On the streets where we live
Travellers in some parts of New Zealand could be excused for thinking they’d taken a wrong turning many of the names of our streets seem to be pointing somewhere else. In most cases that other place is the British Empire, which once ensured that much of the globe was coloured red. New Zealand couldn’t avoid this influence, and our unswerving allegiance inspired many of the names now imposed on the landscape. Individuals—and their deeds of valour which secured this once mighty Empire—may have been forgotten, but their names endure, immortalised and enamellised on street signs.
Defenders of the Empire did not come more effective, or popular, than Lord Horatio Nelson. The naval commander who gave his life at Trafalgar also gave his surname to the South Island’s fourth largest city. In its turn, Nelson city has named many of its own streets after the admiral’s battle, his fellow mariners and their ships—hence Victory Square, Ajax Ave and Halifax and Hardy Streets.
Like the British Navy, Lord Nelson’s own influence spread far and wide—to another 64 streets throughout this country, in fact. In this regard, Nelson is only slightly more common than another name that was extremely popular with Horatio himself: Hamilton. But it was certainly not the great admiral’s mistress Emma Hamilton who inspired the name of another city and 50 such streets throughout New Zealand.
A loyal corner of Hawke’s Bay recalls British military achievements in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. Napier and Clive were both military heroes, while Hastings was the first Governor-General of India, and therefore a worthy replacement for the New Zealand town previously known as Hicksville.
The Sixty-fifth Regiment had been shipped from India to assuage the anxiety among Hawke’s Bay settlers about Maori opposition to land purchases. Alfred Domett, Commissioner of Crown Lands and resident magistrate, was determined that the regiment’s work should not go unnoticed. In 1854, he wrote to the Provincial Superintendent, Dr Featherston, outlining his plans—and, in the event, his prejudices too. “The native names in this district are particularly harsh, discordant to human ears or low and disgusting in signification . . .” The latter was possibly a reference to the Tutaekuri River, which translated means dung-covered dog.
Domett turned to the history of British India for inspiration, giving us Simla Terrace, Hyderabad Road, Meanee Quay, Delhi Road and, of course, Sixty-fifth Street. With his India file exhausted, Domett reverted to the Motherland. His letter to Featherston continued: ” . . . I had recourse to the names of the most eminent men in literature and science of our day. The remaining roads are to be called after the most celebrated English poets . . . It is better to have pleasing associations with names of our roads and ravines, however unworthy they may seem of such distinguished ones, than to be constantly reminded of the existence of obscure individuals (ruffians possibly and runaway convicts) whose names get attached to places they happen to be the first to pitch upon . . .”
So, Napier’s dignified thoroughfares came to include Shakespeare, Emerson, Carlyle, Burns, Thackeray and Milton. Not to be outdone, the Auckland suburbs of Grey Lynn and Takapuna also have British literary quarters, with streets honouring Coleridge, Dickens, Browning, Tennyson and Dryden, among others.
Another famous British militarist and nemesis of Napoleon was distinguished by two influential names: Arthur Wellesley and the Duke of Wellington. Both are enshrined in New Zealand streets, with Wellington outnumbering Wellesley by 38 to 7 and becoming the capital city to boot. And thanks to the Iron Duke, Napoleon’s Waterloo became a quadrant in Auckland.
Yet another of the Empire’s heroes, Lord Kitchener, demonstrated that even streets have to move with the times. The Auckland street now named after him was previously known as Coburg, the Bavarian town associated with Prince Albert, but this Germanic reference was found unacceptable and dropped around the time of the First World War.
In Martinborough, loyalty to Britain was demonstrated in a somewhat different way. Sir John Martin had purchased 12,000 hectares of rich Wairarapa farmland for £47,500, and now he wanted a town. He went about the task with flair and a sense of adventure. Not inhibited by modesty, he named it Martinborough, and its central feature was a square from which radiated eight streets—a Union Jack, no less. When it came to naming the streets, Sir John indulged himself further. Each street recalled a place he had visited—Suez, Venice, Dublin, Texas, New York, Broadway, Strasbourg and Cologne.
No citizen was going to forget that he was a much-travelled man!
When they are home, New Zealanders live on two main islands subdivided by 54,000 streets and roads. At first, the naming of these thoroughfares hardly strained the settlers’ originality, their predictable choices resulting in much duplication and confusion as the number of towns proliferated.
Royalty was a recurring theme. Not surprisingly, our most common names of all are King(s) and Queen(s), in equal measure and each totalling 110 throughout the land. Moving down through the royal ranks we also have 23 Princess Streets and—showing a distinct bias towards the male rights to the throne-45 Princes Streets.
