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Marlborough region

by Malcolm McKinnon

Sunny Marlborough is a holiday playground, with visitors drawn to the beautiful Marlborough Sounds and the vineyards and wineries around Blenheim. The depths of the undersea Kaikōura Canyon bring sperm whales close to Kaikōura, and a whale-watching industry has developed.



Marlborough is a rectangular block in the north-east South Island. It is sliced diagonally into two zones by the Alpine Fault (known in Marlborough as the Wairau Fault), which roughly follows the north bank of the Wairau River.

North of the fault, Marlborough shares Nelson’s geology and landforms. It is mostly hill country, including the Richmond Range and the coastal valleys of the Rai, Pelorus, Kaituna and Tuamarina rivers. The peninsulas separating the various Marlborough Sounds, and the large island Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island), are hills separated by valleys that have flooded since the last ice age. Red Hill (1,790 m) is the highest ‘mainland’ summit, and Mt Stokes (1,203 m) is the highest in the Sounds.

Māori history

Wairau Bar is a 13th-century Polynesian settlement site, among the earliest known in New Zealand.

The Māori history of Marlborough is in large part a story of migrations. Successive tribal groupings from the North Island side of Cook Strait established themselves in the favoured coastal districts of Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-a-Māui (the prow of demigod Māui’s canoe), a Māori name for the upper South Island including Marlborough. The new arrivals settled in areas including the Marlborough Sounds and the wetlands of the lower Wairau River.

There were also migrations from the east coast of the North Island to the east coast of the South Island. Both Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu followed this route, which took them to the Kaikōura coast and places further south.

European arrival

From the late 18th century Europeans started to exploit Marlborough’s resources. The northern part drew whalers, sawmillers and miners. The southern zone, apart from whaling out of Kaikōura, became the domain of large flocks of sheep.

Over time the lower Wairau, a swamp that was drained to make a plain, became Marlborough’s heartland.

However, Marlborough was sparsely populated. It was isolated from other parts of the country in colonial times, because of poor land communications and because the main shipping route between the two islands, from Wellington to Lyttelton, bypassed the province.


The roll-on, roll-off ferry introduced in 1962 made the Wellington–Picton road and rail link across Cook Strait the main axis of freight and passenger transport between the two islands.

That long-awaited transformation was followed by two less-anticipated ones – the development of viticulture (grape growing and winemaking) on a large scale in the Wairau and Awatere valleys, and the burgeoning of a recreation and gourmet-food industry throughout the province. This included the seafood and marine pleasures of the Sounds, the vineyards of the main river valleys, and whale-watching in Kaikōura. Māori have played a significant role in many of these developments.

Recent earthquakes

At 5.09 p.m. on Sunday 21 July 2013, Marlborough was affected by a magnitude 6.5 earthquake. The earthquake was centred in Cook Strait, about 20 kilometres east of the town of Seddon. The period of seismic activity continued with a 6.6 magnitude quake at 2.31 p.m. on Friday 16 August. Centred 10 kilometres south-east of Seddon, close to Lake Grassmere, the quake caused significant damage to buildings in Seddon and nearby towns.

The region was further affected by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake which struck on at 12.02 a.m. on Monday 14 November 2016. The earthquake was centred east of Hanmer Springs in northern Canterbury at a depth of 15 kilometres. Damage to buildings and infrastructure was most significant in southern Marlborough and northern Canterbury. Two people lost their lives.

Geology and landscape

Alpine Fault

The Alpine Fault runs for 650 km along the main north-east/south-west axis of the South Island, from Milford Sound to the coast near Blenheim. The longest active fault in New Zealand, it lies on a major tectonic plate boundary, where the Pacific and Australian plates collide and scrape past each other.

A house divided

In October 1848 an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.5 shook Marlborough. The quake and its many aftershocks were caused by movement on a major fault in the Awatere valley. Along the fault, land moved as much as 8 metres horizontally. Matthew Richmond, the resident magistrate of Nelson, visited the area in November 1848. A report on his visit noted that ‘a crack quite straight crossed the country for miles; in some places he had difficulty crossing it with his horse; in one place the crack passed through an old warre [whare] dividing it in two pieces standing four feet [1.2 metres] apart.’1

The fault follows a different alignment through Marlborough from its main course further south, and is also known as the Wairau Fault. It shapes the course of the 168-km Wairau River.

Northern rocks

The rocks on the northern side of the Alpine Fault consist mostly of two zones of greywacke separated by a zone of schist (metamorphosed greywacke). These rocks are more than 200 million years old.

The rocks of this zone are similar to those found on the other side of the Alpine Fault, but nearly 600 km south, between Lakes Wakatipu and Te Anau (just as the rocks of north-west Nelson parallel those of Fiordland). These formations provide evidence of the extent of displacement along the Alpine Fault.

Volcanoes and glaciers

A belt of volcanic rock stretching as far as Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island) in the north contains a number of mineral deposits, including chromite, copper, serpentine and asbestos. Several thousand tonnes of chromite were mined in the 19th century. Copper has been prospected for, but found only sporadically and in small amounts.

The mountain block forming the Richmond Range and related ranges tilted north-east at the beginning of a mountain-building period 15–20 million years ago. When the last ice age ended 14,000 years ago, rising sea levels flooded coastal valleys and formed the Marlborough Sounds.


