Homes fit for heroes to live in? The 1944 Auckland housing survey

By the late 1930s it was becoming increasingly clear to Auckland City Council’s town planning staff that there were problems of substandard housing and overcrowding in many houses in the inner city, Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Parnell, Herne Bay and Freemans Bay. A third of dwellings inspected in a 1935 council housing survey were found to be structurally unsatisfactory and 23 percent of dwellings were overcrowded. Soon afterwards the new Labour Government brought in its State Housing Policy which the Council hoped would fix Auckland’s housing crisis. However, before the new policy could effectively address Auckland’s problems the Second World War intervened, and national resources were soon re-focused on winning the war.

Mid-way through the war, most major housing construction projects had virtually dried up. But wartime population movement made Auckland’s housing problem even worse, as many people moved to the city to get jobs in factories producing goods, armaments and supplies for the war effort, or in services keeping our wartime economy running. Towards the end of the war, the housing shortage became critical when New Zealand servicemen began returning from overseas. Where would these returning heroes and their families live?

The following photographs were taken in the ‘dwellings of families considered by the council to be those most urgently needing assistance.’ They were published in the Weekly News on 25 October 1944. The first photograph shows a returned serviceman’s wife with one of her two young children in their cramped two-roomed apartment in Ponsonby where they had no kitchen; doing the cooking in the living room.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Two-roomed apartment in Ponsonby, 25 October 1944.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19441025-23-3

Another Auckland City Council housing survey conducted in mid-1944 revealed the scale of the housing shortage problem. Aucklanders who felt they were forced to live in overcrowded or substandard accommodation were invited to complete a questionnaire. The authors of the survey report concluded that although the related problems of overcrowded households and desperate families in substandard housing varied in frequency and severity throughout the city, ‘deplorable conditions’ existed in every suburb. Auckland Mayor John Allum conceded in July 1945 that there were 3,000 ‘desperate cases’ from which ‘no municipality, however conscious of its own essential inadequacy or of efforts by the state, could unbidden tamely stand aside.’

The photograph below shows the two children of a returned serviceman and his wife. The family lived in one room which, as well as being their bedroom, doubled as their living room and laundry airing space. The family also had to share kitchen facilities with their neighbours.

Image: Auckland Weekly News. Bedroom-living room of returned serviceman, wife and two children. 25 October 1944. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19441025-22-3.

The next photograph shows that overcrowding in substandard housing existed even in exclusive suburbs like Remuera. Here a family (including two children plus mother-in-law) lived in two rooms in a converted garage. The electric cooker stood dangerously alongside the double bed in the main room.

Image: Converted garage at Remuera. 25 October 1944.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19441025-22-1.

Overcrowding was a problem in many suburbs. The next photo shows the crowded bedroom shared by parents and their three young children in Mount Eden.


Overcrowding and substandard housing was probably worst in older inner-city suburbs like Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. The next photograph, taken in the only bedroom in this dwelling, shows a baby confined to their pram because there was not room for a cot beside the parents’ double bed.

Image: Baby sleeps cramped in pram at Ponsonby home. 25 October 1944.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19441025-23-2.

The following photograph of an apartment in Grey Lynn shows how closely inter-related the problems of substandard housing and overcrowding were. In the main photo (a bedroom shared by the parents and two children) the man is leaning out the window to demonstrate how close to the boundary the neighbouring house is. Meanwhile, the kitchen stove of the apartment below was vented directly beneath that window, so it usually had to be kept closed. His family had no kitchen themselves and had to cook on the narrow stairway landing shown on the right.

Image: Grey Lynn apartment has one bedroom for parents and two children. 25 October 1944. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19441025-23-4.

In another small two-roomed Grey Lynn apartment occupied by a family of four, the kitchen stove and sink were in a curtained-off alcove beside the living room.

Image: Bedroom and small living-room of Grey Lynn apartment. 25 October 1944.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19441025-23-1.

Finally, we have a photograph of a small Herne Bay apartment occupied by a man, his wife and their three children. The whole family slept in the same low-ceilinged room, which was damp, musty and unhealthy.