If King, Queen, Prince and Princess seem a little impersonal, many New Zealanders’ addresses show them to be on first name terms with the royals, especially Victoria (94 occurrences) and her consort, Albert (67). But it is a different man who is commemorated in Albert Street in Ashburton. The street was renamed from the rather common Jones Street in 1914 in honour of King Albert I of Belgium, acknowledging New Zealand’s contribution to Belgian relief during World War I.
On the subject of Kings, Dunedin is much more exclamatory with its Great King Street, while the country’s two Little King Streets (and Auckland’s one-time Little Queen Street) are presumably a reflection on the size of the streets rather than that of the monarch.
The prospect of republicanism holds interesting implications for a continuing royal presence on our streets. Any attempt to replace Kings and Queens and other family members could prove an expensive and confusing exercise. A cheaper solution would be for such names to simply “stand” for someone else, which wouldn’t be difficult given that nobody seems to remember which queens and princes our streets honour anyway. Certain music followers already maintain that there is only one “King,” and his palace is not in England but in Memphis, Tennessee. In a similar vein, our numerous Queen Streets might be thought of as memorials to the musical group fronted by the late Freddie Mercury.
New monarchs once stimulated a rash of street names in their honour, and whether Charles or William get that opportunity remains to be seen. The latter would only add to confusion—there being already 68 streets recalling his earlier namesakes. And as for the other, New Zealanders may be more sympathetic to local golfer Bob Charles than the prince with the same name.
After King(s) and Queen(s), the third most popular street name in New Zealand is Park, numbering 106 and obviously reflecting the desire for a green and pleasant colony. Only slightly less common is the recognition of our extensive coastline by 103 Beach Streets and Roads. When inspiration was flagging, prominent community and geographical features conveniently supplied such names as Church (98), Station (84), River (83), Railway (76), Mill (75), School (71), Bridge (70), Hall (68), Hill (64), Domain (60), Boundary (55) and Valley (51). And when all else failed, the authorities could resort to simply Main and High Streets, of which we now possess 98 and 80 respectively. Alternatively, they could always take direction from the compass, resulting in North (65), West (56), East (54) and—least popular—South (43).
There is one surname that has been honoured on more New Zealand streets than any other: Wilson. With 105 appearances in both singular and plural form, the Wilson family has truly made its mark. Further down the list of most popular surnames are Russell (80), Brown (77), Campbell (74), Bell (68), Smith (63) and Williams (52).
Contenders for the award of most unimaginative street name are surely our nine Avenue Roads. There were once ten, but New Plymouth’s was renamed Coronation Avenue after a certain royal occasion in 1953. At least this line of pedestrian thinking has yet to produce any Road Streets or Street Roads, although there are Rhodes Roads in Clutha and Selwyn, which have a certain echo to them. Evidence to date does suggest that anyone named Street has little chance of being immortalised in this manner.
Native tree names have proved a fertile source, perhaps as compensation for real trees sacrificed for subdivisions. Numbering 99, Totara is also the most frequent Maori street name of all, followed by Kowhai (89), Rata (87) and Rimu (81). Close by are some of the dispossessed residents of these trees: Tui (85), the extinct Huia (56), and Kiwi (55). Maori words in general are popular as street names sometimes as descriptive terms that wouldn’t be acceptable in English, such as Whangaparaoa’s Moera Place, meaning sleeping in the sun.
In the quest for new and distinctive street names, New Zealanders have often turned to local sources for inspiration. Much favoured are names of local dignitaries and identities, and the famous, but after these are exhausted, it may come down to staff members, the relatives, or even more of a miscellany. Debron (in Remuera) came from a developer combining the names of his daughters, Deborah and Bronwen. Skyla Place in Massey takes its name from a cat owned by an aunt of a staff member in the developer’s company. In Thames, surveyors stumped for a name when laying out streets asked a small girl who was watching what her name was. Her “Isabella” became just Bella. Years later, when the railway came in 1898, she was the one who cut the ribbon—distinguished by having a street named after her. Christchurch’s Wynand Place doesn’t raise an eyebrow—until you appreciate that it is opposite Riccarton Racecourse.
Some names are the result of misunderstandings about the significance of surrounding names. Christchurch’s Bligh Road was named after an 1870s restaurateur, but later subdividers assumed that it was in memory of William Bligh of the Bounty, so named surrounding streets Christian, Bounty and Pitcairn. Auckland’s Elgar Street runs off Haydn Avenue, except the Haydn in question wasn’t a composer but an equine hurdler that grazed thereabouts.