Greywacke is the dominant rock south of the Alpine Fault. These rocks are more recent than those north of the fault. The current phase of mountain-building has eroded younger sedimentary rocks to expose the greywacke.

In the last 10 million years, faulting caused by the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the Australian Plate has extended beyond the Alpine Fault. The Awatere and Clarence faults have shaped the courses of the Awatere and Clarence rivers. The impact of the Kēkerengū Fault can be seen in the Clarence River’s 12-km course southwards before reaching the ocean, and that of the Hope Fault in the alignment of the Kaikōura plain.

Glaciation also influenced the shape of the ranges and valleys between the mountains. The volume of debris and the relatively shallow gradient of the rivers at lower altitudes have made their courses braided, as in Canterbury.

Plains and coasts

The alluvial valleys of the Wairau and Awatere rivers are the most recently formed parts of Marlborough. The Wairau valley was mostly swamp until flood-control measures were put in place.

The Wairau Bar, a bank of gravel where the river meets the sea, was first formed when the shoreline reached well inland at the end of the last glaciation, around 14,000 years ago. A north-flowing coastal current deposited gravel and other materials in the shallow waters, slowly forming the bank. Behind the bank, the river dumped sediment until the bay filled in. The current boulder bank is the latest; the many other shorelines were further inland.

Lake Grassmere (Kāpara Te Hau) is an old bay that has become cut off from the ocean due to uplift (found along the whole Kaikōura coast).

The alluvial plain at Kaikōura joins a limestone outcrop which was once an island to the mainland, forming the Kaikōura peninsula. The marine Kaikōura Canyon is an outlier of the Hikurangi trench, where the Pacific Plate is subducting under the Australian Plate. Its abyss-like depths of around 1,750 metres bring sperm whales to within a stone’s throw of the peninsula.

    • Quoted in Rodney Grapes, Timothy Little and Gaye Downes, ‘Rupturing of the Awatere Fault during the 1848 October 16 Marlborough earthquake.’ New Zealand Journal of Geology & Geophysics 41 (1998), p. 388. Back

Climate, plants and animals


In terms of rainfall, Marlborough consists of three climate zones: the dry Wairau valley and its surrounds, the less dry Kaikōura coast and a wetter northern zone.

Hot enough for you?

The Awatere valley has experienced one of New Zealand’s highest recorded temperature – 42°C – equal with two locations in inland Canterbury.

Blenheim’s average annual rainfall of 711 mm is characteristic of the eastern side of New Zealand and is accompanied by nearly 2500 sunshine hours a year – often the nation’s highest.

Picton, like the rest of the Marlborough Sounds, has a higher rainfall and more moderate climate than Blenheim, and is neither as cold in winter nor as hot in summer as the Wairau valley. Kaikōura has an average annual rainfall of 844 mm, less than Picton.

Carried away

On 3 February 1868 Blenheim was affected by severe flooding. The Marlborough Express reported that Blenheim was submerged, except for the buildings on one ridge, and that the partly built Presbyterian church had floated off its piles and down the river, eventually crashing into the Ōmaka River bridge. ‘[C]attle, sheep and pigs came along swimming for dear life – whole stacks of fencing, timber, and firewood, furniture, boxes, &c., all drifting onwards to the great deep.’1


The alluvial Wairau plain is very low-lying and subject to flooding. A major flood occurred in 1868 when an unusual weather pattern caused the Taylor and Wairau rivers to flood simultaneously.

From 1921 the Wairau River Board (known as the Marlborough Catchment and Regional Water Board from 1956 to 1989) engaged in extensive flood-control works. The biggest was the 1963 cutting of a diversion for the Wairau River from Tuamarina to Cloudy Bay.

The Wairau Lagoons (also called the Vernon Lagoons) and Lake Grassmere are both bays cut off by current-borne sedimentation. Lake Grassmere is now used for the production of salt, while the Wairau Lagoons are a wetland management reserve. Grovetown Lagoon is a man-made, cut-off meander loop of the Wairau River.


At the time of European arrival in the mid-19th century, the northern zone was covered in mixed podocarp and beech forest, with subalpine vegetation on the highest peaks of the Richmond Range and on the summit of Mt Stokes in the Sounds. The much dryer southern zone was mostly tussock and subalpine grassland, with some areas of forest in higher-rainfall zones along the Kaikōura coast and in some inland valleys.

The forests in much of the northern zone were cleared for farming in the later 19th century. Original forest survived in the Richmond Range and in high-altitude parts of the Sounds. Titirangi, a rare hebe, is endemic to Hokianga Harbour in Northland, but is also found in a few locations in the Sounds, where it was introduced by Māori.

From the 1970s extensive tracts of scrubland in the Sounds and on the margins of the Richmond Range were planted in radiata pine, a commercial forestry crop.

Little native forest survives in the southern zone – much of the original vegetation was burnt in an attempt to clear matagouri and Spaniard, prickly plants which impeded access. The impact of humans and grazing animals has accelerated erosion. Large gullies and fans have formed, and the river flats and gorges have filled with shingle. The rock daisy, and the pink and weeping broom, are endemic to the southern zone.


The Marlborough green gecko is found in mānuka shrubland and coastal scrub around the Sounds. The king shag is endemic to the Sounds, and the Hutton’s shearwater to the Seaward Kaikōura Range.

