Mataura is situated on the Mataura River on the eastern fringe of the Southland Plain. The land rises to the Hokonui Hills 8 miles north-west, and to the east is broken by discontinuous hilly blocks. The South Island Main Trunk railway and the Invercargill-Dunedin highway pass through Mataura, which is 8 miles south-west of Gore and 32 miles north-east of Invercargill.
Sheep, cattle, and dairy farming are practised on the surrounding plain. There is some logging and timber milling in the forested hills to the east. Mataura is centred on the extensive Mataura coalfield which produces good-quality lignite. Industrial establishments include a large meat-freezing works which also processes organic fertiliser and other by-products; a cheese factory and milk treatment station; a large paper mill; and a factory producing food for livestock.
The Mataura Falls close to Mataura were a source of large supplies of lampreys and attracted Maoris to the district. The original Maori village of Tuturau stood near the left bank of the Mataura River about 3 miles downstream from the present town. In 1836 this village was the scene of the last battle between North and South Island Maoris. A war party under Te Puoho, one of Te Rauparaha's chiefs, attacked and occupied the village which was later retaken by a party under the leadership of Tuhawaiki and Taiaroa who had been at the Bluff during Te Puoho's attack. On 4 December 1937 the Tuturau Centenary Reserve, comprising the site of the original village, was handed over to the Mataura Borough Council by the southern Maoris.
W. B. D. Mantell and party, who travelled overland from Dunedin to the Bluff to open the preliminary negotiations for the purchase of Southland in 1851, appear to have been the first Europeans to visit the vicinity of Mataura. They were closely followed by C. J. Nairn and C. J. Pharazyn, who were exploring for sheep country. The township of Mataura came into existence about 1858, having by that time become the recognised crossing place on the Mataura River for overland travellers between Dunedin and the Southland settlements. The town soon developed with the extension of the railway southwards from Gore in 1875. Two years later paper mills were founded, and today they are the oldest established unit of New Zealand's expanding paper industry. Mataura was constituted a borough in 1895.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,715; 1956 census, 1,850; 1961 census, 2,085.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.