New Zealand’s non-Māori place names tell the story of its settlement by Europeans and others. Place names were a way the newly arrived culture imprinted itself on a changing landscape.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand’s western coasts in 1642. Tasman did not circumnavigate the country and he called his discovery Staten Landt, thinking it might be linked to a Staten Landt in southern South America. This was soon discovered to be false.
On a 1646 world map Joan Blaeu, official Dutch cartographer to the Dutch East India Company, conferred the name ‘Nova Zeelandia’ – the Latin equivalent of the Dutch ‘Nieuw Zeeland’ – on the land discovered by Tasman (the Dutch also named the western coasts of Australia as Nieuw Holland). It was by that name – ‘New Zealand’ in English – that the country came to be known. Intermittent dissatisfaction in the colonial era that the name was ‘foreign’ – in other words, not English – never led to a name change.
James Cook recorded Māori names for two islands as he had heard them pronounced – ‘Eaheinomauwe' for the North Island and ‘Toai Poonamoo’ for the South Island – perhaps He-mea-hī-nō-Māui (the things Māui fished up), and Te Wai Pounamu (greenstone waters). Stewart Island (Rakiura) was identified as a separate island in 1804.
The names ‘North’, ‘Middle’ and ‘South’ for the three islands had appeared on a map by 1820. In 1840 Governor William Hobson named them New Ulster, New Munster and New Leinster after three Irish regions, but these names were abandoned after the provinces, which had taken the names of the first two, were abolished in 1852. The South Island was recorded as an alternative to Middle Island in the 1830s, and has been the official name since 1907.
The earliest European names were given by explorers. They follow the coast or places that could be seen from it, such as mountains.
In December 1642 Abel Tasman’s two ships were anchored in Golden Bay. Following a misunderstanding, men in an open boat were attacked by Māori and four were killed. Tasman named the bay Moordenaers or Murderers Bay. Cook accepted that name, but in 1827 Dumont d’Urville preferred Massacre Bay. When coal was discovered at Tākaka in 1842, it became Coal Bay, and after gold was discovered at Aorere in 1857 the name changed to Golden Bay, which most people today imagine, incorrectly, refers to the colour of its sand.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who sailed along part of the west coast of New Zealand, named relatively few places: Murderers Bay because of a fracas where lives were lost (a name which did not last;); Cape Maria van Diemen, after the wife of the governor of the Dutch settlement at Batavia (Jakarta); and Three Kings Islands, reminder of the day in the religious calendar they were sighted. The names Tasman gave to Cape Foulwind, Kahurangi Point and Cape Egmont didn’t last.
Other names commemorate Tasman himself. Tasman is the name of a district, a street in many towns, the second highest mountain and its glacier, and the Tasman Sea. Tasman Bay was named by a later explorer, Dumont d’Urville.
Names of early ships have also become place names. Coromandel takes its name from HMS Coromandel, which sailed into Coromandel Harbour around 1820, and the Chatham Islands from the Chatham, which visited in 1791. Pegasus Bay (Canterbury) and Port Pegasus (Stewart Island) recall the brig Pegasus, which charted them in 1809. Although an American sealer, Owen Folger Smith, first identified Stewart Island as an island in 1804, it was named after William Stewart, first officer on the Pegasus.
James Cook circumnavigated New Zealand and named more widely than Tasman did. His naming varied from descriptive (Flat Island, Bay of Islands) to metaphorical (Bay of Plenty, Poverty Bay) to narrative (Bream Bay, Cape Runaway, Cape Turnagain, Cape Farewell, Cape Foulwind). He also acknowledged royalty (Queen Charlotte Sound), officers in the British admiralty (Cape Brett, Cape Colville, Edgecumbe, Hawke Bay, Cape Palliser, Mount and Cape Egmont), and the professional members of his ship’s complement (Banks Island which became Peninsula and Solander Island).
Cook lends his name to even more places than Tasman, being found in every city, atop mountains, bestriding bays and on countless streets and roads. Other names – Marton, Whitby – recall places associated with his early life.
