Timaru is situated on the east coast of the South Island at the southern end of the Canterbury Plains. To the north, west, and south stretch the plains which rise to the foothills of the Southern Alps in the west. The South Island Main Trunk line from Christchurch to Dunedin passes through the city. By road Timaru is 102 miles south-west of Christchurch (99 miles by rail), 53 miles north of Oamaru (52 miles by rail), and 126 miles north of Dunedin (127 miles by rail). The port of Timaru, an artificial harbour behind concrete breakwaters, is one of the largest frozen meat exporting ports in New Zealand. It handled 273,076 tons in 1964, the major exports being frozen meat, timber, wool, and manufactured goods. An airport, used mainly by passenger aircraft, lies 7 ½ miles north of the city.
Rural activities of the district include wheat farming, dairying, beef-cattle fattening, and sheep farming. The climate suits berry fruits, such as raspberries and strawberries, which are grown in the Waimate district. The fishing fleet based on Timaru has the third highest catch for any port in New Zealand. The city is a commercial centre, a holiday resort (Caroline Bay), and seaport for the surrounding area, but it also has developed secondary industries. These include flourmills, woollen and knitwear mills, a wool-scour works, brick kilns, and the manufacture of footwear, macaroni, tiles, concrete power poles, biscuits, agricultural implements, and aerated water. There is also bacon and ham processing, general engineering, and a freezing works at Smithfield, just north of the city, and at Pareora, 10 miles south.
The first Maoris to settle in the district appear to have inhabited the caves and rock overhangs in the limestone country of the Opihi and Opuha River gorges. They were followed by the Rapuwai and, later, the Ngati Mamoe, who lived in caves inland from Timaru. During the seventeenth century the warlike Ngai Tahu people drove the Ngati Mamoe south to Fiordland. In 1837 Joseph Price, representative of Weller Brothers, a New South Wales whaling concern, established a shore station at Patiti (Jacks) Point, with a subsidiary station at Whalers Creek. Later, the whaling establishment transferred to the southern shores of Banks Peninsula. When the land between Ashburton and the Waitaki Rivers was opened up for settlement, the brothers W. B. G. and R. H. Rhodes in 1852 took up the sheep runs known as “The Levels”, which covered the land territory lying between the Opihi and Pareora Rivers. A reserve was left for the future town of Timaru. In the following year the Rhodes purchased 126 acres on the southern side of the reserve which were subdivided for settlement. The Canterbury Provincial Government defined the town boundaries the same year and residents began to arrive. Progress was slow and by 1874 the population was still less than 2,000, chiefly because of the difficulties of access. Port facilities were non-existent and ships were moored out in the open roadstead. Wrecks were frequent. A landing service was initiated by the Provincial Government in 1864 and in 1870 a local authority, called the Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works, completed a groyne which was the first step in the development of harbour works. A harbour board was formed in 1877 and a 300-ft breakwater begun in the following year. By 1881 it had been extended in stages to 2,000 ft. The eastern extension, which makes the harbour safe in all weathers, was begun in 1900 and finished in 1906. The Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works were also responsible for the formation of a section of railway from Timaru to Temuka, not originally with the idea of completing a section of the South Island Main Trunk line, but rather for the purpose of providing a needed feeder line to link with the main railway. This section was opened on 26 October 1875. Timaru was proclaimed a borough on 13 July 1868 and became a city on 11 November 1948. There is a divergence of opinion regarding the origin of the city's name. The Maori name for the area is believed to have been “Te Maru” meaning “place of shelter”, because it was a favourite haven for travellers journeying between Moeraki and Banks Peninsula. Others state that the literal meaning of its present form is correct–“the shady cabbage tree”.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 22,851; 1956 census, 24,694; 1961 census, 26,424S.B.