Story: Manawatū and Horowhenua region

Page 6. Rapid change: 1870–1880

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A ‘heroic’ decade?

Between the 1870s and 1910s there was greater change than the region had seen before, or has seen since.

The first decade was particularly dramatic for Manawatū. In 1871 the Māori and Pākehā population was probably no more than 1,000 of each, and between Ōtaki and the Rangitīkei River there was only one town – Foxton. By 1881 the Pākehā population had increased to nearly 9,000, with more living in Palmerston North than Foxton. The Māori population had probably declined. The settlement pattern changed too, with people living in forested areas as well as along the coast and in open country.

Colonisation begins

There were two main triggers for the transformation:

  • the government’s purchase between 1864 and 1867 of Māori land which it now aimed to sell to Europeans
  • ‘Vogelism’ – a shorthand term for Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel’s vigorous programme of borrowing to pay for immigration and public works.

In 1869 the Taranaki war leader Tītokowaru had posed a threat to Whanganui and nearby districts. The roads, railways and immigrants were also intended to secure land against further incursion.

Rail and road

The government built a tramway from the port at Foxton to Palmerston North, completed in 1873 and replaced by a railway three years later. A railway from Whanganui to Palmerston North opened in 1878. The Manawatū Gorge road, completed in 1872, cost £5,000. It was closed permanently in 2017 after repeated massive slips made it unviable. The 1875 bridge over the Manawatū River near Woodville cost £12,000. The 24-kilometre gorge rail link cost £170,000. Including two tunnels and a bridge over the Pohangina River, it did not open until 1891.


The immigrants came from near and far. At Sanson, 27 members of the Hutt Small Farm Association took up 5,000 acres in 1871. The South Island runholders Robert Campbell and John Douglas settled 70 families on their block of land around present-day Rongotea.


The government brought 120 immigrants from Scandinavia – the first organised group of settlers at Palmerston North. The town was laid out in a large forest clearing – Papaioea – in 1866. Scandinavians added a distinctive flavour to the region in these years.

Music for the bishop

One Scandinavian who emigrated to Manawatū was Bishop Ditlev Monrad, a former prime minister of Denmark. Although he and his family faced hardship and primitive conditions, they brought some luxuries, including a grand piano. It was strapped across two canoes and carried up the Manawatū River to Kārere, where they settled.


The Emigrant and Colonist’s Aid Corporation was established to assist emigration from Great Britain. It bought 106,000 acres (42,000 hectares) which it called the Manchester block, after the association’s president. By 1877 it had placed 1,600 settlers on the block. The first group arrived at Feilding in January 1874. The next settlement was at Halcombe (from April 1876, as the railway reached there), and the third, from August 1877, around Ashhurst.

Work for settlers

Settlers faced the hard task of clearing the forest before they could farm the land. Many survived by working for the government at roadmaking. The first Scandinavians also worked on the Foxton–Palmerston North tramline and railway, and Manchester block settlers on the railway to Whanganui, which ran the length of the block.

Settlers could also work in sawmills and flax mills. Two partnerships, Manson and Bartholomew, and the Scandinavians Richter, Nannestad and Jenssen (who had come to the colony independently) set up sawmills near Palmerston North to deal with the mass of timber. Foxton locals invested in flax mills.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Manawatū and Horowhenua region - Rapid change: 1870–1880', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 24 Jul 2006, updated 1 Apr 2015