Other explorers named places on similar lines to Tasman and Cook but not many names have survived. Dumont d’Urville named Passe des Français (French Pass), which he sailed through in 1827. The pass separates the mainland and D’Urville Island which subsequently took his name. Names given in Fiordland by Felipe Bauza (on the Spanish Malaspina expedition) were replaced when the Acheron surveyed the coast and harbours in 1848–51, but were later restored.
The big tide of European naming came during the colonising era from the 1840s to the 1910s.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.’
Like the colonising associations, colonial and provincial governments honoured their own members.
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.
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.
Since most non-Māori New Zealanders came from the United Kingdom, they looked to place names to create a sense of home and proclaim their membership of the British Empire.
Heroes of the Empire’s battles were recalled in such place names as Auckland, Eden, Rodney, Raglan, Clive, Napier, Hastings, Havelock, Wellington, Picton, Marlborough, Nelson, Collingwood, and Wyndham (after the Crimean War general Windham). Famous battlefields of empire – Blenheim, Waterloo and Trafalgar – also feature. The Scots explorer David Livingstone gave his name to two localities, a bay and a mountain range.
Britain’s literary heritage is represented by Spenser (mountains), Tennyson (a lake and inlet) and Chaucer and Milton bays. Napier named its streets after literary figures and Shakespere [sic] was an early name for the Avon River in Christchurch. Waverley was the name of Sir Walter Scott’s first historical novel.
Feilding’s street names are typical of the colonial era. The town has many names from British political, military and imperial history such as York, Marlborough, Blenheim and Gladstone, and names of New Zealand political leaders: Grey, Eyre, Fitzroy, Bowen, Stafford and Weld. These streets are laid out within a quadrant, which includes only two Māori names, Tūī and Rimu.
Contemporary British politicians were honoured: Russell, Howick, Palmerston, Peel, Gladstone and Herbert. Cromwell recalled a historic leader.
Royal names are largely absent from settlement names (though not street names), possibly because of the New Zealand Company’s anti-royalist attitudes. The only major ‘royal’ localities are Queenstown, Kingston and Alexandra, all dating from the early 1860s, the time of Princess Alexandra’s marriage to the Prince of Wales – though Queenstown and Kingston could have been borrowed from Irish place names.
Curiously a foreign monarch – Franz Josef of Austria – gave his name to one of the two main West Coast glaciers, whereas Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s son, who visited in 1870) was displaced in favour of the politician William Fox as the name for the neighbouring glacier. The Clarence River may be named after the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV.
At the local level however, towns have many Alberts, Alexandras, Alfreds, Georges, Princes, Queen Marys and Queen Elizabeths. Victoria was briefly the name for Waitangi. Today both Auckland and Wellington have Mt Victorias, and there is a Victoria Range and River. Balmoral and Sandringham, both royal residences, are Auckland suburbs. Strathmore, a Wellington suburb, is associated with Elizabeth, consort of George VI, whose father was the Earl of Strathmore.
Governors gave their names to Hobson County north of Auckland (now Kaipara Basin), Bowentown in the Bay of Plenty, Gore (after Thomas Gore Browne), and Ranfurly. There is a Grey glacier, river, peak, and three places (Greytown, Greymouth and Grey Lynn). Wellington suburbs include Kelburn (family home of the Glasgows), Northland (eldest son of Ranfurly), and Onslow. Vice-regal names are used for streets in many towns.
High Street is the commonest street name in England. Many New Zealand towns have a High Street but it is not always the main street. In Masterton, High Street marks the approach to the town from the south, but the principal street itself is Queen Street. The English use of ‘the high street’, to refer to the shopping area, is not found in New Zealand.
