Armed for the Fray – The Mining of St Kilda


Ocean Beach todayOcean Beach Domain has been in the news over recent years as the city struggles with the erosion of the dunes and beach. What we see there today is something quite different to what it was. That change was brought about by the pressures of a developing city for raw resources, the acclimatisation of marram grass and ultimately the need to tame the coast for the physical protection of the city. This article looks at the early historical change to the dunes and reflects on whether we can learn from our mistakes and actions of the past.

Kaituna – Ocean Beach is a highly modified environment. The normal activity and moveability of sand has been replaced and stabilised. The former back dune areas have been extensively mined and became recreation areas. The coastline still stretches from the St Clair cliffs in the west to Lawyer’s Head in the east, but the sand dunes have become much thinner and steeper. In 1848 in the west around St Clair the sand hills were much smaller and lower, the mouth of a lagoon ran through these dunes. The dunes accumulated and grew as you moved east towards Lawyers head. High ground was in the west at the St Clair hills and in the in the east at the beginning of the Otago Peninsula and beyond them Otago Harbour and its extended tidal areas. Between these features was a low-lying wetland named Kaituna. It was covered with silver tussock, rushes and flax and was an area of traditional food gathering for Maori who sought tuna (eel), pukeko and weka. There is also evidence that the Kaituna area was once thick with trees, probably Kahikatea. They lay buried under the surface of the wetland and were often dug up and used as firewood by early settlers. A significant feature was the track along the inner edge of the sand hills which provided easy access to Kaituna.  

The pre 1848 topography of Ocean Beach Domain

 By 1876 the urban growth of Dunedin had pushed housing to the edge of the sand hills at Ocean Beach. Sand was being removed constantly by the householders to raise the level of their sections. Occasional floods are reported in the 1870s, but mostly from the harbour, into South Dunedin. On one occasion a Mrs Rae and her two daughters were rescued by a gasworks boat crew from Rankeilor Street.  The dog was reportedly was left behind! The coach-builder for Cobb & Co in Reid Road built a flat-bottomed boat in which he used to paddle to the nearest dry land in times of flood. There was once reported nine inches of water in the Hillside Railway Workshops wagon shop that stopped work for several days.

Flooding on the "flat" of St Kilda Borough was not uncommon. Blunderbuss or Horse Pistol – With urban growth came the development of the railways and in 1880 Edward Pritchard won the government contract to shift sand from the Ocean Beach Dunes for fill to the government railway yards development at Crawford and Cumberland Streets. Pritchard laid an extension of the railway line in the St Kilda Borough from the Crescent to the sand hills in January 1880. However permission from the appropriate borough council had not been obtained.  The Mayor of St Kilda, J P Jones was indignant and he vehemently: “Objected entirely to the whole proceeding:  it would never do to allow 50 acres of filling to be taken from the sand hills, which were all the protection St Kilda had from the strong winds and the encroachment of the sea.”  The result was that the St Kilda daymen with the help of mayor and councillors took up the rails the next morning.

The following day the Otago Daily Times reported that Pritchard had imported from America “one of Otto’s steam excavators with Chapman’s improvements!” It was a massive and powerful steam crane that weighed 37 tons, and was to be fitted up and put to work at the sand hills without delay.” Pritchard was not going to be thwarted by the St Kilda Borough Council. As is customary in local politics, a crisis public meeting of the St Kilda ratepayers was held on March 9th 1880. The Council Chamber was full. The Mayor of St Kilda, J P Jones stated that he had remonstrated with the Hon James Macandrew, Minister of Public Works. The Minister had agreed that probably the engineer had been mistaken in his advice and promised to look into the matter. Nothing more was heard until the announcement that Pritchard & Co had been awarded the contract to remove the sand.

