Story: Place names

Page 3. Colonial naming

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The big tide of European naming came during the colonising era from the 1840s to the 1910s.

The namers

Place names usually first appeared on maps, so explorers and map makers were the first namers. In the colonial period, names were often given by the surveyors who worked for colonising associations or provincial governments. Otago surveyor John Turnbull Thomson probably named more places than any other individual.

A Definition of Districts Act 1858 authorised the governor to designate place names. Thomas Gore Browne, identified by historian T. M. Hocken as a ‘great name giver’ 1 , selected, for example, both Invercargill and Picton. In practice the authority was most often exercised by the Lands, Railways or Post and Telegraph departments. Local councils or surveyors might name places in the first instance, but the government could override such decisions to avoid duplication, which became an issue as the postal system grew.

Colonising associations

Colonisation associations had many sponsors, often wealthy individuals in the United Kingdom. New settlers acknowledged sponsors in their place naming. Not surprisingly the Wakefield settlements honoured their sponsors:

  • Somes, Lambton, Hutt and Dorset, named by the New Zealand Company in Wellington
  • Gowan (Gowan River) and Wakefield, by the New Zealand Company in Nelson
  • Port Chalmers, by the Otago Association
  • Ashburton, Ashley, Coleridge, Ellesmere, Godley, Heathcote, Lincoln, Lyttelton and Sumner, by the Canterbury Association.

The Manchester Association, which settled part of Manawatū, honoured its leaders (Ashhurst, Feilding, Halcombe), while the French on Banks Peninsula named Duvauchelle after an early settler and Le Bons Bay after a sailor.

Cuban Wellington

Wellington’s Cuba St was named not after the country, but after an early settler ship, the Cuba. In the early 2000s Cuba took off as a name in Wellington. The ‘Cuba quarter’ in Wellington has had cafés or bars named Fidels, Havana, Che, Cubita and Buena Vista Social Club, and there’s a Havana coffee works. These contribute to the hip, alternative, ‘Cuban’ image of the quarter.

Immigrant ships

Early immigrant ships gave their names to streets. The Cuba, Oriental and Tory became Wellington and Petone street names and the Cressy, Randolph, Charlotte Jane and George Seymour, Canterbury Association emigrant ships, gave their names to streets in Lyttelton.

The Auckland immigrant ship Bombay gave its name to a settlement, then the nearby hills, and has now come to symbolise the notional division between Auckland and the rest of New Zealand as in, ‘You won’t find that south of the Bombay Hills.’

Governments and church

Like the colonising associations, colonial and provincial governments honoured their own members.

Provincial governments

Featherston was named after Wellington’s superintendent, and Christchurch’s avenues honoured four Canterbury superintendents (Moorhouse, Bealey, Rolleston and Fitzgerald, who also gave part of his name to Geraldine). Invercargill recalls Otago’s first superintendent, William Cargill, and Macandrew Bay honours another.

Central government

Early politicians were not widely commemorated, except for Sir William Fox, who had a glacier and Foxton named after him. Domett was premier, Gisborne was colonial secretary and Hamilton was an officer killed at Gate Pā. Vogel received Vogeltown in both New Plymouth and Wellington. The Liberal party cabinet did well with the settlements of Ballance, Seddon, Ward and McKenzie (changed to Cheviot).


Few places were named after church leaders. Selwyn (after New Zealand’s first Anglican bishop) in Canterbury is an exception.

  1. Quoted in James Herries Beattie, European place-names in southern New Zealand. Gore: Mataura Ensign, 1912, p. 5. › Back
How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Place names - Colonial naming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 24 Nov 2008