Direct borrowing of United Kingdom place names was uncommon. London is only present as a Māori transliteration (Rānana). Birkenhead, Devonport, New Plymouth, Westport (probably from Westport in Ireland), Belfast, New Brighton, Dunedin (a variant of Edinburgh), Portobello (near Edinburgh) and Roxburgh (Scotland) are some of the few names taken directly from the UK. Canterbury was applied to a province not a town, while Christchurch takes its name not from the southern English town but from a college at Oxford University. Oxford itself and Cambridge were also used.
Two rivers, the Thames and the Clutha (a variant of Clyde), have British ‘parents’. The Lammermoor and Lammerlaw ranges in Central Otago hail from the Lammermuir range near Edinburgh, and the Grampians in South Canterbury from the Scottish range. The Avon River in Christchurch is named after an Avon in Ayrshire. Lake Grassmere in Marlborough is from Grasmere in the English lake district.
English and Scottish place names feature in streets. English and Scottish river names are used for streets in Island Bay (Wellington), Ōamaru, Gore and Invercargill. Lyttelton and Christchurch have streets named after Anglican bishoprics in both England and the empire. Wyndham’s street names, like the settlement itself, recall the Crimean War.
As exploration reached inland and settlements were created, the new localities were often named after the pioneers, promoters and local landowners. They included:
Some settlements were named by locals after home places, such as Warkworth, Huntly, Eltham, Cheltenham and Methven. Dannevirke and Norsewood honour the homelands of the early Scandinavian settlers.
King Country is a reference to the Māori king. From the 1860s the king lived in that territory, which lay outside the reach of the colonial government for many years.
Someone from England isn’t an Englander, except in a war comic, but in the New World New Englander and Newfoundlander were accepted usages and Kiwis have followed suit with Northlander, Southlander, Aucklander, and New Zealander.
Mountains, passes and rivers were often named after European discoverers, including Buller, Lewis, Haast and Heaphy. James Cook created a precedent of naming places after scientists. Julius von Haast in particular followed suit, as in Davy, Hooker, Humboldt, Lyell and Newton, all mountains in the Southern Alps.
Descriptive names were used for physical features such as Stony River, Two Thumb Range, Rock and Pillar Range, Old Man Range, Raggedy Range and the Remarkables.
They also identify a number of settlements, for example Riverhead, Gumtown (later Coroglen, after a racehorse), Woodville, Island Bay, Redcliffs, Windwhistle, Riverton and Bluff.
Some region names are descriptive – Northland, Southland and Fiordland for example. Westland is more often called the West Coast, and locals are (West) Coasters, not Westlanders. The name Eastland is only used in tourist information – New Zealanders call it the East Coast.
Most place naming occurred before the First World War (1914–18). Most new place names since then have been for streets and suburbs.
There is little evidence that the two world wars led to German or German-sounding place names being changed, unlike in South Australia. However some new street names commemorated the wars. Karori in Wellington has Birdwood, Chaytor, Flers, Messines, Scapa and Verviers for streets laid out (or re-named) in the 1920s, and Montgomery, Victory and Alamein for streets laid out in the 1950s and 1960s. Road names in farm areas opened up in the 1950s between Rotorua and Taupō include Crete, Galatos, Maleme, Alamein and Sangro, all commemorating episodes in the Second World War.
There is a scattering of later political names – Massey, Glen Massey and Coates(ville) are at least settlements, while Savage, Fraser, Nash and Holyoake only get the occasional street named after them. Even governors-general fare poorly, though there are Cobham Drives in Hamilton and Wellington and Fergusson Drive in Upper Hutt. The streets of Kawerau, laid out in the 1950s and 1960s, recall governors, governors-general and prime ministers. Edmund Hillary is one New Zealander who triggered naming in the post-Second World War era. British wartime leader Winston Churchill prompted Wellington’s Churchill Drive and neighbouring streets.
Naming places after a person’s surname was standard through the 19th and much of the 20th century. But from the late 20th century local authorities have chosen to commemorate individuals with full names. Near Auckland Airport are streets named George Bolt, Tom Pearce, Cyril Kay and Andrew McKee.
