The Devonport district is a unique environment in the Auckland area. The continued presence of the armed forces is intrinsic to its character. In the early days of settlement that presence was concerned with establishing colonial life, with internal affairs. In the latter part of the nineteenth century developments in the Crimean conflict turned attention to the question of our defence against external threats.
In 1885 Russian troops occupied Afghanistan. This event brought the impact of Britain’s international affairs much closer to the Southern Hemisphere. If British India was so vulnerable then New Zealand was too.
Colonial government took steps to firm up defence plans which had been formed in the 1870s around a harbour defence system. For Auckland this meant protecting the gap between North Head and Britomart Point.
|This clear view of the relationship of Narrow Neck (centre) to Auckland central shows the reasons why it was intrinsic to port security.|
Winkelman Image about 1900 SGGSC W00197 APL
It meant a modern defence base, provision for storage and deployment of mines. It also meant visible, state of the art fire power on a prominent headland.
To see how these concerns brought Devonport in to the limelight we take a glance back to the early 1880s. A gentleman by the name of Robert Adam Mozeley Stark owned a good sized property at North Head which he named ‘Fair Cliff’. Of Scottish extraction he was a member of the Takapuna Jockey Club, one of the directors of the Devonport and Takapuna Tramway company, and a friend and business associate of Alex Alison. He was also a likely candidate for the Waitemata seat in the next election.
In 1881 Stark put part of his 32 acre property on the market after a short tenure there. Despite the best efforts of his estate agent a conditional sale in 1884 for £3500 sale remained uncompleted. Stark then withdrew Fair Cliff from the market.
In March 1886 the press reported the sale of Stark's land to the Crown for defence purposes. The purchase price was almost six times the 1884 list price. The Auckland Star's assertion that 'public curiosity' was aroused was a mild reference to the outcry which followed.1 Accusations of 'secret transactions' were widespread. When Parliament resumed a commission of inquiry called for. Meanwhile Mr Stark had taken the opportunity to travel abroad. He was contacted by his solicitors to return to Auckland and attend the proceedings which began 11 October 1886.2
As expected Devonport was rife with accusation and speculation, even more so that the rest of the country. Stark's neighbours were astonished by his success in attracting a price so far above the depressed values of previous years. The factional rivalries which had their roots in the earliest days of the settlement again came into view.
Edward Bartley was amongst those who had agitated most strongly for enquiry into due process around the sale. His name also appeared on the petition - with just under 1000 other names -sent to parliament requesting a commission be appointed. From the outset Commissioners sat and heard accusations of unethical practice around land dealing at the North Shore, but no evidence was supplied as proof that this had occurred in connection with the Government purchase of Stark's block. Alex Alison's name was associated with the 'bidding by interested parties' on land sales - the inference being that prices were artificially inflated. In this context the development around Stark's land at Cheltenham was referenced.
|An example of the type of development drawn to the attention of the Commission. These residential blocks were offered for sale in January 1885 (AS 2 Jan 1885)|
|NZH 22 Oct 1886|
The Commissioner's final report found no evidence of misconduct. Development of defence facilities at North Head were put in place and the presence in Devonport of armed services has continued down to the present day. For the civilian population, however, the residue of ill will left by the whole proceeding meant that personality conflict continued to mar local politics for some time to come.
1. Auckland Star 6 March 1886
2. Ibid 16 Oct 1886
Report of the Stark Commission can be found here