by Ruth Wackrow
Lake Rotoroa (Long Lake) – unimaginatively referred to as ‘Hamilton Lake’ by many local residents – is a natural lake in the heart of Hamilton City, formed when the Waikato River changed course around 20,000 years ago. It is a well-used recreational haven that’s popularity stretches back well over one hundred years. Today many people utilise its large destination playgrounds, sports fields, rose garden, retired steam train, and Verandah Café. People can also walk around the entirety of the lake, which includes large boardwalks on the south-western side.
Prior to European colonisation of New Zealand, Māori used Lake Rotoroa for harvesting kai, where they collected kaakahi (freshwater mussels) and kooura (freshwater crayfish).
While little is recorded of the pre-European history of the lake, its development as a public amenity from the late 19th Century was widely reported in the newspapers. Initiating this, on the 17th of April 1886, it was published in the New Zealand Herald that “The Hamilton Lake, 141 acres, which lies on the borders of the borough, has just been vested, by notification in the New Zealand Gazette, as the property of the borough”, and the area became a public reserve.
The lake and surrounding domain were immediately put to use as a recreational area and during the late 19th Century there were various types of swimming, boating, and athletic activities held there. One of the first public events was held in January 1888, when a merry-go-round, shooting gallery, and Russian swing to launch people into the water were in action.
In August 1888 one of the first tree planting events took place at the domain, which approximately 250 people attended. The first tree to be planted was a large oak, and then around 1500 pre-prepared holes were filled with a variety of different trees.
The Hamilton Swimming Club hosted the Waikato Anniversary Swimming Races in 1888 and 1889, which proved to be very popular. The 1888 event was attended by between 400 and 500 people. During both years, in addition to the swimming races, there were refreshment stalls, tents, a merry-go-round, flags, and boats and canoes on the water.
A regatta held on the 30th of January 1889 was highly successful with more than 1300 people present. Rowing clubs travelled from the North Shore, Auckland, and Ngaaruawaahia. It was published in the Waikato Argus that the lake was “one of the finest waters for rowing on imaginable, and the picturesque grounds at the back provide a natural grandstand for viewing the contests” and “no place could be more suited for such a gathering”. The Hamilton Brass band played, and there was a publican booth and refreshment booths. There were also swimming races, dingy races, canoe hurdle races, and waka racing, which the public enjoyed.
Various other swimming and rowing competitions were held at Lake Rotoroa over the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were hosted by the Hamilton Swimming Club and the Hamilton Rowing Club        . It was reported that these events were well attended and appreciated by Hamilton’s residents.
Volunteers from the Hamilton community cleared and burned off scrub in 1901 to make more room for recreational activities.
In December 1902, Mr. George Parr acquired a consignment of trout that came via train from the Waimakariri, which he released into Lake Rotoroa. It was thought that if the trout were able to reproduce, trout fishing would be a good addition to activities on the lake. However, some were doubtful that it would succeed because it had been tried unsuccessfully around 15 years prior. Mr. Parr acquired more trout in 1903, this time releasing 1500 fry into the lake. Nevertheless, both releases proved unsuccessful and trout were not established in Lake Rotoroa.
Realising that trout might never be successful, in 1904 bookseller and publisher Mr. W.H. Paul decided to instead try releasing perch for the purpose of game fishing. After releasing more perch in 1905  this endeavor was found to be successful, with the fish observed to be “doing well” in 1906, and one was caught in 1908 of a good two-pound size. In 1916 one angler caught five perch in one day, proving that the fish were well established. By 1935 the stock of perch in the lake was so great that 100 were caught and given to the Auckland Acclimatisation Society.
During the 1900s the Lake Domain continued to be well used during the warm months by the public, and school and community groups. The Hamilton West School picnic was held in 1904, and on the 8th of February 1905 the Grand Aquatic Carnival and Sports evening was held at the domain. A “brilliant and illuminated procession” marched from the railway station in Frankton to the lake where foot races, boat races, and races for children were enjoyed.