Marlborough has been home to some well-known cetaceans (dolphins and whales). In Māori tradition the taniwha Tuhirangi (which was probably a dolphin) guided the navigator Kupe to New Zealand. Kupe left Tuhirangi to guide waka through Te Aumiti (French Pass), between D’Urville Island and the mainland. The taniwha lived in a cave called Kaikaiawaro.

From 1888 to 1912 a dolphin nicknamed Pelorus Jack guided vessels into the approaches to French Pass from the north. Māori recognised Pelorus Jack as the return of the taniwha Tuhirangi. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries regular sightings of whales and other cetaceans drew visitors to Kaikōura.

    • Marlborough Express, 8 February 1868, p. 3. Back

Early Māori history

Māui, Kupe and Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua

Some early place names in Marlborough link the region with the trickster demigod Māui, whose waka was the South Island. These names include Te Taumanu-o-te-waka-a-Māui (the seat or thwart of the waka), another name for the Kaikōura peninsula.

Names associated with Kupe, the legendary navigator, are also found in the region. They are associated in particular with Kupe’s struggle in Tory Channel with the great octopus Te Wheke-o-Muturangi. They include:

  • Te Whekenui, a bay
  • [Te] Kura-te-au (Tory Channel), the channel red with the blood of the octopus
  • Ngāwhatu-kai-ponu (the Brothers Islands), the octopus’s eyeballs.

The famed explorer Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua reputedly named Kaikōura after eating (kai) crayfish (kōura) there.

Archaeological history

The findings of archaeology complement the Māori traditions of settlement. Archaeology has drawn attention to argillite, a metamorphosed mudstone, found only in the Nelson–Marlborough mineral belt, including on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island). This stone was prized by Māori, who made it into adzes (cutting implements).

Home again


In April 2009 the remains of about 60 early Polynesians were reburied at Wairau Bar in an emotional ceremony. Rangitāne iwi members brought the caskets back from Canterbury Museum, where they had been since being excavated, around 1940. The iwi had sought the return of the remains for many years. One participant wrote that the reburial was ‘amazing. The emotion and electricity in the air. The release of sorrow and outpouring of joy and the feeling that this was such a good thing to be doing – returning the original inhabitants of Wairau Bar into the ground to finally rest in peace.’1


Twentieth-century archaeological excavation uncovered human remains at Wairau Bar. These remains of Polynesian settlers are thought to date from the 13th century, when humans probably first arrived in New Zealand. A rich sea and bird life would have supported such communities, and the scrapheaps of bones and shells at Wairau Bar indicate that seals, fish and large birds including moa all featured in the diet.

In the early 1700s canals and channels were developed by Māori among the natural river and estuary courses, allowing for the husbanding of fish and waterfowl, including eels and pūtangitangi (paradise shelducks). These channels totalled around 18 km in length.

Tribal traditions and names

Tribal traditions identify the region with Waitaha, Ngāi Tara, Ngāti Māmoe and Tumatakōkiri, iwi whose names (other than Tumatakōkiri) are also familiar from other parts of the country. They were succeeded by Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Apa and Rangitāne, iwi associated with the Kurahaupō waka.

  • Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō – Ngāti Apa of the sunset – settled on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island) and further west into Tasman Bay.
  • Ngāti Kuia were found mostly around Te Hoiere (Pelorus Sound).
  • Rangitāne o Wairau settled in Tōtaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) and on the Wairau plain.

Along the coast south of the Wairau River, Ngāi Tahu made inroads into the territory of Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tara.


After the 1824 battle of Waiorua, offshore from Kāpiti Island, where South Island warriors joined their North Island kin in attacking Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha and his allies, Te Rauparaha invaded and occupied the upper South Island. Te Āti Awa from Taranaki established themselves in Queen Charlotte Sound; Ngāti Koata, a hapū of Ngāti Toa, settled on D’Urville Island, while Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Rārua acquired lands mostly further west.

The invaders also attacked Ngāi Tahu settlements on the Kaikōura coast in 1827–28. Ngāi Tahu from further south defeated the northerners at Kāpara Te Hau (Lake Grassmere) in 1834 and then at sites in the Wairau valley in 1836 and 1838. Kaikōura Ngāi Tahu who had been taken prisoner on Kāpiti returned home in 1839. Kaikōura Whakatau became the iwi’s local leader.


Early Europeans

Abel Tasman

The 1642–43 expedition led by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed into Tasman Bay and probably sighted Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island), but substantial European acquaintance with Marlborough had to await British explorer James Cook and the Endeavour in 1770.

James Cook

Having almost completely circumnavigated the North Island, Cook brought the Endeavour to anchor at Ship Cove in the Marlborough Sounds on 15 January 1770, in the channel he named after Britain’s Queen Charlotte. The Endeavour stayed there for several weeks. An expedition to the highest point on the land opposite revealed both that it was an island (Arapawa or Arapāoa) and that a stretch of water separated the island from land in the distance. This waterway was to be named Cook Strait.

Cook then circumnavigated the South Island. ‘Lookers-on’ was his name for the Seaward Kaikōura Range. At the end of the journey the Endeavour made anchorage on 27 March in Admiralty Bay, adjacent to D’Urville Island.

Cook returned to Ship Cove on his second and third Pacific expeditions, in February and October 1773 and February 1777. In total he spent about one-third of his time in New Zealand waters at Ship Cove.

