Voyaging through time: an incomplete history of the replica ship 'City of Auckland'

“Things—beautiful or simply practical, expensive or everyday, fragile museum objects or robust items that have withstood years of use—things”, write the editors of 'The Lives of Colonial Objects', “invite us into the past through their tangible, tactile and immediate presence”.

Things can be fascinating not only for what they tell us about their own historical times, but also for how their ‘past-ness’ makes them objects of special value even when their origins are lost. It is no profound observation to remark how not everything from the past survives, but this means an old thing can be interesting because it survives at all. And sometimes the afterlives of these historical objects become a fascinating subject all their own, gaining new meaning by becoming old things.

An historical “thing” happens to share space in the Central City Library amidst our shelves of books and records. On top of an index card cabinet in Research Central, inside a glass case, sits an ornament both peculiar and yet also fitting in its own way: a miniature replica of the colony ship City of Auckland.

Image: View of the miniature replica of the ship City of Auckland.

A brief description card informs the inquiring viewer that the City of Auckland ferried new settlers from London to New Zealand from 1869 until her demise in 1878. According to Henry Brett’s shipping history White Wings, the City was a fast-moving clipper, built at Sunderland especially for the London to New Zealand route. After nine years and three captains, the City ran aground on her final voyage to Napier while sailing off the coast at Otaki. Miraculously, all passengers and crew survived the ship’s demise, their escape assisted by residents of the local community.

Image: City of Auckland description card.

A replica colony ship is perhaps an apt object of display in Research Central; not only as the name-sake ship of the city, but perhaps also as a symbol of the colony ships which brought European and British settlers to New Zealand. In this way, the replica ship could be said to ‘speak’ to the historical process of colonial settlement from which many Pākeha New Zealanders trace their origins. It is certainly the goal of more than a few family historians to recover their ancestor’s journeys of origin.

It was exactly this kind of search for family origins which first properly brought my attention to the model City of Auckland. A visitor inquired about the model’s origins; their curiosity spurred because their ancestor arrived on the City of Auckland’s fated final voyage. I had occasionally wondered about the model myself, but the query gave me good reason to properly learn more about the model ship’s own origins.

You may have noticed a slight omission in the description card mentioned earlier. There is, strangely, no information about the actual object of display, or how and from where the model ship came to reside in the Central Library. I feel some amusement from the observation that the description card, which is focused on the historical vessel, describes a thing which isn’t actually there.

To be fair to the card’s author, David Verran, his suggestions eventually put me on the right path to uncovering some of the model’s own story. The now retired former librarian and research team leader is one of the most knowledgeable people about the Central City Library’s history, and the author of the 2009 history of Auckland City Libraries 'Another chapter'. Several Central City Library staff members suggested asking David about the model since it turned out nobody presently working in the Central City Library knew much about it.

According to David Verran, the model had already stood in the Central City Library when the building opened in November 1971, displayed inside the office of the then Chief-Librarian, Robert Duthie. Duthie’s successor as Chief Librarian, Mary Ronnie, chose not to keep the model on display. It seems the model did not re-emerge from storage until around 1997 when it found a place inside Research Central on Level 2, where it continues to reside. Little has changed for the model since, besides receiving a new plexiglass display case after cracks appeared in the previous glass enclosure, and the earlier mentioned description card written by David Verran in March 1999.

It is difficult to say more about the model during these fifty years. Although Wynne Colgan documented the origins of the Central Library’s literary statuary collection in his 1980 history of Auckland City Libraries, 'The Governor’s Gift', he did not include a single mention of a model ship. Nor did the ship appear in either of the earlier Library histories written by John Barr in 1922 and 1950. Although the model also did not warrant a mention in David Verran’s book, he posited to me the model may have come from the Old Colonists’ Museum (OCM) collection, once housed inside the old Auckland Public Library (nowadays the Auckland Art Gallery). 

Image: Henry Winkelmann. The Auckland Public Library, Art Gallery and Municipal Offices, 1905. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1-W1248.

Opened on the 22nd of March 1916, the OCM occupied two rooms in the upper floor of the old library building. In an article covering the opening ceremony, the New Zealand Herald noted the Museum’s creation stemmed from a sense the city needed a place “to assemble from the remaining pioneers and others the relics and records of New Zealand’s past.” While conflating the country’s history entirely with European settlement looks rather quaint in the twenty-first century, the creation of the museum indicates how seriously its backers took this mission. The OCM included exhibits detailing the development of settlements around New Zealand, as well as profiles of some more distinguished settlers deemed to have “left their mark on civic and national life”. The curators also displayed objects considered to provide a sense of the life and conditions experienced by early settlers.

