An idle question that turned into a months-long search for answers.
The key to the city is one of the most random public honours that can be awarded in New Zealand. From council to council, even from mayor to mayor, there is very little consistency in how – and upon whom – the honour is bestowed. Recipients of this symbolic honour range from pillars of the local community and successful sports teams to celebrities that just happen to have been passing through and famously, one time, a cat.
Who else holds the keys to our cities? There must be a list somewhere, right? That’s what I thought when I idly googled earlier this year hoping to find a Wikipedia page to satisfy my fleeting curiosity. But no such entry exists.
Perhaps, I thought, this information is held by the councils who’ve given out the keys. Property managers have an obligation to keep track of who they give the keys to their rentals – surely councils do the same for the keys to their city?
So I lodged LGOIMA (Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act) requests with the councils of every city listed on Wikipedia’s “List of Cities in New Zealand”. They were asked to “Please provide a list of all people, animals, groups or teams who have ever been granted the ‘key(s) to the city’”.
What I thought would be a simple administrative task ended up being anything but. I had unwittingly set in motion a hugely time-consuming wild goose chase, sending council staff up and down the country on fruitless searches through their city’s archives and beyond.
Most councils in New Zealand, it turns out, have no formal record and little idea of who holds the keys to their city.
In some cases this was simply because no keys to the city (or the nominally different but largely interchangeable “freedom of the city” – see below) had ever been granted. In others it was because no one could remember – not even the mayors who may or may not have awarded the honour in the first place.
Further searches revealed keys that councils were unaware of. One city that told me it had never granted a key to the city had actually given one to Paul Holmes.
After months of searching, here’s what we now know about who holds the keys to (or freedom of) New Zealand’s cities, from north to south.
A quick note on “key to the city” vs “freedom of the city”: Some cities hand out the freedom of the city instead of the keys to the city – and a few have haphazardly done both. Centuries ago these would have held different meanings, but these days, as an entirely symbolic honour, they are basically interchangeable. The main difference is that the freedom of the city is also a traditional military honour, conferred on units to allow them to march “with drums beating, colours flying and bayonets fixed”. New Zealand’s military freedoms are already listed on Wikipedia.
“The search process is by no means an exact science,” warned a member of Whangārei District Council’s official information requests team, who had forwarded the query to several different departments and searched the council’s computer systems “both new and old” to no avail. They were left to conclude that no keys to the city of Whangārei had ever been awarded.
The Auckland Council media team – to whom the LGOIMA request was forwarded – were only able to supply information from the 2010 super city merger onwards. They found no record of keys to the city being awarded, however Richie McCaw was granted the freedom of the city after the All Blacks returned triumphant from the 2015 Rugby World Cup. “We think [this] is the only acknowledgement of its type during the short history of this council,” a spokesperson confirmed.
Any keys to or freedoms of the city granted by the old Auckland City, Waitākere City, Manukau City or North Shore City councils remained a mystery. A search of Papers Past revealed that the freedom of Auckland City was conferred upon the visiting Princess Alexandra in 1971. A photo on Getty Images also shows Auckland’s then mayor Les Mills holding a large wooden “key to the city” at a meeting in 1997 – but doesn’t mention to whom, if anyone, the key was given.
My searches uncovered just one other lead: in 2005, Waitākere mayor Sir Bob Harvey granted Crown Lynn head Sir Tom Clark the key to the city. I asked Sir Bob if he remembered giving the key to Waitākere City to anyone else during his 18 years as mayor. He said he remembered giving keys (made by West Auckland sculptor Peter Sauerbier) to original Te Pāti Māori co-leader Pita Sharples, sculptor John Edgar and the champion Waitākere City Brass Band. He also started a “Walkway of Fame” in 2001 to honour the achievements of famous West Aucklanders.
“We have had multiple teams look into this for you, but unfortunately we are unable to locate a single specific register that lists recipients of Keys to the City or Key Awards over the years,” replied a member of the Tauranga City Council community relations team, failing to mention that rugby sevens coach Gordon Tietjens was awarded the key to the city in 2012.
The city of the future was the first to respond, on the very same day the request was sent. “Hamilton City Council has ‘City Honours’ rather than ‘Key to the city’,” the official information coordinator explained. The freedom of the city is the highest such honour, conferred on “people who have made a significant and sustained contribution to the city.” A record of all past recipients is available on the council’s website.
A search of the Rotorua library records uncovered no keys, but three freedoms of the city. The first was a military one, granted to the Hauraki Regiment in 1963. The second was granted to kuia Ranginui Parewahawaha Leonard – at the time New Zealand’s oldest living person – on the occasion of her 112th birthday in 1984. And the following year, 21-year-old Susan Devoy was granted the freedom of the city after winning her first World Squash Open.
Gisborne City Council discovered three instances where the freedom of the city was given, all of them marine-based. One went to the company of the “Ghost of the Coast” HMNZS Monowai, another to the crew onboard the Spirit of Adventure on its maiden voyage. Finally, Alan Thompson and Grant Bramwell – members of New Zealand’s gold medal-winning K4 kayak team – were awarded the freedom of the city on their triumphant return from the 1984 Olympics.
“New Plymouth District Council does not have a formal “key(s) to the city” process,” read the reply from NPDC’s customer services department. However, there is evidence that the freedom of New Plymouth has been granted at least once. In 1972, library records show, it was awarded to artist Bernard Aris, who was “famous for his paintings of Mt Egmont”.