Whaling days

In the following decades it was whaling that brought Europeans into Marlborough, not timber or seals as elsewhere in New Zealand. Marlborough timber did not have as many uses as the kauri of the upper North Island, and seals were not plentiful.

The peak period for whaling in Marlborough was the 1830s and 1840s. Shore stations hunted the right whale, which stayed close to shore, particularly when females were calving.

Jacky Guard’s station at Te Awaiti in Tory Channel dates from the late 1820s. Guard moved to Port Underwood, a more sheltered anchorage, in 1829; more shore stations followed in Cloudy Bay, and others on Tory Channel. Kaikōura saw a rush in the early 1840s as Guard (temporarily) and other Cloudy Bay whalers extended their operations.

These stations, as elsewhere in New Zealand, were places of trade and exchange between Māori and Pākehā. Māori frequently sold produce in exchange for metal goods, including guns. Intermarriage created more intimate ties between the two groups, and in the whaling gangs Māori and Pākehā worked alongside each other.

The intensive exploitation of the right whale, particularly of reproductive females and their calves, brought the inevitable demise of the industry after a few years. Some whaling continued into the 1920s in Kaikōura, and through to the 1960s in Tory Channel, as a minor part of the Marlborough economy.

Treaty and land ownership

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed by 27 chiefs at Queen Charlotte Sound on 4–5 May 1840, 13 on D’Urville Island on 11 May, and nine at Kākāpō Bay, Port Underwood, on 17 June. Immediately following the signing at Kākāpō Bay, British sovereignty was proclaimed over the South Island on nearby Horahora Kākahu Island.

An early attempt at cattle farming on the Wairau plain in mid-1840 was aborted when the four men involved vanished, and were never seen alive again.

In 1842 the European settlement at Nelson was established.

Wairau affray

Disagreement over land ownership led to conflict between settlers and Māori at Tuamarina. The New Zealand Company considered it had acquired title to all the land on both sides of Cook Strait – approximately one-third of New Zealand. Those chiefs who exercised mana over these extensive territories, notably Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha and his nephew Te Rangihaeata, had in their view sold only very limited portions of it. In early 1843 surveyors were sent to the Wairau plain. Te Rauparaha and others protested that the area had not been purchased. They evicted the surveyors and burnt their huts. When an armed settler militia attempted to arrest the chiefs, a confrontation took place on 17 June 1843, and 22 Europeans and at least four Māori died. The incident was a shock to European settlers throughout the colony. It was clear that Pākehā did not have an uncontested claim to land in what was to become Marlborough.

The colonial authorities found in favour of Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, and in 1847 Governor George Grey ‘re’-purchased the Wairau from Ngāti Toa. The deed covered land as far south as Kaiapoi in Canterbury, although the tribe did not have rights on the coast beyond Te Parinui-o-Whiti (White Bluffs). The Kaikōura coast was purchased for £300 in February 1859, with the principal negotiation taking place between Ngāi Tahu leader Kaikōura Whakatau and James Mackay, the recently appointed assistant native secretary for the South Island.

Grazing and farming

The first flocks

The first sheep arrived in Marlborough in November 1846, when John Cooper and Nathaniel Morse drove a flock from Nelson to the upper Wairau valley, where they had taken up a run. In August 1847 Frederick Weld and Charles Clifford, having leased coastal land between Whitecliffs and Kēkerengū from Te Puaha of Ngāti Toa, shipped 3,000 merino sheep there from New South Wales via Wairarapa.

Whale of a building 

In the mid-19th century Kaikōura runholder George Fyffe worked in a shearing shed made out of whale bones. The walls were whale ribs and vertebrae, sunk in the sand floor. Bones from a nearby beach were sorted, and those of similar length were used to fence Fyffe’s sheepyard. 

In the early 1850s stock-droving routes to Canterbury via the upper Wairau valley.were identified. Over the next few years, despite many changes and considerable uncertainty about grazing rights, depasturing licences (which allowed farmers to graze their flocks in particular areas) and squatting regulations, runs were taken up throughout Marlborough. Most were on grazing land south of the Wairau valley.

Runholders and smallholders

By the mid-1860s runholders had made use of depasturing licences and leasehold regulations to occupy almost every grazeable part of the province. A transient workforce of shepherds, musterers, shearers and cooks underpinned the enterprises. Where they could, runholders freeholded land to secure their occupancy.

Runholding was not so lucrative after the mid-1860s. The price of wool began to drop in 1866 and did not recover for a generation. Rabbits were released (for food and sport) in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and their populations quickly grew to plague proportions. Successive efforts to control them never lasted. The combination of falling prices, scab (a quickly spreading sheep affliction, caused by a mange mite) and rabbits rendered many runs worthless.

Running from rabbits 

The Keenes were runholders at Swyncombe station, inland from Kaikōura. Still visible on the crest of the hill between the Waiau road and Swyncombe is a clump of bluegums said to have been planted on the day when rabbits were released in the area, around 1860. By 1882, little more than 20 years later, rabbits had driven the Keenes from their land. 

In the 1890s, when scab was controlled and wool prices recovered, demand for land and settlement saw many large runs divided into smaller properties. The leases on about 364,000 hectares of pastoral runs fell due in 1896. Between a quarter and a third of this land had been made available for closer settlement by 1912. In this period all or parts of the Blind River, Starborough, Richmond Brook, Flaxbourne, Ōmaka, Hillersden and Lynton Downs estates were acquired by the government.

