Waipawa is situated on the northern bank of the Waipawa River, a tributary of the Tukituki River, and on the south-eastern fringe of the Takapau (Ruataniwha) Plain. The northern and western parts of the town are hilly but the remainder, including the business area, is located on flat land. The Woodville-Napier railway, and the main highway, pass through Waipawa. By road Waipukurau is 5 miles south-west; Hastings, the nearest city, is 26 miles north-east; and Napier, the nearest main port, is 39 miles north-east.
The main rural activity of the district is sheep farming. Cattle raising is also important and there is some market gardening. Waipawa is chiefly a servicing and distributing centre. Industrial activities include sawmilling and joinery; general engineering, including the manufacture of farm machinery; wool and hide processing; and the manufacture of concrete products and lime making.
The site of Waipawa is close to a ford where the ancient Maori trail between Manawatu Gorge and Hawke's Bay crossed the Waipawa River. The first recorded European visitors to the locality were Bishop George Augustus Selwyn and Chief Justice Sir William Martin, who camped overnight on a bank of the Waipawa on 13 November 1842, before continuing to Ahuriri (Napier) with a Maori party. In February 1845 the Rev William Colenso, travelling from the north with Maoris, passed near Waipawa on his first unsuccessful attempt to cross the Ruahine Range. In December 1850 Sir Donald McLean was instructed by Governor Sir George Grey to negotiate for the purchase of Hawke's Bay Maori lands. The sale of Te Hapuku's Waipukurau block, which contained the future town of Waipawa, was completed on 4 November 1851. In the same year F. S. Abbot applied for land and named his run “Abbotsford”. Abbot later sold the run but retained several hundred acres for a town to be called Abbotsford. The sale of sections commenced in 1860 and the town soon became known as Waipawa. During 1866 the settlers were threatened by Te Kooti's supporters and a stockade was built near Ruataniwha, 5 miles west. Although garrisoned for several months, it was used for a refuge on one occasion only. Local Maoris met a Hauhau war party upstream from the stockade and, after a show of force to impress the enemy, the latter withdrew.
Punt and canoe river transport played a part in the early years but by 1867 a coach track to Napier was in existence. The route between Napier and Woodville was surveyed by Karl Herman Weber in 1870 and subsequently a proper road was formed. In 1872 railway construction began at Napier and by 1876 had reached Waipawa. In 1891 the line linked with Palmerston North and Wellington, and in 1897 with Wellington via the Wairarapa. Waipawa was made a town district in 1884 and in 1908 was constituted a borough.
The meaning of the name is obscure.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,415; 1956 census, 1,607; 1961 census, 1,712.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.