Wairoa is situated on alluvial flats on the southern bank of the Wairoa River about 2 miles upstream from the mouth. Five miles north of the town the country rises to the high hills that form a watershed between Lake Waikaremoana and the coastal lowlands of northern Hawke's Bay. The Napier-Gisborne railway and the main highway pass through Wairoa. By road Gisborne is 64 miles north-east (60 miles by rail), Napier is 74 miles south-west (73 miles by rail), and Lake Waikaremoana is 40 miles north-west.
The main primary industry of the district is sheep raising. Cattle raising and dairy farming are also practised and there is some fruit growing (apples and peaches). Logging and other forestry activities are carried on in the district, chiefly at Patunamu (20 miles north-west). Town industrial activities are meat freezing and the processing of associated by-products, the manufacture of butter, bricks and pipes, concrete pipes, and joinery, general engineering, sawmilling, wool scouring, and the processing of hides and skins. Wairoa is of importance as a junction for tourist traffic to and from Lake Waikaremoana and Morere Hot Springs (26 miles east).
Wairoa was originally a Maori settlement near the mouth of the Wairoa River. It was known as Te Wairoa (the Long River), and was inhabited by the Ngati Kahungunu. Captain James Cook, who anchored westwards of Mahia Peninsula in October 1769, noted the mouth of the Wairoa River on his chart. The first European visitors to Wairoa and district were flax traders. Barnet Burns, who claimed to be an agent of a Sydney firm and had settled at Mahia (12 miles east) in June 1829, was possibly the earliest. Captain John William Harris, the pioneer European settler of Turanga (now Gisborne), is said to have landed men from the Fanny in 1831 at places near Wairoa and Mahia to act as his trading agents. In December 1839 Captain William Barnard Rhodes visited Wairoa and established a trading and whaling station for the Sydney partnership of Cooper, Holt, and Rhodes. Rhodes did not take up residence, but left William Burton in charge as manager. William Williams, the first missionary to visit the district, performed several baptisms at Wairoa during 1841. Later in that year Father Baty, a Roman Catholic missionary, visited Wairoa in the course of a journey to Lake Waikaremoana. Other early visitors included Selwyn, William Martin, and William Colenso.
European settlement of the district was delayed because the Maoris were reluctant to sell land. During the 1850s, however, Wairoa developed a sea trade with Napier (then called Ahuriri) in flax, fruit, and timber, and several areas were leased for sheep and cattle runs. The first Crown purchase of Maori land took place in 1865, and this included 4,750 acres for a town site, named Clyde. But the unreliability of the river port and the lack of a satisfactory overland route retarded its development. Due to the spread of Hauhauism during 1865, Wairoa became a military base, and blockhouses were built in the town and at Frasertown (then called Te Kapu).
The Wairoa Harbour Board, constituted in 1872, set out to improve the bar, but the river port continued to deteriorate and early in 1939 was closed. Harbour works commenced at Waikokopu (25 miles east) in 1924–25, but the port declined with the arrival of the railway in 1939 and was last used in July 1942. On 1 October 1946 the Wairoa Harbour Board was abolished. In 1919 the Wairoa-Waikokopu section of railway was commenced and by 1923 it was carrying a limited goods traffic. The Napier-Wairoa section was completed in 1937 and came into full service in 1939. Three years later the Waikokopu-Gisborne section was completed. Clyde was created a town district in 1883. The Wairoa Borough Council was constituted in 1909.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 3,348; 1956 census, 3,796; 1961 census, 4,301.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.