Farming in the 20th century

In the 20th century large stations in a combination of leasehold and freehold ownership continued to dominate the back country. Soil erosion and rabbits were both problems. Around 1950, rabbiters were killing 100,000 rabbits a year on just one station; when aircraft dropped poison the kill rose to 300,000 per year.

The lessee surrendered the massive Molesworth run in 1938, but others further inland and to the west continued in business, as did Molesworth itself, under government management. In the northern hill country and through the Sounds, however, much land was no longer grazed.

On the lowlands, most farms grew grains (barley and wheat), seeds (clover, lucerne and ryegrass), pulses (especially peas) and vegetables, and ran some livestock. Dairying was concentrated around Blenheim (providing milk for the town supply) and in the moister lowland areas, notably around Kaikōura and in northern valleys such as the Rai, Linkwater and Koromiko.

As late as 1970 there was little indication that these lowlands were about to be transformed – vineyards were soon to be planted and a winemaking boom would get under way.

Extractive industries


Sawmilling was a major enterprise from the 1860s. Brownlees were the biggest operators, felling trees around the Māhakipawa inlet and in the Kaituna and Pelorus valleys from 1864. At their peak they operated 45 km of tramways and three mills. Brownlees had shipped approximately 189 million cubic feet (5.35 million cubic metres) of timber by 1915.

By then, most of the accessible and useable native timber in the region had been felled. Exotic forests were planted throughout northern Marlborough from the 1950s, extensively on the margins of the Richmond and other northern ranges.


The first gold rush was to Wakamarina, a short way up the Pelorus valley from Havelock, in April 1864. Around 4,000 miners jammed the diggings – known as Canvastown – by the middle of May. Within a few more weeks it was clear that the returns were modest, and many miners left.

A second rush took place in 1888 to Cullen Creek, in the hills between Havelock and Picton. It was quickly followed by a rush to the Waikākaho and other streams which flowed southwards from the same ridge line. Alluvial gold was not extensive and ‘Cullensville’, like Canvastown, did not last.

In both the 1860s and the 1880s–1890s, gold-bearing quartz reefs were exploited in these and other locations in the Richmond Range. At Waikākaho one company invested in a 5-km aerial tramway to transport the quartz, and a crushing battery to extract the gold, but this enterprise also proved unprofitable.

Mining by companies continued until the early 1930s. Some smaller-scale mining lasted into the 1940s.


Native flax (Phormium tenax) grew on swampy land around Marlborough; it was harvested and prepared manually by Māori. Between 1828 and 1832, in Sydney alone, £50,000 worth of flax fibre was sold. The flax trade provided supplementary income for some whalers and farmers. From the 1860s to around 1920, there were occasional years when flax was profitable, especially after 1900. Later, changing trading conditions and conversion of swamp to farmland spelt an end to the native flax industry in Marlborough. The famous Chaytor flax mill at Marshlands closed in 1964.

A non-native flax from which linen could be made was grown, with government encouragement, during the Second World War.


Salt was first produced commercially at Lake Grassmere (Kāpara Te Hau) in 1952. In the 2010s approximately 60,000 tonnes of salt – about half of New Zealand’s needs – is harvested annually. The salt is produced by evaporating sea water. Lake Grassmere is a shallow inlet adjacent to the sea into which salt water can readily be introduced. Frequent strong dry winds hasten evaporation. Around 60 people are regularly employed at the works.


Commercial fishing began early, but there was limited local demand. Nonetheless families such as the Heberleys, Fishburns and McManaways were involved for generations.

Crayfish tails from Kaikōura (which means ‘to eat crayfish’) were exported to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1990s there has been a trade in live crayfish to both Asia and the US.

In 2014 over 60% of NZ’s aquaculture exports were from Marlborough. The contemporary aquaculture business dates from the 1960s and is dominated by green-lipped mussels. King salmon, Pacific oysters, pāua (abalone), kingfish and seaweed are also produced.

The majority of ‘farms’ are located in Pelorus Sound, with smaller centres at Croisilles Harbour, East Bay in outer Queen Charlotte Sound, and Port Underwood. Mussels and salmon are packed at plants at Havelock, Picton and Blenheim.

In 1997 eight iwi of the upper South Island, prompted by their failure to be awarded rights for mussel farming, applied to the Māori Land Court to have the foreshore and seabed of the Marlborough Sounds determined as Māori customary land. This in turn prompted the Foreshore and Seabed Act 2004, which regulated title to the foreshore and the seabed, effectively reserving both for the Crown. The Marine and Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Act 2011 restored iwi’s ability to seek customary rights and title in court.

The grape revolution

Yukich’s hunch

Grapes were first planted on a large scale in Marlborough by Montana Wines of Auckland in 1973. At the time, vineyards were concentrated in year-round warm areas like Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay and Auckland. Marlborough was thought to be too dry and too cold for grapes. Ivan Yukich of Montana recognised that the Wairau valley had favourable grape-growing and winemaking conditions – in particular, a summer combination of hot sunny days and cool nights.

Ahead of their time

Marlborough’s first wine cellar was built in 1873, a century before the first of the new-era vines were planted in the region. David Herd, the manager of Meadowbank station, planted vines on around 0.4 hectares, naming his vineyard Auntsfield and producing a red muscatel port-like wine. The vines were removed in 1931 but the cellar built to store the wine survived. In the 2010s the property was owned by the Cowley family, who had restored the wine cellar and were making wine under the name Auntsfield. They planned to replant Herd’s vineyard with the original grape varieties.

