Conquering Karori

It's sprawling, popular, and has a past. A new history of Karori recalls how only three lifetimes ago the place was forest

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 14:31 30/07/2011
Karori ls
The Alexander Turnbull Library

Workers at the Karori tunnel during the first stage of construction, c1897

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A hefty new book on Karori looks back to a time when the big suburb's hills and valley were covered with handsome forests full of massive rimu, kahikatea, matai and totara - soon being enthusiastically slashed and burned by needy new settlers.

Karori and its People, produced by the Karori Historical Society, covers the arrival of the first settlers, hopefully anticipating flat, rich land.

What they found was vegetation of a density and magnificence that had been quite overlooked by the attractive advertising of the New Zealand Company.

It was nevertheless useful, it had to go, and they set about clearing it away. Trees, hundreds of years old, were chopped for necessities like firewood and ships' masts and to make way for farms.

Soon after the early settlers arrived, a tortuous, hilly packhorse access was hacked through.

By 1844, though, it was reported that "the Karori Road is excellent and about three and a half miles in length".

By the time the road had got to the present library, the New Zealand Company reported that "several workingmen are now clearing their lots of five to 10 acres and [soon] Karori will be studded with farms of this description".

The development of Karori, says Jan Heynes, who co-edited the book with Judith Burch, reflected, in a way, the development of New Zealand.

"We forget it is part of the whole national view of things. It's not just a separate little entity in the country. It's interesting if people want to look at the development of a suburb of New Zealand over that period of time."

Traffic flow kept pace with settlement to eventually build up pressure on one main access - which has bedevilled Karori ever since.

The buildup began modestly. In late 1856 a survey was done over three days and counted comings or goings by one three-horse cart, one two-horse cart, a one-horse cart, four bullock carts and three saddle horses.

By 1970 a count showed 25,240 cars were travelling to Karori daily. They had the advantage of the tunnel, opened on Boxing Day, 1899, two years after it was started with an estimated cost of [PndStlg]3780. Costs escalated and ratepayers had to fork out an additional [PndStlg]2000. Little has changed in the way of access since the 1950s. People are still travelling in and out of Karori through the old tunnel and on roads largely built a century ago.

Heynes has lived in Karori for 65 of her 66 years but her family history in one of the country's biggest suburbs goes much further back.

Her great grandfather was John Kirkcaldie, the early Kirkcaldie and Stains entrepreneur, who arrived in New Zealand in 1865 and lived in Thompson St, Mt Cook, with his wife Elsie and their eight children.

One of them, Sydney, was Heynes' grandfather and it was he who built a grand old house which used to grace the land where the Futuna chapel and a massive townhouse development now stand.

Heynes is a longtime member of the Karori Historical Society, as is her co- editor, whose association with Karori is shorter, but intense. Burch has lived in the suburb for 20 years.

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They are both as happy with Karori's present as they are interested in its past.

"For the pioneers it had what they needed - water, trees, and land to clear for farming," says Heynes.

Now, she says, it has all the amenities needed for a big suburb, easy access to the city, walkways, golf clubs, parks, a library, recreation centre, mountain bike park and a swimming pool.

The shopping mall leaves something to be desired but there are small shops characterised by personal service.

"Thirteen and a half thousand people can't be wrong," says Heynes.

Karori is one of New Zealand's most populous suburbs. That big population had small beginnings.

Karori's first European developer was John Yule of Glasgow, who bought 125 acres surveyed by the New Zealand Company. According to his obituary, he decided on his plot by climbing "the highest tree he could find on an eminence, and choosing a spot where he saw the tops of the trees somewhat level, he settled on it". In 1841, he began cutting it up and selling it off in blocks, and suburbia was on its way. By 1858 there were 369 people living in Karori.

One of Karori's most famous residents was writer Katherine Mansfield, then Kathleen Beauchamp, who lived with her family at Chesney Wold, 372 Karori Rd, for five years from 1893. The house - completely altered over the years - was built in 1866 by Stephen Lancaster, later to be Karori's first mayor.

Later she wrote of the joy she had playing by the stream at the bottom of the Chesney Wold garden: "With my shoes and socks off, and my frock tucked high all around me, I used to wade, and attempt to catch certain very tiny fish that swam and played in its depths - or rather, its shallow places. If I did catch one, I always put it into a glass jar and carried it home to keep till it should grow into a whale. Alas, it never did grow, though it was not for lack of care and attention."

Mansfield went to Karori School from 1895-98 and the school figures briefly in her story The Doll's House.

The school was, she recalls, a place where children as diverse at the doctor's daughters and the milkman's "were forced to mix together. Not to speak of there being an equal number of rude, rough little boys as well."

One of the more obscure early pieces of Karori history was the opening, in 1854, of the Karori Lunatic Asylum, the first asylum in the country. It was inadequately housed in small weatherboard buildings where Karori Normal School now stands.

The approach to care was as basic as the new colony.

"It wasn't very well run," says Heynes. By 1871 there were 23 inmates with a mixture of disorders, looked after by untrained staff, with an occasional doctor's visit. There was no attempt at cures. The first matron and her husband were dismissed in 1872 because of their cruelty and in the same year The Evening Post reported that "the Master intends to give the patients a musical entertainment in about a fortnight. The weekly dances which were commenced some time ago have been discontinued, as practically they were found to result in the visitors getting all the amusement and the patients none."

The asylum closed in 1873 and patients went to a hardly more enlightened situation in an asylum on the site where Government House stands. Karori School opened in 1975.

Heynes says 16 people wrote for the book and research took years. "I don't expect anyone will do it again for another 100 years."

Of 1500 copies printed, half have already been sold.

What surprised her most was "the expertise of early settlers and the way they saw what was needed, and set up things like progressive associations and became borough councillors in an effort to make it better for everyone.

"I shouldn't have been surprised. It was a situation reflected in the rest of New Zealand. Things happened and you forget it was part of a whole national view of things."

And so it still is. Of course, she adds, Karori has changed. In her early years there was more community spirit, "but I don't think it's less caring than any other community. Society has changed."

Karori and its People edited by Judith Burch and Jan Heynes (Steele Roberts, $49.99).

- The Dominion Post

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