The Queen Street Mall Trial, May 1979

It was the first week of the 1979 May school holidays and Auckland’s main thoroughfare was to be closed for a trial pedestrian mall. A trial was initially approved due to pressure from the Tramways union, whose trolley bus drivers wanted to ensure public safety if a permanent mall was to be given the green light. It was argued, according to The Queen Street Mall Pre-implementation Report that the school holidays allowed the mall “to be seen as an event,” and it also gave an opportunity for the public to experience Queen Street in a carless, fumeless, and relatively noiseless state.

And what an event it was.

Reflection of pedestrians in record shop's window, week of trial mall, 7 May 1979, Queen Street Trial [Pedestrian] Mall, ACC 432 Box 1 Item 10t Record K1 Record ID 502449, Auckland Council Archives.

A carnival-like atmosphere was created for one week in the Wellesley/Victoria street block. $14,000 was spent on signage, performers, makeshift rotundas and stages, seating, planting, and a research programme to determine its success. Activity wise, there was a merry-go-round, giant draughts and chess, mirror painting, collage and a “wheelchair pancake competition for disabled children.” The New Zealand Woman's Weekly reported that potter Mary Angton offered “children a chance to try their hand at throwing pots.”

Giant chess and makeshift café seating during the trial mall.
“Mall Practices in Queen Street”, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, June 18, 1979.

People seated and standing in Queen Street, week of trial mall, 7 May 1979, Queen Street Trial [Pedestrian] Mall,
ACC 432 Box 1 Item 15r Record ID 502530, Auckland Council Archives.

If you didn’t fancy taking part in any activities, there were plenty of performers to entertain as you shopped. To name a few: clowns, a Wizard Speaker, a Punch and Judy Show, street theatre, Joe 'the singing cowboy’ Hume, puppeteer Jonathan Acorn, maypole dancers and a Māori cultural group. The Auckland Star reported libraries were there with books and storytelling and so was New Zealand’s answer to the Wombles and Basil Brush in the form of anthropomorphic “Ning and Nong, the lulubirds…and of course Little Bong!”

The aforementioned ‘Little Bong’ and ‘Ning’ performing for children during the mall.
“Mall Practices in Queen Street”, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 18 June 1979.

Street artist/clown Danny Lord entertains a large crowd.
“Mall Practices in Queen Street”, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 18 June 1979.

By some accounts, it was a great success. The giant chess set proved to be very popular, as was the wizard. 1500 children under seven rode on the merry-go-round. Noise levels were reduced by approximately 5 decibels, and CO2 levels never exceeded the max level. There was a 13.7 increase in the number of people in Queen Street during the mall week, and according to The Queen Street Mall Pre Implementation Report 70% of pedestrians surveyed thought the mall was “good or very good.”

But it was swings and roundabouts (quite literally).

The same report noted, within the mall area, 41% of retailers reported financial losses. The New Zealand Woman's Weekly interviewed Mr. Frank Carter of Stone’s Shoe Shop who lamented “it’s not much good to me having a street full of kids, when I’ve got a window display of women’s high fashion footwear priced from $60 to $260.”This sentiment was echoed by the owner of Hartman Furs, who argued that children were not in the market for fine furs and during the mall period a fight broke out in her shop. W.J. Taylor, from Taylor’s Plaza shoes, noted that his trading was down 26%, and blamed it on The Wizard drawing large crowds that blocked off the entrance to the shop.

The trolley bus was another issue altogether. An article in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly argued an apt slogan for the mall would be “go to a poetry reading, and get hit by a bus.” The apparent safety of a carless mall was undermined by children, who were touching the sides of the moving trolley bus and large crowds of people drawn by entertainers often interrupted the bus route. The warning alarm to signal that the bus was approaching was far too loud which led a satirical critic in the Sunday News to say it “made Fritz Muller dive for cover, thinking the Gestapo were after him.” The volume was eventually reduced.

Showing a child touching the side of a moving trolley bus, lunch time, Thursday, 10 May 1979, Queen Street Trial [Pedestrian] Mall, ACC 432 Box 1 Item 7f Record C5 Record ID 502375, Auckland Council Archives.

Showing the makeshift bus stop purpose built for the mall, during the week of 7 May, 1979, Queen Street Trial [Pedestrian] Mall, ACC 432 Box 1 Item 9l Record E8 Record ID 502421, Auckland Council Archives.

Protest action infiltrated the trial mall on the Tuesday by members and supporters of Māori protest group He Taua. An article from The New Zealand Herald on 9 May 1979, noted they were speaking out in opposition of the previous week’s events which saw the group try to stop a racist haka performed by engineering students, resulting in violence and undue arrest. Although they very briefly occupied the trial mall, it challenged the childish carnival façade created by Auckland City Council.

More challengers came in the form of “scruffy in appearance, bad language entertainers” who moved into the mall without council approval, trying to make some money off the crowds. In fact, in survey results shown in The Queen Street Mall Pre Implementation Report, many Queen Street business owners mentioned the fact that the mall encouraged “layabouts” and not the “right type of people.” This alone exemplifies the narrow-minded view that stalled mall proceedings in the first place.

For one week, whether it was loved or hated, Queen Street was transformed into an epicentre of pedestrian activity. The issue comes with the fact that those who loved the mall were largely children or families from outside the area, and those who disliked the mall were business owners with properties in the area. This balance of power influenced planning efforts, preceding, throughout, and after the Trial Mall period. As a result, a pedestrian mecca on Auckland’s main street lasted only for a brief week in May 1979, and never again since.

An advertisement by ‘Outreach Space Works,’ regarding their need for found material during the mall trial. Queen Street Mall Temporary Closure, May 7-11 1979, Wellesley Street and Victoria Street, 1978-1979, Works Department Classified Subject Files, ACC 219 Box 1101 Item 1101b Record [64-141-06-07] Part 7 Record ID 673670, Auckland Council Archives.

Author biography

Nancy Mitchelson is currently completing her honours year in History at The University of Auckland, having completed a Bachelor of Arts. Nancy attended Epsom Girls Grammar, where her interest in history was fostered.

Nancy was one of four students awarded a 2019 Summer Scholarship at The University of Auckland out of a highly competitive field and her award was funded by the Auckland History Initiative. Her research project focused on the efforts to pedestrianise Queen Street in May of 1979. Nancy describes this area of study as a niche topic, but one that is interesting as it allowed the examination of council planning and bureaucracy, the impact of urban sprawl, and the process of establishing purpose for Auckland’s central area. With multiple streets in Auckland’s CBD soon to be closed to cars, these lessons from 1979 are becoming increasingly relevant.

Nancy would like to extend special thanks to Vicky Spalding and the team at Auckland Council Archives, the team at Sir George Grey Special Collections, her supervisor, Linda Bryder (Professor at the University of Auckland) and to Bill McKay (Senior Lecturer at The University of Auckland) for their help and expansive expertise.


New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 18 June, 1979.

Auckland Star, 10 May, 1979.

New Zealand Herald, 9 May, 1979.

Projects and Design Division Department of Planning and Social Development, The Queen Street Mall Pre Implementation Report, 1979-1979, Publications, ACC 398 Box 6 Item 6g Record ID 400178, Auckland Council Archives.

“Queen Street Mall” - Temporary Closure - May 7-11 1979 - Wellesley Street and Victoria Street, 1978-1979, Works Department Classified Subject Files, ACC 219 Box 1101 Item 1101b Record [64-141-06-07] Part 7 Record ID 673670, Auckland Council Archives.