Blenheim has a January mean monthly temperature of 18°C, with a daytime high of 24°C and a night-time low of 12°C. It is this 12-degree range which gives grapes a crisp, herbaceous character and intensifies the colour of the pinot noir grape.

Montana’s commitment to grape growing and winemaking was emulated by local landowners. In 1992 Marlborough’s vineyards covered 1,744 hectares; by 2012 the area had increased more than tenfold, to 22,600 hectares. What started as a venture by one company transformed the Marlborough economy – although lower prices between 2008 and 2012  challenged growers.

Vineyards and grapes

The biggest concentration of vineyards is in the lower Wairau valley. Plantings are also found in the north-facing valleys that open into the Wairau, and in the lower Awatere valley. These areas have cooler climates than the lower Wairau; grapes take longer to grow and ripen later. The soils are typically fast draining, which is ideal for the vines.

Well over three-quarters of New Zealand's sauvignon blanc vines are to be found in Marlborough. In 2013 around 76% of Marlborough’s vineyard hectarage was sauvignon blanc. The pinot noir grape, increasingly favoured in Marlborough, accounted for 10% of hectarage in 2013.

Industry structure

The biggest vineyards and winemakers are corporate, with outside investors. Substantial investment has enabled Marlborough to grow more grapes than the rest of the country combined. In the 2000s, most of the biggest vineyards and wineries were operated by overseas investors.

A second tier of companies are owner-operator businesses such as Hunter’s Wines. There is also a mixture of Marlborough locals (often landowners who have converted to grapes) and outside investors, plus some who have come to the area for lifestyle reasons. Tohu Wines is Māori-owned. Viticulturalists and winemakers have come from many northern-hemisphere grape-growing countries and also from Chile, Australia and South Africa.

A third tier of the industry comprises those who grow grapes but do not make wine. Many of these are members of the Marlborough grape-producers association. Most of their output is sold to one of the big winemaking companies.

Illegal workers

Marlborough’s wine-industry boom led to a high demand for workers, making it difficult for some vineyards to find enough staff. Some unscrupulous contractors hired illegal migrants as workers, paid them less than legal rates and provided substandard accommodation, knowing that many of them spoke little English and were unwilling to go to the authorities in case they were deported.


In winter and spring, when pruning and other labour-intensive tasks are carried out, the seasonal demand for workers is at its peak. Overseas-recruited workers make up the numbers. In recent years most such workers have come from the Pacific, in particular Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, under approved schemes set up in 2006. This has curtailed some of the more blatant forms of exploitation of migrant labour that previously took place.

The ‘downstream’ labour force includes those working in numerous vineyard and cellar-related restaurants and cafés and in the accommodation industry. It also includes those who provide or serve in new or expanded hospital wards, retail outlets and classrooms, including those who teach viticulture and oenology (winemaking).

Transport and communications


Māori used waka extensively in the Marlborough Sounds and also to cross Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait). In colonial times water transport was standard in the Sounds, and also on occasion along Marlborough’s east coast.

In the heyday of coastal shipping (the late 19th and early 20th centuries), there were ports at Havelock, Picton, Port Underwood, Blenheim, the Wairau Bar and Kaikōura. Vessels also called in at numerous landings in the Sounds and along the Kaikōura coast. Road links with other provinces took time to develop, not least because many rivers had to be bridged.

Off to the big smoke

Voyages by whaleboat were made from Kaikōura to Cloudy Bay, Wellington or Kāpiti by whalers desperate for fresh company. They often displayed some carelessness. E. J. Wakefield wrote, ‘I have seen a whaleboat leave Wellington for Kaikōura ... in a gale of wind which kept small coasters in, only because Black Murray, the chief headsman [of the whalers], thought his men had enjoyed enough of their advances, and because he thought it easier to get them away to their station while they were intoxicated.’1

Ferry services linked Picton with both Wellington and Nelson – although the latter stopped once the road to Nelson was improved, probably in the 1890s.


Roads began as bridle tracks, with ferries or fords allowing rivers to be crossed. A bridle track from Nelson up the Whangamoa valley and over the Rai Saddle was opened in 1877. It was a longer route but had an easier gradient than that over the Maungatapu, known colloquially as ‘Moketap’. A coach service ran on the route from 1887 until the advent of service cars (an early form of motorised public transport) around 1915.

The Awatere River road/rail bridge opened in 1902. An inland road opened south from Kaikōura in 1887 and a coast road in 1901, though the Waiau, the first big river in Canterbury, was not bridged until 1911.

A road to the West Coast via the Wairau valley (today’s State Highway 63) opened in 1930, and an improved Blenheim–Seddon road over Dashwood Pass opened in 1933.

Ferried across

T. Lyford ran the Clarence River ferry for many years. He employed a Māori man called Mason to work the boat, which was attached to a wire rope firmly anchored on both sides of the river. Passengers paid 2s. 6d. to be ferried across with their luggage, whilst their unsaddled horses swam over.

Marlborough and Nelson were never linked by rail, although a government subsidy meant that freight was trucked out of Nelson at the cheaper rail rates. Making up the difference cost over £100,000 (nearly $7 million in 2019 terms) in 1950/51. The subsidies stopped in 1982.

