Early record of Auckland democracy

The Auckland Library Heritage Trust has recently acquired a printed, annotated burgess roll for the City of Auckland for 1887 to 1888 that is believed to be unique. They have kindly lent it to Auckland Libraries where it is currently on display in the Heritage Collections reading room at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero, the Central City Library. Stamped ‘Mayor’s Office’ in gilt on the binding, the roll is preceded by a manuscript list of 32 alterations authorised by council between May 1887 and April 1888. In most instances these correspond to amendments in the six individual ward rolls within the volume. No copy of this roll is held by the National Library or the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, nor by any other Auckland research library. Auckland Libraries, Council Archives and Auckland War Memorial Museum have the most comprehensive collections of rolls, though wards are missing for some years in what has survived. Council Archives’ rolls cover 1872 to 1899 (series ACC 396).

Manuscript list of alterations to the burgess roll agreed by Auckland City Council between May 1887 and April 1888.

Of most obvious interest to family historians, the burgess roll will equally appeal to those concerned with the social and political history of Auckland. The burgess roll was spotted by Archives’ staff in an Art + Object auction catalogue that pleasingly took information from our section of council’s website. It was purchased by the Auckland Library Heritage Trust at auction on 27 May 2020 and is now held on deposit in Special Collections. Colin Davis, Chair of the Auckland Library Heritage Trust, comments 'We are delighted to make this rare burgess roll available for family historians and for researching 19th century Auckland.'

The burgess roll was originally compiled and printed in compliance with the Municipal Corporations Act 1886. It was based on the council’s rates valuation rolls and records the names of all adults who owned or occupied rateable property in an area of Auckland that is now principally within the Waitematā and Gulf Ward of Auckland Council. ‘Burgess’ is a word of French origin used in England since the thirteenth century and the term ‘burgess roll’ since the fifteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that a burgess was ‘An inhabitant or resident of a borough, especially of a town; a citizen […] Frequently used more narrowly to denote a person possessing the full municipal rights to which inhabitants or residents of a borough fulfilling certain criteria are entitled, or on whom such rights have been conferred […]. Even when used in a more general sense the word usually suggests relatively high status or respectability’.

Burgess roll for the North Ward, 1887/1888.

Each Auckland City burgess was automatically entitled to cast between one and five votes, depending on the annual rateable value of his or her property. The owner or occupier of a property rateable at less than £50 had one vote, while one with rateable property valued at £350 or more had five votes. A burgess could have commanded as many as 30 votes, if they had owned or occupied properties of sufficient value in all six wards. The butchers William and Richard Hellaby, for example, had 14 votes as they owned or occupied properties in four wards. Josiah C Firth, flour-miller and politician had almost as many because he was also listed in four wards. Other notable Auckland businessmen racked up similar totals: brewer Louis Ehrenfried and the Honourable Thomas Russell each had ten votes. From the roll numbers, it is easy to determine that there were originally 5,621 burgesses, South Ward having the most (1,401) and Grafton the least (362). Each burgess was not necessarily a separate person or organization because one person or organization could have multiple roll numbers. The division of Auckland into wards as in earlier years resumed in 1879, the city being divided into three wards, designated North, South, and East. In 1882 the amalgamation of three road districts with the City of Auckland increased the number of wards to six: North, South, East, Ponsonby, Karangahape, and Grafton. Each ward elected three councillors. Auckland City eventually abolished its ward system in 1903.

Clifton Firth, J.R Hanna. Portrait of Josiah Clifton Firth. 1888. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 34-130.

Entries for each of the six wards in the burgess roll are in alphabetical order by surname. The roll lists number on the roll, name of burgess, occupation, description and situation of property, the number of each property on the council valuation roll and its rateable value, and the number of votes to which the burgess was entitled. There are no street numbers. Valuation numbers are from the city’s rates valuation rolls (Council Archives’ series ACC 210) and manuscript amendments to the roll are based on decisions recorded in council’s minute books (series ACC 101). Burgess rolls were open for public inspection without charge at the Town Clerk’s office and objections could be made in writing that would subsequently be heard by council. The roll was printed by Henry Brett, a printer and newspaper owner who was mayor of Auckland in the late 1870s and was knighted the year before his death.

