24 September 2022

Disease, Demolition and Developers

Typhoid grips a suburb, a prescient planner envisages the pedestrianised harbour we know today, and the Harbour Board's reclamations set the foundations for our commercial heart; fascinating nuggets revealed by some little-known maps from over a century ago.

Proposed Extension of the City of Wellington (1877)

In 1877 Danish architect Conrad Seidelin – working under the pseudonym of 'Mr Darnoc' – drew up plans to transform Wellington’s waterfront. His imagination was fueled by a big reclamation a year earlier, which created 190,000m2 around the northern end of Featherston Street – almost a third of all Wellington’s man-made land.

Seidelin’s credentials had been established by his masterplanning the redesign of Copenhagen, where his scheme to demolish the city's walls won Denmark's Medal of Merit two decades earlier. Wellington was an ambitious city, and the Danish architect didn’t hold back, with designs straight out of the Renaissance urban planning playbook. Heavy on symmetry (a challenge given our terrain), the city’s centrepiece was to be a curved waterfront basin where Te Papa is located today, with tree-lined avenues drawing people to the waterfront.

The plan was a rejection of the closely packed laneways and squalor that characterized Te Aro. Seidelin's map left the ghostly outline of the recently completed Queens Wharf in his layout as a reminder that his vision was of a modern city, rather than a colonial outpost; public facilities and major businesses would have to make way. Ornamental gardens at Herd Street would have required the demolition of the recently opened Te Aro Baths, and warehouses around the northern end of Taranaki Street were to be replaced by a large piazza – a concept that has never really worked in New Zealand.

Wellington's city councillors sensibly considered the design impractical and expensive: curved docks and enormous land reclamation were luxuries the capital could ill-afford. The proposal was rejected, and expansion into the harbour continued piecemeal for the next 50 years – a situation not too dissimilar to Copenhagen's remodeling, where many of the ramparts and lakes Seidelin wanted removed were retained and are popular parts of the Danish capital today.

Seidelin’s vision is intriguing because it merges radical urban form with the streets we know today. The map was drawn before the railway arrived in the city, but the Government Building (opened in the previous year) is clearly identifiable the end of Lambton Quay. 

The idea of an accessible waterfront would have seemed fantastical in the latter part of the 19th Century – yet 150 years on visiting cafes at the water’s edge as envisaged is central to the Wellington experience.

Typhoid Area (1892)

Wellington’s emergence as a shipping hub facilitated the spread of diseases, with SS England bringing smallpox to the city in 1872. Surges in measles occurred every five years, and Pertussis (whooping cough) killed 24 people in 1891 alone. Typhoid first appeared in New Zealand as an epidemic disease in 1860, and the period between 1886 and 1891 became known as the ‘typhoid years’ with 548 Wellingtonians dying from bacterial infections (including cholera). 

Meanwhile the city grew from around 15,000 in 1875 to 49,344 in 1901. Densely packed Te Aro was particularly vulnerable, with infrastructure hopelessly unable to keep up. It was hardly surprising that many Wellington families fled to settlements like Karori, including the Beauchamps with their young daughter Kathleen (writer Katherine Mansfield), following the death of their baby Gwen from cholera in 1891.

William Chapple, a 28-year-old doctor fresh from his previous practice in Motueka, set about mapping the deaths in the tradition of English physician John Snow, who Chapple would have learned about as a student at King’s College London. Snow (one of the fathers of modern epidemiology) had pinpointed the source of a major cholera outbreak in London four decades previously by plotting the location of cases, and traced them eventually to a contaminated water pump at Broad Street.

Chapple quickly identified Holland Street as the centre of the Wellington outbreak, where he found blocked pipes and lavatories causing excrement to flow under the cottages’ floorboards, sewers venting directly into the houses, and residents without plumbed lavatories emptying their ‘night soil’ onto the street. Unsurprisingly an inspection of the hospital’s admission records showed typhoid cases soaring after heavy rainfall, when excrement sluiced into the harbour in rivulets around and under people’s homes.

