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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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When the provincial boundaries were first delineated in 1853, some 2 million acres in the western North Island were assigned to the “Province of New Plymouth”, the smallest of the original six provinces. In 1858 the name of the province was changed by Act of the General Assembly to “Taranaki”, the Maori name for Mount Egmont. For most of the period of provincial government Taranaki had a smaller population than that of any other province, and in the 30 years after the landing of the first colonists in 1841, European settlement had not spread more than a few miles beyond the town of New Plymouth.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century a dense Maori population occupied the coastlands from Mokau to Patea and was particularly concentrated on the fertile undulating lands between Urenui and Waitara. The clearing of land for crops had pushed back the coastal forest and the first Europeans found a fringe of fernland, from 2–4 miles deep, extending as a great arc around the forest of the interior. These fringe lands were dotted with numerous pa and kumara plantations and were intersected with wooded streams giving a parklike appearance which greatly attracted the first European visitors.

In the 1820s a large-scale exodus of the Taranaki peoples took place to the Cook Strait district in the face of a threatened assault by Waikato tribesmen. In 1832 the Waikatos, equipped with firearms, did invade North Taranaki and overwhelmed the remnants of the Ngati Awa peoples except at Otaku pa (New Plymouth) where a spirited and successful defence was put up with the assistance of a group of English whalers. Thus, by the mid-1830s, the coast-lands of Taranaki were almost deserted and the survivors of the former inhabitants were living in slavery in the Waikato or as exiles in the Horowhenua and Cook Strait districts. Into this temporarily vacated district the first English immigrants stepped ashore from surfboats in 1841.

Foundations of European Settlement

The settlement was planned by a subsidiary of the New Zealand Company – the Plymouth Company – which was to take over some of the New Zealand Company's land, sell it in the west of England, select colonists, and organise a settlement. The Plymouth Company was absorbed in the parent organisation in 1841 after selling some £12,000 worth of land at 30 shillings per acre. Late in 1839 an advance party of the New Zealand Company, led by Col. William Wakefield, had landed at the Sugar Loaf Islands from the vessel Tory and purchased 60,000 acres of land from the sparse remnant of Ngati Awa peoples still living on the coast between Mokau and Patea. Early in 1841 the surveyor F. A. Carrington selected Taranaki as the site for the Plymouth Company's settlement after inspecting several alternative areas in Queen Charlotte Sound and Tasman Bay which the New Zealand Company claimed to have purchased.

New Plymouth was the only one of the organised settlements in New Zealand without a natural harbour. The shortcoming was a severe handicap for many decades, but Carrington thought good land was more important for the proposed agricultural settlement than a good harbour. He observed that in central New Zealand a good harbour and good land seldom went together and, in justifying the choice of the Sugar Loaves as the site for New Plymouth, wrote that “the next generation will erect a commodious breakwater”. Carrington was to be present at the laying of the first stone for the breakwater, but that was in 1881, 40 years later.

The first seven ships brought nearly 2,000 immigrants from the west of England counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, and Hampshire, the majority being agricultural labourers and miners. The first colonists had barely established themselves before the former Maori owners, knowing nothing of the company's purchase of their lands, returned from slavery and exile. They objected to the extent of the land sales and their claims were substantially upheld when Governor FitzRoy allowed the New Zealand Company only 3,500 acres of its Taranaki land purchase, and that only in the immediate vicinity of New Plymouth. The initial area of the settlement was gradually extended by Government purchase from the Maoris to a total of 63,000 acres by 1858, mainly to the south and south-west of the town. The first farms were on fern country and, although the settlers looked enviously at the wide expanse of open, fertile plains near Waitara, the Maoris firmly refused to sell. Denied the chance of extending their farms into this open country, some settlers turned reluctantly to the heavier labour of hewing out farms in the bush, a task, however, in which they made use of the skill of Maori workmen with the axe and their knowledge of burning off.

Early Progress

By 1850, although scarcely 4,000 acres were in crop, Taranaki had earned the title “The Garden of New Zealand” and agricultural produce was being shipped to other settlements. Wheat, oats, barley, and potatoes were the chief crops and, although Taranaki later developed into a highly specialised dairying area, in 1850 flour accounted for 67 per cent of the value of exports and butter only 12 per cent. Because of its isolation and limited opportunities, few immigrants came to Taranaki in the later 1840s and the 1850s and the population grew more slowly than in any other province. There were 1,091 people in 1843, 1,985 in 1853, and only 2,650 in 1858. By 1860, of 63,000 acres of land purchased by the Government for European settlement, only 13,000 acres were in cultivation. Twenty years after initial settlement the original colonists and their children formed a much higher proportion of the population than in any other province: in 1861 84 per cent of the overseas-born came from England, the highest proportion for any district in New Zealand. Another inheritance of the west-of-England origin of the early settlers was the high proportion of Wesleyan Methodists – 22 per cent in Taranaki, compared with 8 per cent for New Zealand. Since that time Taranaki has consistently recorded a higher proportion of Methodists than that of any other province.

The Maori Land Question

European settlement in Taranaki was more intimately affected by the Maori land question than elsewhere. During the 1850s the Maori became increasingly reluctant to part with his land. The Europeans, on their narrow coastal foothold, fretted against some 1,700 Maoris whom they regarded as shutting up from settlement some 2 million acres of virtually unused land. The settlers' determination to occupy the good open land near Waitara caused them to take risks and urge the Government to abandon its policy of land purchase by patient negotiation. In 1860, amidst a situation of general confusion and misunderstanding, European and Maori drifted into a war which was to last intermittently for 10 years.

During the course of the conflict, European forces generally held the disputed Waitara lands, but elsewhere the Maoris moved where they wished, plundering and burning farms and killing some outsettlers. Military actions were generally inconclusive and desultory guerilla fighting and ambuscades continued until 1866 when General Chute marched a large force through the bush from Patea to New Plymouth, thence around the coast via Cape Egmont to Wanganui, destroying all pas and plantations in his way. One million acres of land were confiscated and military settlers were established on the forest-free Waimate Plains west of Patea in South Taranaki. In 1868 the Maoris took heart once more and attacked the Waimate Plains settlements. A colonial force of Forest Rangers (including Major von Tempsky) was raised and, after a series of European reverses, the war finally petered out in 1869.

Of some 1 ¼ million acres of land confiscated by the Government up to 1870, 95,000 acres (mainly in open country) were laid out in 50-acre grants for military settlers, 91,000 acres were reserved to “friendly natives”, while much of the remainder (mainly bushland) was given back to the “rebel” owners, eventually to be purchased by the Government for settlement in the eighties and nineties. Before the abolition of the provincial governments in 1876 a “Provincial Government Forest Reserve” had been demarcated in a 6-mile radius from the summit of Mt. Egmont – the area which in 1900 was to be constituted the Egmont National Park.

During the 1870s Taranaki stirred from its long stagnation. The European population increased from 4,500 in 1871 to 5,465 in 1874 (see map) and to some 15,000 in 1881. Assisted immigration brought 2,100 people to the province by 1879, a mere 2 per cent of all the assisted immigrants to New Zealand in the seventies but amounting to almost half of Taranaki's population in 1871. The frontiers of settlement spread in three directions: south-west of New Plymouth between Oakura and Okato; south from New Plymouth and Waitara into the forests of the Inglewood district; and on the open country of South Taranaki between Patea, Hawera, and Manaia.

The construction of the railway line between Hawera and New Plymouth opened up the fertile and rolling bushland to the east of Mt. Egmont, and settlers came close at the heels of the construction gangs. Inglewood was reached by rail in 1877, Stratford in 1879. By 1880 the available open lands had all been occupied and pioneering in Taranaki was henceforth a matter of bushfelling. The western fringe of the province between Opunake and Okato was settled comparatively late by Europeans, and this area still has a high proportion of Maori land. In 1885 New Plymouth's long isolation was relieved by the completion of the rail link to Wellington, and until the completion of the Main Trunk Railway in 1908 the town was the transhipment point on the combined rail-sea journey between Wellington and Auckland.

Development of Dairying

Despite the impetus given to development after the Maori Wars, at least 20 years passed before the growth of dairying gave the smallholder a secure income from a type of farming adapted to Taranaki conditions. The pioneer farmer of the 1870s and 1880s spent much of his time on roading, bush-felling, and sawmill work. Amongst the stumps of his bush section he practised a part-time, semi-subsistence economy, growing wheat, oats, grass seed, and potatoes and tending livestock. Many were glad of the cash received by the export to China of an edible fungus collected from tawa and mahoe trees. The first cooperative dairy factories were opened at Inglewood and Opunake in 1885 and their success led to a revolution in farming, A Chinese merchant, Chew Chong, who had organised the export of fungus, played a major part in the establishment of creameries and factories and in organising marketing facilities. Although cooperative dairy factories had been established earlier in other parts of New Zealand, the “ring plain” of Taranaki, encircling Mt. Egmont, became the first specialised dairying region in the country. The reasons are probably to be found in the small size of holdings and the heavy rainfall conditions, both of which made fat-lamb farming a less attractive alternative than it was in many other districts.

The 1890s were the “boom” years of Taranaki, when the population grew at a rate faster than in any other province. The lowlands were completely occupied and the farming frontiers advanced finger-like into the valleys of the tangled mass of hill country to the east of Stratford. The number of farms almost doubled from 2,500 to 4,235; the number of cattle doubled from 108,000 to 211,000; and the area in sown grasses increased from 300,000 acres to 700,000 acres. In 1896 there were 46 dairy factories. Five years later there were 95 butter factories and 21 cheese factories, as well as some 40 sawmills cutting into the fast-retreating bush. At the turn of the century, however, when most of the technical and organisational problems of the young dairy industry were being overcome, a new menace appeared in the declining fertility of the soil and in the rapid spread of blackberry and ragwort over the pastures. The solution was found in the removal of stumps and logs, followed by ploughing and resowing in improved strains of grasses, the liberal application of superphosphate, and the use of chemical weedkillers. By 1925 this consolidation phase was almost complete on the lowlands; and hedges of boxthorn and barberry gave a neatly enclosed appearance to a well ordered countryside. The supplementary feed crops of oats and turnips soon disappeared from the Taranaki scene as all-grass farming became securely established. The early specialisation on butter production gave place during the First World War to an emphasis on cheese; by 1920 there were 116 cheese factories and only 26 butter factories.

