Story: Ports and harbours

Page 1. Beachheads and beginnings

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Ports determined settlement

Maritime commerce linked New Zealand and the British Empire, and promoters looked for safe anchorages for their new settlements. In 1840, for example, Captain David Rough recalled Lieutenant Governor William Hobson’s interest in ‘the anchorage and depth of water near the shore where I had taken soundings’ when inspecting the harbour at Waitematā, Auckland, for a possible site for the capital. 1

When choosing settlement sites, sometimes people had to make difficult trade-offs between harbours and hinterlands. Wellington’s magnificent harbour needed little promotion, but even Charles Heaphy’s famous 1839 birds’-eye-view painting bent the truth, making the Hutt River look navigable, and softening Wellington’s slopes. Here, as at Lyttelton, the hills would remain inconvenient barriers before the advent of trains and railway tunnels.

When everything had to be moved by muscle power, the distance between ship and store really mattered. Dunedin’s deep-water anchorage, Port Chalmers, is only a few minutes’ drive from the city today, but in the mid-1800s it seemed inconveniently far. But at least it had deep water. Whanganui had only a dangerous, shallow river, and New Plymouth a wild, open beach.

Harbour masters

In the 1840s the governor appointed harbour masters, although by that time the settlers who had come from Britain on the New Zealand Company’s immigration schemes built some rickety port works. At Port Chalmers in 1848 a crane was perched on Wickliffe Pier, which was roughly assembled from mānuka posts and planks, and only really usable at high tide. Further up the harbour at Dunedin, newcomers squelched ashore through mud. In Wellington, Wallace’s Wharf was merely a line of planks and trestles at the sea end. Ferrying everyone and everything back and forth in small boats made cargo work slow and laborious.

The government steps in

The New Zealand government was nearly as broke as the New Zealand Company, so its Chief Marine Board, established in 1862 and succeeded by the Marine Department in 1866, set a pattern that endured: central government looked after lighthouses, surveying, certification and regulations, while local (initially provincial) government (more recently port companies) ran the trading ports. The system started shakily. The problem was that as settlement fanned out, the demand for harbour works grew, pitting settlers from the outports against townsfolk.

Harbour boards

Harbour boards were established by statute in 1870. Eventually there would be more than 60. Big city boards like Wellington’s had plenty of influence. Busy wharves made merchants rich, and changed the face of cities. Wellington Harbour Board engineer William Ferguson directed port development, which covered everything from shipping channels to street layouts on reclamations.

At the other end of the scale were the local road boards or county councils that doubled as harbour authorities. In places like Castlepoint, for example, on the windswept Wairarapa coast, the local road board also became the Castle Point Harbour Board in 1876. Boards could levy ratepayers to fund port development, and town and country often disagreed about where costs should fall, so harbour board politics could be fiery.

The impermanence of ports

Many ports did not last long. The harbour boards might put up a flagstaff, remove debris from the river, build a small jetty and shed, and then trade precariously for a decade or two. Even less substantial were the landings. In Northland or along the east coast of the North Island, for example, there were hundreds of places where drays backed into the surf and open surf boats ferried farmers’ wool clips out to small ships.

Not even the lack of natural shelter could stop some communities from seeking port status. Some were motivated by parochialism or were purely speculative, and they often failed.

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Russell Stone, From Tamaki-makau-rau to Auckland. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001, p. 246. › Back
How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Ports and harbours - Beachheads and beginnings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/ports-and-harbours/page-1 (accessed 27 January 2020)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 30 Jul 2015