In 1910 one Frankton resident wrote to the Argus about their recent outing to the Lake Domain where they watched an excellent band performance. They were, however, very disappointed that the grounds had not been kept to a good standard. The gates were also locked meaning that children’s prams and go-carts needed to be lifted over the fence, and horses and buggies needed to be parked along the street, which was believed to be unnecessary as there was ample room within the domain.
Fireworks displays were also a favourite attraction for the public. In 1910 one major display included a “realistic representation of a waterfall”, a moving butterfly, a peacock with multi-coloured feathers, and a sparkling fountain. There was also “humorous moving pictures” on a screen and the fire club swinging act of Flamos.
In order to “add to the attractions” at Lake Rotoroa a number of black swans , white swans, and mallard ducks were introduced, and in April 1911 a warrant under the Animals Protection Act 1908 was published in the New Zealand Gazette declaring the lake a sanctuary for both native and imported game, meaning that people were not allowed to hunt them. Signs were placed around the lake to inform the public.
A Boxing Day carnival was held at the lake in 1916 to fundraise for the Hamilton Beautifying Society, which had been formed in 1912. Mr. George Parr was appointed director of the carnival. He told the Beautifying Society that he wanted it to be a large event, and that he would try to arrange transport for people from Ngaaruawaahia, Horotiu and Huntly through the Waikato Shipping Company. The carnival had various attractions such as maypole dancing, swimming races, greasy boom, greasy pole, swings, skittle alley, tug-o’-war, launch trips, boating, archery, sack races, potato races, motor rides, guessing competitions, water shoot, rowing races, seesaws, a Christmas tree, refreshments, and an athletic programme.
At the Hamilton Domain Board’s meeting on the 8th of November 1917, Mr. Arthur Swarbrick – the Boards first chairman, who became instrumental in the development of the lake as a community resource – spoke about how the board had “big things in view”.
Born in Derby, England, Swarbrick moved to the outskirts of Hamilton, New Zealand, at the age of 25, where he began a career in farming. In 1893 he took over Mr. Hay’s legal practice and built up his own firm – Swarbrick and Swarbrick. He served the Waikato community as the first chairman of the Domain Board, first president of the Hamilton Law Society, first chancellor of St Peter’s Cathedral, choir master at St Peters Church, president of the Operatic Society, foundation member of the Hamilton Club and the Waikato Rowing Club, a master of Lodge Beta of Freemasons, and was involved with the Waikato A&P Association and the Racing Club .
Swarbrick believed that there were “Glorious opportunities” that would be a shame not to develop, and he intended to form a drive around the lake, and to “get things in order” within the Domain grounds. The matter of how to finance the work was also discussed at the Hamilton Domain Boards meetings, as was the fact that the Auckland Domain Board had received thousands of pounds of city funds for work in their domains, but Hamilton did not have this same source of funding. It was decided that the Board would try to bring politicians to the lake during their upcoming trip to Hamilton to discuss the matter.
The increasing popularity of swimming in the lake meant that the changing rooms were becoming inadequate by December 1918. There were complaints that the changing sheds were “unsanitary”, and although the lake was lovely to swim in, the muddy floors – particularly in the women’s dressing area – were deemed unacceptable as the women’s and girl’s long dresses would drag in the mud.
The lake continued to attract large numbers of people, and a raft that had been purchased by the Domain Board was being so well used in 1921 that they decided to get another one.
The level of the water in Lake Rotoroa notably fluctuated over time  , and in April 1921 the low level was becoming a real concern. Mr. Swarbrick commented that the Domain Board had received concerns about this topic in the past and that they always gave it their full attention. He said that the Railway Department used water from the lake for its engines, and that he had instructed them to build a dam in order to keep the lake at a proper level, and this had been effective. The lake level always naturally dropped in the summer and then refilled again in the winter. However, in the previous year the board elections had not taken place, a legal entity had not formed, and so they had no power to act upon people carrying out certain works which drew water from the lake and therefore seriously lowered the water level. Mr. Swarbrick and other Board members intended to visit the lake drainage area to see what might be done, and to hire surveyors to map out the lake boundary. He said that draining the lake and turning it to mud flats would be a “serious disaster to the town”.