An Honorary Geographic Board of New Zealand was established in 1924 by the Minister of Lands to advise on place-name questions. An official body, the New Zealand Geographic Board, was established in 1946 and affiliated with the Lands and Survey Department, now Land Information New Zealand (LINZ). It assigns place names for small urban settlements, localities, mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, harbours and any other natural features throughout New Zealand.
Streets and roads are named by local authorities. National parks and reserves are named by the Department of Conservation, which consults with the Board. There is scope for individual initiative, especially in wilderness areas. In 1971 geologist Simon Nathan named summits in the Paparoa Range on the West Coast after scientists such as Copernicus, Curie, Einstein, Pasteur and Rutherford.
Provincial names have evolved less formally. In the mid-20th century Northland displaced North Auckland as the preferred name for the region north of Auckland. South Auckland, which once described the city’s hinterland as far as Taupō, is now confined to its southern suburbs.
Many places have acquired informal names: ‘Palmy’ for Palmerston, ‘Gizzie’ for Gisborne, ‘Cardie’ for Cardrona.
A distinctive aspect of New Zealand place naming is the interplay of Māori and non-Māori names. European naming displaced Māori names. This was little discussed by Pākehā at the time. Māori continued to use their own place names as well as new names. New names were often for new features, like towns. Many features which Māori had named, such as eel weirs or fishing grounds, were unfamiliar to Europeans, or were obliterated in the course of settlement.
Pātea and Waitara in Taranaki had their names changed by the government to Carlyle and Raleigh. But the locals preferred their original names and they quickly reverted.
Māori names survived European settlement mostly in places with significant Māori populations in the central North Island and Northland.
In some areas European place names reverted to the original Māori names – sometimes on account of duplication of European names, which became evident once a national postal system was established in the 1870s. Usually the more recent North Island name was abandoned. Sometimes there was a simple readiness by Europeans to use the Māori name, independent of their attitudes to local Māori and despite pressure from the authorities. Places like Taihape, Ōhakune, Raetihi, Taumarunui, Rotorua, Taupō, Whakatāne, Tauranga, Te Kūiti, Te Awamutu and Ngāruawāhia had European names only fleetingly.
Joseph Ward successfully moved an amendment to the Designation of Districts Act 1894 which specified that any future naming or name alterations would give preference to original Māori names. Where Māori names had been corrupted or misspelt they could be altered by proclamation, though this was not often done – Kurow in North Otago was not changed back to Kohurau. James Herries Beattie complained that the Post Office and Railways were ‘clapping on manufactured Maori names to places where we have no record of Maoris having ever lived.’ 1Manui (in Rangitīkei), a name made from Masterton and Tīnui small farms association, was an example. Kononi, the Māori word for twisted, replaced Corkscrew Road in South Otago.
The New Zealand Geographic Board set up in 1946 was required to have two Māori members out of a board of seven, headed by the surveyor general. They collected Māori place names and determined which ‘alien’ names appearing on official maps should be replaced by Māori or ‘British’ names.
Major rivers throughout New Zealand were often given European names but later reverted to earlier Māori names. Thames gave a name to town and district but the river has reverted to Waihou. In Hawke's Bay the Ngaruroro and Tukituki, and in Canterbury the Rakaia, Waimakariri and Rangitātā all reverted to their Māori names. The only major rivers with non-Māori names are the Clarence, Buller, Grey and Clutha.
Colloquialisms in New Zealand English from Māori include ‘the heke’ (Waiheke), ’Naki (Taranaki), ’Kato (Waikato), Paraparam’ or P’ram’ (Paraparaumu) and ‘Piecock’ (Paekākāriki). Māori names are often mispronounced. ‘Waikikamukau’ is a name which puns on this mispronunciation (‘why kick a moo cow’).
