Story: Capital city

Page 3. A new capital

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In September 1854 James FitzGerald, briefly New Zealand’s first head of government, proposed in the Assembly that the next session ‘should be held in a more central position in the colony’.1 The proposal was defeated 13–11 as a result of FitzGerald’s failure to consult sufficiently with other members of the Assembly, with many South Island members absent from the chamber at the time of the vote.

Big shake-up

Wellington was affected by a major earthquake in the Wairarapa in January 1855. At magnitude 8.2, it is the largest earthquake ever recorded in New Zealand. The quake destroyed the offices of the Wellington provincial government. While this did not deter those recommending Wellington as a preferred site for the country’s capital, in modern times significant effort has gone into the installation of building stabilisation techniques (in Parliament and the Beehive, for instance) in order to guard against the effects of another earthquake – seen as inevitable given the capital’s location at the site of several fault lines.

Auckland and Wellington

In May 1856 a resolution affirming that the General Assembly’s next meeting should be held in Auckland was amended, by deleting ‘Auckland’ and substituting ‘a more central position’. While ultimately the Assembly chose to leave the matter to the governor, in July the question was debated again, with a vote for Nelson – New Zealand’s most centrally situated community, in the north of the South Island – only narrowly defeated. Following support for meeting in Wellington, the colony’s upper house – the Legislative Council – decided to advise the governor of ‘the great inconvenience and mischief’2 that would result from a move away from Auckland. In response, Governor Thomas Gore Browne suggested that there might be merit in alternating meetings between Auckland and Wellington.

Wellington and Nelson

In 1862 Wellington was given the opportunity to host a session of the General Assembly, but a proposal for the arrangement to be made permanent was defeated – by a single vote. The following year, a group of Wellington and Nelson legislators proposed that the capital be moved somewhere on the shores of Cook Strait between the North and South islands – Wellington was at one end of the strait and Nelson more or less at the other. The choice was to be made by an independent tribunal.

Heroic names

Both Wellington and Nelson were named for British military heroes of the Napoleonic period, with Wellington honouring the first Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley), victorious at Waterloo in 1815, and Nelson celebrating Admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of the battle of Trafalgar (1805). European settlement, under the auspices of the New Zealand Company, began in Wellington in 1840 and in Nelson in 1842.

Choosing a new capital

The resolution proposed that three of Australia’s governors (of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania) should appoint commissioners to select the site of the New Zealand capital. New Zealand is in the unusual position of having had its capital city chosen – on the preference of its own elected legislators – by a commission comprising people who lived in another country.

The Australian commissioners

The three commissioners who chose Wellington as New Zealand’s capital were Francis Murphy, speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Colony of Victoria; Joseph Docker, a member of the Legislative Council of the Colony of New South Wales; and Ronald C. Gunn, formerly a member of Tasmania’s Legislative Council and House of Assembly.

The commissioners’ report

The commissioners were appointed by Governor George Grey, following a resolution from the Legislative Council declaring ‘that the Seat of Government should be placed in a central position, that is to say, somewhere upon the shores of Cook’s Straits’.3 The commissioners submitted their report from Government House, Nelson, on 3 October 1864. It was a brief statement – a letter – taking up only two pages when reprinted in the records of the New Zealand Parliament.

The commissioners reviewed their travels in New Zealand, noting that they had inspected Wellington and various sites in the north of the South Island, including Picton, Queen Charlotte’s Sound and the Tory Channel, Blenheim, Pelorus Sound, Havelock and Nelson. They stated that the main criteria to be followed in determining the choice of capital were the central position of the site; the ‘water capabilities’, including the character of the harbour; the ‘land capabilities’, including the extent of the proposed site; the resources of the surrounding country; the ‘capabilities of defence’, with respect to both attack by land or sea; and any natural disadvantages.4

Nelson as New Zealand’s capital

Most New Zealanders are probably unaware that Wellington and Nelson had once competed to be the site of the capital. The choice of a country’s capital can have significant economic and regional consequences, affecting political, social and cultural developments. A view of how New Zealand might have been dramatically altered had Nelson been chosen rather than Wellington is offered in ‘What if Nelson had been made the capital of New Zealand?’, a chapter in the 2008 book New Zealand as it might have been.

The choice of Wellington

The choice of Wellington by the commissioners was announced, without elaboration, in a single sentence: ‘Having thus made themselves acquainted, as far as was practicable, with the character and capabilities of both shores of Cook’s Strait, the Commissioners have arrived at the unanimous conclusion that Wellington, in Port Nicholson, is the site upon the shores of Cook’s Straits which presents the greatest advantages for the administration of the Government of the Colony.’5 No further explanation was given. It is assumed that their preference for Wellington reflected the city’s superior harbour, particularly important at a time when most members of Parliament would have travelled to the capital by sea.

Having made their recommendation, the commissioners were paid for their services and left the country. In the aftermath there was public protest in Auckland and a bid by Auckland’s assembly members to separate Auckland from the rest of the country. The proposed secession did not proceed, and a subsequent measure to separate the North and South islands likewise came to naught. The move to Wellington – as the capital for a united New Zealand – took place in 1865.

  1. Quoted in Stephen Levine, ‘What if Nelson had been made the capital of New Zealand?’ In New Zealand as it might have been, edited by Stephen Levine. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006, p. 60. Back
  2. Quoted in ‘What if Nelson had been made the capital of New Zealand?’, p. 61. Back
  3. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1864, D-2, p. 10. Back
  4. AJHR, 1864, D-2, pp. 12–13. Back
  5. AJHR, 1864, D-2, p. 13. Back
How to cite this page:

Stephen Levine, 'Capital city - A new capital', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Stephen Levine, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Aug 2016