Written by Jo Barrett
A short distance from Auckland’s CBD and across the harbour bridge is the picturesque suburb of Birkenhead. With its bush-clad coastal surrounds, parks and historic buildings, Birkenhead is one of North Shore’s hidden treasures.
The colonial, Edwardian and Art Deco buildings, and the grand old villas situated along Hinemoa Street in Birkenhead, define this area’s rich history. But Birkenhead’s centuries old history began well before streets, churches, commercial buildings and splendid old villas were ever established.
It stems as far back as circa 1200 when the first inhabitants migrated to Aotearoa from Polynesia. At that time, the landscape was dominated by ancient kauri forest and other podocarp-broadleaf native trees. Mature pōhutukawa lined coastal areas and in summer their flowers would have created a magnificent burst of red against the backdrop of the assorted greens of the native bush.
Pre-European settlement saw the landscape dominated by ancient kauri forest with pōhutukawa lining coastal areas.
The prolific fishing grounds of the Waitematā harbour attracted Maori tribes, many of whom settled on peninsulas around the harbour. One such peninsular was Te Onewa (Northcote Point).
In the years following 1840, much of the land in Auckland was sold to the government of the time and from there began the European settlement scheme with the arrival of the missionaries, gum diggers and early settlers. Milling of kauri forest commenced to clear the way for farming and orchards. The sunny aspect meant fruit trees and gardens thrived and the area soon developed a reputation for its production of fruit and strawberries.
To transport the produce across the Waitematā Harbour, many of the orchardists had their own jetties until 1882 when Auckland’s first working wharf was built at the bottom of Birkenhead’s earliest established street, Hinemoa Street.
Today, a growing number of Birkenhead residents enjoy the convenience of commuting by ferry to Auckland’s CBD.
The Birkenhead Ferry Terminal is now located where the old wharf once was, and the commuter ferry provides residents with a convenient and more sustainable form of transport to and from Auckland’s CBD. The terminal is about two kilometres down from the Birkenhead Village at Highbury junction where Rawene Road, Mokoia Road and Birkenhead Avenue meet.
Birkenhead was developed predominately by prosperous middle-class people. The homes they built were by and large, fairly, substantial villas typical of the late 1800s and early 1900s style of architecture. Many of these villas still line Hinemoa Street and whilst most remain as residential homes, some are now used for commercial, retail and community purposes.
Early settlements were not complete without a church. Birkenhead has three. The oldest, located on Onewa Road, is the 1880 Zion Hill Church which was named after Mt Zion by a visiting Presbyterian Minister. Back on Hinemoa Street, the 1910 All Saints Church originally - Foresters Hall, which at one time was the hub for social and community events - is located across from St Andrews Church. Both churches mark the spot where the original entry to the Birkenhead Village was from Hinemoa Street.
Along Hinemoa Street there are old buildings connected with surnames such as Marinovich, Fisher, Stott, Hawkins and Roberts.
Not far from 82 Hinemoa Street where long-established Moxie Restaurant is located, is the Marinovich building on the corner of Hinemoa Street and Rugby Road. Constructed in the Edwardian style of architecture in 1912, it was once occupied by Stotts Butchery where Warwick Stott provided locals with their regular supply of meat. The building is now home to Flavour Deli and Ravenhill Café and Restaurant.
Across from the Marinovich site on the corner of Hinemoa and Rugby Street is Sprout the Grocer where you can buy plastic-free, bulk wholefoods or pop next door for coffee at Coffee General. Two doors down in the 1928 Fishers Building is All Cut Barbers and further along Hinemoa Street is Silver Needles for tailoring and dressmaking, and Ab Fab fashion, Next Door Gallery and Biba Salon.
Since 1979, non-profit organisation, Highbury Community Centre located at 110 Hinemoa Street, has been a focal point for the neighbourhood. It continues to provide the community with room hire, classes, workshops, events and an Early Learning Centre for pre-school children.
Stott’s Building at 136 to 140 Hinemoa Street is home to Thai Assan Restaurant, Hinemoa Street Organic Grocer and The Embroiderer. The lovely Deb of Botanics florist is next door.
Birkenhead’s modern and well-appointed library located on the corner at 204 Hinemoa Street and Rawene Road has been described as innovative, and the views from it are magnificent. Within the library is the purpose-built Chelsea Sugar Archives Room where you can delve into the history of Birkenhead’s iconic landmark, Chelsea Sugar Refinery.
Just down from Highbury Corner at 243 Hinemoa Street stands the building originally established in 1913 as the Samuel Roberts General Store. Today, Mulan Malaysian and Thai Restaurant is located there. Directly adjacent at 245 Hinemoa Street is what was originally the Hawkins General Store built in 1920. Henry Hawkins was one the most respected, early fruit growers in the area.
The largest area of native bush on the North Shore borders Birkenhead Village second only in area to Titirangi and Waitakere in West Auckland.
Despite the milling of the 1800s, Birkenhead Village still has a large area of native bush and so for those who prefer to get outdoors and connect with nature, Birkenhead offers several bush walks. One such walk is Le Roys Bush with access off Onewa Road, Hinemoa Street and Enterprise Street.
Whether you like to be out on the water or just dip your feet into the water, turn into Maritime Terrace from Hinemoa Street and wind your way down to picturesque Little Shoal Bay. This beautiful location with its panoramic view back to Auckland city and its large grassy park is perfect for summer picnics and outdoor activities with friends and family.
As with the homes in Hinemoa Street, when you venture into the side streets, the standard of residential homes is noticeably high. Somehow the mix of old and new homes sits comfortably with each other – perhaps it is the abundance of trees that helps blend the array of architectural styles.
Hinemoa Street and its surrounds offer a relaxed and character-filled environment. From the amazing views and native bush, the convenience of a ferry service, eateries and retail, it would be safe to say this is a great place to live – a little piece of paradise in the heart of a big city.