Road Boards: Auckland Councilís Ancestors

Some of the earliest records in the Auckland Council Archives belong to the highway and road boards.

The boards were stepping stones in the organisation of local government and their work in developing roading across the region laid a foundation for future development.

To tie in with the theme of this yearís Auckland Heritage Festival, From waterways to motorways Ė the heritage of transport and travel in Tamaki Makaurau, this article will provide a brief overview of the boards, their activities and the research value of their records.

The examples come from the surviving minute books, correspondence, financial records and ephemera in Auckland Council Archives. Other surviving records are held by Archives New Zealand.

Expand a section below to read the article and view the examples.

Legislative Background

After 1840 cash-strapped settlers put pressure on regional and central government to pay for roads. Central government responded with legislation.

The Public Roads and Works Ordinance 1845 (No. 6), which came into force on 19 April 1845, authorised landowners and occupiers within agreed districts to elect boards of highway commissioners with the power to make and levy rates, fees, tolls and dues to construct and repair roads, bridges, water works, sewers, landing-places, market places and other public works.

According to the geographer G.T. Bloomfield, "This legislation was the first to provide for the establishment of practical local government but no body was apparently created in the Auckland area" 1.

While some highway/road districts were formed in the 1850s, it was not until after 1862 that this form of agency of local government became well established in Auckland.

On 22 March 1862 the Public Roads and Works Ordinance 1845 was repealed within the Auckland Province by the passage of the Auckland Provincial Council Highways Act 1862. The existing boards of commissioners were thus dissolved until new boards could be elected under the provisions of the new act 2.

By 1883 there were sixty-nine road districts in the Auckland region.

1 Bloomfield, G.T. (1973), The Evolution of Local Government Areas in Metropolitan Auckland, 1840-1971, Auckland, p. 41
2 Manukau's journey - a Manukau timeline, first edition compiled by Bruce Ringer with the assistance of Christopher Paxton for Manukau Libraries, 2003; second edition onwards compiled by Bruce Ringer, 2005

Road Board Activities

The highway and road boards had limited revenue gathering ability so focused on the primary objective of providing transport infrastructure which enabled the districts to develop. One of the annual tasks of the boards was to prepare an assessment list of owners and property. Such lists are a great resource for those interested in family history.

Minutes and correspondence show that requests for construction and repair of roads came from land owners in the district and neighbouring road boards. Roads were constructed to support local industries such as slaughter houses and brick-makers as well as local farms. For cash strapped boards with few staff, once the board decided on a particular job it was put out to tender. Often boards did not have offices and would meet monthly at board membersí homes or, in the rural areas, at local farms and wool sheds.

Boards were also able to prescribe bylaws designed for the protection of the roads in their districts.

If land was transferred to a neighbouring district there would be a loss in revenue so boards at times needed to defend their boundaries. This is illustrated in the excerpt from the Turanga Road Board minute book 1874-1891.

Minutes and correspondence show that road boards also needed to provide fencing, drainage and facilities for impounding wandering stock.

Road boards needed to source materials for road repair and construction. This included road metal from the Mt Eden Prison quarry.

The activities of the road boards were not restricted to revenue gathering and public works. As infrastructure allowed the development of communities, the boards played their part in community activities and events that affected the lives of people in the district. Road boards lobbied for community constables, supported the building of district halls and in some districts were instrumental in the creation of schools and libraries. The community involvement can be seen in the responses to World War I in the Auckland Council Archives online WWI Exhibition.

The boards also responded to the flu epidemic in 1918 and unemployment relief during the depression.

The Decline of the Road Boards

The highway and road boards were small early local government bodies with limited powers. The areas they governed were of unequal sizes and often had arbitrary, often changing boundaries.

They had few staff and limited funds for improvements, with restrictions placed by central government on their powers to raise rates and to borrow money.

As populations increased other forms of local government with greater rating and borrowing power were needed. The highway and road boards were amalgamated into or replaced by counties, boroughs and cities.

Final Words

The obituary below was glued to the inside cover of the East Tamaki Road Board minutes. John McGechie was elected 15 times to the East Tamaki Road Board and the opening sentence seems to summarise the contribution of the road boards to the Auckland region.

The above-named gentleman, whose death took place at his late residence, Otara, on Friday last, can be truly classed among the oldest residents of the colony, now rapidly passing away, who, amidst troubles and privations unknown to the present generation, securely laid the foundation upon which all our colonial institutions have been erected.

The full text can be found in the East Tamaki Road Book minute book 1889-1896 (ETR 001 No. 1) and through the National Library of New Zealandís Papers Past website.