None of this squalor is obvious in Chapple’s deceptively simple map. The colour of the dots reflect cholera’s ‘blue death’ nickname, with the victim’s skin turning bluish-grey from loss of fluids, their distribution reflecting the slums that lined Te Aro’s laneways.

Chapple recommended ‘a complete system of sewerage on modern principles’ to empty the city’s waste into Cook Strait, rather than Lambton Harbour, via a sewer tunnel under Mount Victoria. The cost was controversial (£165,000 – $35m today), but the incidence of sewage-related diseases treated at Wellington Hospital fell dramatically once the infrastructure was completed in 1899.

Chapple later became a prominent eugenics advocate (‘habitual drunkards and nocturnal house-breakers’ were included on his list of undesirables). He holds the unusual distinction of being elected to parliament in both New Zealand and the UK, and retained his New Zealand medical registration throughout, returning to work at Wellington Hospital as the Resident Casualty Officer in the 1930s – perhaps he regaled the junior doctors with accounts of the city as he recalled it four decades.

Plan of 12 Building Sections on the Te Aro Reclamation (1906)

Established in 1880, Wellington Harbour Board was tasked with operating and expanding the city’s port. Starting work three years after Seidelin’s master plan was rejected, the Harbour Board embarked on a programme of reclamations driven by Chief Engineer William Ferguson that laid the foundation for the inner city waterfront of today.

Ferguson aligned the new wharves so that the prevailing winds would help ships manoeuvre, and reduce the requirement for tugs to help vessels berth; he also drove investment in hydraulic cranes. The port was recognised as one of the best equipped in the Southern Hemisphere. Ferguson created a partnership with the government and City Council to deliver a series of new wharves and land reclamations – including the Taranaki Street Wharf development, completed in 1905.

The reclaimed land was ‘a magnificent block’, according to auctioneers George Thomas & Co. ahead of its sale in February 1906 – and for once the real estate hyperbole was justified. A flurry of investment had transformed the surrounding area since the turn of the century, with a new fire station (reassuring for commercial building owners) on Lower Cuba Street, opposite the City Council’s impressive new Town Hall which opened on December 7th 1904. Concert-goers arrived on the electric trams that had commenced service in the preceding months, and in the summer rowers in the Star Boating Club’s boathouse enjoyed music from a new bandstand on the Cuba Street side of Jervois Quay.

It was all remarkably modern. The map reassured buyers that the land on offer was anything but the Te Aro of the typhoid years; it even shows the Polhill Gully Watercourse (described by the Evening Post as ‘exceedingly offensive’ a decade earlier) now buried in a long culvert under the city’s streets. The map omitted the city’s waste incinerator at Chaffers Park; it was expanded shortly after the Taranaki Street reclamation was auctioned off – caveat emptor.

The sale was well attended and two buyers bought all but one of the allotments; the State Coal Department purchased the land south of Cable Street (a new road named after the Harbour Board’s outgoing Chairman William Cable). The modernist John Chambers Building was completed in 1918, and the smaller Inglis Brothers bicycle workshop occupied the Taranaki Street end of the block – the Wakefield Market food stalls was the building's final incarnation prior to its demolition in 2007.

The land to the north was purchased by timber merchants C & A Odlin’s. The company completed its eponymous building within 19 months of acquiring the site, with Shed 22 built as a wool store by the Harbour Board when Odlin’s moved its timber yard to Petone in the 1920s. In the mid-1990s there were plans to raze the empty buildings and replace them with a reviled casino-hotel, but resource consent was withheld when the extent of the public opposition became clear.

Aside from those replaced by the One Market Lane development, the buildings that sprang up from the 1906 auction remain in situ, historic waterfront buildings that are fully renovated, earthquake strengthened, and home to blue-chip businesses like the Stock Exchange and architects Warren and Mahoney. A magnificent block – just as the auctioneer promised 115 years ago.

First published in Capital (Issue 81).