Story: Manawatū and Horowhenua region

Page 7. Unsettled times: 1880–1910

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The Wellington–Manawatū railway

Lack of money stopped progress on the government’s Wellington–Manawatū railway in 1880. Wellington capitalists took over and largely financed the line, which operated from 1886.

Crown land along the rail line was granted to the developers who then on-sold it to finance the construction. The new line opened Horowhenua to European settlement, and the district grew as fast as Manawatū had in the 1870s. The rail linked with the government railway just outside Palmerston North. This also became the junction of the rail route through the Manawatū Gorge when that was completed in 1891. Rail created a new focus centred on inland Palmerston, not coastal Foxton. It linked Manawatū to Wellington as well as Whanganui.

Joe on the go

In 1910, 22-year-old Palmerston North burglar Joe Pawelka escaped from police custody. An armed and masked man who confronted a Palmerston North couple was thought to be Pawelka. The panic mounted three days later when fires destroyed the high school and two shops. When Pawelka was finally caught, two searchers had died, one at the hands of a fellow searcher. Pawelka was sentenced, but escaped from jail in Wellington the next year. He was never seen again.

Businessmen and settlers

Most of the Wellington capitalists had leased or bought land for themselves in Manawatū and engaged in other ventures as well. Joseph Nathan and his sons invested in stores, money lending, and dairy factories. John Plimmer and Sydney Kirkcaldie collaborated with Alfred Seifert and W. A. Chapple in the Makerua Estate Company, which milled flax on railway land near Shannon (named after another Wellington businessman) from 1902.

Assisted immigration from Europe was reduced and suspended in 1884, but land-hungry New Zealanders still came to the region. The Kairanga, Kiwitea and Ōtamakapua blocks developed from the late 1870s and 1880s, most often as farm homesteads or special settlements. The railway from Wellington opened up Māori land along its route, and much of the 52,000-acre (20,000-hectare) Horowhenua block was quickly sold.

From flax and timber to sheep and cattle

Some new settlers or itinerants worked as herdsmen, shepherds or shearers – 635,000 sheep grazed between Whanganui and Foxton in 1885. Other men worked in sawmills. Until about 1906 the remaining forest was burnt or felled, except in the Ruahine and Tararua ranges. In June 1879, 23 sawmills operated near Palmerston and Feilding. Later they followed the receding bush line inland.

Felling giants

Not all timber made it to the sawmills. Some trees were burnt in late summer, as reported in Palmerston North in 1880: ‘The smoke that encircles our township by day and the lurid flames by night tell of the advent of March, the month fatal to sylvan giants . . . from almost any point of the compass may be seen rising columns of smoke spreading themselves in fantastic cloud wreaths and not infrequently descending upon the town itself. . . although the smoke may inconvenience us and the charred avenues offend the eye we must accept all thankfully as a mark of local progress’. 1

Flax mills flourished along the swampy lower reaches of the Manawatū River during the booms of 1889–90, and from 1898 until after the First World War. The ‘flaxies’ who worked in them brought a working man’s outlook to the Manawatū, distinct from that of the runholders or small farmers. Disease, and competition from other fibres, notably sisal, put an end to the last flax boom, although woolpacks were produced from flax at Foxton from 1934 until 1972.

With the bush cleared and an uncertain future for flax, intensive pastoral farming provided welcome new opportunities. There were two butter factories in 1886, but nearly 20 by 1911. Large freezing works opened at Longburn near Palmerston North (1890) and Feilding (1916). The 1871 population of 2,000 had swelled to 40,000 by 1911.

  1. Manawatu Daily Times cited in G. C. Petersen, The pioneering days of Palmerston North. Levin: G. C. Petersen, 1952, p. 58. › Back
How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Manawatū and Horowhenua region - Unsettled times: 1880–1910', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 December 2019)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 24 Jul 2006, updated 22 Apr 2015