Story: Northland places

Page 15. Whāngārei city and environs

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Major centre for Northland, and its only city. In 2013 its population was 49,161.

Nestled in a broad valley between hills to its west and east, the city lies on a long inlet of Whāngārei Harbour on Northland’s east coast. Initially a service centre for the surrounding district, it has developed through its proximity to some of the country’s deepest harbour waters, and through the north’s expanding tourism.

Early days

The Parawhau tribe originally occupied the land and continued to live in several villages around the settlement through the 19th century. Whāngārei began as a timber-milling site in 1839, but the first Europeans fled to Auckland for a time during the 1840s when war broke out in the Bay of Islands between Māori factions and British troops. For a while the area stagnated, and then the kauri-gum trade and shipbuilding brought new settlers.


Tom the Rat, Jack the Bug, Fenian Mick, Harry the Humbug, Spouting Sammy, and Blathering Bill – these were the nicknames for sawyers, shingle-splitters, timber-workers and runaway sailors who built rough shelters or shanties on Whāngārei’s outskirts, where ‘rowdy towns’ or camps sprang up in the 1860s.

Transport difficulties

The Whāngārei district was the most urbanised area in Northland in the latter part of the 19th century, but growth in the first half of the 20th century was slow. Coastal shipping was the main link with other centres. It was 1925 when the railway was put through to Auckland, and an all-weather road was not completed until 1934.

Industrial growth

Industries started to expand, including the Portland cement works (which started on Limestone Island in 1885 and in 1916 moved to Portland). In the late 1950s glass works, fertiliser works and the Marsden Point oil refinery were all under construction, the last completed in 1964.

Achieving city status in 1965, Whāngārei now dominates the surrounding area commercially. It has industries such as timber processing and fertiliser works.


The city’s Forum North complex is the cultural and performing arts centre for Northland. There are live performances at the Whangarei Theatre Company’s Riverbank Theatre and the Repertory Society’s Octagon Theatre. Local and visiting artists are on show at the Whāngārei Art Museum, and regular exhibitions are featured at the Northland Polytechnic, the region’s tertiary institution. Whāngārei Libraries hold collections of publications and photographs on the region and there is also a city museum. The Northern Advocate is Northland’s main newspaper, founded in 1875.

Port Whāngārei

Port located at the head of Whāngārei Harbour. It has a town basin that takes vessels of up to 1,000 tons, and a deep-water wharf that serves overseas ships. Dredging and reclaiming of tidal mudflats in the 1920s provided land for the port facilities and industrial sites.

By 1958 an international port was in operation. Since the 19th century one of Whāngārei’s major industries has been shipbuilding, expanding into luxury yacht-building in the 1990s. A new quayside commercial, office and recreational complex was opened in September 1995. It provides a haven for the many overseas yachts that berth alongside, and visitors frequent its cafés, art galleries and restaurants. Another attraction is Claphams Clocks, a museum collection of some 1,500 timepieces.


Township 7 km north of Whāngārei. Coal was mined from 1876 and prompted the building of a rail line from Whāngārei in 1880. Some 2 million tons of coal were mined to 1955 (when flooding closed the last mine). Kamō was also the site of a brick works which expanded after the Second World War. The town was incorporated into Whāngārei City in 1965.


Township 16 km north of Whāngārei. Like Kamō, it had rich coal seams, which were mined from the 1890s. The railway was extended from Whāngārei to Waro (just north of Hikurangi) in 1894. The town also became the centre for a dairy farming district. It became part of Whāngārei district in 1989, and a museum records its early history.

How to cite this page:

Claudia Orange, 'Northland places - Whāngārei city and environs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 December 2021)

Story by Claudia Orange, published 12 Dec 2005, updated 1 May 2015