We’re on the record praising the virtues of Mt Albert, but how did it get to where it is today? Alice Webb-Liddall tells the story of a suburb’s 900-year history in ten moments.
Mt Albert is Auckland’s second oldest suburb and arguably its best. It’s home to one of the country’s biggest schools, best playgrounds, and most delicious noodles, and has recently undergone a facelift, rejuvenating the main drag along New North Road and the Mt Albert train station.
But how does a suburb get made? The story of Mt Albert is lengthy, with its first resident setting up shop in around the 12th century, but here we’ll attempt to squish that 900-year history down into ten great moments.
The establishment of a pā on Ōwairaka
Mt Albert can be traced back to a Māori woman named Wairaka. She was the daughter of a chief who sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki. They settled in the Bay of Plenty, and to avoid a marriage she did not want, Wairaka moved north, establishing a pā on the maunga. The Māori name for Mt Albert is Ōwairaka, after her.
Between that point and the arrival of Europeans to the area, there were many fights over Ōwairaka, due to its setting on the border of Tainui and Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara.
Samuel Marsden is thought to have been the first Pākehā to have climbed Ōwairaka, in 1820 with Ngāti Whātua chief Apihai te Kawau.
Getting the name Mt Albert
In 1840 after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, lieutenant governor William Hobson decided to make Tāmaki Makaurau the capital city. This move prompted the Pākehā settlers to do what they did best: make shit worse. They renamed Ōwairaka ‘Mt Albert’ after Queen Victoria’s new husband/cousin Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel.
In 1841, the crown bought around 13,000 acres of Mt Albert land from Ngāti Whātua for 200 pounds (around $30,000 today), four horses, 30 blankets, 10 cloaks, a tent and a sealing box, which is not very much at all considering the average house price in Mt Albert today is $1.18m. With this sale, the crown began to develop the suburb and make it more easily accessible for commute into the city.
It wasn’t a hugely favoured suburb, with swampy roads making commuting into the city hard, but in 1866 the Mt Albert District Highway Board was created, and development of better roads was one of their priorities.
The development of train lines were a priority for the steadily growing city, and the first passenger train reached Mt Albert in 1880. But this one train line wasn’t enough to service the population boom that occurred in the suburb between 1901 and 1930, when it grew from 2,000 to 20,000 residents. Electric tram lines were built from Mt Albert to the city in 1915. There was a tram every eight minutes until the lines were ripped out to make way for more car-friendly streets in the early 1950s.
Mount Albert Grammar opens
The country’s current second-largest school, Mount Albert Grammar School opened in 1922, to coincide with the population boom. Its name continues to inspire warmth and affection from its current and former students, and burning hatred and resentment from anyone trying to use the Western Line train before 9am on a weekday. In 2019 the enrolment number reached 3098.
Whau Lunatic Asylum becomes a school
In 1976 the first iteration of what is current-day Unitec was established. It was initially called Carrington Technical Institute. Much of what is now Unitec was then a hospital and lunatic asylum. Spooky stuff.
A city is born
In 1978 the suburb changed from a borough to a city and established its own City Council. Mary Inomata is in her seventies and has lived in Mt Albert her whole life. She remembers the days of the Mt Albert City Council fondly, when she could “trot down to the council office and speak to the mayor.” She says back then “rates were cheap, we weren’t in debt, and we had the most fantastic people on our council.”
Protesting the Springbok Tour
For 56 days in 1981, New Zealand was a nation divided, as groups clashed over whether the All Blacks should be playing a rugby team from apartheid South Africa. With Eden Park just down the road, Mt Albert became the centre of a lot of the action for Springbok Tour protesters.
Inomata remembers storms of policemen and protestors clashing in the middle of the town. It was the first time she’d seen anything like it in her community. “I think it was the first step in a new awareness that we had in Mt Albert, that Auckland city politics was very close to us and we were becoming a part of it.”
The death of Mt Albert City Council
During a local council restructure in 1989, the Mt Albert City Council and 10 other local city and borough councils were amalgamated to form the Auckland City Council. The restructure delivered Mt Albert a succession of poor-quality mayors including John Banks, Dick Hubbard, and John Banks (again). In 2010, the seven city and district councils from the wider region were merged once more to form Auckland Council.
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Mt Albert residents can finally buy a drink
Mount Albert was one of the last ‘dry’ areas in New Zealand. For decades, you couldn’t even get a glass of wine with your dinner at a local restaurant. Inomata says the liquor ban was in part because the area’s strong Christian community were against alcohol. This was changed in 1999, thank GOD, and there are now multiple options if you want to grab a cheeky bevvy while you’re in town.
Better train services and a town centre makeover
The Mt Albert train station is used by thousands every day, providing easy access to the shops, the schools and the Unitec Mt Albert Campus from all around Auckland. In 2013 work started on developing the station to provide more shelter, better disability access and better facilities for ticketing, lighting and overall design improvements. In 2017 there was also a redevelopment of the main town centre, which widened footpaths, created protected bike paths, and added some foliage to the previously bare streets.
Mt Albert is still thriving after 178 years of having the name. It has produced two local MPs who went on to become prime minister – Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark. In Rocket Park, it has one of New Zealand’s most popular playgrounds. Most importantly, it is home to one of the country’s only councillor-endorsed Scrabble clubs. Even more exciting developments are on the horizon. When the City Rail Link arrives, it’ll only be a 15 minute journey to downtown Auckland, and if Mt Albert’s past teaches us anything, it’s that easier, faster access will draw in crowds. Now it’s up to the council, business owners and residents to figure out how to cater for the boom.
In the first in a new event series looking at the future of Auckland, The Spinoff and Auckland Council hosted In My Backyard: The City of Mt Albert, examining the role of the suburb in the city’s development.