A beginner's guide to Ponsonby

A brief article of Ponsonby, its history and its people and the contribution they have made to our society in Arts, Literature, Food, Fashion and Sports.

Ponsonby was one of Auckland’s earliest, and is still the most vibrant inner-city neighbourhood in Auckland. The Great Ponsonby Arthotel is in the heart of Ponsonby and is a great place from which to explore the rest of Auckland.

Maori used to come and gather flax and fish near Cox’s Bay though they had no permanent settlement. Waiatarau, or Freemans Bay, was an important place to camp, fish and trade from. Te To Pa was on the headland overlooking the bay. Streams in the area were sources of food and provided reeds used for bedding. The Ponsonby ridge is known by Maori as Te Rimu Tahi or “The Lone Rimu Tree”. The Rimu was a prominent landmark which stood near the intersection of Ponsonby Road and Karangahape Road.

Ponsonby is part of the Waitemata and Gulf Ward in Auckland City. It is handy to museums, galleries, boutiques, major shopping streets, live theatre, bars, cafes, restaurants, the Zoo, Eden Park, the harbour and the Skytower.

Ponsonby has been home to actors and musicians, lawyers, All Blacks, poets, play writers, romantics, revolutionaries, bishops and brothels. Ponsonby’s unique heritage, as well as its bars, bistros, and galleries create a rich flavour. Some people come just to soak up the ambience, some to shop, sit in a coffee shop and watch the world go by, but the luckiest stay a few days.

Ponsonby’s first name was Dedwood, however that did not last long and it was renamed Ponsonby. Dedwood is a name that never would have been appropriate for Auckland’s liveliest neighbourhood which has never been dead.

This posh suburb's residents mainly live in restored villas with wisteria-covered verandas. Hoteres or Palmers now hang on living room walls where Michael Joseph Savage’s photograph reigned supreme for decades.

Bohemian Ponsonby is now represented in our leading private galleries; White Space, Two Rooms, Art Object, Satellite and the public galleries of Artspace and the Art Station. Exhibitions are also held at the historic Leys Institute. Body Art is popular and Ponsonby is home to the leading tattoo studios in the Pacific.

Artist John Papas’s paintings generously grace the wards of Starship Children’s Hospital and other hospitals in Auckland. Tony Fomison’s Ponsonby Madonna is perhaps our most well know work by a Ponsonby Artist.  Well known sculptors Barbara Ward, and John Pule live and work in the neighbouring suburb of Grey Lynn.

Art in the Dark which is illuminated instillations in Western Park brightens winter. A Ponsonby identity Ross Thorby covered his house in Christmas lights several years ago. Now the lights go on at all the houses in his street at the beginning of December and the whole of Auckland seems to walk up and down Franklin Rd to see the lights.    

The Ponsonby Rugby Club is internationally respected. It regularly leads and is often the top team in the Gallagher Shield, the local tournament for Rugby. The Ponsonby Club has produced more All Blacks than any other club in New Zealand.


In the other sporting codes Ponsonby is well known and also has produced a significant number of representative and international players. The first Rugby League Game in New Zealand was played at Victoria Park in 1910. The All Gold’s had a number of Ponsonby Rugby players, some of whom were members of the 1905 “Originals” All Blacks team.

Just minutes away from the Waitemata Harbour, sailing is a well-established Ponsonby activity. Prestigious race-winning sailing boats such as Ranger may never be built again in Ponsonby, although in the backyards the smaller P Class boats are still being built and international sailors call Ponsonby home. On a Friday afternoon sailors can be spotted sprinting down St Mary’s Road to participate in the Rum Races.

Ponsonby has been Auckland’s leading music district for a century. Grand Central, Whisky Bar and bohemian One 2 One most nights have live music. Tommy Adderly, Rick Bryant, Hammond Gamble, Sam Ford, Trudy Green, Beaver, Hello Sailor, the Dudes, Truda Chadwick, Che Fu, Don McGlashan, Kirsten Morrell, Lynn Lorkin, Graham Brazier, Topp Twins Toy Love, Straight Jacket Fits, Abel Tasman’s, and the Headless Chickens are among those who have paid their dues. As Dragon sang in 1974, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ponsonby is a mighty fine place to be’. Mick Jagger played for free at the Gluepot. It was not advertised but the word soon spread and there was a queue snaking along Ponsonby Road.  Rod Stewart stayed over with Rachel and played. Current Australian cabinet minister, Peter Garret exuberantly and actually put a hole in the ceiling at the Glue Pot while performing with his band Midnight Oil.

TV chefs Hudson and Halls outrageously fun restaurant is now reincarnated as one of Chef Simon Gault’s high class eateries in Ponsonby. Other leading restaurants here include Sidart,  Prego and SPQR. The international Food Court provides a variety of global food at affordable prices and the few remaining Bohemian cafes Cezanne, One 2 One, Landreth and Co., and Bella Pizza provide good options. Billy Connolly made Ponsonby Pies famous and Ponsonby bakeries provide a quality which rivals Paris.