The Herald repeated, in the same article about the Museum’s opening, a call from the museum’s curators for deposits or loans of objects important to describing these histories. By 1922 the collection included 750 objects, although Chief Librarian John Barr complained the site lacked the space to properly exhibit all the objects. The problem of space only intensified over the decades of the Museum’s operation as the public continued to donate items of interest. However, the problem of space also applied to the Museum’s host as the City Library grew to the limits of the old building.

As Andrew, from the Heritage Collections team recounted in a previous blog post, the City Council decided to close the Old Colonists’ Museum in 1956. The increasingly packed Library could no longer afford to spare the two rooms allocated to the Museum in 1922, and the reclaimed space would be taken up by the expanded bookbindery which urgently needed the added capacity. 

The full fate of the OCM collection, however, remained undecided for nearly ten years. In 'The Governor’s Gift', Wynne Colgan records that Gilbert Archey, the director of the Auckland Museum, objected to the Council’s offer to divide the collection’s contents between the Library, Art Gallery, and his Museum. He believed the value of the collection would be diminished if not received in its entirety. However, the other two institutions had already accepted the art and documentary components of the OCM collection into their holdings, leaving the object collection orphaned. According to Colgan, Chief Librarian Robert Duthie suggested to the City Council that they temporarily store the orphaned object collection in the Town Hall as an interim solution. The Council accepted this proposal, and the objects remained in storage beneath the Town Hall stage for nine years until Archey’s successor finally accepted the objects in 1966.

Among the documents and manuscripts acquired by the Library from the Old Colonists’ Museum collection are the museum’s accession registers, which are now held in Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. Here amongst the thousands of register entries came at last some kind of answer about the model’s origins. Roll entry 2324 briefly describes an object donated by the family of the late Edward and Maria Mckeown on 23 October 1926.

“Scale model of a three-masted full rigged sailing ship of the seventies. Thought to be that of the ‘City of Auckland’”.

I found nothing in Edward Mckeown’s obituary which might explain the family’s possession of a model for this particular ship. Edward and Maria married in New Zealand just a year before the City of Auckland first sailed in 1868, and Edward’s family arrived as military settlers when when he was two years old. The Mckeown’s family businesses involved food and catering with no obvious nautical connections. The widowed Maria McKeown died in early October 1926, leaving her executors to divide her estate amongst her children and dispose of her belongings.

This brings us to the curious note of doubt in the accession registry entry: “…thought to be…”. Whether this doubt belonged to the executors of the estate or to the curators who accepted the donation is not clear, but it indicates any firm knowledge of the object’s prior origins did not outlive its owners. The model ship cannot speak for itself; it is not even inscribed with the name of the ship which it is believed to replicate.

We can only speculate exactly how and when the City of Auckland model became separated from the rest of the OCM. A most likely timeframe seems like the period of storage beneath the Town Hall from 1956 to 1966. Perhaps someone felt rehoming an object might be harmless since the long term future of these objects seemed unclear. There is room to imagine Robert Duthie played a role: it was his office where the model once resided, and it had been his suggestion to store the collection in the Town Hall. It is impossible ask him now, Duthie died in 2015 at the age of 97.

Sometime around 2000, the Auckland Museum finished creating a digital inventory of the Old Colonists’ Museum registers, part of an attempt at identifying and accounting for the items originally recorded in the old museum’s accession rolls and believed have come into the Auckland Museum’s holdings.

Among the items expected to be found among the Museum’s holdings is listed the entry for the model ship, “[t]hought to be that of the ‘City of Auckland’”.

The entry for the model is marked in red: 'Not located.' 

Author: Liam Appleton, Research Librarian, Research Central.

You can read more about the Old Colonists’ Museum in one of our earlier blog posts.

You may also be interested in another Heritage et AL blog post, about a chess table donated to the newly-opened Free Public Library in 1887.


Barr, John. Public Library, Art Gallery, and Old Colonists’ Museum: A Brief Historical and Descriptive Account, 1922.

Colgan, Wynne. The Governor’s Gift, 1980.

Cooper, Annabelle, Paterson, Lachy, Wanhalla, Angela, eds. The Lives of Colonial Objects, 2015. 

Henry, Andrew. OId Colonists’ Museum Ephemera Collection, 9 December 2014. 

Verran, David. Another Chapter, 2009.

Wild, Jane. Hiding in Plain Sight, 29 November 2018. 

Archives New Zealand Auckland, Regional Office. McKEOWN Maria - Auckland – Widow (1926), Auckland Probates. Item ID R21459842, Agency BBAE, Series 1569, Accession A48, Box 637, Record number 19172. Accessed digitally through Archway.  

New Zealand Herald, Old Colonists’ Museum, the opening ceremony, 23 March 1916, Page 5 

New Zealand Herald, Old Colonist’s Death, Mr. Edward Mckeown, 6 September 1918, Page 6

New Zealand Herald, Deaths, 8 October 1926, Page 1