A family history blog

A Short History of Massey

This history of Massey was inspired by and builds upon some of then information contained in the book “Massey, West Auckland: a palimpset : insights into Massey as it was in 1850, 1900, 1950 and 2000” by Gillian Ruffles, available from the Te Manawa library.

Massey is a very new suburb, even relative to the history of Auckland. It wasn’t a historically attractive area for settlement due to the steep hills, swampy gullies and lack of usable timber. Maori never permanently settled in the area, though some may have passed through from time to time. All the kauri that had at one time grown had been burned off in pre-European times. In the 1850s the area was covered with regenerating manuka and ferns – it was considered to be a scrub land and not much use for anything except gum digging. Settlers in these early times were few and far between, limited to hardy souls who were probably attracted by the isolation as much as anything else.  One such settler was John Lawson, who came to the area in the 1850’s and settled near the mouth of the Manutewahu Stream, which became known as Lawson’s Creek. In fact, although the area didn’t have an official name, it was often referred to locally as Lawsonville. In 1866, the newspapers of the day reported that Lawson had been the victim of a violent assault by an escaped prisoner. He was described as “old, feeble and white-haired.” [1] [2]

In the early days the only way to access the area was via the waterways. The Great North Road was the main road to travel to the north west, but it only went as far as Swanson. To travel further north required roughly following Crows Road and Red Hills Road on what was probably not much more than a rough track, and then onto a route following today’s State Highway 16 at Kumeu.

In 1869 tenders were taken for erecting a bridge over Swanson’s Creek (Huruhuru Stream),  and a new road was formed heading up the steep incline we now call Don Buck’s hill, completing a new route north.  This route became known as the Great North Road (the old route then taking the name of the Old North Road). This saved about 4 miles of travel for settlers of Henderson and Swanson wanting to travel further north. This route also provided the very first road access to the Massey area, though the remoteness of the area, the roughness of the road and the difficulty of the land still deterred settlers from moving into the area.

In 1881 the development of the railway provided the area with another lease of life.  The route of the railway was originally proposed to follow Henderson Creek, crossing over from Te Atatu Peninsula to where Colwill Road is now, then roughly heading towards Westgate. Opponents to this idea pointed out that this route would pass over “the poorest portion of land between Kaipara and Auckland” and that “there is only one solitary settler on the section.” [3] The alternative route passed through the “Waitakerei forest”, and was preferred for the economic benefits it would bring to the thriving timber industry in Henderson, Swanson and the Waitakere Ranges. Even though the final railway route skirted around “Lawsonville”, it did make the journey to the area from Auckland a much more viable prospect, requiring only the road from Henderson northwards to be negotiated. It was at this time a handful of pioneers began to purchase land and settle the area. One such early family was Sam and Lucy Drake, who came to the area in the 1890s and lived in a house on the corner of Lincoln Park Avenue and Waimumu Road.

Sometime in the 1890s a Portugese man named Francisco Rodrigues Figeira came to the area. He came to be known as Don Buck, and is now certainly the most well known historical figure of the area and somewhat of a local legend. He set up a gum store and ran a camp for gum diggers where he employed ex-criminals who worked digging gum on the nearby gum reserve for a shilling a week plus food and shelter. Don Buck was a colourful local character, with his flamboyant style of dress and distinctive mustache. He was seen by the locals either as a scourge on the area who lowered the tone by introducing drunken ex-criminals, or a hero, providing a haven for desperate men who were otherwise out of options. It was at this time that the steep road that headed north from the end of Swanson Road (where Don Buck’s camp was situated) became known as Don Buck’s Hill. Eventually the entire road took his name. [4] [5]

Another well known local was John Henry Colwill who married the daughter of William Swanson (an esteemed politician who also ran a successful logging business). Colwill was a successful businessman, and in the early 1900s he purchased about 1,500 of acres, establishing Lincoln Park Orchards and building a house he called Lincoln Park Estate. Many local place names have their origin in Colwill’s life – Colwill School and Colwill Road, but also Moire Road, which was named after his daughter; Waimumu Road after his launch; and Royal Road named for the Royal Barlock typewriters he imported from England. [6] Colwill was instrumental in the transformation of the land in the area from worked-out gum fields into orchards and pasture. He obtained fish offal from Auckland’s fish merchants and used his launch to cart it to the area where he ploughed it into the earth to fertilize ready to plant pasture. [7]

Development in the area gained momentum in 1914 when a new road was built through Colwill’s estate that formed part of a new route north. [8] The current Great North Road was plagued with problems – primarily the poor repair of the bridge crossing Swanson Creek, and the steep elevation and rough condition of Don Buck’s hill.