Fashionistas have made Ponsonby home since the 1980s. Zambezi, Karen Walker, World, Juliette Hogan, and Carlson are among those who have their flagship stores on Ponsonby Road.

The Via Veneto in Rome may think they are La Moda but Ponsonby certainly is in the running. Our top cocktail bars give Harry’s Bar a run for its money and certainly are as hip. Try Shanglis Lil's .

Old Industrial Ponsonby has almost gone. The Flight Suitcase factory is now a radio station and retail space. The new industries include film production and advertising agencies. Many of Ponsonby's creative people have made international careers and are well known on Madison Ave, New York. Mike Riddell won awards in 2011 for best New Zealand film award with his movie Insatiable Moon. Residents include Sculptor Greer Twiss, Art critics, writers and documentary makers George Andrews, Hamish Keith, Dean Parker, Jacqueline Fahey and Shirley Horrocks.

Another new industry is pampering, health and wellness. Holistic consultation, acupuncture, massage and nutrition are often the first choice of medication. The scent of hot oils drifts out from their studios. They challenge California and offer better value.

Ponsonby residents tend to be fit people and enjoy our parks. Dogs and walkers emerge from these to join lycra clad runners and cyclists .They merge and add more colour to the streets. They care for their streetscape as they do their villas and are passionate about the buildings.  Ponsonby has an eclectic mix of buildings from art deco to contemporary buildings. The resindets fight to keep the beautiful, mourn the loss of some like the Imperial Farmers Building and despair of the replacement. They always wish for something better and they collectively share in some victories. They enjoy the beauty and ambience of Ponsonby Rd is in the evening. 

Ponsonby residents are educated, well travelled, liberal and tolerant and passionate about our community.  When Cole Parker sang ‘Anything Goes’, he may have had Ponsonby in his thoughts. They were proud to offer the Auckland gay community our road to have their Hero parade. This was a successful and well run event through the 1990s and the early years of this century and attracted 100,000s of people. In 2013 they welcomed the Pride Festival. Their signature event was a parade along Ponsonby Rd which will now be a regular happening every February.

Where else in New Zealand would The Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess come to dinner?  He dined in their Lincoln St home of David and Vivian Ballantyne who were no mean talented scribes themselves.

The Ponsonby Business Association is proactive, and among its activities are regular market days. These are more like Mardi Gras featuring actors, musicians and other thespians often showcasing contemporary Ponsonby talent. These days are now well established on the Auckland calendar. They also sponsor a number events of the Auckland Heritage Festival.

Many of its residents frequently are in the media and they make a significant contribution  including an informed, outspoken role in the life of city. Writers Amelia and Eruhuru Sterling, Albert Wendt, Selwyn Maru, Vincent O Sullivan, Richard Wolf, Roger Horrocks and Witi Ihimaera have given much to our city and nation. Witi’s book Whale Rider thrills people everywhere and the Nikki Caro movie of this story are everywhere. Carol Beu, of the Women's Bookshop, is one of New Zealand's top quality retailers. This bloke is a regular shopper. There is far more than chick lit and Carol hosts regular events and is a mainstay of the Auckland Readers and Writers festival.

Ponsonby has great heritage and social history. Its community centre has now named two of its rooms after some of Auckland’s most colourful women. Freda Stark, dancer who during the Second World War entertained 3000 American officers in the Wintergarden Theatre in nothing more than body paint and a g-string. Freda was a true citizen of Ponsonby. Flora McKenzie was in less enlightened times as infamous Madam. Bishop Pompallier and Michael Joseph Savage are international figures in Religion and liberal Socialist Politics. People come from all over Auckland in September to celebrate them in the annual Auckland Heritage Festival.

Sister Mary Leo’s most famous student Dame Kiri Te Kanawha remains a star in international opera and winger Bryan Williams is a living legend in international rugby. Mary Jane O’Reilly’s Limbs Dance group began in the 1970s and things were never the same again. Their successors participate and excite many in the biannual Auckland Arts Festival.

Ponsonby has a variety of accommodation. You can choose from back-packers, motels and good quality bed and breakfasts. The finest backpacker is Verandahs, the best motel is the Albaco Spa and our bed and breakfast, The Great Ponsonby established in 1994 is recognised for changing the game.

My partner and I have the Great Ponsonby situated in a quiet cul-de-sac a stone’s throw away from the action. Lonely Planet’s only Enviro Gold accommodation in Auckland, Footprint guide describes us as ‘One of the best in the city’ and Rough Guide describes it as the pick of the bunch is the Art Hotel Great Ponsonby. This is a Qualmark and Enviro Gold and 4 ½ star property. For all your accommodation requirements in New Zealand, a safe choice is to follow the Qualmark recommendations.

We are fortunate to be part of this ward where our elected representatives’ share much of our beliefs and promote heritage, urban design and sustainability. Who knows, you may even want to live here. A stay of some days is often extended and if you decide to live in Ponsonby we welcome you.

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