On the 3rd of August 1921 Mr. Swarbrick stated that the water from the lake was being “systematically drained off and the surface of the Lake lowered”. The Board said that there was a peat formation that next to the lake served “to retain water in the lake so long as it is not artificially drained to draw water off of the Lake”. The owners of the land in this area intended to section it off for housing and drains had been cut to dry the surface off, with more possible in the future. The combination of this private work and the Railway Departments water use was having the effect of draining the lake.
At the Chamber of Commerce meeting on the 8th of August 1921, it was decided that the Hamilton Chamber would support the idea of protecting Lake Rotoroa from being drained. Mr. George Parr, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce, said older residents of Hamilton remembered the lake being many feet deeper and that they should not let private enterprise ruin the lake because it was a well-used asset especially in the summertime. The lake water was not as cold as the river, and it was safe and pleasant. Mr. A Chitty, another Chamber of Commerce member, said that in Hukanui, to the south of Hamilton, there previously was a lake where people could sail a boat, but it was drained until only a small amount of water was surrounded by a large amount of mud, which meant that the water became unapproachable. The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce decided to assist the council and the Domain Board in the matter. It was decided that in order to protect the lake the Hamilton Domain Board would try to purchase the land from the private owners who were carrying out the drainage works.
A new tea kiosk was opened on October 14th 1922, which proved to be very popular. A “small fleet of well-built and thoroughly safe pleasure boats” was purchased and steps at the end of the jetty were also made. Wooden grates were added to the women’s changing room floors, but it was agreed that the rooms would need to be further upgraded and enlarged for the following year because of the increasing popularity of the area. People often travelled long distances to get to the lake, including from Auckland .
During 1923 the gardens were enhanced, with around 700 trees planted  and the Lake Domain proved to be a wonderful setting for the Girl Scouts fortnight long camp in January 1923,the Boy Scouts Rally in October 1923and the South Auckland Caledonian Societies events    .
An agreement still could not be reached by 1923 between the Domain Board and the private owners of the land adjacent to the lake in order to stop the lake being drained, so the Board requested that the Government step in. The Government obliged and the land was taken under the Public Works Act. A compensation claim was later made by the previous landowners, Hanna, Paterson, and Deluen of Auckland. It was found that the men were offered 1000 pounds for the land by the Board, which they rejected, and the land was then seized. The court awarded the men 1,960 pounds.
Although the problem of draining the lake was averted, another serious problem was taking hold within Lake Rotoroa. Weeds and rushes were beginning to take over. Mr. Swarbrick commented that the rushes were growing so rapidly because of the decrease in the water level which began years prior. By 1925 the problem was so serious that safe swimming areas were marked out and notices were issued advising people where to swim. The Domain Board said that the weed died down over winter and then regrew rapidly over the warmer months, and that it was not possible to cut it back unless the water was calm which hadn’t occurred for months prior.
At the beginning of 1926 Mr. Swarbrick completed trials for appliances to clear the lake of weeds. He had found one to be effective enough to clear a safe swimming area. However, it required four men and a horse to operate it and was very slow. If the board was able to get hold of a motor to run the machine it would speed things up considerably. However, a lack of funding meant this was not possible.
On the 28th of November 1927 Mr. Swarbrick passed away at the age of 76. He was survived by three sons and a daughter. His wife, Adriana passed away 18 months prior to Arthur’s death.
To honour the late Mr. Swarbrick, the Domain Board decided to erect memorial gates in December 1927, due to having “closely associated with Hamilton affairs for 40 years” and had “given a great deal of his hard-earned leisure to work connected with the preservation, administration and development of Hamilton’s domain lands”. A committee was appointed to raise funds and arrange details, and on the 3rd of January 1930 the Swarbrick memorial archway was officially opened in front of a large crowd. The South Auckland Pipe Band performed a guard of honor and then played two songs. Over the last few months of his life, Mr. Swarbrick had spent a lot of time thinking about what an appropriate entrance to the Lake Domain could be. The stone archway was said to be fitting because it was not a barrier to the Lake Domain, but rather an open door to welcome people. Two marble slabs were placed in the archway. One reads, “this entrance is dedicated to the memory of the late Arthur Swarbrick”, and the other “Chairman, Hamilton Domain Board 1913-1921, 1925-1927. If you seek a further monument, look within”. The Swarbrick memorial archway is still a great feature at the entrance to the Hamilton Lake Domain today, though no longer used for vehicular traffic as it once was.