In January 1914 a “special comissioner” for the New Zealand Herald wrote:

“This particular stretch of country, although so near to Auckland, owes its isolation to the fact that i lies somewhat off the beaten track. It is easily enough approachable by water, for it can be reach by launch from the city wharves in one hour, but the Kaipara railway wanders away to the westward of it, and the main north road which skirts it is so impassable in winter, and so rough in summer, as to count rather as a barrier than as an assistance to travellers.” [7]

However by this time a new route was being planned, heading down Lincoln Road (which until then had been a dead end road), crossing the Huruhuru Creek then heading up the hill (following the path of today’s North West motorway and Triangle Road), before joining back onto the existing Great North Road (what we call Don Buck Road). [8] Though the roads for this new route had been completed by 1914, the bridge itself was delayed by questions over its height – many settlers of the area were  opposed to the bridge completely blocking access to water traffic up the Huruhuru creek (though by then it was not nearly as important for navigation as it had been in the early days). [9] [10] The bridge was finally opened in 1916, completing the Great North Road deviation and opening up a new, convenient route through the area. [11]

Until then the area didn’t have any kind of official or even consistent name – sometimes called Lawsonville, but also considered as part of either Hobsonville or Henderson. The opening of the bridge and new road coincides with the official naming of the area (1916 is the earliest reference I can find in the papers) but there’s no confirmed evidence as to why it was given this particular name. There is a local story that Prime Minister W.F. Massey opened either the new road or the bridge, though that doesn’t seem to be the case. Mr Massey did visit Swanson and Henderson in November 1915 to assess the suitability of land in the district to gift to returned soldiers to grow fruit trees, so perhaps the district was named in honour of this visit. [12] Regardless, Massey was a very prominent public figure at the time so the name may just have been to honour the man himself rather than any specific connection he had with the area.

It took several years for motorists to fully accept the new route through Massey it as the main road north. The steep grades of Don Buck’s Hill made it all but impassable in winter, but in summer it was still a popular route for motorists wanting to avoid the dust and nuisance of the loose metal on the main road. However in 1921 a bus heading to Muriwai Beach for the annual motor races plunged through the rotting planks of the old wooden bridge over Swanson Creek at the foot of Don Buck’s Hill and a 17-year-old girl was killed, with five others sustaining moderate injuries. [13] This incident probably helped increase the popularity of the Lincoln Bridge, and it soon became accepted as the main highway and was variously referred to as the Great North Road, the Main Road North or the Auckland to Helensville Main Highway.  In 1925 the route was described as the preferred route in fine weather (some portions further north were still unmetalled – the longer but fully metalled route through Waitakere township was still preferred in the wet). [14]

There is no doubt that the new road opened up the area to increasing settlement. In 1923 a special correspondent to the New Zealand Herald reported on the “green fields” and “well-grown shelter belts” of Massey. Country that was once “wild, desolate scrub land” had been turned into pasture and orchards. [15] A similar report appeared in 1929 when another special corespondent travelled on the “splendid highway” through Massey toward Helensville, and was astonished by the “widespread advance of settlement”. [16] By the 1930s Royal Road, Waimumu Road, Colwill Road and Moire Road were all now officially on the map, though they would have been minor, unmetalled farm roads at this stage.

Some time in the 1930s J.H. Colwill’s wife opened the Triangle Tea Rooms – named after the triangular shaped island in the junction of the roads on which it was situated (the corner of Triangle Road and Don Buck Road, although these roads had not officially been given those names at that time). [17] At this time there were still very few settlers in the area, so that Mrs Colwill decided to open tea rooms in this location shows how popular this road was for motorists. Until the Auckland Harbour Bridge opened in 1959 anyone wishing to drive north would have either used this route or caught the vehicular ferry across the harbour to Devonport.  (The tea rooms building is still standing in its original location. From the 1950s it was operating as a general store, and then as the Massey Post Office from 1965 until 1989. It has since been refurbished and is currently being used as a community facility).

