Story: City history and people

Page 2. Types of towns

All images & media in this story

The difficulties of New Zealand’s first towns did not deter the founding of others. As before, new towns were a mix of private and government initiatives. Most were on the coast, but in 1854 New Zealand’s first inland town, Greytown, was founded. As the Crown continued to buy (or confiscate) Māori land, more inland towns were built.

New towns were generally market, mining, milling, port, military or construction towns. Some started life in one or more categories and grew into others. Other settlements initially boomed, but then faded away.

Market towns

Also called country towns, market towns serviced farming hinterlands and were the most common type. They supplied farmers with goods and services – from food and machinery to stock-and-station and banking services – and acted as processing and transportation points for farm products. Market towns both followed and preceded the settlement of hinterlands. For instance, pastoralists were already farming in the area when William and George Rhodes laid out the town of Timaru in 1853. Conversely, Masterton was founded in 1854 to promote farming in Wairarapa.

Public–private partnership


Usually towns were founded by either the government or private enterprise. Timaru was established by both. In 1853 the Rhodes brothers surveyed a town behind Caroline Bay; three years later the government surveyed its own town south of the Rhodes’ settlement. North Street divided the settlements – which eventually merged.


Mining and milling towns

Towns arose near natural resources – gold, coal, timber – that could be profitably extracted. Alexandra mushroomed when gold was discovered nearby in 1862. Brunner developed as a coal town from 1864. Dargaville grew rapidly from 1872 as a base for kauri timber and gum extraction. When resources were exhausted, mining and milling towns declined unless they found a new economic base. Dargaville prospered because its hinterland converted to farming; Alexandra survived as a horticultural town, but Brunner was abandoned.

Port towns

Port towns developed as fishing and shipping centres. The South Island’s first town, Riverton, began as a whaling port in the 1830s. After whaling declined in the 1840s it shipped timber, flax, gold and wool sourced from its hinterland. A port town often grew by developing its infrastructure. During the 1870s Ōamaru (also a market town) built an expensive breakwater port, enabling it to surpass the rival ports of Kakanui and Moeraki.

Some port towns were satellites of larger towns or cities. Dunedin’s shallow harbour prevented a deep-water port beside the settlement, so Port Chalmers – close to the harbour entrance – became the city’s main port.

Peaceful Parihaka


Parihaka was unique in being a Māori town. Founded in the late 1860s by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi, its purpose was to peacefully resist Pākehā colonisation. By the late 1870s it had its own bank and police force, and a permanent population of 1,500. In 1880 it was described by 19-year-old Mary Dobie as an ‘enormous native town of quiet and imposing character … [with] regular streets of houses’.1 However, Parihaka was also the centre of a Māori protest movement over land loss, and in 1881 the government invaded the settlement, arresting some of its inhabitants and driving many away.


Military towns

New Zealand had few military towns. From the 1840s fortifications were erected in towns like Auckland, Whanganui and New Plymouth to resist Māori attack, but trade remained their life blood. The 1860s New Zealand wars led to the founding of small towns like Pātea, where two large Crown redoubts were erected. Hamilton also began as a military post, and became a hub for the Pākehā colonisation of Waikato. Both subsequently developed as market towns.

Construction towns

Some towns developed as bases for major infrastructure projects. In the early 1900s Ohakune became a permanent camp for the completion of the North Island main trunk railway. Between 1940 and 1980 several towns were built to house workers building hydroelectric power stations. These were designed to be dismantled once individual projects were completed. Workers in some towns wanted to stay on, so settlements like Mangakino, Ōtemātātā and Twizel survived.

  1. Taranaki Herald, 18 January 1882, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - Types of towns', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

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