The main trunk line

Protests in both 1911 and 1931 at the cessation of work on the Canterbury–Marlborough railway were unsuccessful. The line finally opened in 1945, but had little traffic because of the limited ferry service between Wellington and Picton.

In 1962 the Railways Department started a roll-on, roll-off ferry service between Wellington and Picton. Marlborough was now fully incorporated in the main trunk route, both rail and road.

The new ferries established Picton as a busy port – but the port on the Wairau closed, with the last vessel using it, the Echo, laid up for good in 1965. In 2011 the government considered building a port in Clifford Bay, south of Blenheim, but in 2013 it was decided to retain the terminal in Picton.

Another ‘main trunk’ was that of the national power grid. The undersea cable which transmits electricity between the North and South islands was laid across Cook Strait in 1965, from Fighting Bay on the Marlborough side.


The first flight across Cook Strait arrived at Dillon’s Point, near Blenheim, in 1920. In 1935 commercial services began to Nelson and Wellington, and the government established the Woodbourne air base.

Straits Air Freight Express (SAFE) operated a daily freight service between Blenheim and Wellington for the Railways Department from 1947. In the deregulated 1990s and 2000s Blenheim and Picton became the hub or destination for a number of small airlines which catered to the demand for swift travel across Cook Strait.

    • Quoted in J. M. Sherrard, Kaikoura: a history of the district. Christchurch: Cadsonbury Publications, 1998, pp. 82–83. Back


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, while 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.

Population and society

Māori and early Pākehā

It is likely that only a few hundred Māori lived in Marlborough in the first half of the 19th century, and many of them, particularly those who had recently settled there from the North Island, moved between their new home and their older home across Cook Strait. The whaling stations at Port Underwood, Kaikōura and other localities brought some Pākehā to the region, but the total population would not have altered much because the Māori population was decreasing.

A continuous history of Pākehā settlement dates from the 1850s. The heart of Marlborough developed on the Wairau plain. A major earthquake in 1855 deepened the Ōpawa River, allowing vessels to navigate some distance upstream. Landowners subdivided and a town developed, named ‘the Beaver’ on account of the watery nature of its site. Its name was later changed to Blenheim. By 1857 it had a courthouse, a post office, plans for a customs house and a substantial wool trade – in 1857, 103 coastal vessels took £51,000 worth of bales across Cook Strait to Wellington.

A farming population

Small-scale grain and vegetable farming developed on the Wairau plain, on the plains around Kaikōura after the 1870s, and in the Awatere valley after some large runs were subdivided in the 1890s and 1900s. The northern hill country supported a farming population in the valleys, but the deforested hills reverted to bush. The population of Sounds county was static and then declined from its 1911 peak of around 1,200.

The rural population of Wairau and Awatere counties increased from just over 6,000 in 1896 to nearly 8,500 by 1916. After this there was relatively little purely rural growth – most took place on the margins of Blenheim.

Intermittent surges of population accompanied the Wakamarina gold rush (1864) and railway building to Blenheim (1870s and 1890s to 1900s) and Kaikōura (1936 to 1945).

Blenheim’s growth

In 1878 Blenheim had a population more than double that of Picton (1,781 compared with 703). It retained that lead through years of steady growth in the 20th century, reaching nearly 5,000 by 1926. Growth slowed after that, then resumed during the Second World War, partly because of the establishment of the Woodbourne air base. Blenheim’s population reached 12,000 in 1961, and 29,298 in 2013.

In 2013 Blenheim’s economy was dominated by the farming, manufacturing, health and retail sectors; the professional, financial and educational sectors were relatively underrepresented compared with the national averages. Professionals and managers were also underrepresented and labourers overrepresented.

Māori in the 20th century

Despite a vigorous history, the Māori population of Marlborough was not large in the mid-20th century. In 1961 there were 690 Māori – proportionally the largest Māori population of any South Island region. Many lived in the Māori settlements at Waikawa and Kaikōura.

In 2013, 11.4% of Marlborough’s population identified as Māori. The majority lived in Picton, Kaikōura and Blenheim. Māori were the only significant ethnic minority – 85.2% of the region’s population identified as European. (Multiple responses were allowed.)

Population distribution in 2013

The total regional population was 46,968 in 2013. Marlborough district had a population of 43,416 (10% higher than in 2001), of whom 35,478 were in the Wairau. Much of the increase was in the vicinity of Blenheim. In 2013 Kaikōura district’s population was 3,552, of whom just under 2,000 lived in the town.

Sport, recreation and culture

Marlborough’s first recorded horse-racing meeting took place on 10 January 1854, when Blenheim – then the Beaver – was barely established. By December 1860 the Marlborough Cricket Club had been formed – it asked members to attend a field day on New Year’s Day 1861.

Marlborough had its own rugby football union from the early 1890s until 2006, when it became a sub-union of the Tasman union along with Nelson Bays. The Tasman Makos have competed in the Mitre 10 Cup provincial rugby competition since its inception in 2006, and won the premiership title in 2019.

The Seddon Shield was first competed for in 1906. Named for the recently deceased premier Richard Seddon, it is New Zealand’s second-oldest rugby competition after the Ranfurly Shield, and draws in the West Coast and Buller unions and teams from the Nelson Bays and Marlborough sub-unions. Marlborough defeated Canterbury 13–6 in 1973 to win the Ranfurly Shield, and kept it for a year.


