New Plymouth is situated on the northern edge of the uplifted coastal plain of Taranaki, on the western extremity of the North Island. Twenty miles east of the city the land rises to the dissected uplands of the interior, while to the south lies the extinct volcanic cone of Mount Egmont. The suburbs are Fitzroy, Strandon, Merrilands, Brooklands, Welbourn, Vogeltown, Westown, Frankleigh Park, Lynmouth, Spotswood, and Moturoa. The railway line from Wellington (251 miles south-east) terminates in New Plymouth, as does the line from Auckland (286 miles north-east). By road the city is 102 miles north-west of Wanganui (107 miles by rail), and 110 miles south-west of Te Kuiti (175 miles by rail). New Plymouth has no natural harbour, but a breakwater built seawards (begun in 1881) has been progressively extended and affords good shelter for large vessels which formerly had to be tended in the open roadstead. Westwards of the breakwater a tiny archipelago of islets called the Sugar Loaves helps to protect the artificial harbour. Tonnage handled in 1964 was 599,018 tons, the main imports being cement, motor spirits, and manures. Cheese, frozen meat, and butter are exported. The airport is at Bell Block, 5 miles north-east of the city.
New Plymouth is the centre and seaport for a fertile and highly productive agricultural and pastoral district, the most important rural activity being dairy farming. Although butter factories are more common around New Plymouth, most of the milk produced in Taranaki is made into cheese. The countryside is dotted with little settlements clustering around a cheese or butter factory. This close distribution of cheese factories dates from the days of horse transport, when whole milk was too bulky to carry over long distances. A variety of industrial activities is carried on in and about New Plymouth and these include the making of aerated waters, bacon and ham factories, the manufacture of soap, beer, bricks, and confectionery, flourmilling, dairy factories, marine engineering, brass extrusion, timber dressing, meat freezing, a plant nursery, chemicals and fertilisers, and the treatment of hides and skins. The beautiful Pukekura Park, with its view of Mount Egmont, lies in the centre of the city.
The first Europeans to settle in the district were whalers, Barrett, Love, and others, who established themselves at Ngamotu Beach in 1828. In 1832 an invading force of about 4,000 Waikato Maoris laid siege to Ngamotu Pa and the whalers joined the defenders, who numbered less than 400. The attackers were eventually obliged to withdraw. In 1841 the chief surveyor of the Plymouth Company commenced laying out the town and, in March, the first settlers arrived in the William Bryan. In spite of ample signs of Maori cultivation, only 20 natives were living in the neighbourhood at this time. The natural fertility and gentle surface of the land were primary factors considered in deciding the location of the new settlement. After the rivers of Taranaki were found unsuitable as ports, the naturally protected beach near the Sugar Loaf Islands was finally decided upon. For New Plymouth, the period from 1841 to 1860 was one of urban and agricultural settlement and arable farming. Land troubles, however, beset the Taranaki settlement almost from its beginning, the climax being reached in 1860 when the Taranaki War broke out. New Plymouth became a military encampment and many settlers, in despair, left the district.
Once peace was firmly established, New Plymouth began to prosper and soon assumed the characteristics of a market town and transport terminus for the tributary areas which were now being rapidly cleared of forest. Butter was a trade commodity and the advent of refrigeration in 1882 hastened the transformation of the lowlands into pastoral land. In 1881 the railway reached Hawera and four years later the butter and timber of Taranaki could be railed to Wanganui. New Plymouth was constituted a borough in 1876 and became a city on 27 January 1949. It is named after Plymouth, in Devon.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 24,923; 1956 census, 28,292; 1961 census, 32,387.
by Susan Bailey, B.A., Research Officer, Department of Industries and Commerce, Wellington.