Some Māori names were transliterations of European names, such as Pōneke for Port Nicholson or Ākarana for Auckland. Missionary Richard Taylor named settlements along the Whanganui River Ātene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Hiruhārama (Jerusalem) and Rānana (London). Red Rocks near Wellington is distinctive in being the European version of a Māori name (Pariwhero). Names mixing Māori and Scottish words include Gleniti near Timaru and Glenomaru near Balclutha.
Suburb names vary from one part of the country to another. Christchurch has about 80 suburb names of which perhaps five are Māori. Auckland has a higher percentage, including Kohimarama, Ōrākei, Remuera and Takapuna.
A clutch of Māori names recur in street names, most often birds or trees: tūī, kākā, korimako and kererū, and tōtara, tītoki, karamū, mataī, karaka and kōwhai. In most cities such names appear in clusters.
Less common are references to Māori individuals. Taupō has Heuheu and Tamamutu streets, Rotorua has Arawa, Tūtānekai and Hinemoa streets, and Hutt Valley has the suburb Epuni (Te Puni).
Towns built for mill or forestry workers in the 1960s – Tokoroa, Murupara, Kawerau – were given Māori names. But private developers tend to eschew Māori in favour of ‘stately’ English names, often with suffixes like Gardens, Park or Heights.
In the 1990s and early 2000s some places were given an official double name – in both English and Māori – for example Matiu/Somes Island, and Mt Taranaki or Egmont. Those decisions were both made by the Geographic Board, but others came through legislation. Government reparation for Māori tribal claims has included restoring place names. One settlement with South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu specified 96 place name alterations. Most acquired double names in English and Māori and these now appear on maps. Aotearoa New Zealand is also often heard.
The Geographic Board, also now known as Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa, is explicitly required to encourage the use of original Māori place names on official maps and has protocols for that purpose. However the Board is precluded from changing the name of the country.
A century after New Zealand women gained the vote a small street opposite the Parliament buildings was renamed Kate Sheppard Place after the New Zealand suffrage campaigner. However women’s names feature very little, with most being accounted for by Queen Victoria and other British royalty.
New Zealand was colonised around the same time as the American West, but New Zealand towns were not named as systematically as US towns – there are few numbered streets or avenues, though Tauranga has avenues numbered up to 23. Brooklyn, Wellington is named after that part of New York City, with many of its streets named for US presidents.
A scattering of Kennedys appeared after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. There is John F. Kennedy Drive in Palmerston North, which also has an Andrew Young Street (after the Mayor of Atlanta). The road names Republican, Democrat and Yankee in Rerewhakaaitu, near Rotorua, record Second World War training by US forces in New Zealand.
Whisky Way is off Moonshine Valley Road near Palmerston North. It is said that Nonoti, near Cheviot in Canterbury, received its name when a politician asked to name the locality declined modestly ‘No, not I.’ Wellsford is reputedly an acronym of the first letters of early settler surnames.
There is very little Australian influence – few sets of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane streets, or suburbs. And there is virtually nothing to suggest the impact of migration and settlement from the Pacific or Asia – no Apia or Avarua, no Seoul, Shanghai or Singapore.
Indian names, such as Khandallah in Wellington and Cashmere (Kashmir) in Christchurch, reflect British imperial connections rather than the influence of Indians. Khandallah also has Indian names in its streets.
Griffiths, George. Names and places in Southern New Zealand. Dunedin: Otago Heritage, 1990.
Irvine-Smith, F. L. The streets of my city. Wellington, A.H. and A.W. Reed, 1948.
McKinnon, Malcolm, ed. New Zealand historical atlas. Auckland: David Bateman, 1997.
Reed, A. W. Place names of New Zealand. Rev. ed. Auckland: Raupo, 2010.
Startup, R. M. New Zealand post offices. Rev. ed. Whenuapai: Postal History Society of New Zealand, 1993.
Wises’ New Zealand Guide: a gazetteer of New Zealand. 8th ed. Auckland: Wises Publications, 1987
A searchable database of New Zealand names on the Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) site.
Detailed information on the official naming process.
An article about New Zealand places named for scientists by Garry J. Tee.