St Kilda Borough Council received a report from the civil engineer George Barr who opposed the removal of the sand. Barr gave an insightful and accurate account of the effects of stripping the Ocean Beach dunes. The dangers of interfering with sands of so mobile a nature as these has long been recognised, because it is found that so soon as the surface vegetation is broken upon, the wind acts freely upon the sand, carrying it in quantities and to distances dependent, of course, upon the strength, duration and frequency of the winds.   Once such an evil sets in, it is impossible to foretell its extent, and the only mode of checking it is replanting …..”  He went on further to describe the nature of the area and its perilous position below sea level. In 1874 I ascertained that…some portions of the Flat are actually three feet lower than the high water of Ocean Beach.   These facts point out then that the sand hills … are really a natural and necessary protection to the low-lying lands against the encroachments of the ocean…”

The government was in a difficult position they had already let the contract to Pritchard and needed the fill to continue with the development of the city’s railways. The government engineer, WN Blair wrote to the St Kilda Borough and reiterated the government position and offered a threat; “The parties who interfered with the rails might be summarily dealt with. I trust, therefore, that the Corporation of St Kilda will assist the Government in carrying out the work by giving free use of the streets.”

The St Kilda Borough Council was condemned in the Otago Daily Times on March 11th for interfering with the rails. The same day, Edward Pritchard again laid more rails across the St Kilda streets. Two days later on the 13th March, the Mayor JP Jones, councillors and the daymen of St Kilda lifted them and put them in an adjoining paddock. Public condemnation in the press drove Mayor Jones to paper, and in a letter to the Otago Daily Times editor he wrote: “Anything which tends to do away with the small hills endangers the first protection, and thus not only endangers the property, but also the lives of the residents of the Flat. It is impossible to say how soon both lives and property may be swamped in one common ruin.”

Here the matter gets more frenetic. On March 16th the Crown gave St Kilda Borough notice pursuant to the Public Works Act of its intentions to construct the railway and take the sand. On March 23rd the council met and resolved to give its own notice that the work is not to be proceeded with. On April 28th Edward Pritchard was charged in the Police Court on the information of John Pugh Jones, Mayor of St Kilda, that on April 23rd, without authorisation by the Council or any act or ordinance, unlawfully obstructed streets by leaving in Victoria Street timber and rails contrary to section 189 of the Municipal Corporation Act 1876.”   The decision was reserved.

Finally, the mayor and 340 other inhabitants of St Kilda petitioned the Government, requesting that the House take steps against the removal of sand as proposed by the Public Works Department, as it was likely to threaten serious injury to property. The petition was considered by the Waste Lands Committee which reported back to the House the matter is one for the Government to deal with and the responsibility is theirs.” Incredibly, the Government ordered that the sand must be taken only from the seaward side of the hills! Pritchard demanded compensation for the longer carriage of sand which was refused. Soon though he commenced work at the old site, and the supervising Government engineer Mr Low ordered the railway engine crews (Government servants) to cease work. In a fury, Pritchard fired them all and hired his own men. The Government railwaymen then tried to take possession of the engines, there was a scuffle on the footplate and the Government men were driven off!

Later, Mr Low in the dead of night brought another engine up to tow away the engines being used by Pritchard now stored in a shed.   Pritchard heard of the scheme and lifted the rails leading up to the shed. The Government men, foiled in their purpose, broke into the shed anyway only to be met by Pritchard who was described in the Otago Daily Times as being “…armed for the fray with a blunderbuss or horse pistol. The Government railwaymen beat a hasty retreat, now it was time to sue Edward Pritchard. On April 14, 1881, the Commissioner of Crown Lands sued Pritchard in the Supreme Court for recovery of £500 for trespass and damages arising from his removal of sand from parts of the sand hills other than as directed by the supervising engineers.   Pritchard contended that his contract was not specific as to from whence the sand was to be taken. The judge agreed, reporting  “they may have control over the works, but they have no power to alter the construction of the contract and as there was no limit in the contract, Mr Pritchard could go where he pleased.” The decision for the defendant, costs against the Crown. Pritchard continued with his contract, excavating where he chose. The damage had been done.

Water, Water Everywhere – Between 1884 and 1886 the St Clair sea wall and esplanade was undermined and destroyed by heavy seas. Further flooding occurred between 1884 and 1894.  In May 1898 the dunes were breached and there was 3 feet of water in Larkworthy Street. By May 11th all of St Kilda between Ocean Beach Domain and Cargill’s Road were inundated and houses could only be accessed by wading through water. In July the sea breached the dunes again and St Kilda was saturated with the Pacific Ocean. The passing of the Ocean Beach Public Domain Act in 1892 provided for the protection and conservation of the area known as the “sand hills”. However, this was a period of public acrimony and recrimination that coupled with public alarm rendered the Ocean Beach Domain Board largely ineffectual. It was not until J H Hancock became Chairman in 1902, that prolonged periods of restoration and recreation development occurred.