Problems of Hill-country Farming

In the steep hill country of eastern Taranaki, settlement was less successful and in some cases disastrous. By the mid-1890s the tide of settlement pressed inland from Waitara, Stratford, and Patea. As part of the Liberal Government's policy of granting “the land for the people”, men of limited capital were placed on small bush sections at Whangamomona and Ohura far in advance of roads and railways, and they set to work with a confidence born of experience in the fertile lowland bush country. The trees were felled and burned, grass was sown amongst the debris, and Lincoln sheep and Shorthorn cattle were turned out to graze. But on the steep hill slopes and under the high rainfall, reversion to secondary growth and severe soil erosion often resulted. Surveyors, accustomed to lowland concepts of an economic size of farm, made many properties too small for hill country. Renewed impetus to settlement came with the high wool prices after 1918, but the sharp slump of 1922 caused widespread abandonment. The highest acreage of sown grasses recorded in Taranaki was 1,237,000 acres in 1923. Since then the farming frontiers have retreated, rapidly at first to 950,000 acres in 1937 and more slowly since then. Both road and rail construction lagged far behind settlement – partly because of the difficulty of securing suitable reading metal in this predominantly mudstone country. The railway from Stratford to the Main Trunk line, begun in 1901, was not completed until 1932, and a suitable all-weather road to Taumarunui was not completed until 1945.

The railway made it possible to open up the sub-bituminous coal deposits of the Ohura-Tangarakau area and helped to arrest the decline of settlement by allowing the application of fertiliser to the lower valley lands. Nevertheless, much of the steeper and remoter hill country reverted through fern and manuka to secondary forest within a generation of its first occupation. The advent of aerial topdressing in the 1950s has permitted a modest if selective improvement in the central and northern part of the uplands where rolling terrace country, capped with volcanic soils, offers sites for landing fields as well as cultivable land for winter feed crops. Since 1925 Romney sheep have entirely replaced the Lincolns of the pioneer phase, and Polled Angus cattle the Shorthorns.

Population Trends

In 1911 the European population of Taranaki was 51,569 and in that year the provincial district had just over 5 per cent of the Dominion's population – the greatest relative share it has had at any census. Net migration into Taranaki ceased after 1911 and there has been outwards migration ever since, especially to the Auckland provincial district. Many sons of pioneer Taranaki dairy farmers moved north to become pioneers themselves in the Waikato, Northland, and Bay of Plenty. Similarly, Taranaki's earlier maturity as a dairying region enabled it to supply many of the stud Jersey cattle which built up the dairy herds of the Auckland district.

The provincial population grew to 94,109 in 1956 and 99,774 in 1961, of which 7 per cent were Maoris. In common with most other long-settled farming districts in New Zealand the largest urban centre has absorbed most of the population growth in the past 50 years. Thus New Plymouth has increased more than fivefold since 1911, whereas smaller market towns, such as Stratford, Waitara, and Hawera, have merely doubled, and many townships have remained stable or declined. Taranaki's high birth rate has resulted in a rate of natural increase of population that has been exceeded on occasions only by Marlborough and Westland. Nevertheless, the actual increase of population between 1956 and 1961 was only 6 per cent, the lowest for the North Island and only half the national rate of growth.

The prosperity of Taranaki has depended in the past mainly on its resources of soil and climate, supplemented for a period by its native timbers and, more recently, by coal in the eastern hill country. Two types of mineral deposits – oil and ironsand – have raised high hopes from time to time for at least a century. The first attempt to smelt the iron-bearing beach sands was made in 1848, but a commercially satisfactory process has yet to be devised. The first oil bore, at Moturoa near New Plymouth in 1865, produced a few gallons of oil, some gas, and much enthusiasm, and in recent years a small-scale oil-processing plant has operated at New Plymouth. The dramatic discovery in 1961 of a large source of natural gas beneath the dairy lands of South Taranaki has given a new complexion to New Zealand's power and fuel problems and raises possibilities of local industrial developments which could be as significant to Taranaki as was the rise of the dairy industry in the 1890s.

by Murray McCaskill, M.A., PH.D., Reader in Geography, University of Canterbury.

  • See also Dairying, New Plymouth, Mount Egmont, etc.
  • An Account of the Settlement of New Plymouth, Hursthouse, C. (1851)
  • Taranaki, Seffern, W. H. J. (1896)
  • From Plymouth to New Plymouth, Wood, R. G. (1959)
  • N.Z. Journal of Agriculture, Vol. 96 (April and May 1958)


Murray McCaskill, M.A., PH.D., Reader in Geography, University of Canterbury.Samuel Harvey Franklin, B.COM.GEOG., M.A.(BIRMINGHAM), Senior Lecturer, Geography Department, Victoria University of Wellington.