By John Subritzky
A major port was envisaged at the end of the Rosebank Peninsula. But this was not the only strange proposal for Motu Mānawa/Pollen Island. Twice before, the idea of an aerodrome on the island had arisen. It is curious to think that from 1947 to 1989 Pollen Island was considered as a possible site for a major port. Weird ideas are not a new thing!
Motu means island, and Mānawa can mean mangrove. The other island (Traherne) that is overrun by the motorway is Motu Te Kou, meaning “fishhook.”
These islands, straddled today by the North-western Motorway, have long been part of the transport network. In pre-European times, waka paddled past the shell bank island on their way up and down the Whau to the intercoastal portage to the Manukau. The paddling tradition on the Whau is still maintained today by the West End Rowing Club on Saunders Reserve.
The mudbanks between the island and the mainland were used by Ngāti Pāoa as a burial ground, to preserve bodies. Some remains were disturbed during motorway construction in the 1950s.
While there are no remnants of permanent settlement in the area by Ngāti Pāoa, Te Kawerau a Maki, Te Waiohua or by Ngāti Whātua, there are remembered traditions linking it with the greater surrounding area used in general food gathering and fishing. And it is here that Avondale’s earliest historically dated event occurred: the battle at Te Rangimatariki between Ngā Oho, Te Taou, and Ngāti Pāoa in 1792.
When Rosebank Peninsula was surveyed in 1843, Motu Mānawa does not appear on the damaged map. The island remained unnoticed when the HMS Pandora surveyed the area in 1854. The earliest map of the island dates from 1857. Even now, commuters speeding along the motorway are largely oblivious to the wilderness between them and the sea.
Dr Daniel Pollen purchased the island on 10 March 1858. Pollen had brickworks on Rosebank Peninsula, and he also ran some sheep there. A son was born at his Rosebank property in 1856, but shortly after they were living in Eden Crescent. Pollen served as Native Minister, Colonial Secretary, and as the country’s ninth Premier for a seven-month period in the mid-1870s while Julius Vogel was overseas. He was also the editor of the New Zealand Times newspaper.
Mining of shell and sand from the two islands lasted 80 years, with a never-ending supply of shell being constantly washed ashore from the extensive cockle beds. A Mr Potterill offered to supply shell to the Avondale Road Board in 1915. Then Thomas Edwin Roe, called “Shellback Roe” by locals, burnt shell from Pollen Island to sell as lime.
The Avondale Road Board offered to purchase the island from the Pollen Estate in August 1915, but that was declined by the Public Trustee. Three years later they finally succeeded, and progressed their plan to build a bridge and tramline to extract shell. Once completed, small carts were pushed from the Domain (where the motor racing track is now) out to the edge of the shell bank, filled, and pushed back to the mainland.
In a typhoid epidemic in 1922, lime from Pollen Island was shipped to the Point Chevalier mental asylum and used to decontaminate freshwater springs. By 1941, the island’s formal shell-gathering days were over when a rifle range was set up on Rosebank Domain in August 1941.
Potential use of the island as the site for Auckland’s aerodrome was first mooted at an Avondale Borough Council meeting in November 1923. In July 1929, canal promoter David B Russell planned to reclaim land around the island for an aerodrome. By March 1930, Pollen Island was on the short list of proposed sites for Auckland’s aerodrome. City Council engineer James Tyler reported back unfavourably regarding the airport idea to the Council on the remote site that at most was “4ft above high water”. The aerodrome idea was briefly revived 40 years later in October 1969 when the Waitemata Aero Club wanted to use the island. We can all be glad that Māngere eventually became our international airport!
Pollen Island was sold to the Harbour Board in 1957 for ￡300. A 700-acre reclamation was planned and in July 1974, Pat Eyre, Waitematā delegate to the Harbour Board, pushed for Pollen Island to be developed as a container port. The Harbour Board’s general manager Bob Lorimer felt that a port development at Pollen Island was of “national significance”.
For many years mangrove wetlands around both harbours were reclaimed by using them as landfills. The mangroves were considered to be eyesores that needed to be covered over, not ecological assets. Forest and Bird mounted a campaign for a reserve and in 1993 Ports of Auckland agreed to lease the island to them for $10 per year. “Motu Mānawa / Pollen Island Scientific Reserve” was gazetted in September 2006. It was the only marine reserve in NZ that had a motorway running through it!
Mud snails and mud crabs provide a seafood feast for the shore birds. These include spoonbills, dotterels, wrybills, oystercatchers, pied stilts, white-faced herons, shags, and godwits. At the high tide mark there are salt marsh plants. Then a metre further back there are coastal shrubs. The vegetation zones get compressed over a short distance!
Now the island can only be accessed on foot by going under the Whau motorway bridge and slogging across the mudflats at low tide. The rich diversity of shoreline birds and flora is largely protected from both pests and humans because it is cut-off by the motorway. This is a surreal disconnection from the surrounds – Sky Tower, the Harbour Bridge, and the valuable real estate of Te Atatu and other suburbs.
Sometimes we don’t realise what we have until we lose it. Fortunately, we didn’t lose Motu Mānawa/Pollen Island.
Compiled with information provided in a talk earlier this year by Lisa Truttman, part of the “Whau Heritage Series”. To hear Lisa’s talk about this and other topics on Sound Cloud, visit: