Patea, in South Taranaki, is situated on the western bank of the Patea River, near the mouth, the main part of the town standing on flat land behind coastal sandhills. The surrounding country is gently undulating. The New Plymouth – Wanganui highway passes through the borough, and the railway follows the east bank of the Patea River. Patea served as a minor port until July 1959. Hawera is 18 miles north-west of Patea by road or rail, and Wanganui is 38 miles south-east by road (41 miles by rail). Freezing works and cool stores are on the eastern bank of the river and close to the railway and wharves. Dairying and sheep farming are the main rural activities.
According to Maori tradition, the colonists from Hawaiki, led by Turi, left their craft at Aotea Harbour, travelled overland along the coast and established themselves about the mouth of the Patea River. An impressive monument of the Aotea canoe with its occupants commemorates the event and stands in front of the Patea Town Hall. Missionaries stationed at Heretoa, north of Patea, were probably the first important European visitors to the district. Bishop Selwyn, in the course of a journey from Wanganui to New Plymouth, passed through Patea in October 1842, and mentions meeting the Rev. John Skevington, pioneer missionary of South Taranaki, near Patea. The Rev. William Woon, a Wesleyan missionary, who followed Skevington at Heretoa, worked in the district from 1846 until 1853. Patea came into existence as a township called Carlyle, which was situated closer to the river mouth than is the main part of the present borough. Settlement commenced in the late 1850s or early 1860s. During the Maori Wars Patea was an important military settlement. General Cameron's force arrived at the mouth of the Patea River on 15 January 1865 and constructed redoubts on both sides of the river. Cameron was succeeded by Major-General Chute, who arrived at Patea in January 1866 with a mixed imperial and colonial force. In May 1867, after comparative quiet in the district, friction occurred between military settlers and Titokowaru's people, whose headquarters were to the north of Patea. By June 1868 active fighting had commenced. Following a repulse at Te Ngutuotemanu, Colonel Thomas McDonnell withdrew his whole force to Patea and resigned. Colonel Whitmore succeeded McDonnell and assumed command at Patea. Titokowaru and his Hauhaus marched southwards across the Patea River into the Wanganui district. He was followed by Whitmore who left a division of Armed Constabulary and others to defend Patea. Whitmore returned to Wanganui in January 1869 and by March had advanced into the outskirts of the Patea district. On 11 March he was again established at Patea. Next day he advanced up the river and attacked Titokowaru at Otautu and put the Hauhau band to flight. With the cessation of hostilities Patea grew as a market town. The first of the sections on the present town site were sold in 1870. A local shipping company was established in 1872, and harbour improvements were begun. In 1888 the freezing works were built on the east bank. Cool stores for handling dairy produce followed in 1901. The railway from Wanganui to Hawera via Patea was completed in March 1885. The Carlyle Town Board, created about 1877 to administer town affairs, was succeeded by a borough council constituted on 13 October 1881 under the earlier locality name of Patea.
The origin and meaning of the name are obscure.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,685; 1956 census, 1,898; 1961 census, 1,991.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.