In the late 1980s, archaeologists uncovered the remnants of a small jail block right in the heart of the city which contained a debtors block, guardroom, gaolers house, cookhouse and courthouse.

To make way for the then National Bank Centre (now ANZ) on Queen street, several buildings from 1875 were demolished which gave archaeologists a small amount of time to undertake a dig in order to discover more about the history of this land. As they dug deeper, they uncovered a trove of artefacts which revealed a rich history dating back 5-600 years. 

Historic research identified places significant to Auckland’s early European history and several areas were targeted to learn more about life in the mid-19th century. One of the places on the list was a network of gaol buildings and courthouse that were built on an empty block in Queen Street in 1841. 

The gaol was surrounded by a closely-spaced stake 7 foot fence (and 5 foot under) which contained the gaol itself, a debtors block, guardroom, gaolers house, cookhouse and privies, and the courthouse. The Waihorotiu Stream ran through the block, roughly parallel to Queen Street.

Only one year after the gaol was built, it was overcrowded with 14 men in a damp, rat-infested cell measuring 11 feet x 11 feet. The courthouse opened in February 1842 but the building was poorly constructed: it leaked after a few years, had broken windows, and hay on the floor, but was not closed down until 1864.  A new gaol facility was built in Mt Eden in 1856 and the last of the prisoners left Queen Street site in 1865. The site and buildings was used as a market after that time until new buildings were erected in 1875. 

Archaeological excavations in 1987 revealed the cobbled lane behind the Theatre Royal which was built on Queen Street in 1875 and destroyed by fire in 1906, the gaol well, foundations of the debtors block, the floor of the gaol kitchen and part of the hard labour yard. Rubbish discarded at the time, either in pits or strewn on the (buried) original land surface were carefully excavated, and included tin cans, broken ceramics, and butchered bones of cow and pig, showing rubbish can be treasure to archaeologists. The range of material recovered from the Waihorotiu Stream shows the site was a convenient dumping ground. Leather dog collars were not uncommon, likely from the nearby animal pound, and some collars were still around the necks of their owners. 

A most surprising find were the Maori objects found on the banks of the stream: three digging sticks used as gardening tools, fragments of flax (harakeke) weaving, fragments of other wooden tools, and a shell midden. A radiocarbon date on rat-gnawed hinau berries in the midden indicated the Maori occupation dated to a short time within the period AD1400-1530, and was probably a small living site associated with gardening next to the stream.

Several adzes in Auckland Museum also have a Queen Street attribution, suggesting Maori occupation sites were present elsewhere near the Waihorotiu Stream, and NZ Herald on 25 July 1929 reported the find of a whale bone mere (weapon) 25 feet below Civic Square.  

It is now difficult to imagine the concrete canyon of Queen Street before buildings, but when Maori were gardening in the Waihorotiu Stream valley the vegetation was coastal broadleaf forest including miro and kauri, but also disturbed forest plants including tutu and bracken fern. From historic accounts we know manuka was present in 1840, but the landscape changed rapidly after 1840. Buildings were constructed and the Waihorotiu Stream became a convenient place to dispose of rubbish and sewage. The stream often overflowed after heavy rain, leading to the construction of the Ligar Canal which itself became a notorious feature of Queen Street

The Queen St gaol is only one of the interesting excavations undertaken in the 1980s and early 1990s by archaeologists as buildings were demolished. Some of the other assemblages are in the collection of Auckland Museum, and contribute to telling the story of the city’s history. 

Header caption: Beattie Album (1860s). Freeman's Bay [Queen St from Victoria St]. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-94-73.

Tin can found on the cook house floor.  AR8725

Collection items from the 1987 excavation

A small leather coin purse found on the surface of the cobbles in Theatre Lane. AR8719

Radiocarbon dating of these small rat-gnawed hinau berries indicates Maori occupation 5-600 years ago.

Dog collar from the animal pound. 

Unusually woven flax matting was also found on the site. Most of the mat was too fragile to survive excavation but this piece was embedded in an underlying scallop shell. 

Wooden ketu or weeding sticks were preserved in the wet mud in the Waihorotiu Stream channel. 

Further reading:

Best, Simon 1992. Queen Street Gaol. Auckland’s First Courthouse, Common gaol and House of Correction (site R11/1559). Department of Conservation, Auckland Conservancy Historic Resource Series No. 2.