Pukekura Park, then known as the Recreation Ground or 'The Rec', was established in 1876. It was the vision of local lawyer, Robert Clinton Hughes who persuaded the Taranaki Provincial Government to purchase 12 hectares of wasteland 'near New Plymouth' as a recreational reserve.
It was only in 1907 that the name 'Pukekura' was bestowed upon the park. The stream that had been dammed to form the lake bore the name Pukekura, which means 'red hill'.
The original valley of the Pukekura Stream was 'a fern, furze (gorse) and tutu filled gully' which has been transformed over the years into one of New Zealand's best known public parks.
The park has steadily increased in size. The additions of Brooklands and the Maranui Gully in the 1930s made it 50 hectares in extent. Pukekura Park was, for 53 years, controlled by an independent park board. Since 1929, it has been administered by New Plymouth Borough Council and its successors.
The park contains a unique amalgam of botanical environments, lakes, native forest and formal gardens which has long been viewed with pride by the residents of New Plymouth and Taranaki.
On May 29 1876, the public gathered in large numbers on what was the central point of the park, the small hill directly north of the present Band Rotunda, later known as Cannon Hill.
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Mr Thomas King, invited Miss Jane Carrington, daughter of Frederick Alonzo Carrington, Chief Surveyor who planned New Plymouth, to plant the first trees. These were an oak, representing Great Britain, a Puriri for New Zealand, a Norfolk Island Pine for the South Pacific Islands, and a Pinus Radiata for America. Cheers were given and the public readily accepted the invitation to plant trees by the organisers.
The Main Lake
The major step forward in the park concept came in 1878 with the formation of the main lake up to the site of the present Poet's Bridge. Many, like Robert Hughes, looked forward to the realisation of a dream - a lake for competitive swimming and aquatic sports.
A substantial dam was built and a deep and wide excavation below the stream bed was filled with a core of puddled and boxed clay, then supporting embankments were built as the core was raised. Before the end of 1878, the filling of the lake began, and for the first time, the central part of the park took on something of its present appearance, especially as the shelter belts of pine trees on each side of the lake gained height. Later the dam was strengthened with clay when the hill overlooking the dam was cut back to make room for the band rotunda.
Soon after the lake was filled, a swimming club was formed with springboard and bathing shed (built in April 1879). Enthusiasm was infectious, many came for swimming sports and canoe races.
But if there was a lively sense of fun in the 1880s, there were also reminders that this was the prim Victorian age. Revealing of the human figure was as much frowned upon as were suggestions that public places should be open on the Sabbath. Neck to knee bathing costumes were not enough; morality required both sexes be segregated when indulging in the cooling touch of lake or sea.
The Park Trustees announced in 1882 for a red flag to be hoisted on top of Cannon Hill to signal when ladies are bathing in the pond. Women and girls would bathe in the lake (except Sundays) only between the hours of 8am and 1pm, during which time men and boys would be excluded from the vicinity of the lake.
Bathing in the lake continued until the 1920s. With the passing of the years, the springboard and bathing shed were replaced with a modern teahouse in 1931.
Sports ground and terraces
The transformation of a swampy area into a sportsground was a major task in park development. A ladies committee organised a fancy dress ball and the funds allowed the board in 1883 to begin filling the swamp. The first football practice was held on the new ground in April 1885.
A lawn and cricket ground was the aim of a special committee formed in October 1889. Here was the origin of a ground often declared by famous overseas cricketers to be one of the most beautiful and picturesque grounds in the world.
Drains, fill and terraces for seating were completed before the first cricket match in December 1892. For many years football matches, civic gatherings and welcomes to royal visitors made the sports ground the main public venue in Taranaki. The angle of the grassed terraces permitted the use in later years of large beach umbrellas, creating a colourful summer scene during the warm weather.
When the trustees undertook the first extension of the main lake southwards, the need for a bridge was emphasised. The obvious site was at the narrow point.
A board members good fortune and generosity soon gave the answer to the lack of funds. J. T Davis drew the horse 'The Poet' in a sweepstake on an Auckland race in 1883. It won him 150 pounds which he immediately handed to the board for a bridge.
The bridge was opened on 11 March 1884. For over half a century "Poet's Bridge' served the park until deterioration caused it to be replaced just before the second World War. Its present colour scheme is based on the famous red laquer bridge in Nikko, Japan.
Building of the band rotunda started in March 1887 with earthworks cutting back what is now known as Cannon Hill, to widen what was originally the top of the lake dam. With the concrete steps and base complete, the roof and ironwork of the rotunda were completed only as the board gathered the necessary finance in 1891.
The Tea House
The Tea House, which was opened on 14 November 1931, was a gift by a former New Plymouth Mayor and Mayoress, Mr and Mrs C.H Burgess, to mark their golden wedding anniversary. The modern building with full equipment was built close to the site of the old bathing shed to command the well-known view of the main lake and Mount Taranaki/Egmont in the background.
Fernery and Stainton Dell
Construction of the Pukekura tea house followed a marked improvement in the eastern part of the park beside the old pathway to the racecourse. Here the damming of a swampy, untidy gully was proposed in order to form a dell. With this suggestion came another, the part of a hill be excavated to fill the swampy region and provide glass-topped chambers for a fernery. To raise funds for the project, a queen carnival in 1924 was organised.
By June 1926, work began on a design by Mrs H Lovell, a noted Hawera horticulturist who had experience in constructing fern grottoes. The plan provided for three chambers links by tunnels. Winter rains made conditions difficult and Curator Horton's diary told of a "dirty wet job" and "a fierce storm".
In October 1926, the excavations were finished. A new lake appeared upstream and the swampy ground was transformed into a pleasant lawn area for flower pots.
A total of 2,340 ferns (145 varieties) was gathered and planting in the grottoes began in July 1927. The Mayor, Mr H Griffiths, officially opened the fernery and dell on 28 January 1928. The whole cost has been met by public subscription and fund-raising. Later begonias and orchids and other colourful specimens joined the ferns.
In 1939 an extra glasshouse for begonias was brought from Brooklands where it had once sheltered a grape vine. This house was replaced in 1969 by a modern structure four times its size, a generous gift from Mr and Mrs G Kibby. Meanwhile in 1964 Mr F Parker, a noted New Plymouth horticulturist and member of Pukekura committee, presented a valuable collection of cymbidium orchids. The lawn area outside the fernery was named in his honour.
The whole gully was called Stainton Dell in honour of Mr P. E Stainton, whose service as secretary of the park board and administrators spanned 44 years.