant that rates, as the main form of income for the Borough, had to be pursued in somewhat draconian fashion. This, coupled with the economic downturn of the 1930s, meant that some landowners were forced to sell or surrender properties that weren't capable of generating sufficient income to pay their rates. In the Waitangi Tribunal WAI 686 ('Hauraki Claim'), Ngati Maru claimants submitted that this affected Maori landowners more than non-Maori, and that this is one of the reasons why Ngati Maru own very little land compared with other iwi (Waitangi Tribunal Report 2006).

The saga of the failed Burke St harbour project is an unfortunate episode. The town literally went from being a national economic powerhouse to (effective) bankruptcy in a few decades. However, it is worth noting that the loan for the harbour project of £66,000 was a relatively small part of the overall Council debt of over £300,000, so should be viewed in that context. Not only is the Burke St harbour project an interesting, if painful, part of local history, it probably represents a good object lesson for all elected, or aspiring, local politicians!


Grateful thanks to Althea Barker for supplying photos and articles from local paper editions not yet available from PapersPast. Also to 'Trif' Sitnikoff of Thames High School for use of the drone and Kevin Cripps for use of the boat and sonar.


Waitangi Tribunal Report (2006). The Hauraki Report WAI 686, Wellington.


No items found.

Subscribe to our news

Support us