The Whau Blockhouse

7 September, 2004

The Whau Blockhouse

(Adapted from a talk given by Keith Rusden (Blockhouse Bay Historical Society), at the Blockhouse Bay Library during Heritage Week, on 7 September 2004.)

The building which eventually gave our marine suburb its name was constructed in 1860. At this time the Land War in Taranaki was escalating and there were fears it would spread north and so a defence system for Auckland was actioned.

Colonel Thomas Mould of the Royal Engineers was charged with planning the location and type of defence system needed. Although throughout the town of Auckland there were already several stoutly built structures which would require little work to convert for this purpose. such as St Paul’s Church, Colonel Mould in due course drew up a plan showing eleven strategic positions where a blockhouse should be built.

A blockhouse is a purpose-built building with walls thick enough to stop musket ball penetration, with slits in the walls for defensive musket fire, a fence or stockade surrounding the building, with a trench beyond that.

On the shores of the Manukau, a 12-acre site was chosen, bordered by Esplanade (Endeavour Street), Gilfillan Street, Wynyard Road (Blockhouse Bay Road) and Boylan Street (Wade Street). The actual Whau Blockhouse was located on the site that is now No. 8 Gilfillan Street.

Map of the site of the Whau Blockhouse
he site of the blockhouse, highlighted in pale blue on the map above. Gilfillan Street was named after J. A. Gilfillan, who was an executive member of the Auckland Provincial Council from 1854 to 1868.

This site was chosen for two reasons:

On the cleared, elevated 12-acre site there was an unobstructed view to the Manukau Heads and, if an attack came from the Taranaki tribes, the war faring wakas would come from this direction. This may seem like a long way from Taranaki, but from the Heads in summer it is possible to see the snow-capped peak of Mt Egmont. As the crow flies, Taranaki to Manukau in a big waka was within striking distance. The Northern Tribes, when coming south, habitually came through this area which was known as the Whau Portage. Therefore the site chosen for the Whau Blockhouse was in an ideal position to give warning of any attack from two quarters.

At this time Avondale, as we know it, was called the Whau, and our area was Whau South. Blockhouse Bay was known as Whau Beach.

At the same time as building started on the Whau Blockhouse, a similar one was being constructed at Otahuhu. Kauri timber came from Huia and corrugated iron was used for the roof because of the penchant of warring parties to sling burning faggots of dried flax on to roofs capable of catching fire, such as shingles or thatch.The Whau Blockhouse was completed in July 1860 and the Otahuhu Blockhouse three weeks ater.

Blockhouses were cruciform in shape, as in a cross, but there are no religious connotations.

The Whau Blockhouse
(photograph from the Auckland War Memorial Museum)

The Whau Blockhouse was manned by a detachment of the 14th Regiment (West Yorkshire) who were later relieved in December 1860 by officers and men from H.M.S. Cordelia, followed by the 65th York (North Riding) of Foot, and finally by the 57th West Middlesex of Foot. The Blockhouse was issued with a stand of 200 weapons — infantrymuskets, cavalry carbines, revolvers, swords and bayonets.

The building was also available if necessary as a safe haven for locals and there would be ample weapons for all who could use them. Containers of water, both for drinking and fire-fighting, and a plentiful supply of food in case of siege were also available. Supplies were delivered by cutter from Onehunga and left at high tide at the nearest point to the Blockhouse.

When the Waikato tribes joined the fray and moved north with their fire-and-run tactics in late 1862, it was felt that the regular soldiers manning the blockhouses would be needed at the front. However, if they were to be relieved from their posts, some 400 replacements would be required. So, in 1863, Colonel Mould ordered conscription of all men — unmarried and aged 17 to 40 years were drafted into first class militia, married men into second class and elderly into third. For some reason there appeared to be an increase in marriage at this time. There seems to have been no medical examination. Each man was required to report to the Albert Barracks where he was given a uniform consisting of a coarse blue serge shirt and a round military cap. Presumably they supplied their own trousers! Pay was two shillings and sixpence a day. Because of the extra influx of troops there was a shortage of percussion muskets and the army resorted to issuing new recruits with old flintlock muskets.

When the war eventually came to an end, the different regiments, and there were 23 in New Zealand, started packing up, preparing to go home. The 65th York North Riding of Foot had been in New Zealand the longest at just on 20 years. By 1870 most of the regiments had departed.

Advertisement in the April 1865 New Zealander newspaper for the lease of blockhouses

An advertisement in the New Zealander newspaper in April 1865 called for tenders for lease of the blockhouses that had not already been sold for removal or demolished. Those remaining for lease were Onehunga, Howick, Freemans Bay and the Whau.

A Captain Gilfillan (no connection with the street name) was probably the leaseholder in the early 1880s and was living in the blockhouse with his family, when his son and another boy, playing with fire, set it alight. The Waitemata County Council demolished what was left of the blockhouse, using some of the salvaged timber for bridges in Avondale.

In June 1882 the Whau name was changed to Avondale and our area became Avondale South, but the point down at the beach (known as the Maori Lookout to older residents) is still known as Te Whau Point.

On 29th December 1883, John Eastwood, an Auckland storekeeper, purchased Lots 315, 316 and 319, and William Leys a Ponsonby book binder bought Lot 314 from the Crown.

In 1902, John McLeod purchased the entire 12 acre block and also bought a house in Grafton, shifting it onto the blockhouse site at No. 8 Gilfillan Street.

In 1910 the bridge built from salvaged blockhouse timber in Avondale was replaced and local residents had the option to buy any timber that would be of use to them.

In 1921 John McLeod subdivided the 12 acres of the blockhouse site, selling the large sections for 50 pounds each.

Prior to the mid 1940s, the trenches that had surrounded the blockhouse were well preserved, allowing local school children to visit to view them. However, they were eventually filled in when a tennis court was constructed.

There were a few military buttons and badges and penny tokens found on the site. In Armanasco House are two lengths of timber reported to have come from the blockhouse.

On 16 October 1944, the post office name changed from Avondale South to Blockhouse Bay, and in 1948 the district name was officially changed to Blockhouse Bay. It took 88 years to gain official recognition for our very own blockhouse, and it is sad that there are so few reminders of it.

It is worth noting that although the military were stationed here, battle-ready, there was never a shot fired in anger and no blood spilt to taint our lovely Bay.

Further information can be found in the following book:

South Whau Blockhouse book