Map of the principle events of the mining of Ocean Beach Domain 1880

Conclusions – It seems incredible now that the Government did not realise what the consequences of mining the sand dunes at Ocean Beach would be. The nineteenth century mining of the Domain changed the nature and function of the dunes irrevocably. It also threatened the security of the people who were shaping the new city. The fraught relationship between the Crown and local government as both come to terms with the development of Dunedin is a dichotomy between development and protection. The people of St Kilda (all 340 of them!) stood up to the Crown in an act of civil disobedience that must be one of our earliest environmental protests. It’s a familiar story and something that we still see in environmental management today, the fine line between sustainability and reward and local versus national interests. It’s also a cautionary tale that asks us to consider how we might act today and whether we can learn from its moral. Would we see local politicians like the Mayor of St Kilda Borough, John Pugh Jones take out a sledgehammer and remove railway lines to stop mining? That kind of representative passion for his borough and city is something that would be a rarity today.


The Sand Cycle

The Dunedin City Council is presently consulting on the next stage of its cycle network for South Dunedin in Victoria Road. The project has raised the ire of residents in the area because of a loss of parking, dangers to pedestrians due to the shared design of the proposal, a loss of business and the timeframe of the consultation process. The City Council has already changed the proposed route away from the sand dune area of St Clair/St Kilda because of the stability and safety of the foreshore due to on-going erosion concerns. Despite that, the notion of a cycle track in the dune area seems etched in the public’s mind to allay other effects of the proposal. For the Society, the protection of the dune areas of St Clair and St Kilda remains paramount to the long-term protection of the city, its coastal environment and its associated landscape. As a city Dunedin and its residents have been fortunate to be able to enjoy the recreational opportunities that the sand dunes have afforded them over the years. This, despite the continued pressure being placed upon dune and beach health due to pressures from land use, mixed management practices and continued erosional forces over the last 150 years.

St Clair 1939

St Clair 1939

Infrastructural development, such as the proposed cycleway must be mindful of the need to protect and promote the sustainable management of dune health for the welfare of the city and its residents. This is particularly pertinent in the face of recent erosion events along the Dunedin coastline and in the predicted sea level rise scenario’s promoted by various bodies including the City Council. From both perspectives and within the historical context the sand dunes are under extreme pressure that has continued with widespread human modification and destruction of dune habitat. The Society has repeatedly requested the City Council undertake major initiatives such as change in land use and restorative management to ensure the dunes are protected and nurtured into a productive ecological and landscape entity. The cycleway issue means that the City Council must find appropriate measures that allay the community fears over the management and design of the project. However, to achieve this it must utilise good design, consultation and common sense so as not to impose expensive infrastructure on a precarious and fragile dune habitat that protects and provides for the benefit of our city.

St Clair Emergency Repairs

St Clair Emergency Repairs

St Clair Esplanade – When History Repeats

St Clair 1880'sThe recent damage of the sea wall at St Clair Esplanade is a pertinent reminder of the power and ferocity of the ocean and the continuation of an issue that has been prominent in Dunedin since the beginnings of colonial settlement. The extension of physical occupation of coastal areas by people and the development of infrastructure around that occupation has been fraught with problems. Worse still has been the undermining of the important protection afforded to the city by the St Clair and St Kilda beach areas.

The first sea wall built at St Clair was in the early 1870’s and appears to have been privately built, eventually being transferred to the ownership of the Caversham Borough Council. In 1885 the wall was badly damaged during a period of high seas and the Caversham Borough Council began rebuilding the wall in 1888. As with today there was considerable debate over the merits of the construction by amateur and professional engineers alike. So problematic was the rebuilding of the wall that the Minister of Public Works inspected the works himself. The Caversham Mayor Mr Bragg appears to have had a hand in the design and construction supervision himself which was described as “a sloping bank, terminating in a wall six feet wide at the base, which is sunk in the hard sand to the depth of five feet, being quite four feet lower than the foundation of the old wall. This wall has a facing of very large and weighty stones on both sides. The centre built up of smaller ones tightly wedged and closed in with rubble. At the foot of the embankment this solid wall is backed up with rotten reef, which gives the whole structure great solidity.”

