Learn about North Head's importance as a defence site first for early Maori and later for European settlers.

Building the fort: 1885-1900

Work started on the North Head fort in 1885 in response to fears of attack by the Russian navy.

Most of the defences you can see at North Head today date from the 1885-1900 period. These include North, South and Summit batteries, the two engine rooms and searchlight emplacements, 12 pounder battery and Minefield control post.

We know a lot about the construction of North Head during the early period because the records kept by the designer of the fort and the works foreman, who was here during much of the late 1800s, have survived.

The designer

The older fortifications at North Head were designed by Lieutenant Colonel EM Tudor Boddam. Boddam was a Royal Artillery officer who came to New Zealand from Tasmania where he had been working on the Hobart defences.

He used design and building methods which allowed forts to be built very cheaply. His forts were simple and mostly made from concrete, which was much cheaper than brick and masonry.

There are no known photos of Tudor Boddam but his signature appears on hundreds of drawings and reports.

The site foreman

Walter Frankham, the site foreman, worked for the Public Works Department, the Government department responsible for building the forts. He kept very good records which he sent to his boss in Wellington. These records have survived. Frankham lived locally in Devonport in Church Street.

Transcript of Report of progress of works Fort Cautley for week ending 10 August 1889

Four wardens, two instructing wardens and 36 prisoners have been employed on works during the past week as under:

South Battery - Excavation for Casemate and passage to 64 pounder magazine is down to within 9” of floor level and earth from excavation is being filled in front of gun pit to bring up to the required height and all stone met with being saved and stacked for use in remaining concrete walls.

North Battery - Nearly the whole overhang requiring to be excavated in cement concrete has been completed. A small gang of men have been engaged excavating steps giving exit from end of main gallery to proposed observing station, also a number of men were employed wheeling broken metal from ditch leading round to Electric Light building.

The Blacksmith (prisoner) pointing and steeling picks and making gratings for cess pits.

Carpenters - Two (civilians) preparing for magazine doors etc 1 carpenter driving S.[steam] pump part one day

Carter - One (civilian) carting usual gaol [jail] supplies and working with carpenters

A cutter with lime from Whangarei arrived in the harbour on Wednesday evg [evening] August 7 but owing to the strong easterly weather has been unable to as yet to discharge cargo at jetty.

W. Frankham

The workers

In 1885 300 unemployed men were sent to North Head to build defences. This did not work out and they were replaced by between 30 and 40 prisoners who were kept in the barracks on the top of North Head. This is the long grey wooden building you can see today. The prisoners were here from 1888 until 1914.

Use of cheap prison labour meant that the forts could be built at a low cost. The only tradesmen used were the carpenters who built the formwork into which the concrete was poured, and a carter who carried supplies.


Most of the fortifications at North Head were made without machinery. Picks, shovels and wheelbarrows were the most common tools. Even the concrete was mixed by hand on large mixing boards. It was barrowed by the prisoners to where it was needed. The building materials were landed at a wharf on the eastern side of North Head and pulled up the hill on a tramway by a steam winch. The stone used came from North Head and often the material dug out for one battery would be used to build the next.

Later fortifications 1900-1996

While most of the fortifications you can see today were built in the 1885-1900 period there is much remaining from later times.

The 6 inch Mark VII Battery

Unlike the earlier gun batteries which were designed in New Zealand this battery is a British design. Work started on it in 1908 and the guns were the main armament at North Head until 1958. 

The 4 inch Battery

This was built in 1941 during World War II. It was constructed in front of the 1880s North Battery and used the old tunnels there as a magazine for storing the ammunition.

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