The lake weed was still a major problem in July 1929, so the Domain Board decided to lease a weed cutter from the Government. A marine saw that they had used earlier was deemed not effective. In February 1929, Lake and drainage expert Mr. B M Finlay visited Lake Rotoroa and gave his opinion that the lake weed could not be controlled effectively by cutting it; the roots must be pulled out. Despite this, in October 1929 the Domain Board purchased a weed cutting launch for 350 pounds.
By January 1931 a large amount of work had been completed at the Domain. New first class changing sheds had been erected and the area around them had been tarred and sanded, miniature golf links had been formed, lawns extended, additions to the boat sheds made, weeping willows were planted, and the troublesome lake weed was well under control. The beautiful spot was extremely popular for recreation for people from all over the district. The Lake Domain was “undoubtedly one of the town’s finest assets”.
More work was undertaken in December 1931. Old trees were cleared, new trees were planted, the road was improved and fences were built. Flowers were also planted including red begonias, lobelia and blue ageratums.
By 1933 the lake had reached its maximum level and overflowed its banks on the western side.
In early July 1935 bulbs that had been planted on the Swarbrick memorial began to bloom, and the 30,000 bulbs that had been planted around the lake followed soon after. A nursery that had been formed on the Domain grounds held 1300 native trees, 500 hydrangeas, 100 lawsonia shrubs, and six Norfolk Pines 79].
In October 1936 another prominent member of the Domain Board passed away, Mr. W. H. Paul. Mr. Paul had been president of the Hamilton Beautifying Society for 15 years and also served as Chairman of the Domain Board. It was said that there was “no man who has done as much as Mr. Paul to make Hamilton more beautiful”. A Norfolk Pine was planted in his memory in order to “keep the memorial of Mr. Paul evergreen”.
Despite increasing financial commitments, the Hamilton Domain Board continued improving the Lake Domain throughout 1937 and beyond. Improvements to the golf links and kiosk were made, additional seats and benches were provided, the changing area was improved, around 500 native and imported trees and shrubs were planted, and the lake was “freer of weeds than it has been for the past 15 years”.
Despite best efforts for many decades to continue clearing the lake weed, it was a persistent problem and in 1959 11,000 liters of a sodium arsenite formulation was used as a herbicide in Lake Rotoroa, meaning that 5,500kg of arsenic was supplied to the lake. Copper, lead, cadmium and zinc also currently enter the lake via stormwater runoff. The report “Significance of Arsenic in Sediments of Lake Rotoroa (Hamilton Lake)” 2011, showed that Under the Resource Management Amendment Act (2005), the level of arsenic in the sediments of the Lake Rotoroa lakebed does meet the criteria of being “contaminated land”. However, the risk to the health of recreational users and workers on the lake is deemed to be low due to the “infrequent nature and short durations of typical exposures”.
High bacteria levels in the water have unfortunately made the lake unsafe to swim in since 1984. Although swimming in Lake Rotoroa is not currently safe, a number of other recreational activities do take place on the water including dragon boating, waka ama, yachting and boat racing.
The Hamilton Lake Domain now also has two large playgrounds, one on the eastern side and one at Innes Common on the western side. The eastern side of the Lake Domain has a large ‘destination playground’, which includes water play, a toddlers play area, Verandah Café, a retired steam train suitable for climbing on, and the beautiful rose gardens that were formed in 1952 and still bloom very well today. To the west, Innes Common has the Gallagher Hockey Centre, cricket fields, a parkour training area, half basketball court, barbeques and swings. To the entire lake domain remains an extremely popular recreational destination especially during summer.
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