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Birkenhead is located on the north shore of the Waitemata Harbour, four kilometres northwest of the Auckland city centre. Birkenhead was a city until amalgamated into North Shore City; prior to that it was a borough. As a city and borough it included areas known as: Birkenhead Point, Highbury, Chatswood, Verrans Corner, Birkdale and Beach Haven. The southern part of the suburb is known as Birkenhead Point and lies on a promontory between Chelsea Bay and Little Shoal Bay, one kilometre to the west of the northern approaches to the Auckland Harbour Bridge. It is surrounded by the suburbs of Northcote and Highbury to the north and Chelsea and Chatswood to the west.
Chatswood contains a primary school and many parks. To the south of Chatswood is Kendall's Bay, a small bay of the Waitemata Harbour.
Birkenhead was described as "wild and bleak" by the New Zealand Herald in 1883, as it was isolated from the city of Auckland by the harbour, and was little occupied. However, in 1882 it was chosen as the site of New Zealand's only sugar refinery, and in 1883 work began on what was later known as the Chelsea Sugar Refinery. The company built houses for its many new workers and thus the suburb of Birkenhead began. The Refinery was the main source of work for the area for many years, and still operates today.
Once the site of ancient kauri forests, Birkenhead was the site of temporary gum-diggers' camps: as men and women sought to dig up the lucrative fossilied resin. Auckland families would cross the Waitemata Harbour by ferry at weekends to dig in the fields around Birkenhead, causing damage to public roads and private farms, and leading to local council management of the problem. In 1883 a farm estate called "Mayfield" was auctioned and subsequently subdivided for housing sections. Birkenhead was probably named after the town of the same name across the River Mersey from the city of Liverpool, developed during the middle of the 19th century by ship builder "John Laird". The English Birkenhead was noted for its elegant and expensive houses, its sea views and its charmingly laid out picturesque park copied by New York's Central Park.
Birkenhead was one of several areas on the North Shore popular as a location for the homes of successful middle-class people. These men, usually professionals or business owners, would use the Auckland Harbour Ferry Services to commute to Auckland. The wharves at Devonport, Northcote and Birkenhead were very busy until the construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge in 1959 changed things forever. The ferry to Birkenhead was resumed in the 1980s and since the increase in congestion on the bridge, the usage of the Birkenhead Ferry has grown considerably.