Memories of the Bay

This is an extract from a letter dated 20 December 1988 written by Northcote resident, the late Walter J. Ungemuth, to the North Shore City Council regarding the Management Plan. Reproduced with the kind permission of Marie Ungemouth.

My earliest recollections of Little Shoal Bay go back to 1926. Our beach was known as the Gasworks Beach or merely The Gassies, and what a marvelous playground it was.

Access to the beach was by a pathway from Rodney Road, or Guilfoyle’s track, which is where the path and steps are from Clarence Road to the Sea Scout Den. The road to the gasworks was a private road and only went as far as the present site of the Kon Tiki Motel. The path from Rodney Road continued on a causeway, over a culvert with a floodgate, and on up to Marama Terrace (now Maritime Terrace).

Depending on the wind, we had the choice of three small beaches. There was one at the foot of Marama Terrace which, on a very high tide, was completely covered. The channel on the seaward side of the floodgate provided deep water and the handrail of the causeway path, a good diving platform. Just where the pathways from Seaview Avenue and the Tennis Courts and Bowling Green met the Rodney Road – Marama Terrace pathway, there was a nice sandy beach and it was here where most of the swimming was done. Though fairly shallow, the bottom was sandy and firm. Here we learned to swim, paddled tin canoes, sailed model yachts, caught sprats with bread in pickle bottles and speared flounder. We gathered seaweed for the garden, collected driftwood for the home fires, and gathered bottles which we washed and sold for pocket money.

From this beach to the gasworks wharf there was a partly reclaimed area covered in Toitoi bushes. The wharf was no longer used to unload the coal scow and the previously dredged channel was a stinking mire of knee deep black mud. This is no exaggeration as scattered about the old gasworks were odd wells full of tar. Over the years the Gas Company let all manner of waste run on to the beach with one outlet at the top end of the wharf. Even today one can dig down in the sand below high water mark, and encounter black sand. It amazed me that over this very spot, the concrete ramp to the beach was built. The area alongside the old wharf was well covered with toitoi bushes. In the clear patches, small yachts and dinghies were hauled out. Then came the small bit of beach by the Sea Scout Den.

Between the gasworks and Clarence Road, there was a freshwater spring. At one stage the gasworks laid an old boiler on its side in a drain and the spring kept the tank full. The water was used in the works. This spring flowed out on to this little beach and it was only at the height of summer that it stopped flowing. After heavy rain, the stream would scour out the sand. This would have been the least attractive of the beaches here. It was also used as the only vehicular access to the beach and on to Hall’s Beach.

How times have changed! A roadway to Maritime Terrace and a consid­erable reclamation – now the hauling out area and the grassed area to the west of the old wharf – have now completely engulfed the two sandy beaches. A new culvert and floodgate at the Birkenhead shore has changed the old creek channel. The area of beach to the seaward side of the boat yard is in parts quite soft and covered in mangroves where none existed before. The only strip that can be called a beach, is that by the Sea Scout Den, and it is mostly shell and flotsam.

The bush reserve below Seaview Ave was known as the Maori’s Orchard. There were a few old fruit trees but quite a large area became engulfed in eleagnus. Near the Seaview Ave track where a storm water pipe comes down a bank, there used to be a big old Puriri tree in which, for as long as I could remember, there was a hive of wild bees. On the bank above was a very big Pohutukawa, which hung down and was semi-supported by the Puriri. In the early 1950s I worked away from Auckland, and while home on leave, I was dismayed to find that these two trees had been felled. No doubt they had grown a bit too tall and were obstructing someone’s view! Once this overhead canopy was removed, various weeds and ginger took over. Here we have a case where nature in the form of the interloper eleagnus, is being allowed to get out of control and kill off the remnants of the orchard and other trees and ferns, while on the other hand someone interfered with nature and destroyed two big healthy native trees that could have been one or two hundred years old. Perhaps in the fullness of time and with a bit of help from tree lovers, nature will take over and some native trees will again dominate this area. Nearby in spring, I welcome the sight of a clematis in bloom.

In the area between Wilding Ave, the Maori’s Orchard and the Bowling Green, we had the Northcote and Birkenhead Tennis Club. There were ten chip courts and the area between the pavilion and the courts was in lawn. During the depression, the drains around the courts were kept clean. The run-off from the catchment area bounded by Church Street, Onewa Road and Seaview Avenue, is funneled out between the Bowling Green and the bush to the west.

During the war years it was not possible to maintain all the courts and five were abandoned. Gradually the drains carrying stormwater out to the main floodgate became clogged and the remaining courts were fre­quently inundated during the winter. I recall one opening day, someone placed an obstruction behind the floodgate preventing it from closing. As the afternoon tide came in, the sea came back through the culvert, up the drains and on to the courts. This was the beginning of the end for tennis in this area. This was a shame as the club had an ideal shelter­ed setting but unfortunately below high water mark. To see this same area today saddens me.

