Wanganui is situated mainly on the right bank of the Wanganui River, 3 miles upstream from its mouth. The city lies on the coastal plain, but to the north-west and south-east this is reduced to a narrow strip by the hills of the dissected interior. Durie Hill and St. Johns Hill are residential suburbs, while Aramoho, Castlecliff, Gonville, and Wanganui East are partly zoned for industry. At Aramoho (3 miles north) a branch railway line from the city joins the New Plymouth – Wellington main line. By road Wanganui is 47 miles northwest of Palmerston North (63 miles by rail), 102 miles south-east of New Plymouth (107 miles by rail), and 59 miles south-east of Raetihi. There is a rail link to the port of Castlecliff, 3 miles down stream, at the mouth of the river. Together with the city wharf it accommodates small coastal vessels (larger vessels use the roadstead) and serves mainly as a distribution centre for the central North Island. Tonnage handled in 1964 was 95,152 tons, the major imports being cement, coal, and manure. Hides and wool are exported. An airport 3 miles south-west of the city is used not only by freight and regular passenger aircraft but is also the centre for an extensive aerial-topdressing industry.
Although there is some dairying and poultry farming, the predominant rural activity of the district is sheep farming, together with an increasing number of beef cattle. Wanganui is a trade and distributing centre, but has also developed secondary industries, the largest of which is the food industry. This includes a large meat-refrigerating works at Gonville, a meat-packing works at Castlecliff, a number of dairy factories, flourmills, bread bakeries, cake and pastry works, and biscuit factories. Among the textile industries are woolgrading stores at Gonville, Castlecliff, and Wanganui, woollen mills at Aramoho, and several clothing factories. Wood manufacture (sawmilling, plywoods, and furniture), printing and publishing, transport (mainly motor-vehicle repairs), and a fertiliser works at Aramoho are of significance. The remaining industries are small, with the exception of a chemical works, a footwear factory, the manufacture of concrete products, engineering works, and the New Zealand Railway workshops (at Wanganui East). Castlecliff has cement silos and a cool store for fruit.
Wanganui is noted for its educational and cultural institutions, many of which are attractively situated. In Queen's Park are the Sarjeant Art Gallery and the Alexander Museum. Adjacent to these is the very modern War Memorial Hall.
The beginnings of settlement were unfortunate. When the New Zealand Company was unable to provide land at Wellington for their constantly arriving settlers, an obvious choice for a new town was on the river where, for centuries, had grown up one of the chief areas of Maori settlement, and from which traders were already bringing steady supplies of food to Wellington. Moreover, the river was sufficiently deep and wide to allow its use as a harbour. Petre (named by the company as a compliment to Lord Petre, one of its directors) was established in 1840 and settlers immediately arrived, only to find that the “purchase” had been extremely haphazardly and hurriedly negotiated and was being vigorously repudiated by the Maoris. For seven frustrating years strife and tension continued and increased, and it is to the credit of these settlers that, though urged by Governor FitzRoy to abandon the town, they determined to remain. They also insisted on the retention of the Maori name of Wanganui (meaning “big water” or “big harbour”) in preference to Petre. In its infancy Wanganui was a garrison town, as many as 800 being garrisoned at one period. The first function of the town, however, was to provide the settlement at Wellington with pigs, pork, and potatoes, so that Wanganui was initially a trading post. By 1848 the total population of the town was only 156.
Now began a period of consolidation and expansion. Lands were cleared, cultivation was extended, stock increased, and communications slowly took shape. In 1871 the long-awaited bridge over the river was opened to carry all traffic between Wanganui and the northern districts, and the railway bridge further up stream was completed six years later. Railway construction was slow, however, and it was not until 1885 that Wanganui was linked with New Plymouth. Finally, in November 1886, when the Manawatu Railway Company's line was opened from Thorndon (Wellington) to Longburn, rail transport was thus available from Wanganui to Wellington. From 1882 to 1891, however, the growth of population was very slow. The expansion that did take place was largely due to the growth of dairying, not only locally but also in Taranaki, for the lack of suitable ports in the northern district was a gain to Wanganui. A smallgauge railway was laid between the borough and its outport of Castlecliff in order to facilitate this coastal trade. Wanganui emerged as a market town because of its early establishment and lack of any other towns of appreciable size between New Plymouth and Wellington. A town board of eight wardens was established on 19 June 1862, and the town was constituted a borough on 1 February 1872. It became a city on 1 July 1924.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 29,717; 1956 census, 32,100; 1961 census, 35,694.
by Susan Bailey, B.A., Research Officer, Department of Industries and Commerce, Wellington.