By 1950 the route north was designated as State Highway 16 and was a well maintained road – though the Lincoln Bridge was still just one lane. In 1957 the North West Motorway was extended from Lincoln Road as far as Lincoln Park Avenue (where the Henderson substation is situated). At this time Triangle Road didn’t exist as such – the motorway crossed a new, sturdier bridge constructed just east of the original Lincoln Bridge, then followed the route of the existing road, improving it beyond recognition.

The need for this upgraded route was suddenly negated in 1959 when the Auckland Harbour Bridge was opened. Motorists now had an far more direct route north and could avoid State Highway 16 altogether.  But the new easy access from Auckland city to Massey via the North Western Motorway meant living there was far more attractive. Housing developments started popping up at an increasing, even alarming rate. In 1961 the motorway was extended onto a newly constructed section of motorway up the hill towards Royal Road and then on to Hobsonville. Soon after, a bridge over the Huruhuru Creek and a new road running roughly parallel to the motorway was built for local access to the housing estates being developed. This road eventually joined to the old main highway and became Triangle Road as we know it today.

During the 1960s the land was steadily transformed from orchards and farms. By 1970 Massey had a Post Office, a High School and a small shopping centre. By the 1980s full-scale suburbia had settled in. [18]

Unfortunately the growth of amenities couldn’t keep up with the population explosion. The main shopping area at the top of Triangle Road (called the Massey shops by locals) weren’t conveniently located for the many young families living in the new housing developments around the sprawling suburb. In the days of one car families many young mothers were without transport for the majority of the day and needed to have facilities within an easy walk. A new shopping centre opened at Royal Heights in the late 70s and a few years later a large, modern supermarket (“Woolworths”) was added.  Massey was essentially divided in two by the North West Motorway and had no real community centre. In 1989 the Post Office at the Massey shops was closed in preference to a new one that had opened at Royal Heights, angering locals living on the western side of the suburb.

In 1998 the Westgate shopping centre was developed, bringing in large retailers, cafes, a new supermarket and some new employment opportunities for locals. Although many hoped with could become a new heart for the area, the centre was considered unfriendly to pedestrians and without atmosphere.

In 2011 the North West Motorway was extended north to Kumeu and west to the Upper Harbour Bridge. In 2015 an extension to the Westgate shopping centre was opened on the north side of Hobsonville Road, including the NorthWest Mall and a new business area. In 2019, Te Manawa was opened, intended as a new multipurpose community facility and incorporating a library and other community services. [19] It is hoped the new town centre at North West will bring increased employment opportunities to the area as well as serving as a community hub.

Massey is now the largest West Auckland suburb and is still growing fast with several new developments in progress on its fringes and infrastructure improvements planned to keep pace with this growth. The area is now very convenient to local amenities provided by the nearby commercial areas of Westgate and North West. The motorway provides easy access to and from other parts of Auckland. However the sprawling nature of the suburb and the diverse backgrounds of the population have proved to be barriers to establishing a sense of community. It is hoped that the new community centre at Te Manawa will truly become the heart of the area and bring the wider community together. The local organisation Massey Matters also aim to foster a sense of community through the delivery of events and community engagement. [20] While there are many challenges ahead for the area, there are also many positive aspects. With the help of passionate advocates who care about the area and are willing embrace the area’s diversity, Massey can be a place where people are proud to live.

[1] John Lawson
[2] John Lawson
[3] Letter to the Editor: opponent to railway route
[4] Don Buck
[5] Don Buck from 1926:
[6] Colwill
[7] Gum Land to Pasture
[8] Erecting a new bridge:
[9] Swanson Creek Bridge
[10] Bridge Clearance:
[11] Bridge Opening
[12] W.F. Massey visit:
[13] Swanson bus crash:
[14] Routes to Muriwai:
[15] Spread of settlement:
[16] Utilising gum lands:
[17] Triangle Tea Rooms
[18] Settling for Suburbia:
[19] Te Manawa
[20] Massey Matters

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