Story: City history and people

Page 1. The first towns

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Among the traditions Europeans brought to New Zealand was the practice of city life. Māori had never developed cities, living mostly in villages centred on hapū (extended family groups). Larger settlements existed, such as that encircling Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill in Auckland) in the 18th century, but none approached city size. In European terms, Māori were a rural rather than urban people.

Cities originated at least 5,000 years ago as places of trade, religion and government. One or more of these functions have been the lifeblood of cities ever since. In New Zealand trade emerged as the most important element. This was reflected in the coastal location of the first towns: ports were essential for trade.


New Zealand’s first town, Kororāreka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands, arose in the 1830s, becoming an important meeting point between Māori and Europeans. It served as a recreation and provisioning centre for trading and whaling ships, and developed a reputation for lawlessness. Sporadic efforts to impose order contributed to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Possibly in an attempt to live down its notoriety, the town changed its name to Russell in 1844.

Hobson’s choice


In 1839 Captain William Hobson advocated East India Company-style ‘factories’ as the best way to settle New Zealand. These were port towns that would become crossroads of trade between Māori and Europeans. Europeans would control the town, but not colonise the hinterland. In this way Hobson believed the interests of Māori could be protected from greedy Europeans. But his suggestion found no takers.


New Zealand Company towns

As the ink on the Treaty of Waitangi was drying, new towns were being founded. Wellington was the first settlement of the London-based New Zealand Company, set up by Englishman Edward Gibbon Wakefield to colonise parts of New Zealand. Other company towns followed: Whanganui (1840), New Plymouth (1841), Nelson (1842), Dunedin (settled by the Otago Association, 1848) and Christchurch (Canterbury Association, 1850).

Wakefield’s vision was of a closely settled rural society, based on cropping. Ironically, the goal of country life was reliant on towns. Each settlement was to be funded through buying Māori land cheaply and selling it at inflated prices. Land was to be sold as a package: settlers received 100 rural acres (40.5 hectares) for each town acre (0.4 hectares) they bought. The bait for investors was the town acre. Land values increased as towns became cities, increasing the potential for windfall profits. Consequently, early sales were brisk.


Speculation also drove Auckland’s early growth. Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson chose Auckland (Tāmaki) as the colony’s capital in 1840, and the British instructed him to fund his government from land sales. Such was the speculative bubble created by the town’s founding that the first urban land sales reaped an average of £555 an acre – a very high price.

Company’s dreams shattered

While government spending protected Auckland during the 1840s, things were turning sour in the New Zealand Company settlements. The rush to buy land led to disputes with Māori over what had been sold and by whom. Too much land went to absentee owners, who did nothing to improve its value. Some plots proved difficult to access and farm. Jobs were sporadic and food sometimes fell short. In the mid-1840s pastoralism finally provided a viable economic base (wool), but shattered Wakefield’s hopes of closer settlement on small farms. Debt-ridden and maligned, the company folded after the Canterbury settlement.

The New Zealand Company has been rightly criticised for some of its practices, particularly its treatment of Māori. But in an age when many new towns failed, a number of settlements formed by the company and its offshoots became important cities. By the 1870s Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin (all New Zealand Company-related settlements) were three of the country’s four main cities – Auckland was the fourth.

How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - The first towns', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by David Thorns and Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010