Waitara is situated on the banks of the Waitara River about three-quarters of a mile upstream from the mouth on the North Taranaki coast. The surrounding country consists of alluvial flats and terraces, but inland it soon becomes undulating and hilly. Waitara is the terminus of a branch goods railway from Lepperton. The main New Plymouth – Te Kuiti highway passes through the town. By road Waitara is 10 miles north-east from New Plymouth (14 miles by rail), 96 miles south-west from Te Kuiti, and 13 miles north from Inglewood by road or rail.
The main primary industry of the district is dairy farming. Factories producing butter or cheese are located at Brixton (3 miles south-west), Tikorangi (3 miles south-east), Waipapa (4 miles east), Waitoetoe (12 miles east), and at Lepperton (5 miles south). Sheep farming is of secondary importance. Sawmilling is carried on at Waitoetoe. A plastic-goods factory is established at Onaero (8 miles east). Localities near Tikorangi continue to be investigated in the course of current petroleum exploration activities in Taranaki. Waitara is the main trade and servicing town of North Taranaki. Industrial activities include meat freezing and the processing of associated by-products; sawmilling; butter and cheese making; the manufacture of furniture, joinery, bricks, pipes, tiles, and footwear; and general engineering.
In pre-colonisation times Waitara lay on the main overland route between the Waikato and Taranaki districts. Vestiges of numerous pas on all strategic heights in the district indicate that the area was closely settled and that its possession was from time to time contested. In the 1820s many of the resident Ngati Awa Tribe migrated to the Otaki district. During their absence the Waitara territory was invaded and conquered by Waikato warriors. The New Zealand Company purchased from the few remaining Ngati Awa a block of 60,000 acres, including the Waitara district, in 1839. In 1841 the first European immigrants arrived. Their surveyors considered Waitara for the port of New Plymouth, but this plan was abandoned because of the river bar. Some Ngati Awa returned from the Otaki district after 1839 and, during 1840, they were joined by many others who had been freed by their Waikato captors. Neither group had benefited by the sale of their land and, when the immigrants arrived, the question of ownership caused trouble between Maoris and settlers and also within the tribe. In 1844 Land Commissioner William Spain confirmed the Europeans in the possession of the land, but afterwards Governor Robert FitzRoy returned the 60,000-acre block, with the exception of 3,500 acres around New Plymouth, to the Ngati Awa. In 1845 the settlers petitioned Governor Sir George Grey to restore the land. Francis Dillon Bell purchased more than 1,400 acres, including part of the Waitara land, and other purchases were made, but Grey's policy was one of caution.
In 1848 the land problem became acute with the return of Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake and some 587 Ngati Awa who soon settled on the town site and elsewhere in the district. An offer of land at Waitara was made to Governor Thomas Gore Browne by Teira, a minor chief, in 1859, and was accepted. Wiremu Kingi opposed the sale. The title to the block was tested on 20 February 1860, but the Government agent and the survey party were obstructed and turned back. Martial law was proclaimed, the militia called out, and the settlers brought into New Plymouth. On 8 March 1860 Colonel Gold marched on Waitara and built Pukekohe Redoubt. The Taranaki War began on 17 March with the attack and capture of the L Pa at Te Kohia. Fighting continued around Waitara until the surrender of Te Arei works on Pukerangiora to Major-General Pratt on 19 March 1861. In 1864 fighting again broke out in the district during the Hauhau campaign. Waitara was connected to New Plymouth by road in the early 1840s and by railway on 14 October 1875. The Waitara-Inglewood line was opened in 1877. Waitara functioned as a port until 1920. The first settlement, called Raleigh, is considered to have been founded in 1867. In 1904 the borough of Waitara was constituted. The commonly accepted meaning of the name is “mountain stream”.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 3,348; 1956 census, 3,796; 1961 census, 4,369.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.