Story: Marlborough places

Page 7. Blenheim

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Largest centre of Marlborough, in Māori called Waiharakeke, with a 2013 population of 24,183, half the province’s total. Another 5,115 people live in the wider urban area, including Ōmaka, Woodbourne, Renwick, Grovetown and Spring Creek.

Tolerant town

In 1940 poet Eileen Duggan wrote that ‘Blenheim is urbane but not as yet urban, though its position on the air routes may alter that. A deep and kindly tolerance distinguishes it, a tolerance as great as that for which Maryland strove in the early days of America.’1

Early history

Blenheim was established in the 1850s as ‘the Beaver’, a settlement as waterlogged as the name implied. The 1855 earthquake deepened the Ōpawa River, making it navigable for sea-going vessels. Two traders, James Wynen and James Sinclair, set up in business. As 150-acre (60-hectare) lots were subdivided, Sinclair traded profitably in them.

Blenheim replaced Picton as Marlborough’s capital in 1865. It was made a borough (town with its own council) in March 1869, and its population grew from under 1,000 in 1871 to over 3,000 in 1886.

The intensification of farming from the late 1890s was accompanied by growth in the rural population, from 6,330 in 1896 (a decrease from 1891) to 9,094 in 1926. Farming contributed to the growth of Blenheim’s population, which was just short of 5,000 in 1926.

20th-century expansion

The town itself grew more rapidly after the Second World War, more than doubling between 1945 and 1961, from 5,780 to 11,956. Farming was profitable but capital-intensive; the combination translated into a bigger and more diverse town in which many people worked in farming-related industries. A 1950s visitor listed Blenheim’s ‘butter factories, sawmills, flour-mill, flax-mill, brewery, fertilizer factory, tallow-works, and seed-cleaning works.’2

The population grew more slowly after 1961, but had doubled again by 2013. In that year 11% of Blenheim’s population identified as Māori. The lower Wairau is particularly associated with Rangitāne, an iwi also present in the lower North Island.

Workforce

In 2013, 12.0% of Blenheim’s workforce was employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing, a high figure for an urban centre, and 13.3% in manufacturing, compared with 10.9% nationally. In past decades these manufacturing workers would have been in grain mills and food-processing plants – but in the 2010s they were likely to be working in different parts of the grape-growing and winemaking industries.

Education accounts for only 6.0% of the city’s workforce (Blenheim lacks a major tertiary institution), compared with 8.6% nationally. Professionals are 15.8% of Blenheim’s workforce, compared with 22.5% nationally. Labourers are 17.1%, compared with 11.1% nationally, in part because viticulture requires relatively unskilled labour.

Rapaura

Locality on the Wairau plain 10 km north of Blenheim on State Highway 62, the bypass route from Picton to Nelson which meets State Highway 6 just north of Renwick. Rapaura was known as Upper Spring Creek in the early settlement period. In 2010 it was a major centre for viticulture.

Woodbourne

Locality 6 km west of Blenheim on State Highway 6. The site of the town airport, a training and maintenance base for the RNZAF, and the headquarters for SAFE Air, an aircraft maintenance company. Woodbourne had a population of 399 in 2013, down from 675 in 2006.

On 13 October 1928, just before 5 a.m., a crowd of 5,000 watched aviator Charles Kingsford Smith take off in his plane, the Southern Cross, on the first-ever flight from New Zealand to Sydney. He landed in Australia 22 hours and 51 minutes later, and was greeted by a crowd of 25,000.

Ōmaka

Locality 5 km south-west of Blenheim, with many vineyards and winemaking establishments. Ōmaka marae was established in 1959 for all tribes; the protocol is Rangitāne. Its meeting house, Te Ara Waipounamu, opened in January 1985. Ōmaka is the site of the Ōmaka Aviation Heritage Centre, which opened in December 2006 and has a particularly strong collection of First World War aircraft. A biennial air show has been held since 2003.

Footnotes:
  1. Eileen Duggan, ‘Introduction.’ In Marlborough: a provincial history, edited by A. D. McIntosh. Blenheim: Marlborough Provincial Historical Committee, 1940, p. 7. Back
  2. Frank Clune, Roaming round New Zealand: the story of a holiday trip. Rev. ed. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1961, p. 119. Back
How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Marlborough places - Blenheim', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/marlborough-places/page-7 (accessed 24 October 2017)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 12 May 2012, updated 18 Jun 2015