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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


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As originally defined in 1853, the Province of Wellington comprised all the North Island between Cook Strait and the thirty-ninth parallel, except the western salient about Mount Egmont. The western boundary was equally arbitrarily fixed at a line running from a point on the coast near Patea to the Wanganui River and thence along the course of the river to the thirty-ninth parallel. This big area included Hawke's Bay, which “seceded” in 1858 to form a separate province bounded by a line from the east coast near Cape Turnagain to the Manawatu Gorge, and thence along the crestline of the hardrock mountain ranges to the thirty-ninth parallel.

Pattern of Early Settlement

The earliest European settlements were at Port Nicholson and about the mouth of the Wanganui River; the first organised settlement in and about Hawke's Bay came a decade later, around 1850. The high interior west of the dividing ranges, covered for the most part by dense forest, was readily accessible only by such waterways as the Wanganui, Turakina, and Rangitikei Valleys. Major episodes in the establishment of settlements inland from the first points of European contact in the Wellington Province proper were the gradual establishment of a route for travel by the more open country along the west coast; the penetration of the lower Wairarapa Valley; the clearing of the forest from the lowlands both east and west of the main Tararua-Ruahine Ranges; the opening up of the Rangitikei Valley; and the inland development about the base of Ruapehu in the wake of the Main Trunk railway builders.

In all this southern portion of the North Island Maori population was relatively small; just before the coming of E. G. Wakefield's first emigrants to Port Nicholson it had been disorganised and decimated by Te Rauparaha, by that time firmly established in his fortified base on Kapiti Island. Most mainland Maoris lived in scattered groups along the open west coast country and about the lower Wanganui River, which was their main routeway inland. Though Port Nicholson had the inestimable value of its sheltered and central location on Cook Strait, the hills about it were clothed in dense forest to the water's edge. Forest and swamp made the Hutt Valley almost impenetrable, and the heavily wooded lowland reaching out to the west coast at Porirua was held by the redoubtable Te Rangihaeata, who firmly opposed survey of this only easy route to the west coast. Thus early Wellington spread itself along the waterfront, and the pattern of the town adjusted itself from the first to the difficult terrain. By 1842 the total European civilian population of the province was a mere 3,700, most of whom were established around Port Nicholson itself.

The first important movement of settlers from this confined space was into the open lowland of the Wairarapa. In 1844 C. R. Bidwill, Charles Clifford, and Frederick Weld pioneered the driving of sheep by the very difficult route along the coast on to land for which they had negotiated directly with the local Maoris. It was not until more than a decade later that the road through the Hutt Valley bush and over the Rimutaka Range was open to wheeled traffic. The lower valley and the hill country to the east of it was taken up by the early runholders; it was by the road over the Rimutakas that a new type of pioneer came in under the wing of the Small Farms Association. Such smallholders took up land about Featherston, Greytown, and Masterton in 1856 and Carterton in 1857. The early history of the Wairarapa settlements was marked by conflict of interest between runholder and smallholder, both of whom faced their own special kinds of hardship in the pioneering days. The present pattern of settlement reflects progressive subdivision of the runs and the foundation of dairy farming on the plains. The provincial towns have grown out of service to their several countrysides. Masterton (15,121), a natural focus for the whole region, is much the largest of these. Its isolation from Wellington City by the topographic barrier of the Rimutaka Range has always been something of a handicap to the Wairarapa. The early railway climbed laboriously over the barrier, but a tunnel through it has brought Masterton much closer in time to the capital city.

In the early days of European settlement the west coast was dominated by Te Rauparaha, who had come south from Kawhia on a mission of conquest of the south. Maori settlements were scattered along the rivers and by the lakes among the sandhills near the coast. The coast route was the only easy way to the north and west, for the mountain slopes and the Manawatu Plain were covered by almost impassable forest that delayed occupation until the 1870s. There was soon a flourishing trade in pigs, potatoes, wheat, and flax with the Maoris along the coast. Perhaps the most famous of the pioneers was Hadfield, the missionary, based on Otaki as early as 1839; abstaining himself from acquisition of land, he exerted an enormous influence for good in his time. Foxton was a key point on the coast route to Wanganui, and from it the only easy way inland was by the Manawatu River.