However that solidity did not last and by 1890 it was reported that the 630 feet wall built for £800 ” has all but been demolished by the sea, with the exception of 80 feet at its west, and even this portion is considerably disturbed and undermined.”Several design flaws were reported by marine engineer CY O’Connor , notably that it had been placed too far out to sea and that its foundations were “too low.” Worse was to come, when in 1891 a significant storm did considerable damage to the whole Ocean Beach area. Further storms occurred in May 1898 when the dunes themselves were breached and there was 3 feet of water in Larkworthy Street. By May 11th 1898 much  of St Kilda between Ocean Beach and Cargill’s Road were inundated and houses could only be accessed by wading through water. In July 1898 the sea breached the dunes again and St Kilda was saturated with the Pacific Ocean.

Public acrimony and outrage was vitriolic and both the Otago Daily Times and Otago Witness were inundated with letters between 1890-1900 regarding the erosion and management of the Esplanade and Ocean Beach Domain. One of the central problems lay in determining the responsibility for management of the issues between the various local councils and central government. A deputation by Mayor and Councillors of Caversham Borough Council to the Minister of Public Works in 1890 requesting government assistance was made. Caversham was particularly concerned at the level of borrowing it had been forced to undertake in dealing with the Esplanade issues. In 1891 Richard Seddon also visited the area and if the Caversham Borough Councillors were hoping for government assistance they were to be sadly disappointed. Seddon told the deputation “If you think for a moment that this Government are going in for extravagant expenditure, all I can say is that you will be disappointed. We are going to govern this country on commercial lines, and be very careful of the people’s cash.”

The passing of the Ocean Beach Public Domain Act in 1892 provided for the protection and conservation of the area known as the “sand hills”. However, this was a period of deep public acrimony and recrimination and coupled with a lack of funding was largely ineffectual. In 1894 the Board were allowed to raise funding through levying rates of a halfpenny in the pound for rateable properties in all of the city’s boroughs. However, there was catch, and the rates could only be levied by a public referendum. The Ocean Beach Domain Board largely took extensive steps to re-vegetate the sand dunes and construct sand trap fences to repair the dune barrier and protect the city. However, the problematic issue of the St Kilda Esplanade remained.

By 1910-1911 both the Domain Board and the City Council had received advice on options for the reconstruction of the esplanade. The Domain Board had not been able to reconstruct the esplanade because of a shortage of funds and had been too afraid to levy higher rates on ratepayers in fear of the reception they would have received, However, the Dunedin city Council received £1000 from the government to proceed with reconstruction and utilised a further £1000 from the Tramways Department and £1000 from the municipal account. The rebuilt esplanade was officially opened in 1913 and the construction was described as having “333 reinforced’ concrete piles 2ft wide, 44 piles 1 ft wide, and 36 anchor piles—a total of 413 piles, and if these were placed end to end they would stretch one mile and a-half. After being sunk and. driven into the solid they were driven further by an electric pile-driver. The length of the piles was from 18ft to 24ft, and they were driven to a depth of from 9ft to 19ft. The wall was anchored every 10ft with 1 inch rods 35ft long, cased in mortar to prevent rusting. Safety was assured first by the position of the work being beyond mean high-water mark, and any waves that reached it would be broken and rendered harmless by means of an apron of loose rock, more of which had yet to be placed in position. The length of the esplanade was 10 chains (200 metres) and its width  50ft, with footpaths on the land and sea sides.”

In 1914 almost all of the sand immediately in front of the wall at St Clair beach disappeared and this was repeated to a greater extent in 1919, 1935, 1939 into the high erosional period of the 1990’s. Erosion of the beach and the dunes has become a regular historical and present day feature of both the beach and dunes immediately east of the wall. This has largely been due to the “end wall effects” where once waves reach the wall it “bounces” off them with more energy than a wave washing back off a normal sand beach.  More sand is carried off shore, promoting beach loss. Seawalls, harden the coast and reduce its  ability to adjust naturally exacerbating erosional problems by reflecting and concentrating wave  energy and erosion.