There are no keys to the city of Napier. However, the freedom of the city “includes receiving a ‘key’ in the form of an ID Card, bearing the recipient’s name”, a council staffer explained. All past recipients are listed on the council’s website. Unlike most cities, where the honour is entirely symbolic, the freedom of Napier ID card entitles (or entitled) the holder to free entry to council facilities, “including swimming pools, Aquarium, Marineland, Lilliput and free use of the Library”.
“Despite the completion of a number of searches, we have been unable to find any record(s) related to ‘Keys to the City of Hastings’.”
No keys here, but plenty of mostly-military freedoms of the city: the Fifth Wellington West Coast Taranaki Regiment (1961), HMNZS Taupo (1977), Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles (1983) and the 75th Squadron RNZAF (1980) are all free to march the streets of Whanganui, as are the Wanganui City Brass Band (1986). The Meads Cup-winning Wanganui rugby team was also granted the freedom of the city in 2008.
No response from Palmerston North, but records show the Māori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, was granted the freedom of the city in 1971.
“Unfortunately we need to decline your request,” a member of the Upper Hutt City Council official information team wrote, “as we have not been able to locate any information on anyone being granted the key(s) to the city as requested and do not believe the information exists.”
The Hutt City Council completed a thorough sweep of the archives and sent a two-page PDF comprehensively detailing all freedoms of the city. These included military honours conferred by the old Petone Borough Council and a temporary freedom of the city granted to visiting US Marines veterans for three days in 1992. There was just one other name on the end of the list: local All Blacks legend Tana Umaga was granted the freedom of Hutt City in 2007. “The honour was given to Mr Umaga in the form of a certificate.”
The capital awarded New Zealand’s most famous key to the city in 2020, when then mayor Andy Foster held a ceremony to honour local cat Mittens, who subsequently moved to Auckland. “Previous recipients of the Key to the City include triple-centurion cricketer Brendon McCullum, Sir Peter Jackson and Sir Richard Taylor,” an efficient member of Wellington City Council’s media team copied and pasted from the Mittens press release. Curiously, in 2010 – in between the Jackson/Taylor and McCullum keys – Ricki Herbert and the All Whites were granted the freedom of the city, not the keys, for their unbeaten run at the Fifa World Cup.
New Zealand’s gold standard for both granting and remembering keys to the city, Nelson City Council send back a complete list of recipients, which is as follows: the Harlem Globetrotters (2013); the Crusaders, a delegation from Huangshi (Nelson’s sister city), the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall (2015); the Silver Ferns, Nelson-born Paralympian Liam Malone (2016); kaumatua Andy Joseph (on his 80th birthday), the All Blacks (2018); ITM Cup champions the Tasman Mako (2019); and the Black Ferns (2020).
“The ‘Key to the City of Nelson’ is made of sterling silver and is designed with the Nelson City Council emblem as the bow, and the shape of the top of the South Island as the bit,” a council spokesperson wrote. “The key was commissioned by the Nelson City Council as a ‘special gift’ for visiting dignitaries as a unique representation of Nelson City.”
There’s a good chance that Christchurch has awarded more keys to the city than anywhere else in New Zealand – if only they could remember to whom. Here’s what we do know: in 1920, Christchurch granted New Zealand’s first ever freedom of the city to the visiting Prince of Wales (Edward, not Charles). Noted builder Charles Luney received the keys to the city in 2003. Teenage pop-classical singing sensation Yulia received the keys to the city in 2004. The Crusaders received the keys to the city after winning one of their many Super Rugby titles in 2005. A gaggle of other local musicians joined Yulia in 2007 – among them Ray Columbus, Dinah Lee and Dion and Cecile Murphy. That same year, speedway legends Ivan Mauger, Ronnie Moore and Barry Briggs were all granted the freedom of the city.
An archivist at the Christchurch City Council admitted it was “surprisingly difficult” to find any information about these in the city’s records. “It appears we haven’t been regularly giving keys to the city as a civic award – or if we have it hasn’t been celebrated enough to make our indexes or press coverage.” Two former mayors told me they couldn’t remember if or to whom they had awarded any further keys to the city.
“After searching our records, I wish to advise that there have been no ‘key(s) to the city’ granted”, read the LGOIMA request reply from Dunedin City Council. But a search of the National Library’s findNZarticles database told a different story.
The headline read, tantalisingly: “‘Pretty one’ gets key to the city”. The source: Dunedin Star Midweek, November 1, 1989. No other information was provided. Who on earth was “pretty one”?
I emailed the Dunedin Public Library heritage collections team and they replied the next day with a scan of the Dunedin Star Midweek’s front page. The “pretty one” was… Paul Holmes.
The star of TV One’s 7pm current affairs show was greeted by a red carpet and lone bagpiper when his private jet touched down in Dunedin on a Wednesday morning. “Stepping down to the ground he flipped his dark glasses off, revealing the cherubic face smiling like a cat in a milk factory,” reads the Star Midweek report.
Later that day he was awarded the key to the city of Dunedin by mayor Richard Walls. It was Walls’ first day as mayor.
A reply from Invercargill came through within hours of the request being sent: “We don’t have a list unfortunately but we do know of the following people.” The Scotland rugby team were granted the keys to the city when they played in Invercargill during the 2011 Rugby World Cup; Southland Sharks basketball coach Paul Henare then got the key to Invercargill in 2015, followed by broadcaster Mark Richardson (2017) and Southern Steel netballer Wendy Frew (2018).
Richardson’s honour was the result of a joke with then mayor Tim Shadbolt, who he interviewed on Three’s AM Show earlier that year. On a subsequent AM Show visit to Invercargill, Shadbolt, who was riding a scooter, met the hosts at the airport to bestow upon Richardson a wooden key to the city. Also present were the town crier, a wizard and several bagpipers.
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