Nowadays suggestions have to go before councils, the Post Office, and regional authorities to avoid duplication in names and to ensure that emergency services will not be confused by difficult pronunciation. Each subdivision typically has some theme to its street names. So golf (Putter Place, Fairway and Bob Charles), animal breeds (Ayrshire, Simmental, Perendale, Merino) and mountains (Ben Nevis, Eiger, Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro) all rub shoulders in the suburbs of South Auckland.
Ideas for these themes may come from unexpected sources. John Davenport, an expert on Auckland’s street names, reckons that the paint chart of the long-gone BALM paint factory in Newmarket provided the inspiration for Pimento, Tango, Malmo, Chrome and Reverie in the Auckland suburb of Massey. Over in Torbay, well-known yachts of the gulf figured in a subdivision: Fidelis, Gerontius, Infidel, Palawan, Freya, Ceramco and others. (Recently, residents of Infidel Place are reported to have protested about the name.)
Creatures of the streets (Austin, Bel Air, Cortina, Nissan, Wyvern, Rambler and Vanguard) seem to have given rise to a smattering of road monikers. In Alexandra, apparently haphazard choices such as Moa, Ngapara, and Chicago derive from old gold dredges.
Political rectitude is always a consideration in local body affairs. In Bucklands Beach, the winning entry from a school competition to name a local street was rejected by council because it is a noxious weed—blackberry. Probably for the same reason there are no streets named after those major nocturnal users of our highways and byways, the hedgehog and possum. Thirty years ago, newcomers to Takaka, Golden Bay, complained that the name Black Maori Road was a slur on all Maori, and got it changed to Maori Road, although the gentleman it was named for was perfectly happy with the original title.
The second part of a street’s name is also subject to changing sensibilities. Prior to 1920, everything was either a street or a road. Not any more. Many of us now inhabit Drives, Ways, Esplanades, Places, Groves, Avenues, Courts, Terraces, Rises, Parades, Crescents, Glens, Lanes, Closes and more, supposedly bestowing a touch of class on addresses. Is West Auckland’s Glen Close doubly distinguished, or did the person who named it just have a fatal attraction to film stars? In some districts the choice of generic name may have some significance. For instance, in Karori, living on a Way means that you, not the Wellington City Council, maintain the thoroughfare.
Balancing the pretentiousness of wanting to live in a boulevard instead of a street is a rich tradition of down-to-earth solutions to the naming business, honouring colourful incidents or personalities. An early miner and farm contractor is remembered by the ominous-sounding Black Jack Road at Kuaotunu, on the Coromandel Peninsula. Dog Kennel Road in Waimate harks—if not barks—back to the days before fences, when man’s best friend was used to guard farm boundaries. Travellers on this particular road were treated to the spectacle of excitable dogs barking from the tops of their kennels until the coach passed.
Another animal essential down on the farm is remembered by Dead Horse Road in Southland, the name marking a reserve where aged beasts of burden were turned out to pass their twilight years. In similarly earthy vein, Old Vegetable Road celebrates (in an unappetising sort of way) the Ohakune carrot-growing district. Such names, though hardly the flashest of addresses, must come as welcome relief to New Zealand Post as it grapples with 220 King and Queen Streets and all the other duplications.
The condition of roads has also been a source of inspiration, as in Taieri’s Puddle Alley, Rattletrap Road in Selwyn and the Pig Route in Central Otago, the last so rough in parts that 12 horses were required to haul a single wagon. In the same district can be found Drybread Road, taken from the cagey reply that goldminers often gave when asked how they were doing—”Just gettin”nuff to buy a bit o’ dry bread.” The more prosperous could splash out on produce from the nearby Butter and Eggs Road, where the local dairy fanner once lived, or visit Pennyweight Road, named from the standard measure for gold dust.
More exotic sounding is Cromwell’s Neplusultra Street. Latin for “nothing more beyond,” this street once stood on the boundary between town and wilderness. Captain Cook is reputed to have climbed out on the bowsprit of the Resolution and uttered these words when Antarctic ice finally halted his voyage south.
Off the beaten track is a route once favoured by downon-their-luck miners creeping out of Woodstock on their way to Hokitika, in Westland. Appropriately known as Insolvent Track, it avoided the main street where miners were bound to run into their likely creditor, one Harry Gaylor, who owned the local hotel, butcher’s shop, general store, blacksmith’s shop and billiard saloon. Insolvent Track must be unique in having been named in avoidance rather than in honour of someone.