James D Richardson. Looking south west from Queen St (foreground) towards Wellesley St West (left to right across centre) showing the temporary premises of the United Services Hotel, a gas lamp and the premises of A Seuffert, V Morter and G Tremery. 1870s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-87.

While many surnames reflect the British origins of the majority of burgesses, other Europeans are included, such as the distinguished Austrian cabinet maker Antoine Seuffert. A few Chinese burgesses stand out, like Ah Chee, boarding house-keeper, James Ah Kew, merchant, and Hung Pan (Jimmy), listed with the occupation ‘Chinese gardener’. Further research might lead to the identification of any Māori burgesses. Although no woman chose to stand as a candidate for municipal office in Auckland City until the next decade, the roll includes a number of married, widowed, and single women and some organisations are listed as burgesses, for example the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Company. Burgesses’ occupations range widely, from gentlemen, settlers, professionals like accountants, doctors, politicians, and solicitors and even a Roman Catholic bishop, to publicans, bakers, saddlers, and labourers.

A report in Henry Brett’s newspaper the Evening Star of 10 May 1887 complained of the creation of ‘Faggot votes’ in the city’s South Ward and to illegitimate swelling of the burgess roll. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘Faggot vote’ as ‘A vote for a particular candidate or party fraudulently contrived by nominally transferring sufficient property to a person who would not otherwise be qualified to vote’. This was similar to ‘roll stuffing’, where additional voters were fraudulently added to electoral rolls in the hope of altering the outcome of an election. This seems to have been a persistent problem – Council Archives’ burgess rolls include one annotated during an investigation in 1898 of South Ward roll irregularities. The solution proposed by the Evening Star in 1887 was abolition of the property vote and ‘to give every man and woman one vote – and one vote only’. In 1898 the Municipal Franchise Reform Act abolished plural voting, though it survived for county council elections almost into the final quarter of the next century. This Act extended the franchise to tenants and sub-tenants subject to conditions on the length and cost of their tenancy, but those with residential qualification to vote could not do so at polls concerned with either loans or rates.

It would be interesting to know more of the roll’s provenance. The 20-shillings price on the front endpapers suggests that it was probably offered for sale before the introduction of decimal currency in July 1967. The previous owner was Peter Stratford, a collector and historian based in Auckland whose private library was known as the Epsom Trust Collection. It is not clear how or when the burgess roll left the ownership of Auckland City Council. Once its immediate use had passed, was it rescued or taken as a souvenir by someone who recognised that it had lasting value even though no longer consulted by council officers? Perhaps this happened in 1911, when council staff moved from municipal offices within the Wellesley Street building that housed the free public library and city art gallery to accommodation in the new Town Hall. Statutory protection was not given to local authority archives until 1977 by an amendment to the Local Government Act 1974. That also referred to responsibilities for documents of abolished local authorities and to ‘classes of local archives that may not be destroyed by the local authority having the custody of them, either at any time or before the expiration of a specified time, without the prior approval of the Chief Archivist and without notifying the Chief Archivist of its intention to destroy those archives’. Thankfully, the current list of protected records for local authorities issued by Archives New Zealand under the Public Records Act of 2005 includes ‘Electoral Records created by the local authority including signed rolls and ratepayers’ lists’.

Burgess rolls for the early 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s have been transcribed by Archives’ volunteers and are included in the Auckland Council Archives searchable database of Burgess Rolls for the City of Auckland as one of its family history databases searchable through the main council website.

The recently purchased burgess roll can be consulted in the Heritage Collections reading room in the Central City Library (call number NZ Printed 352 A8) and is on display there in the Kura Tūturu/Real Gold case in August during Family History month.

Author: James Armstrong, Team Leader Archives Management


G W A Bush. Decently and in Order: The Government of the City of Auckland, 1840-1971Auckland: Collins for Auckland City Council, 1971.

Graham Bush. Local Government & Politics in New Zealand. Second edition. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995.

R C J Stone. Makers of Fortune: A Colonial Business Community and its Fall. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1973.

Listen to James discuss the 1887/1888 burgess roll in our Kura tūturu / Real gold podcast:

You can also listen to the track here on Soundcloud, where you'll also find our series of talks on the history of Democracy in Aotearoa/New Zealand, recorded in June 2020.