Thames is situated on the south-east coast of the Firth of Thames on the banks of the Kauaeranga River and about 1 mile north of the mouth of the Waihou River. Most of the town occupies a narrow coastal strip of flat land at the western base of the Coromandel Range. On the south the country opens to the wide expanse of the Hauraki Plain. A branch railway from Frankton terminates at the town. By road Thames is 74 miles southeast of Auckland via Pokeno and Kopu (146 miles by rail via Frankton), 68 miles north-east of Hamilton (60 miles by rail), and 35 ½ miles south of Coromandel. Thames is a port for small cargo vessels, but the nearest deep-sea facilities are at Auckland, 42 miles north-west.
The main farming activities of the district are sheep and cattle raising, dairying, market gardening, fruitgrowing (pip, stone, and citrus varieties), and viticulture. Butter is manufactured at Ngatea (13 ½ miles south-west), cheese at Hikutaia (13 ½ miles south-east), casein at Wharepoa (12 ½ miles south-east), and at Turua (9 miles south), and milk powder at Kerepehi (about 14 miles south). Wine is made at Totara (about 2 miles south-east). Flaxmilling is carried on at Ngatea. Timber is logged chiefly from the western slopes of the Coromandel Range and there are sawmills at Matatoki (7 miles south-east) and at Ngatea. Exotic plantations in the Kauaeranga Valley, extending north-east of Thames, are managed by the New Zealand Forest Service. Thames is a trade and servicing centre with associated secondary industries. It is also an important base for commercial fishing in the Firth of Thames and elsewhere in Hauraki Gulf. Town industrial activities include fish packing and curing; sawmilling; general engineering; the manufacture of steel tubes and other products of heavy, medium, and light metal industries; concrete products; knitwear and other clothing. There is a brass foundry at Parawai on the south-east of the borough. Since the late 1950s active re-examination of old gold workings has been undertaken and there has been some prospecting for new ore bodies.
The Thames district was settled by the Ngati Maru. On 16 November 1769 Captain James Cook in his ship Endeavour cast anchor off Tararu Point, about 2 miles north-west of the present town, and made a short excursion on the Waihou River by ship's boat. In 1794–95 the Fancy, seeking spars for East India Company naval vessels, landed sawyers and an Indian guard in the vicinity of Thames. HMS Coromandel brought the Rev. Samuel Marsden to the district in June-July 1820. In 1821 Hongi Hika and a large war party arrived in the district and, by an act of treachery, captured the impregnable Te Totara pa and killed at least 1,000 inhabitants. The Rev. Henry Williams and party passed through the district in October 1833 and chose a site for a mission at Te Puriri (now Puriri, 9 miles south-east). The site proved to be unhealthy and in 1838 the station, occupied by the Rev. James Preece since 1834, was transferred to Parawai (part of the present town of Thames). Preece worked there until 1847. On 27 July 1867 J. Mackay, Civil Commissioner for the Hauraki district, secured gold-mining rights from three Maori chiefs. In August Mackay laid out the town of Shortland and brought a party of 40 miners and officials from Auckland. A general rush followed. The first important reef, called the Shotover, was discovered on 10 August by William Hunt; it lay beneath a waterfall on Kuranui Stream. Gold to the value of nearly £2,000,000 was produced in the peak year of 1871. Although there was occasional heavy production in certain subsequent years, the output of the field steadily declined until, by 1924, it had almost ceased. Renewed activities since the late 1950s have produced no spectacular results.
Shortland quickly became a compact town with a wharf and good port facilities for small vessels in the nearby river. Robert Graham secured a lease for a township – Grahamstown, which was laid out according to a Government plan. There were some major mining properties nearby and a deep-sea wharf was built at Tararu Point and connected to the township by railway. These two towns merged into one residential area after 1870 and, together, became known as Thames. Shipping services on the Waihou River had extended to Te Aroha by the early 1880s. All shipping on the river ceased in 1947. It was not until the early 1880s that a road suitable for wheeled traffic was opened between Thames and Te Aroha. Thames was linked to Te Aroha and Hamilton by rail on 19 December 1898. The borough of Thames was constituted on 8 November 1873. The name is derived from that given the Waihou River by Captain Cook.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 4,551; 1956 census, 5,001; 1961 census, 5,314.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.