Topic: Steele Park - The Early Years
A recreation ground for East Hamilton
Part of an 1864 map of East Hamilton showing Public Square lot 410
Originally taken under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863, Steele Park started its park life as Lot 410. In 1868, under the Public Reserves Act 1854, it was reserved for the purpose of a public square. (1)
Ten years later its purpose was changed again and it became a recreation ground. (2)
As early as 1872 the recreation ground was referred to as Sydney Square. (3) We’re not sure if this name had any official status. According to Gibbons the public square was probably named as such because much of the Waikato Militia was recruited in Australia. (4)
Despite being reserved for recreational use it appears that Sydney Square wasn’t exactly fit for this purpose. In November of 1878 the Hamilton Borough Council invited tenders for the fencing of Sydney Square and for levelling the ground and filling in holes. Funds towards this purpose were raised from the sale of the Hamilton East Town Hall. (5)
Work on levelling the ground began in February of 1880. (6) In April it was reported that the work was still not complete with mounds yet to be levelled, the land not sown and the ground not fenced. (7) In spite of this, sports were played on the ground. The opening match of the school football season, between boys of the Albion Club and the Hamilton East school, was played on a ‘portion’ of Sydney Square. (8) The levelling and filling work started up again in August and by the end of October, grass had been sown and the Hamilton Cricket Club had laid a pitch. (9)
Fencing Sydney Square
William Cumming, Chairman of the Sydney Square Improvement Committee, was particularly keen to get the square fenced as soon as possible. The reason for this was that the public were using the square as a thoroughfare, riding their horses and driving their vehicles through it. (10) There was also the issue of stray cattle grazing on the park. At a lively meeting of ratepayers of the Hamilton Borough, arguments were put for and against fencing the Square. The main argument against was that the Borough already had an overdraft of £230 and the money would be better spent on streets and drainage. Mr Isaac Vialou agreed, saying “[the Council] should first expend their funds upon works of absolute necessity rather than upon those of ornamentation.” There was some argument over the cost of the fencing. William Cumming argued that as private individuals had paid for 80% of the cost of levelling the Square, it was only fair that the Borough should pay for the fencing. In the end the motion “That it is not advisable to fence Sydney Square at present.” won by 30 votes to 5. (11)
The issue was picked up again about a year later by Mr Henry Steele. An application was made by the Hamilton Borough Council to have the recreation ground brought under the Public Domains Act 1881 and so vested with the Hamilton Domain Board. (12) In early November the Board accepted a tender of £60 from a Mr F. Forrest to construct a fence. It would be made from “puriri posts, six to the chain, five No. 6 and two barbed wires, or seven in all. On the west side there will be an ornamental gate, with 12ft of panel fencing on either side”. Half would be paid for by the Domain Board and the other funds sourced by Mr Henry Steele who would collect subscriptions from the public for it. (13)
In spite of the lack of a fence, various recreational and sporting activities did take place at Sydney Square. Sport included cricket, football (soccer) and rugby union. Boxing Day athletic and equestrian events were held at the square and the Hamilton Light Infantry and others practiced their drills there.
Later, the Christmas Carnival and International Fete which included maypole dancing was held at the square.
Maypole dance at Sydney Square
The Oak Trees and the 4th Waikato Regiment
Steele Park’s fifty oak trees were planted on the 26th of August 1889 by veterans of the 4th Waikato Regiment in celebration of the 25th anniversary of their occupation of Hamilton.
The day was a public holiday and residents gathered in Sydney Square. The 4th Waikato Regiment were photographed in the Waikato County Council grounds (on the northwest corner of Grey and Clyde Streets) before proceeding, with their Captain William Steele, to Sydney Square where they were received by the Hamilton Light Infantry. Once dismissed, each of the veterans planted an oak tree. Five women planted trees including Mrs Coates, wife of Mayor Isaac Coates and Mrs Theresa Vowless, reputed to be the first Pakeha women to land in Hamilton. The trees were numbered and a record kept of the name of each planter. It was suggested by Colour-Sergeant Knox that the photograph of the Regiment be enlarged and displayed in the offices of the Hamilton Borough Council. This happened just over one year later in October of 1890. It was presented to the Borough Council by His Worship the Mayor Mr Isaac Coates. (14)
Theresa Vowless inspects the oak tree she planted in 1889. c. 1910-15
Sydney Square becomes Steele Park
At a meeting of the Hamilton Domain Board on July 13th 1906 it was resolved “That the name of Sydney Square be changed to “Steele Park”” (15) Seddon Park also got its name at this time. There was no explanation given for why the name was changed and it does not appear to have been reported in the newspapers. We assume it was named for Captain William Steele.
Grey Street with the ivy covered Masonic Lodge on the left and Steele Park on the right. c. 1908
Warwick Johnson grew up in Hamilton East. In this extract he talks about playing at Steele Park as a boy. This extract is 33 seconds in length. Click here (Hamilton City Libraries OH0287) to listen to his recollection of that time.
The maps and photos featured in this article can be viewed on Level 3 of Garden Place Library.
1. New Zealand Gazette 48, 12 August 1868 p. 403
2. New Zealand Gazette 35, 28 April 1878 p. 488
3. Waikato Times, 20 May 1872, p. 2
4. Gibbons, P.J. (1977) Astride the river. Christchurch: Whitcoulls for the Hamilton City Council.
5. Waikato Times, 19 November 1878, p. 2
6. Waikato Times, 10 February 1880, p. 2
7. Waikato Times, 8 April 1880, p. 2
8. Waikato Times, 22 June 1880, p. 2
9. Waikato Times, 21 October 1880, p. 2
11. Waikato Times, 9 May 1882, p. 2
12. Waikato Times, 21 August 1883, p. 2 and New Zealand Gazette 9, 11 September 1883 p. 1290
13. Waikato Times, November 10 1883, p. 2
14. Waikato Times, 27 August 1889, p. 2
15. Hamilton Domain Board minutes, 13 July 1906 p.331