by Helen Martin
While absolute historical accuracy is impossible to achieve it is at least worth aiming for, don’t you think? History’s stories have always been open to interpretation, manipulation and false information, something history students now study in historiography classes, where they look at the theory and history of historical writing. But now we’re so aware that those with power and influence make things up to suit their desired narrative it seems we increasingly no longer see any point in questioning what they say. Tired of lies and obfuscation, many think it’s better to live in quiet, unexamined peace.
Be that as it may, I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about Helensville’s name for a while, spurred on partly by discussions I’ve had with others asking the same question about its provenance. It seems to us it was bad enough for people who had been here for five comparative minutes to summarily ditch the place’s perfectly good, descriptive Mâori name, Te Awaroa (The Long River/Valley); but for the unreferenced source of the replacement name to be unquestioned seems a further transgression. In short, we wonder whether Helensville was really named after a house, as claimed, or whether that often-repeated ‘fact’ is a romantic fiction. It was when that ‘fact’ was used as a real estate selling point last year (2018) - “The property that gave Helensville its name is on the market,” said the advertising guff - I thought it was time to stop grumbling and do some research.
‘Te Awaroa’ was renamed ’Helensville’ in the early 1860s. Last year (HCN, April Pg 16), I queried the story, proposed by C. M. Sheffield in her 1963 history of Helensville and the Southern Kaipara ‘Men Came Voyaging’, that when influential Nova Scotian settler and timber miller John McLeod replaced ‘Te Awaroa’ with ‘Helensville’, he took the new name from the “first real home” he shared with his wife Helen McLeod, which had been named ‘Helen’s Villa’. There is no argument that McLeod named the town after his wife, but in that article, I proposed it was worth speculating that the word ‘ville’ came from the commonly used French word ‘ville’, meaning ‘town’, in line with the many other ‘villes’ in Aotearoa, and was the real source of the second part of the new name.
In the August 2018 HCN pg 12 I described how, visiting the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, I had found that The Andersen Place Names Index in the John Milton Room has a tantalising record of correspondence from Sheffield, “Letter 10 June 1954. Colleen M Sheffield to Andersen’, but there is no record of the letter’s contents. The Index does however contain a letter from ‘Alfred J McLeod son of Isaac son of the first Isaac the brother of John’, dated 16 Sep 1940. Describing the history of the town, this letter states the town was “named after the wife of John McLeod.”
Also in the John Milton Room is The Reed Place Names Index, which contains notes from research compiled by author and publisher A.W. Reed. The Index contains this quote from Charles West’s 1956 ‘History of Helensville and Kaipara’ - “John [McLeod] owned the Otamateanui block of 360 acres at the north end of Helensville, calling the place after his wife.” But in his ‘Place Names of New Zealand’, written in 1975, 12 years after the publication of ‘Men Came Voyaging’, Reed writes - “Helensville, named by John McLeod after his wife Helen …. The little settlement on the Kaipara River was first known as Helensvilla or Helen’s villa. It is not clear whether McLeod gave the name directly to the locality, or whether it was taken from the name of the house which honoured his wife. Maori name Awaroa: lit. awa: river or valley; roa: long.” I think that, having read Sheffield’s book, Reed felt the need to equivocate over the source of the name. Peter Dowling’s 2010 revision of Reed’s book repeats the same equivocation.
It appears then that accounts written before publication of Colleen Sheffield’s book, and latterly for academically verified sources like Te Ara online (https://teara.govt.nz/en/place-names/page-5) and NZ History online(https://nzhistory.govt.nz/keyword/helensville), opt for the view that John McLeod named the town after his wife, and that other accounts written after publication of Colleen Sheffield’s book have used her work as their source of information. What is interesting to today’s scholar is that, while Sheffield provides a bibliography and a list of reference sources, no information in the book is specifically linked to any source.
We do know that Colleen Sheffield’s notes for her book have yet to be released. Perhaps they contain the answers.