European stonemasonry began in New Zealand with the construction of the stone store at the Kerikeri mission station from 1832 to 1836, built from Sydney sandstone and local basalt. The construction was supervised by mason William Parrot, who came out from Sydney.
From 1840 masons found work in Auckland, with its ample supplies of basalt. Within 10 years they had constructed many buildings there. They also built dry-stone walls (without mortar) – a considerable feat of skill and craftsmanship. Before the use of concrete from the 1870s, stone was also used for building foundations.
Snails and squirrels
One of the outstanding buildings constructed by masons in the mid-1800s was the Canterbury Provincial Council Chamber in Christchurch. Work began in 1858 and it was finished in 1865. Master mason William Brassington oversaw the stonework, and added exquisite touches – hidden in the carved stone foliage were carved squirrels, frogs and snails. Master masons left little touches as a signature of their work.
Māori workers excelled as stonemasons, helping to construct the Albert Barracks and Fort Britomart in Auckland in the 1840s. By the 1860s more elaborate structures such as churches were being built, and these required very skilled masons. Stone was mainly quarried locally due to the costs of transport.
In 1888 there were more brick and stone houses in the Otago area than the rest of New Zealand, because of the availability of local stone for building. The first masons working with Ōamaru stone were not used to it – British limestones were much harder. Ōamaru stone could be cut with a saw, although it hardened as it weathered. Most stonemasons were multi-skilled, also working as builders. Some also supplied monuments, memorials and headstones.
The demand for stonemasons declined in the late 1800s as fewer buildings were built with stone or required extensive stone ornamentation. Construction using reinforced concrete became common for large public buildings over the 20th century and relegated the stonemason to the role of a niche craftsman.
In the 2000s there was an increase in the popularity of suburban stone walls in Auckland, mostly built by groups of Polynesian stonemasons. Skills as a mason have traditionally been learnt on the job or passed down through a small number of families. In the 2000s Otago Polytechnic offered a one-year course in stonemasonry in Cromwell.
Bricks were common for early commercial buildings – especially larger ones – in Wellington and Auckland. There was a lot of work for bricklayers – not just on buildings, but also for lining wells and tunnels and erecting chimneys. In early Wellington bricklayers put up large stores, churches and a hospital. Earthquakes in 1848 and 1855 destroyed many buildings, leading to a preference for rebuilding in wood. Brick-veneer building also developed – a structure was built with a wooden frame and bricklayers added a brick façade, which was not a structural feature.
Brickworks were an early city industry. The introduction of a new kind of kiln (called a Hoffman kiln) to New Zealand in the 1870s greatly improved the quality of bricks. Consistent, well-fired bricks made the work of the bricklayer much easier and led to more houses and other buildings being constructed from bricks. On many large commercial building sites the bricklayer was a familiar sight, with his hod (a three-sided box of bricks), mortar and trowel.
Cement blocks were a larger form of brick which made it much quicker to build walls. The first machine-made New Zealand concrete blocks were produced by Firth Concrete in 1938.
In 1951 there were 760 bricklayers in New Zealand – just one was a woman. A 2003 estimate put the number of bricklayers employed in New Zealand at 3,200. During the 1990s and early 2000s bricks were increasingly used in construction, partly because leaky buildings had recently become an issue, and partly because bricks were cheap. There was strong employment growth for bricklayers during this period.