Over recent years there have been improvements. The gasworks has gone and the Council depot which took over has also gone. The caravan park and motel are occupying land that should serve the whole community and not a commercial venture. The playing field is a great improvement and shows what can be done with an area that was also below high water mark. We can probably thank the Drainage Board for the embankments that opened up the walking track to Fairfax Ave and Valley Road. Vehic­ular access has made this little bay very popular in the summer, especial­ly since Sulphur Beach is now buried under the bridge motorway. The fact that Council Terrace is a through road to Birkenhead, does bring quite a bit of traffic through the area. If I go to Highbury, I invariably come home across Little Shoa1 Bay, and I never tire of this lovely drive home. Whether the tide be in or out, there is always something of interest to see.

© Copyright M. Ungemuth

About the Bay

The Story of Little Shoal Bay

Little Shoal Bay was originally an estuary surrounded by cliffs with salt marshes in its upper reaches. In pre-European times, Onewa Pa on Stokes Point (now Northcote Point) was an important stronghold for Ngai Tai, Ngati Whatua and Ngati Paoa. Little Shoal Bay was frequented by Maori to fish and gather shellfish. In the early 1900s, there was a Maori Orchard below Seaview Ave and a Maori Track from it up Wilding Ave. Today, an old pathway known as Maori Track runs up from the Scout Den to Council Terrace beside the reserve.

There were one or two Europeans on Stokes Point in the early 1840s. In the 1850s large blocks of land on Stokes Point and Birkenhead Point were sold to settlers. By the 1880s, more intensive settlement was taking place.

By 1900, Northcote and Birkenhead Point were linked by a wooden footbridge. Reclamation of the estuary took place progressively from the early 1900s, destroying a nice beach, and eventually a rough causeway and road were constructed across the Bay.

In 1902 the Birkenhead & Northcote Gas Company built gasworks on the eastern side of the Bay. The gasworks consisted of a retort, a gasometer, a massive brick chimney and many other structures including a wharf for barges to bring coal to the gasworks. Its historic concrete wall and bollards are still there.

Gasworks in Little Shoal Bay c1920s

N0113197 Gasworks, Northcote c1920s photographer unknown
North Auckland Research Centre, Auckland Libraries

The gasworks closed in the 1940s and was then demolished.   In the 1920s there were tennis courts behind the bowling club near Wilding Ave, named after New Zealander Anthony Wilding, four times singles champion of Wimbledon (1910-13).

In about 1950, Le Roys Bush was created from the estate of the businessman Edward Le Roy, who lived on Hinemoa St. Lutner’s Reserve was also created on the eastern side of Seaview Ave. Today, these reserves are looked after by the Le Roys Bush Management Committee, a group of dedicated volunteers who also undertake planting projects elsewhere in the Bay.

Much of the reclamation took place in the 1950s and 1960s when the Northcote Borough Council allowed all kinds of material to be dumped there and built a rough sea wall. The tidal waters of the estuary were eventually narrowed down to a stream along the line of the channel by the present haul-out area.

In the 1950s, the Gas Company land on both sides of Council Terrace passed to the Northcote Borough Council, which used part of the land on the seaward side as a Council yard. The rest of that land was used informally as a boat yard. A playing field was developed on the other side of the road and named Dudding Park after Northcote’s much loved, long time GP, Dr Reginald Dudding.

In the late 1960s, the Council proposed to use the old gas company land for industry. When local residents protested, the Council zoned it for holiday accommodation instead.  A 99-year lease of the land on the seaward side of the road was given to a motel owner and the Kon Tiki Motel was built there. The land on the other side of the road was leased (for 99 year) as a camping ground.

The road was sealed and the stream diverted through a culvert under Maritime Terrace. The sea wall was concreted and now acts as a dam for the high water table behind, leaving the ground marshy for some of the year.

In the early 1970s, reclamation by the Birkenhead Borough Council of the wetlands on the western side of the Bay began, creating the present island in the swamp. The wetlands today are recognised as a vital component of the ecology of the Bay. Fortunately, further reclamation was stopped when three members of the community initiated a major protest.

In 1993, unbeknown to residents, North Shore City Council sold the land and the new owners proposed to put an intensive housing development on it. As a result, the Little Shoal Bay Action Committee (LSBAC) came into being.

A video produced by Dinah & Tony Holman examining the Little Shoal Bay environment in 1996 . After this video was shown to North Shore Council, a plan to introduce high density housing in the bay was abandoned. The Kon Tiki Motel and campsite were subsequently removed.