Dunedin’s various local authorities have struggled for the last 140 years to manage the coastal issues at St Clair and St Kilda. Sadly, it is a historical record of failure to understand the natural processes of the dune and coastal environment that affects the coastline that we perilously live beside. Perhaps this latest failure is an opportunity to rectify that understanding and restore the coastal environment to ensure its long term functionality as an ecological asset that provides both protection and pleasure for our city. The problems with the wall and the wider erosion issues of Ocean Beach Domain cannot be dealt with in isolation, but must be integrated into a programme that deals with the coastal environment as a living entity rather than as an engineered solution. That may also mean making changes to our thinking and use of this area in the long term. History has shown our failures let’s hope that we don’t continue that trend.

Copy of DSCN0465

Dunes in the Hourglass

The drawn out debate over the use of John Wilson Drive has been centred around people’s rights to access, or more accurately their right to use that access by vehicle. The political debate  disintegrated into a blatant popularity contest without any reasoned argument on what actually would provide the greatest benefit to the city. Councillors wanting the drive reopened to vehicles that spoke at the recent council meeting, only discussed their own embarrassment over the continuing issue. Not one councillor offered any clear vision for the reserve and this was the real reason that such a poor decision was made. It was never about making the right choice, it was always about councillors extricating themselves from their own lack of vision for the reserve. That speaks volumes for the people who are governing this city.

Ratepayers are now faced with a $160,000 speedway that is being masqueraded as a scenic drive. Yet with the failure of the Councillors to decide on the speed limit of John Wilson Drive means there is a likelihood that those costs may balloon out even further. Once again in Dunedin we see a fundamental  lack of political understanding for the need to create value from environmental and landscape spaces using appropriate capital investment. Instead we are presented with an ephemeral populist decision based on individual political need rather than the real needs of the community. The important questions that councillors should have been asking, but failed to ask were;

As a reserve John Wilson Drive has been set aside within the greater Ocean Beach Domain reserve for the purposes of Coastal Protection. That reserve status sets it aside with a weather eye on the protection of the city areas immediately behind the remaining dunes. In the last 20 years (and realistically for the last 120 years) Ocean Beach Domain has been under considerable environmental pressure along with the much maligned St Clair sea wall. During the last public consultation  on the reserve the physical and financial recommendations to keep the reserve in a holding pattern were $4-8 million over ten years and a possible $8-19 million for retreat and further wall construction. Those estimates only include the area from adjacent to Moana Rua Road to the St Clair sea wall, which means there has been little wider consideration given to the dunes eastwards to Lawyers Head. This raises the issue that the ratepayer will invest $160,000 to keep John Wilson Drive open, but has no certainty over its long-term stability. Worse, the road development continues to narrow the opportunity to repair and strengthen the dune environment for the very purpose that the reserve was created for in the first place. Given the instability and uncertainty of Ocean Beach Domain is this really the best option for the expenditure of $160,000?

John Wilson Drive is an anachronism to a time when men thought they could tame nature and make it submit to the collared will of an engineers ruler. Watching the Ocean Beach dunes washed into the Pacific Ocean is proof that nature has certainly slipped its collar and the waves are barking at our heels.

So what are the alternatives for John Wilson Drive? The Dunedin Amenities Society have consistently advocated that a change of use is required to ensure that the reserves dune environment can become sustainable for the future protection of our city. That change of use can provide more effective recreational, economic and environmental outcomes that will provide for the city and its community in the face of the many challenges to our city’s future. That requires innovative thinking and a deeper understanding of those future challenges, something that the Council in its “bite the bullet” mentality has failed to deliver in its recent decision.

The Dunedin Amenities Society believes that by reintegrating the road back into the natural  landscape with planned revegetation and removing the intrusiveness of vehicles the reserve could recover its natural form and function. By bringing people back into this area and using creative recreational and ecological restoration the city would create a coastal space that could provide a potentially lucrative alternative link with the coast, urban centre and the Otago Peninsula. It’s not just about  banning vehicles, but undertaking innovative change and development that creates opportunities for our community in a wide variety of ways. That means promoting and developing our biodiversity and landscape assets in a coherent way that adds value to the ratepayer’s investment. It also means understanding change, being brave and having a vision for the reserve that extends past the wish list for today and actually planning for tomorrow.

Read the Society’s Coastal Vision

Read John Wilson Drive – the Beaten Track

Read John Wilson Drive Revisited

Read Ocean Beach Domain Environmental History