The Marlborough back country has long been popular with hunters, particularly for pigs and deer.

The Sounds became a favoured holiday area, especially in the 20th century, for locals, Wellingtonians and Cantabrians. Boating, fishing and swimming have always been popular, and from the later 20th century so were kayaking and tramping (hiking). Kaikōura became a major tourist centre in the 1980s, with a focus on whale watching.

The Marlborough Convention Centre, incorporating the Clubs of Marlborough, was opened in 2007.

Get your gondola

A performance of The gondoliers was taking place at Ewart’s Hotel in High Street in Blenheim in 1890 when the rivers rose in sudden flood. Wags in the audience pointed out the appropriateness of the subject matter.

Writing and publishing

The Marlborough Express was founded by Samuel Johnson in 1866. The Furness family were the paper’s principal owners from 1879 until 1998. In 2014 the Express had a circulation of 6,700. The Kaikoura Star has been published since 1880.

One of Marlborough’s most distinguished sojourners was the Australian poet Henry Lawson, who spent six months as a teacher at Mangamāunu Māori school, just north of Kaikōura, in 1897.

A woman possessed

Katherine Mansfield’s story ‘The voyage’ tells of a girl’s journey with her grandmother, who is returning to Picton – where Mansfield’s own grandmother lived. Writing to a friend in 1921 about the composition of the story, Mansfield explained that it felt ‘terribly vivid … It wasn’t a memory of a real experience. It was a kind of possession. I might have remained the grandma for ever after if the wind had changed that moment.’1

Katherine Mansfield had family connections with Picton and the Sounds, and memories of both informed her thoughts and her writing.

Janet Frame’s mother Lottie grew up in Picton, where she worked for Mansfield’s Beauchamp grandparents. Frame’s story ‘The lagoon’ derives its setting from the Waitohi lagoon, now mostly reclaimed land. Poet Eileen Duggan was raised in Tuamarina and educated there and at Marlborough High School.

Christine Cole Catley founded her publishing company Cape Catley in the Sounds in 1973, and published from Whatamangō Bay, near Picton, until 2000. Writer Joy Cowley was based in the Marlborough Sounds for many years and returns frequently. Poet and fiction writer Ian Wedde was born in Blenheim in 1946.

Office with a view

Author Joy Cowley, who was based in the Sounds for many years, wrote, ‘The desk in the Marlborough Sounds has a view of a bush-rimmed bay, green water licking a stony beach, weka and seagulls and sometimes, a boat chugging to a mussel farm.’ 2

Local history

There are local histories of all Marlborough’s communities, of which the most impressive is J. M. Sherrard’s 1966 history of Kaikōura county.

Two provincial histories are Lindsay Buick’s Old Marlborough, or the story of a province (1900) and Alister McIntosh’s centennial history Marlborough: a provincial history (1940).

Veteran journalist Don Grady published many titles about the ‘top of the south’ in the 2000s, and Cynthia Brooks has also contributed to a number of writing projects. Blenheim-based Ron Crosby has written extensively on 19th-century Māori history and New Zealand military history.

Hilary and John Mitchell have written a multi-volume history of Māori in Nelson and Marlborough.

The Marlborough Historical Society was established in 1955. The Marlborough Museum and Archives building was opened at Brayshaw Heritage Park in 1990.

Theatre, music and art

The Marlborough Civic Theatre opened in 1985 in the former Farmers department store building, 10 years after the demolition of His Majesty’s Theatre had deprived Blenheim of its main live-performance venue. The Boathouse Theatre on the Ōpawa River in Blenheim was home to the Marlborough Repertory Society. Le Café in Picton also hosted live music performances.

The Millennium Public Art Gallery was in Seymour Square, Blenheim. An exhibition of significant works of art from public and private collections in Marlborough, ‘Province’, was held in the gallery in 2010. The Marlborough Art Society was established in 1961 and in the 2000s had a gallery on High Street in Blenheim. The Diversion Gallery was located at Grove Mill winery, on the outskirts of Renwick.

    • Quoted in C. K. Stead, ed., The letters and journals of Katherine Mansfield. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 258–259. Back
    • ‘Welcome to the world of Joy Cowley.’ (last accessed 9 May 2011). Back

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Marlborough: 14,534 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km

Climate (Blenheim)

(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)

  • Mean temperature, January: 18.0°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 7.0°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 655 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,475 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Marlborough: 46,170 (2006); 46,968 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • Marlborough: 85.2%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Marlborough: 11.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Marlborough: 2.1%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • Marlborough: 2.7%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Marlborough: 0.6%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes and sub-tribes

Rangitāne ki Wairau, Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Koata, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāi Tahu

Major urban area, 2013

  • Blenheim: 24,183

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Marlborough: 17.8%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Marlborough: 61.8%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Marlborough: 20.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 2013

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • Marlborough: 17.3%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%

Accommodation and food services

  • Marlborough: 9.2%
  • New Zealand: 6.9%

Professional, scientific and technical

  • Marlborough: 2.8%
  • New Zealand: 7.8%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Marlborough: 2.8%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012


  • Marlborough: 547,180
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Marlborough: 33,218
  • New Zealand: 6,445,781

Beef cattle

  • Marlborough: 60,127
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Malcolm McKinnon, 'Marlborough region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 September 2021)

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