Importance of Wanganui

Wanganui was the earliest outpost of settlement on the Wellington west coast. In 1840 E. J. Wakefield bought from the Maoris the land immediately about the mouth of the river, and settlers soon moved in from Port Nicholson. But in 10 years the population grew to only some 350. The pioneers had endless trouble not only with the Maoris but also in getting possession of the land they had bought from the New Zealand Company. In 1848 some 80,000 acres had been purchased, but occupation of it was held up; trouble with the Maoris had led to open conflict and Wanganui became a fortified base with a garrison of regular soldiers. A state of tension lasted through the time of the Taranaki Wars of the 1860s, but with peace came rapid progress.

The growth of Wanganui has always reflected closely the development and prosperity of its rural hinterland. By 1874 the population of the town was 2,500, rising to 4,600 by 1881. Completion of the Wellington – New Plymouth railway in 1885 ended its isolation as an “island” of settlement on the west coast dependent on its own rather difficult river-mouth port. The coastal fringe of open country on the wide terraces of the rivers was rapidly occupied, and bush clearing on a big scale went on inland through the 1890s. Grass and livestock throve on the bush burns even on very steep slopes. Through the early 1900s Wanganui was something of a boom town, its rapid growth reflecting the development of the hinterland, especially this inland hill country. In the face of vigorous growth of fern and second growth forest, however, many farmers found it hard to hold their pastures; the depression of the 1930s was most severely felt in the back country and the city population declined. The city, as a natural focus for all the western part of Wellington Province, is steadily growing again. Its present prosperity (35,694 in 1961) is based mainly on the sheep farming of its hinterland, with production of fat lambs on the high-grade pastures of the easier coastal country and store sheep and wool inland.

Settlement of the Manawatu

In the early 1870s dense forest reached from the Manawatu Plain across the Tararua-Ruahine Ranges almost to the east coast, completely isolating the open country of the Wairarapa from that in Hawke's Bay. Most of it lay within the catchment of the Manawatu River; east of the ranges, from the vicinity of Norsewood almost to Masterton, it was known as the Seventy Mile Bush. In 1870 Julius Vogel determined to have a railway through it from Wellington to Napier, its building to be financed in part by sale of land to settlers. Immigrants were recruited from Scandinavian Europe, the first arriving in 1872. Within three years 2,000 Danes, 740 Norwegians, and 725 Swedes had come to take up 40-acre sections, clear the bush, make their farmlets, and work on road and railway. Their life was arduous and primitive in the extreme, but they laid the foundation to one of the richest farm-land districts of the Wellington Province. The heart of it is the lowland containing the north-flowing tributaries of the Manawatu River and the provincial towns of Eketahuna and Pahiatua. The rest of the area covered by the Seventy Mile Bush lies within the province of Hawke's Bay; it, too, was cleared by Scandinavian pioneers who have left us their town of Dannevirke as its main centre.

Clearing of the bush for the settlements about Palmerston North and Feilding also got under way in the 1870s. There were then some 3,000 Maoris scattered along the Manawatu River, mainly in the open country about its mouth. So dense and gloomy was the forest that only the river gave easy access to it. Up-stream, on an open space in the bush, the first store on the site of Palmerston North was set up in 1870. Flax and timber were the main commodities of early commerce. Feilding became the centre of the Manchester settlement, so named from the Duke of Manchester, chairman of a corporation organised to send English immigrants to a block of 106,000 acres of virgin forest and swamp. The first settlers arrived in 1874, the same year that saw a similar settlement on the Carnarvon Block about the mouth of the Rangitikei River. Through the 1870s and 1880s occupation of all the easy lowland east of the ranges proceeded steadily, and out of it has grown one of the richest and most closely settled farming regions of the province. Development of dairying in the early 1900s gave it a special impetus.

Palmerston North became the natural focus of all this, mainly, perhaps, from its location as a nodal point of the railway system. In 1877 its population was 880; in 1890, 3,800; in 1910, 6,400; in 1920, 15,000; and in 1961, 43,185. The nearby town of Feilding has grown just beyond 8,000, and the growth of Levin to a similar size reflects the steady development of the Horowhenua coastlands to the south. A feature of this part of the Wellington west coast has been its recent rapid growth as a seaside-resort area.

