Connell Brothers Farm | Jomac Place
By John Subritzky
The hearse pulled up outside Chrysalis Early Learning Centre. Bob Connell had come back for the last time to the site of the original homestead. The oak and the pohutukawa, planted about 80 years earlier by his family, were now magnificent trees. The Connells had grown up with the trees and now the family stopped to collect acorns for Bob’s funeral.
In pre-European times, Maori had lived for a while here, on the shore of the Whau River. Shell middens with traces of charcoal from their fires was mapped by archaeologists. They tell us that cockles were the main shellfish eaten, but a range of other sea creatures were also locally sourced and on the menu, likely eaten between 1540 and 1670 AD.
In an amazing link back to those early Maori, their mahi was uncovered in the form of two postholes, 1 m apart. The circular postholes were of a very regular shape, measured 30cm in diameter x 33cm deep and 15cm diameter x 12cm deep and had flat bases.
There was a succession of European owners before the Connell Family bought the property in 1921. All that was left from that period for the archaeologists to find was the remains of a small brick house or hut, and a scattering of early 20th century bottles broken bricks and other debris visible on the foreshore.
The Connells were market gardeners on the 10ha site that is now Jomac Place. They grew potatoes and kumara for many years. Bob Connell claimed, that for a while after WWII, they were probably the biggest kumara growers in the country.
The three brothers and their sister grew up on the farm, playing in the Whau River. Bob said, “We used to swim down there when we were kids, but it was mighty muddy!” They also had small boats and went fishing. One time they netted 740 flounder in one day, giving the surplus away to neighbours. “They were very nice flounder,” said Bob.
In December 1959, the three boys, Daniel, Roy, and Robert became tenants in common on the farm. In 1996 Roy’s share went to Daniel and Bob, who by then were both retired.
The original homestead was pulled down by the Connell brothers in 1951. Bob said that it had been built from kauri and had individually made blacksmith nails. After that, the site was farmed as part of the market garden, and a new house was built. The house was located approximately where the street is now (Jomac Place).
In 1993, Neville Exler filmed the three brothers on his Sony Handicam, giving an insight into their last few years market gardening. They had started selling off other parcels of land from 1965. The writing was on the wall as their land was surrounded by industrial buildings.
Bob noted, “We don’t have much compost in the soil now; we have worked it out. We have mined the soil. We know it’s going to factories, and we won’t last much longer. It’s like the house. It’s going to be pushed down in a year or two. It’s not worth spending money on.”
The Exler film shows them harvesting cabbages, loading the boxes onto the tray of their trusty Massey Fergusson tractor before taking the boxes to their truck to load for the markets. Asked about how they grew the cabbages, Bob said that they propagated the cabbages from seed they grew themselves. They selected about 100 of the best cabbage plants each year and transplanted them into a garden together. To avoid the bees crosspollinating the cabbages with cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts, they would cover the plants with scrim to keep the bees out. Then they would crawl under the scrim and worked them with little brushes to pollenate the cabbages themselves. Bob claimed that this gave them some of the finest seed in the country.
By the time the land was sold to Jomac Properties in 2008, it was no longer being actively farmed. Bob was living in the house and he was feeding so many ducks that people referred to it as “The Duck Farm”. That didn’t seem to bother Bob. He kept a bag of poultry food at the front door and would regularly throw some to the assembled flock. When challenged that he was creating a nuisance with wild ducks, he would claim that they were all his birds.
Jomac Properties developed and subdivided the land. Their first preference for the road name was Connell Place, after Bob and his family. However, as there were many other roads around Auckland with that name it was declined, so they settled on Jomac Place. The Avondale Historical Society suggested four other names to the Avondale Community Board, but these were turned down. Deputy Mayor at the time, David Hay, felt that the developers were entitled to name the street after themselves and the Board agreed.
Approximately half the sections were sold. Jomac built on some sections and continues to lease them out. Ironically, the company that owns and leases these properties is called Connell Place Properties. It was named in the expectation that it would mirror the road name.
In 2009, it looked like the magnificent pohutukawa and oak trees would be felled, so a protest was mounted with a petition gathering about 1,200 signatures. The battle was led by Sigrid Shayer, a former Avondale resident who was chair of the Tree Council at the time, Imi Tovia, and Nina Patel, with support from Catherine Farmer.
The conflict dragged on, coming close to the time when the end of tree protection was in sight. Auckland Council had granted non-notified consent to fell the trees, then backtracked and sought to protect them. In late 2010, Jomac Construction was asking the courts to call off the Tree Council's crusade against them felling the pohutukawa and oak. It was reported that the developer had previously offered to keep both trees to mitigate the removal of 25 other generally protected trees on the main site.
Darius Singh purchased the lot with the trees on it for a childcare centre. He says it’s one thing to protest the removal of trees, but actually protecting and incorporating them into a development is another challenge. He sees the two trees – a native and an exotic – as being biculturally symbolic. The trees’ canopies have almost grown together, or touching each other as Darius says. The place where the Connell children grew up and played is the same place where a multitude of other children are now doing the same thing.
The Chrysalis Early Learning Centre building curves around the trees like a cocoon. Early on, they were visited by a cloud of monarch butterflies. This confirmed to Darius that the centre’s name was right. Under the oak tree is a bench seat with a plaque dedicated to the Connell brothers, “For starting a dream, planting the seeds of an oak and a pohutukawa, side by side”. Now a diverse group of children are growing up together, side by side.