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Heritage of original Panmure Bridge recognised

Friday August 1, 2014


Heritage of original Panmure Bridge recognised

The remains of the earliest major swing-bridge to have been built in the North Island have been entered as a Category 2 item on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero.

Administered by Heritage New Zealand – formerly the NZ Historic Places Trust – the List identifies the country’s significant and valued historical and cultural heritage places, and is the only national statutory record of our rich, significant and diverse heritage.

“The old Panmure Bridge was constructed in 1864-65, and connected the western shore of the Tamaki with the eastern shore close to where the current concrete bridge is located,” says Heritage Advisor, Martin Jones.

“The Swing Span and Abutment contains the earliest surviving swing bridge mechanism in New Zealand, and was an important piece of infrastructure that enabled areas beyond the east bank of the Tamaki River to develop and grow. The bridge is associated with settler expansion to the south of Auckland following the Waikato War of 1863-64.”

The bridge had an august pedigree, reflecting the influence and reach of the British Empire which stretched even to Panmure. The bridge was designed by William Collett – a former British Member of Parliament – and also credited to William Weaver, who oversaw its construction. Weaver had trained in England under celebrated Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

“Prior to the bridge being built, the main means of crossing the Tamaki River was by a Government-maintained punt, which was slow and occasionally laid up for repair. Delays also occurred when large quantities of stock were ferried across the river on their way to market in Auckland,” says Martin.

“In 1857, a public meeting held in Howick discussed ways of establishing a bridge, and in the early 1860s the Auckland Provincial Council made the decision to build a bridge to improve connections between Panmure and Howick, while also maintaining the significant river transport network which was important to the local economy.”

Funding for the bridge came through the Auckland Loan Act of 1863, and was part of a bigger development package aimed at boosting the province’s prosperity and status. Other projects included a new Post Office and Customhouse, and construction of the Whau Lunatic Asylum.

“Work on the bridge began in October 1864, and the final cornerstone was laid almost a year later,” says Martin.

Construction generated its own level of hyperbole, with the Daily Southern Cross immodestly trumpeting the swing span section as being ‘one of the most perfect mechanical contrivances of its kind in the Southern hemisphere’.

Mechanically perfect – maybe; but it was certainly not perfect from a project management perspective.

“The bridge suffered a budget blow-out, in the end costing £17,025 – over £2000 more than originally estimated,” he says.

One of the problems that may have contributed to the increased cost was damage to copper sheathing used as part of the pile-driving process. The solution was to carry out repairs using specialist divers from Cape Colony (now part of South Africa) who utilised Heinke’s Patent Diving Apparatus to work under water – state of the art technology for the day, which had only recently been used in the construction of London’s Westminster Bridge.

“Another factor may have been the need to import basalt blocks from Melbourne because local stone was not suitable for building an abutment. The stones were all dressed and painstakingly numbered in Australia, and re-assembled here,” says Martin.

“A coffer dam was built providing a kind of temporary ‘dry dock’-like work area around what became the east abutment, enabling blocks to be hoisted into place by a travelling crane.”

The bridge was used by the public for the first time to allow attendance at the Howick Races on Boxing Day in 1865.

A Gothic-style wooden toll house was subsequently built beside the swing mechanism the following year to collect tolls to cover the construction cost of the bridge. The house was also used as a polling booth during provincial and national elections.

An illustration of the completed bridge was even published in the London Illustrated News in 1867 – such was the significance of the project.

One of those who stood to profit from the new bridge was auctioneer and businessman Alfred Buckland – of Buckland’s Beach fame – who also owned a nearby stock landing on the Pakuranga side of the river. A new bridge enabled cattle to be moved to Auckland more easily – just one example of how the improved transport network supported increased economic activity. It also assisted in the settlement of southern parts of the Auckland isthmus.

“Although regularly repaired, it became apparent over the years that a replacement bridge would be needed, and the idea of a new bridge was first mooted in 1913. Interestingly, at that time it was stated that few vessels went further upstream than Panmure – a reflection of the decline in the amount of traffic on the river,” says Martin.

“Much of the first bridge was demolished when a new ferro-concrete bridge was built a short distance downstream, though significant parts of the old bridge were left in place – notably those elements connected with the swing span, turntable, winch and east abutment.”

The swing bridge mechanism underwent conservation in 2013 and is still visible today underneath a marina building which was erected on piles above the iron remains.

“The original Panmure swing span bridge was instrumental in enabling economic growth and facilitating settlement in southern Auckland following the Waikato War. It was also a well known local landmark used in bike and boat races, and as a meeting place for the Pakuranga Hunt. It even featured in military manoeuvres during the Russian Scare of 1885,” says Martin.

“Although the rest of the bridge is long gone, the stone abutment and iron swing span mechanism are important reminders of a time when the bridge met an increasing need for early colonial roading, while also accommodating economically vital river traffic.”

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