In 1884, when Marton was at the edge of the gloomy forest that barred the way to the North Island interior, a commission met there to consider possible routes for a trans-island railway. The decision ultimately taken was to follow the route of the Rangitikei Valley to the plateau about Mount Ruapehu and thence to Te Kuiti at the head of the Waipa Valley lowland. The Rangitikei River, flowing south from its source in the Kaimanawa Ranges, occupied a wide and terraced valley in the mudstone (papa) country. The river itself and all its feeder streams flowed in deep and precipitous gutters, with terraces, hills, and narrow channels alike clothed in dense forest. The Main Trunk railway, built in this terrain, is something of a monument to the skill of the engineers of the times. It was completed in 1908, giving access at last to the high volcanic country on the northern edge of the province. Previously most who visited this part of the plateau interior came in over the mountains from Hawke's Bay.

The grassland farmer followed in the wake of the railway and road builder and the sawmiller. A string of provincial towns along the route all belong to the 1900s. Taihape (2,682) is the largest of these in the Rangitikei Valley itself; Ohakune (1,542) and Raetihi (1,343), about the south-western base of Ruapehu, are centres of one of the last of the inland areas to be cleared of forest. A big forest fire destroyed a large area of primitive forest at Raetihi as lately as 1918.

In Wellington Province the population pattern reflects the general pattern of the terrain. Large inland areas have very few people, notably the complex of the Kaimanawa Ranges, the nearby volcanic mountains of Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe, the rugged country of the upper catchments of the Wanganui and neighbouring rivers and the Rimutaka-Tararua-Ruahine mountain belt. The economy rests mainly on grassland farming and the province is a leading producer of meat, wool, and dairy produce, but there are no significant resources of minerals and water is harnessed for power only on a small scale (Mangahao).

Growth of Wellington City

The most remarkable development of the past three decades has been the rapid urban growth about Wellington City itself where the terrain has affected the pattern of urban spread as profoundly as it did in 1940. The main built-up area has taken something of the shape of a St. Andrew's cross, up the Hutt Valley from Port Nicholson and out to the west coast by the Porirua lowland. The commercial core of the city proper is built on land reclaimed from the original harbour. All this remarkable growth reflects the role of Wellington City as chief administration centre and a chief port of the country at large, and its location has attracted many new industries during the past three decades. The present population of the Wellington-Hutt urban complex is some 240,000 (i.e., more than half the total population of the whole provincial district, 473,621 in 1961). In Palmerston North, too, recent urban growth has been rapid, this reflecting the special advantages of its location. Rural population has, however, remained stable or even declined since 1911, at which time its distribution pattern had almost completely taken its present form.

Some statistics of rural production indicate the general pattern of growth of the economy of the province:

Sown Grassland: acres
1861 50,000
1871 184,000
1881 772,000
1891 1,440,000
1901 2,448,000
1911 3,057,000
1921 3,350,000

The period of most active development of new farm land was between 1891 and 1911; little new land has been won since 1921.

Sheep: million
1861 0·25 (mostly in Wairarapa)
1881 1·50
1891 2·06
1901 4·23
1911 5·31
1921 5·17
1941 6·75
1951 7·00
1961 8·03

The table shows the special importance of sheep in the provincial economy. Locally, dairying was a great help to the small settler, but frozen meat and wool have meant much more to Wellington Province.

Mixed-crop farming was most important in the period 1840–90; the largest acreage of wheat in Wellington Province (18,000 acres) was grown in 1899; since then it has varied between 5,000 and 10,000 acres.

Sawmilling was specially important from 1880 to 1914 – main areas milled being the Manawatu, the Seventy Mile Bush, and the Rangitikei Valley. During the past 30 years it has been confined mainly to the Ohakune – National Park area, but the remaining stands are being rapidly cut out.

by George Jobberns, C.B.E., M.A., D.SC., Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Canterbury.

  • Old Manawatu, Buick, T. L. (1903)
  • Early Victorian New Zealand, Miller, J. (1958)
  • The City of the Strait – Wellington and its Province, Mulgan, A. (1939)
  • Forest Homes – Scandinavian Settlements in New Zealand, Petersen, G. C. (1956)
  • Early Rangitikei, Wilson, J. G. (1914).


George Jobberns, C.B.E., M.A., D.SC., Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Canterbury.