Waikouaiti is situated on flat land near the northern end of a small bay and about 2½ miles north of the mouth of the Waikouaiti River. The bay, which is bounded on the north by Cornish Head and on the south by Huriawa Peninsula, provides a comparatively sheltered anchorage. A mile west of the town the narrow coastal plain rises to undulating and hilly country. The Dunedin-Oamaru highway and the South Island Main Trunk railway pass through Waikouaiti. Dunedin is 25 miles south-west by road (32 miles by rail) and Oamaru is 46 miles north-east by road or rail. The view from the railway above the bay is one of the most beautiful coastline vistas in New Zealand.
Sheep farming is the principal primary activity of the district. Karitane, 4 miles south-west of Waikouaiti, is a base for commercial sea fishing. Waikouaiti has no important industrial activities but is a minor trade and servicing centre. The town also serves as a dormitory for staff members of Cherry Farm Mental Hospital, 2 miles southwest. In common with Karitane and other nearby coastal townships, Waikouaiti attracts large numbers of visitors in the summer holiday season.
In pre-European times the main fighting pa of the district appears to have been the heavily fortified Huriawa Peninsula. It was known as Te Wera's pa and, according to a Maori account, it was here that Te Wera, chief of the district, and his people who lived in nearby villages, were besieged by foes for many months towards the end of the eighteenth century. Close to the isthmus of Huriawa Peninsula, on the landward side, was the original whaling station established in 1837 by John Jones. In 1839 Jones decided to establish a permanent agricultural community at Waikouaiti, and acquired land there for the purpose. He recruited in Sydney farm workers who had emigrated to New South Wales from the south of England and who were dissatisfied with the climate and conditions they found there. Jones offered them a fixed annual sum and freehold possession of 60 acres per family after two years' settlement. They sailed in Jones's brig Magnet and landed on Waikouaiti Beach in March 1840. In May of the same year Jones brought the Rev. James Watkin and his wife to act as clergyman and teacher to the children of the settlers, whalers, and Maoris, and provided a house, chapel, and school. Watkin from the outset took a firm stand against the vices of the whaling community and the savage customs of the Maoris, and was in a measure responsible for the subsequent orderly progress of the settlement. In August 1843 Jones's family arrived on the scene and made their home at Prospect Farm, Matanaka, the headland at the northern end of Waikouaiti Bay. Three years later a town council was established. In 1866 the town was incorporated as the borough of Hawksbury (or West Hawksbury). The town reverted to its original Maori name in 1909. Waikouaiti is said to mean “the water that decreased”, or “receding water”, perhaps referring to a change in the river's course in olden times. It is also stated, however, that the correct name is “Waikawaiti”, one meaning for which is “little stream of bitter water”. But the true meaning of the name is certainly obscure.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 601; 1956 census, 631; 1961 census, 687.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.