Hunting For History

By Toni-maree Rowe

beach in aukland harbor

As New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland (Tāmaki Makaurau in the Māori language) sprawls across a large isthmus, and the harbors, beaches, and the sea play an important part in people’s lives. The role of the sea in the history of Auckland and its inhabitants is plain to see, but in one small corner of the North Shore of Waitematā Harbour, the history is little less obvious. When you look closely it is possible to uncover stories of the people who once called Fitzpatrick Bay home.

historical bricks found on the beach

I have been walking the beach at Fitzpatrick Bay (with trusty hound in tow) for a number of years, and as an archaeologist, I tend to walk with my eyes looking at the ground. One of the most noticeable aspects of Fitzpatrick Bay is the quantity of water-worn brick—bright orange specks that litter the grey beach sand. Many pieces of ceramic join them on the shore, a few heavily water-worn but most sharp, as if they had not traveled far. It was only natural that these small pieces of a larger puzzle found their way into my pockets (except for the bricks), and after a while I found that I had amassed quite a collection of differing ceramics. Here my archaeological background kicked in and I began to take a much greater interest in the bay and its history.

The story of Fitzpatrick Bay began a long time before it was given a European name, as the Māori used the bay as a safe landing for their waka (canoes) during the shark fishing season. Nearby pa (clifftop settlements) attest to their presence, as does the occasional beach find of stone adzes used in woodworking or stone sinkers for fishing nets. However, it is the early European use of the bay which has left the most noticeable evidence.

As I mentioned above, some of the pottery sherds found were quite waterworn while others had much fresher breaks. I excluded the waterworn sherds (temporarily) from further study as there was the possibility that they had washed in from elsewhere. The latter group seemed to indicate that there was a midden (refuse heap) dating from at least the mid– to late-19th century nearby. At this point, I found myself in full research mode.

The first stop was to the New Zealand Archaeology Association ArchSite, which maintains a database for known archaeological sites in New Zealand. Sure enough, the midden was listed on the database, its discovery found during the digging of a drainage ditch by the local council. Unfortunately, not much else was reported, although it did become clear to me why so much pottery was finding its way onto the beach, particularly after heavy rain.

Walking up and down the beach, keeping one eye on the ground and one eye on the errant hound, I considered who the people were who once lived here. What did they do? Where did they come from? Who was the Fitzpatrick from which the bay got its name?

Local history books gave tantalizing glimpses, but no specifics, and early maps were too general, the more detailed were later in date and by which time the bay had already acquired its name. A list of six early farmers in the Birkenhead area during the mid-1800s included a James Fitzpatrick—could this be who I was looking for? A search of the electoral roll for the period 1853–1864 showed two individuals called James Fitzpatrick, one of whom was listed as a farmer on the North Shore. But more information was needed before I felt confident that I had my man.

genealogical records

Searching for older documents that might be of help, I found the Jury List for 1842–1853 that listed a James Fitzpatrick of the North Shore. His occupation: brickmaker. It was something of light bulb moment.

map of birkenhead

Early Europeans settled in the North Shore of Waitematā Harbour in the mid-1800s. Fitzpatrick Bay is situated in the southwest area of the suburb of Birkenhead, in the shaded area marked “157” on the map above. It was originally part of what was known as the Mahurangi Block—a substantial block of land bought from local Māori and then divided into smaller blocks that were sold to land developers. These developers then divided the land once again to sell to early settler families arriving from Europe. Most settlers planned on farming the land but, unfortunately for those who bought plots in the Birkenhead area, the land was not suited to the farming methods they knew. Thus, many looked for other ways of making of living.

The heavy clay soils of the inner Waitematā provided an accessible source of income for early settlers, as well as an easy way of transporting their wares. Brick and pottery factories popped up around the edges of the Waitematā, and James Fitzpatrick was one of those who took advantage of his beachfront farm, clay soils, and the ever-increasing need for building materials in the new town of Auckland growing across the bay. The waterworn bricks I had noted earlier appeared to back up this theory. More questions arose though: Where was the kiln? How big was it? How long-lived? And where was James’s house? Was he married?

Another search of historical ship passenger lists found a 24-year-old James Fitzpatrick who had immigrated to New Zealand on the Jane Gifford in 1842 with his wife Agnes and their one-year-old daughter Mary-Ann. This information answered some of the questions, but it was not until after a particularly stormy week that I had the answer to my other questions.

archaeological site in aukland

The high tide and the run-off from a lot of rain had washed away a layer of soil on the bank leading down to the beach. It revealed a line of bricks heading into the bank and layers of thick black soil indicative of burning. Mixed in amongst the black soil was charcoal, ceramic sherds, and broken glass. It was a safe bet that this was the site of the kiln. Looking beyond the kiln across the grassy area to the right there is a boggy area, from which the drainage ditch heads to the beach. Putting two and two together I realized that here was the pit from which James extracted clay for his brickmaking enterprise.

beach pottery and glass found in aukland

The kiln itself was quite small and from the infill appeared to have been only in use for a brief time, which corresponds with the historical documents that refer to James as a farmer in the early 1860s and as a gum digger by 1890. What happened during the intervening years is uncertain. He does appear to still be in the area in 1870, though there is no mention of his wife or children. It is important to note that many of those who turned to digging gum for an income were often older men who were down on their luck. The electoral roll of 1867 lists a Charles Fitzpatrick as having land in the area, his occupation listed as “farmer.” Could he have been a brother or cousin of James Fitzpatrick? Charles later moved out of the area and was last heard of as a farmer in Morrinsville, a farming area south of Auckland.

sea pottery from new zealand

The story of Fitzpatrick Bay jumps forward at this point to the early 1900s when the 133 acres of the surrounding coast and bush were put aside for recreational purposes. During this time, it became frequent practice for families to camp in the bay (as well as nearby Onetaunga and Kendall’s Bay) during the summer. Families would arrive by boat from the nearby city and the grassy area adjacent to the beach (left) would become a canvas city. On the hill above the beach a caretaker and his family would live, providing necessities for the campers and maintaining the area. Many of the pottery sherds found on the beach reflect this time, the more modern patterns and quantity of stoneware sherds from ginger beer bottles attesting to the date and nature of life here in the summer. The house above the beach no longer exists, although traces of it can be seen among the overgrown bushes—the rambling rose and fig trees stating plainly that it was once a home.

In 1935, a portion of the parkland was taken over by the defense force and became a naval armament depot (and still is). During the Second World War, Fitzpatrick Bay closed to the local people when the American defense force had a small contingent of soldiers stationed there.

Well-loved by locals, today the bay is a tranquil oasis within a busy city, a place where people can unwind and reflect. Even though its history is not obvious, it can be seen if you look carefully.

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2022 issue.

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