While most New Zealand road names are deeply respectable, a smattering honour less desirable aspects of the landscape. Top of such a list must surely be Tip Road in Kaipara, closely followed by Sheep Dip Road (Waitaki) and the numerous Abattoir and Cemetery Roads around the country. Then there are Deaths (Rangitikei), Bleakhouse (Mellons Bay, Auckland) and Three Skulls Rd (Upper Hutt). Two that are delightfully ambiguous are Shady Lane (Kaimai) and Crooked Road (Opotiki and Southland), but their names may refer to geographic features rather than underhand goings on.
While our many hills and mountains have made life difficult for some roads, they have at least been an obvious inspiration for names. Notable examples include Twist Road in Tarawera, various Zig Zags around the country and the descriptive Corkscrew and S Bend in Clutha and Waikaremoana respectively. Snakes are found in New Zealand only on the roads, in particular Snake Creek Road in Tasman, Snake Hill Road in Whangarei and a more specific Cobra Street in Christchurch. Equally curly is the trio of Gentle Annies, unofficial local names given to particularly winding roads in the North Island, and apparently inspired by an 1860s song popular with gold diggers.
New Zealand also has its fair share of steep streets, both by name and by nature. Four are simply named Steep, while Waitaki and Clutha each have a Breakneck, and Ruapehu claims The Incline. Ironically, the steepest street in the world—Dunedin’s Baldwin Street—doesn’t advertise its claim to fame. Such roads demand careful negotiation, particularly Suicide Road in Nelson and Ugly Hill Road in central Hawke’s Bay. Another curiously named incline is Slope Down Road in Waikaremoana, which presumably slopes up on the return journey.
Failing all else, the very bleakness of the landscape has been a source of names in exposed localities around the country. Extreme weather conditions in Clutha and Ashburton inspired two of our Siberia Roads. Similarly, some early bushfellers camped out in the Kaipara district were convinced there couldn’t be a colder spot on earth, and their name for it resulted in the North Pole Road of today. Mt Misery Road in Otago announces itself as the site of a school camp. On a more cheerful note, the country has eight Happy Valley Roads, and a range of roads and streets following the sun, from Sunrise (11) to Sunset (17).
The Automobile Association, which produces and maintains many of the nation’s road signs, takes an interest in how long its handiwork lasts. “Cemetery Road No Exit” signs are regularly stolen, as are signs announcing an unbridged stream—”Ford.” For unknown reasons, the sign to Puhoi was destroyed about once a month for a year and a half, and the AA responded by erecting ever higher signs on heftier supports. Jeffs Road, an insignificant no-exit side road off State Highway One in Dairy Flat, north of Auckland, is another sign subject to regular abuse. “We think that it is because of the JBL [Jeffs Brothers Limited] company collapse some years ago in which many people lost money,” a spokesman said. “Whatever the reason, we now have a metal sign welded to a heavy steel post.”
Of all New Zealand’s streets, none can be as notorious or as closely followed as Shortland Street. This local television series acknowledges an Auckland street, in turn named after an early administrator of the colony. He succeeded William Hobson in this post, but his tenure wasappropriately—short. He proved to be tactless and obnoxious, characteristics that may be better suited to the soap opera he unwittingly gave his name to. Fortunately, Commander Willoughby Shortland had a younger brother Edward, a noted explorer, Maori scholar and interpreter, who restored some honour to the family name. Even so, Auckland’s Shortland Street will probably forever be associated with scalpels and scandals, rather than two brothers from last century.
But there is a selection of roads around the country that promise to take the traveller away from all this. Some, such as Arizona, Dallas, and Texas—and of course Yankee Road in Tarawera—point to the United States, while others have more exotic aspirations. These range from the Middle East (Baghdad, Kabul and Mecca) to deepest Africa and South America (Congo and Amazon). Even the mythological is acknowledged in Glenfield’s Atlantis Place, and perhaps the country’s three Utopias provide the perfect address.
Out among the cows 40 kilometres north of Auckland the injudicious traveller who has exchanged the seal of Kahikatea Flat Road for the corrugations of White Hills Road is jerked to a higher plane by Bodhisattva Road, site of a Buddhist temple with two resident Tibetan lamas. A temple spokesperson confessed that they had bestowed the name, which has several meanings including “a Buddhist practitioner who has reached a high level of compassion and spiritual realisation.” Too bad it is a no-exit road, although the people at the end have done their best by naming their property “Nirvana.”
There is one address that must, in the end, surely rate above all others: Heaven Road, to be found only in Kaipara and Maramarua. One hopes that they live up to their name better than Golden Bay’s Excellent St—No Exit or Beach Access!