Image: Bedroom of Herne Bay apartment occupied by man, wife and three children. 25 October 1944. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19441025-22-2.

According to the main caption below this series of Weekly News images, ‘the above photographs were taken at dwellings of families considered by the council to be among those most urgently needing assistance.’ One way the council tried to tackle its housing crisis was by revising or relaxing some of its building by-laws to allow existing dwellings to be renovated. However, Mayor Allum was also aware of recently vacated and unwanted American army buildings at Western Springs fortuitously available to the council. Allum made sure his council took advantage of this golden opportunity.

The Americans’ Western Springs camp was established on the 16-acre site of the old Municipal Motor Camp at the Point Chevalier end of Western Springs. In mid-1942 the Government leased the motor camp for war purposes, and its Public Works Department added prefabricated barracks and huts to the motor camp’s existing stone buildings and swimming pools. Then between July 1942 and June 1944 most of the camp was occupied by the Americans as a military camp. After the Americans vacated their rest camp, Public Works Department staff renovated it once more to become Allum’s new transit camp.

Prospective tenants for the transit camp were to be selected from State Advances Corporation registers of State house applicants, half of whom were to be returned servicemen. Presumably all the families who completed the council questionnaire must also have been on the State Advances Corporation’s books, because the Weekly News caption went on to tell readers that ‘Other [families] in this category (i.e., those found to be in substandard housing) are now living in the council’s [transit] camp at Western Springs.’

The Western Springs transit camp was soon ready for the first families to move in on 5 August 1944. Forty families soon filled the 40 huts and prefabs at the camp. The next photographs, published in the 23 August 1944 Weekly News, show mothers with babies and young children relaxing outside prefabs and huts at the new transit camp.


Children playing on swings at the camp ‘where they are delighted to be living at last in locality where there is plenty of room to play.’

Image: Cheerful children playing on swings at the camp. 23 August 1944.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19440823-20-2.

The right-hand photograph below shows two Haynes Catering Company cooks serving dinners to transit camp residents before they went into the communal dining room to sit down and dine with their neighbours, as shown in the left-hand photo. The dining room was one of the additional buildings that had been built for the Americans.

Image: Smiling faces in the community dining room. 23 August 1944.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19440823-20-3.

The main caption below the Weekly News camp photographs said the families ‘will remain in the transit camp until they are allotted state rental houses, probably in a few months’ time.’ The Western Springs transit camp continued to provide temporary accommodation for Auckland families for many years. According to Auckland City Council’s official historian, G.W.A. Bush, ‘From 1959 the units were progressively closed, the main section disappearing by May 1962.’ Aerial photographs for Auckland City Council taken above Western Springs on 4 October 1965 show that by this time all that remained of the transit camp were the derelict stone buildings and swimming pools left over from the old motor camp. In the image below, the transit camp is the cleared space with three derelict buildings (and abandoned swimming pools to the right of the middle clump of trees) above and to the left of Western Springs Lake.

Image: Western Springs looking towards Westmere and Herne Bay. 4 October 1965.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 580-A5337.


In the image below, the transit camp is the cleared space with three derelict buildings (and abandoned swimming pools on the left of the middle clump of trees) below Western Springs Lake.

Image: Looking south-west over Western Springs Lake. 4 October 1965.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 580-A5343.


In the image below, the transit camp is the cleared space with three derelict buildings and abandoned swimming pools to the left of the middle clump of trees directly above the zoo (bottom left of the photo.)


Bush observed that ‘Placed on the timeline of a century, [the transit camps] are merely one almost forgotten episode. They merit highlighting, nevertheless, as an illustration of the Council’s acceptance of its widening social obligations.’ The old motor camp buildings and pools were demolished in the early 1970s, and today the Western Springs transit camp site has been incorporated into Auckland Zoo where African animals now roam in Pridelands.

Learn more about Auckland's transit camps in the HeritageTalk video below, presented by Lisa Truttman.

Author: Christopher Paxton, Heritage Engagement

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