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Writers’ colony: The Shore’s lustrous literary legacy

Flagstaff Team

In the first of a three-part series, Graeme Lay traces the roots of the North Shore’s long-standing popularity with writers of all stripes

Early Shore literary lights… (left to right) Frank Sargeson at his home on Esmonde Rd, Robin Hyde, and ARD Fairburn at his home on Kings Pde.

“The North Shore is New Zealand’s literary capital.”
Who was the first to make this claim? Was it historian Michael King? Publisher Christine Cole Catley? Poet Kevin Ireland? Former Mayor George Wood? Author Tessa Duder?
Certainly, Wood loved this putative title and made the most of it during his tenure as Mayor of North Shore City (1998-2007).
And King recorded: “There are more writers and poets per hectare on the North Shore – and always have been – than in any other part of New Zealand.”
Also, writer Tessa Duder has pointed out that, “The North Shore … values writers as eminent additions to its cultural identity, and is proud of them.”
Regardless of who first claimed literary capital status for the North Shore, what is indisputable is that the Shore has been home to many of New Zealand’s finest writers, from the 1930s to the present day.
On the upstairs floor of Devonport’s public library is a special set of shelves holding works by Devonport authors. Donated by Kelvin and Valerie Grant, and maintained by the Devonport Library Associates, these shelves are crammed with fiction and non-fiction works by local authors, dead and alive.
The library also displays oil portraits of two of Devonport’s most esteemed poets, ARD (Rex) Fairburn (1904-1957) and Kevin Ireland (1933-2023). In 1999, another poet, Michele Leggott, and Ireland, were both finalists in the poetry category of the New Zealand Book Awards. The two poets lived in the same street, Domain St, Devonport (Michele won).
Why did so many writers choose to live on Auckland’s North Shore?
In the past it was primarily for financial reasons. Writers were impoverished, and the Shore had holiday baches, cheap to rent. Today, the average weekly house rental price in Devonport is about $900. That sum in the 1930s and 40s could have bought an entire freehold house and section on the Shore. Rentals were just a few shillings a week.

Early Shore literary lights… (left to right) Karl Wolfskehl, RAK Mason, and D’Arcy Cresswell

The Shore’s baches were surrounded by land suitable for the growing of vegetables and fruit, so a subsistence living could be made. There were snapper out in the Rangitoto Channel, pipi in the sand and mussels on the reefs. Fruit trees and gardens flourished, fertilised by seaweed gathered on the beaches after storms. There were a few baronial houses on the Takapuna waterfront, such as the Wilson mansion – of Wilson & Horton, publishers of the New Zealand Herald – but mainly the houses were modest and land plentiful and cheap.
The Shore was also a holiday destination for Kiwi out-of-towners. For example, in the 1920s the Davey family of Hamilton, the head of whom was town clerk Edwin Davey, holidayed every summer on the Shore, first in a bach at Castor Bay, then on a plot of land in Esmonde Rd, Takapuna. Getting to the Shore from Hamilton for the Daveys was an all-day undertaking, involving taking a train to Auckland, a ferry across the harbour, then a launch along the coast to Castor Bay. Later, Mr and Mrs Davey bought a plot of land and a hut in a Takapuna cul-de-sac, Esmonde Rd, and the family of two boys and two girls spent their summer holidays there. One of those boys, Norris, in the 1930s changed his name and identity, moved permanently to the family’s land and became Frank Sargeson, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed writers.
The Shore might then have been a backwater, but the shops, banks and offices of Auckland’s CBD were just a ferry ride away across the harbour. If you had a vehicle, there was a ferry that could convey you and the car to the city and back, though the average Aucklander didn’t own a car until much later.
In the time of the first Shore writers, most Shore roads were unsealed and transport was slow. To get to far-off Browns Bay or Torbay took a journey of some hours. Communications were laborious and time-consuming. Most people didn’t even have telephones. The East Coast Bays comprised a kind of frontier land, distant and isolated. And that suited the writers who lived there just fine.

FIRST WAVE: The first writers who came to live and work on the North Shore, arrived from the 1930s onwards. These were the North Shore’s literary pioneers.
Frank Sargeson, Robin Hyde, Hector Bolitho, D’Arcy Cresswell, John Graham, ARD Fairburn, Anna Kavan, RAK Mason, Karl Wolfskehl, Allen Curnow, Ian Hamilton, Margaret Escott, Isabel Peacocke, Susie Mactier, Bruce Mason, Greville Texidor.

See the next Flagstaff, on 28 June, for Part 2: Savouring an ‘alternative lifestyle’.

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