Story: Marlborough region

Page 10. Government

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Nelson and the Wairau

The Wairau area was an outlier of Nelson in the 1840s. Nelson’s quest for workable land prompted the survey party to the Wairau that led to the disastrous encounter with Ngāti Toa on 17 June 1843.

Nelson province, formed in 1853, included the Sounds, Wairau and Kaikōura. By the late 1850s the Wairau provided a livelihood for number of runholders. Nelson was a home base for many, but when they lost control of the provincial council to smallholders they decided on separation for the Wairau and adjacent areas, which took place in 1859.

Soldiering on

From 1859 the new province had settlements at Waitohi, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, and ‘the Beaver’ in the Wairau valley. The province was expected to be called Wairau, but Governor Thomas Gore Browne decided on the names Marlborough, Picton and Blenheim, linking the new province to British imperial and military history.

A new province

The provincial government struggled financially. With no overseas shipping, the council had to bargain with the central government for customs revenue. Land sales, given the lack of cultivable land and the extent of pastoral runs, were minimal. Blenheim primary school opened in 1859 and others followed, but pupils had to pay. A provincial hospital was opened at Picton in 1865, but it was rudimentary.

At one point it looked as if bankruptcy would force Marlborough back into Nelson province (as Southland had rejoined Otago), while outlying areas petitioned for separation. The province survived only because most of its tasks were taken over by the central government in the 1870s. Appropriately, Marlborough’s provincial government buildings burnt to the ground the day that the provinces were abolished in 1876.

A capital dispute

A town was laid out at Waitohi (later Picton) in 1850, and many runholders invested in town sections. The provincial council was located there even though no road linked it with the rest of the province. After five years this impractical arrangement was overturned and the council shifted to Blenheim, though not without an outcry, which saw two rival councils in operation for some months in 1865.

Counties and towns

Three counties were established – Sounds, Marlborough and Kaikōura – with a fourth, Awatere, added in 1912. Picton and Blenheim were boroughs (towns). With many former provincial tasks, including education and health, taken over by the central government, and roads handled by roads boards, the counties had little to do.

Marlborough county was reconstituted with stronger powers in 1922 and eventually took over Sounds (1965) and Awatere (1976) counties. A Marlborough united council was established, covering the whole of the region, in 1978. This was succeeded in 1989 by a Nelson–Marlborough regional council which included the newly formed Marlborough (including Blenheim and Picton) and Kaikōura districts. In 1992 the regional council was dissolved. Marlborough became a ‘stand-alone’ district and Kaikōura was included in the Canterbury region.


Through most of the 19th century Marlborough comprised two general electorates, usually named Picton and Wairau. In the 20th century it became one, first Wairau and from 1938 Marlborough. Tom Shand, a minister in the Holyoake government in the 1960s, was MP for Marlborough from 1946 until his death in 1969. Under mixed-member proportional representation since 1996, Marlborough has been part of a larger electorate known as Kaikōura, which also includes northern Canterbury.

Marlborough was part of the Southern Māori electorate from 1867 to 1996, when it became part of Te Tai Tonga, which covered the whole of the South Island and Wellington.


Hospitals opened in Blenheim and Picton in 1865, and in 1887 a hospital was established on the current Wairau Hospital site in Blenheim. The Picton, Havelock and Wairau hospital boards amalgamated in 1930, and in 1988 the Nelson-Marlborough Area Health Board was set up. Picton Hospital was closed in 1989 after debate and protests. The Nelson-Marlborough District Health Board was set up in 2001. The redevelopment of Wairau Hospital was completed in 2011.


The children of runholders were sent to high schools in Nelson or, more often, Christchurch. In 1900 Marlborough High School was established. It became Marlborough College in 1919. Separate boys’ and girls’ colleges date from 1963. Queen Charlotte College in Picton opened in 1965 and Kaikōura High School in 1971.

By 1984 a campus of the Nelson–Marlborough Polytechnic, now Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT), operated in Blenheim.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Marlborough region - Government', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 12 May 2012, updated 1 Nov 2016