Eltham is situated on undulating land on the Waingongoro River in central Taranaki. The main New Plymouth — Wanganui highway and railway pass through the town. Eltham is 6 miles south of Stratford by road and 13 miles north of Hawera. Dairy farming is the main activity of the surrounding district and a number of factories produce butter, cheese, and other milk products.
Eltham is a servicing and shopping centre for the district but also supports a number of industries related largely to the rural economy. Among these are the manufacture of butter, cheese, and rennet; ham and bacon processing; and the manufacture of meat small goods, meat freezing and packing. A local speciality is the manufacture of novelty cheeses, notably “blue vein”. Other industries include timber milling and joinery, and the making of concrete poles.
Old Maori tracks through the former dense rain forests junctioned at the site of Eltham. The Ngaere Swamp nearby was a fruitful Maori hunting ground. During the Hauhau uprising Colonel G. S. Whitmore with an Armed Constabulary force arrived at Te Ngaere on 25 March 1869 in pursuit of Titokowaru and retreating Maori fugitives. Whitmore's party made a dramatic swamp crossing at night on a causeway made of fascines but failed to make effective contact with the enemy.
Bush clearance began in the district during the 1870s. For a time sawmilling was important and was responsible for the emergence of the settlement. This industry declined with the extraction of the readily millable timber and the extensive burning off methods that were used for clearing the bush. The cleared land proved ideal for pasture and the dairy industry was soon established. Chew Chong who opened dairy factories in Eltham and district, is credited with pioneering New Zealand's export butter trade during 1874–75. He also organised a lucrative export trade in edible fungus.
The settlement was proclaimed a town district in 1884 and on 10 October 1901 was constituted a borough.
It is not known how the town received its name but, according to some early residents, it was given by a surveyor who named it after Eltham, a part of Woolwich, England.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,982; 1956 census, 2,192; 1961 census, 2,255.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.