A strange brick arch stands to the side of Central Park Drive in Henderson, half buried in the earth, and bears mute witness to one of West Auckland’s most bizarre legends, that of the “mysterious hermit lawyer” Henry Swan and his wife, the incredibly forgiving Edith Swan.
In the enduringly popular legend, Henry Swan was an English born and trained solicitor who, by the late 1890s was a prosperous Auckland lawyer, living at Devonport with Edith, his Canadian wife. He was a pillar of Auckland society being a member of the prestigious Northern Club and Auckland Institute Museum.
Then, suddenly and mysteriously, Swan pretended to embark on a round the world voyage in his 30 foot (9m) yacht, the Awatea. But, having waved goodbye and sailing out to sea until dark he went about and sneaked Awatea up a tributary of the Henderson Creek, where it ran through land he had bought several years earlier. Here, hidden from sight, he lived on Awatea for the next 30 years, a recluse developing a successful orchard, digging several caves to act as cool-store cellars for his fruit and to store personal possessions. He also dug a pool for the Awatea and for himself, friends and local children to swim in and finally, in 1925, he began building what is today known as Swan’s Arch.
Meanwhile, after seven years and presuming him lost at sea, Edith Swan had him declared dead only to discover in 1910 that he had been found alive and well in Henderson. Somehow, Edith reconciled these various shocks and for the rest of his life was a regular visitor to his strange home, even keeping a swimming costume there.
Except, according to Waitakere historian Robyn Mason, the story is probably mostly urban legend that does no justice to a cultured man who gave generously to his community.
In fact, Henry and Edith Swan’s unconventional lifestyle may well have been a practical, if not legal, divorce that suited them both, he being an outdoorsman who yearned for a simple life and she a sophisticated city girl. Edith and Henry remained friends for life. She loved him from the start, of that her father bore witness, and her obituary to him was loving.
It is possible that the marriage was a loving marriage of convenience. Certainly Edith was a young woman who knew her own mind and was prepared to defy convention. Perhaps in an age that demanded that lovers be married and divorce was a scandal, they married in order to be together and then found a way that suited them both, to live apart.
As for the story he went to sea and then sneaked back, Robyn Mason’s research suggests that he and Edith were both overseas when this was supposed to have happened.
There’s no hard evidence that Henry Swan practised law in Auckland or that he was a member of the Northern Club. He was a member of the Auckland Institute Museum but not until 1912, and a life member from 1928. He was also chairman of the Plumer Domain Board. These high profile positions contradict the idea of a skulking hermit keeping himself aloof from the world.
In short, the story of the deceitful hermit and his betrayed but forgiving wife, may have been a fiction invented by idle tongues and embellished by the rumour mill. What is missing, is the full story of the scholarly, gentlemanly, free spirit; the story of yet another West Auckland character who added value to the community.
Swan, says Robyn Mason, had no need to work. It seems it simply suited him to live on his yacht, experiment with growing fruit, study his books and the natural world, take an active part in local life, and mentor local children including young Lucy Cranwell whose botanical interests he first encouraged when she was a child. He also sponsored Lucy to membership of the Auckland Institute Museum when she was just 21. It launched a stellar career. Lucy became the Museum’s botanist and founder of the Auckland Botanical Society on her way to gaining an international reputation.
While Swan’s Arch may have been no more than a hobby, it did span the saltwater swimming pool he constructed and in which, concerned about the number of deaths by drowning in New Zealand, he taught local children to swim. It was also an observation post on which he placed telescopes to teach children about the night sky.
Nearly a century on, the Awatea is still around, the pool and the cellars are gone and the top half of Swan’s Arch stands above the grass beside Central Park Drive in silent memorial to a man described as being: “Quintessentially Westie… practical, selfsufficient and outside the mainstream….cultured and generous… a man of comfortable means and leisure living in a sylvan spot beside a winding waterway”.
With thanks to Vivien Burgess, Robyn Mason and the West Auckland Historical Society. This story has drawn upon: ‘A Man of Comfortable Means and Leisure’ by Robyn Mason, published in ‘West of Eden’, Journal of the West Auckland Historical Society, Issue 3.