Invercargill is New Zealand’s southernmost city, and the capital of Southland, with a 2013 population of 47,892.
Mostly flat, Invercargill stretches over an open plain beside the Waihopai River estuary. The city depends mainly on its farming hinterland, and to a lesser extent on the aluminium smelter 20 km to the south. The importance of the region’s productive pastures to the city is symbolised by the Blade of Grass, a revolving statue of polished steel outside the administration buildings in Esk Street.
When surveyor John Turnbull Thomson laid out Invercargill in the 1850s he named principal streets after Scottish rivers – Dee, Tweed, Tay and Clyde. He provided for spacious 40 m wide streets, which allowed ample scope for growth in traffic in years to come.
John Turnbull Thomson, chief surveyor for the Otago province, selected the site for the new town, and laid out the streets in 1856. Sections were first sold in March 1857. By December the town had 14 houses, two hotels and three stores. A hospital serving Invercargill and surrounding districts first opened in 1861. The Invercargill Times, later the Southland Times, was founded in 1862.
Boom and bust: 1860–1870
After Southland separated from Otago province in 1861, Invercargill became the centre of the new province. The gold rush in Otago’s Wakatipu district, closer to Invercargill than to Dunedin, boosted the town in 1863 but was not repeated. Railway lines to Winton and Bluff were started but not finished, and the debt-ridden province reunited with Otago in 1870.
Invercargill’s first settler was Irishman John Kelly, a seaman who was living on Ruapuke Island. In March 1856, he moored his boat in the Ōtepuni Creek, put up the settlement’s first building for his wife and children, and ferried settlers up the estuary and into the hinterland. For a while, the new settlement was named Inverkelly after him. (‘Inver’ is a Gaelic prefix meaning ‘at the mouth of’.) It was only later that the growing town was named in honour of Captain William Cargill, the Superintendent of Otago province.
A growing town: 1870 to early 1900s
The first borough (town) elections were held in August 1871. Immigration, promoted by the government during the 1870s, saw the population increase. Gasworks opened in 1876 and waterworks in 1888: Invercargill’s 300,000-brick water tower remains one of the city’s landmarks. Horse-drawn trams first operated in the 1880s and cycling boomed in the flat town.
Farming industries developed rapidly through the 1890s and early 1900s. Dairy factories and freezing works opened throughout the province, and Invercargill’s population doubled between 1891 and 1916.
Invercargill was marked by its Presbyterianism. Its churches were substantial constructions. The First Presbyterian Church building, completed in 1915, is in the Italo-Byzantine style, with a 32-metre tower. Presbyterians were a strong force in voting the town ‘dry’ in 1905; it stayed that way until 1943.
1900 to 1930s
A number of suburban districts joined the town in 1909 and the tramway system was electrified in 1912. At that time Invercargill had the world’s southernmost trams and electric lamp posts.
In the First World War (1914–18), 430 Invercargill young men went to fight; 98 did not return.
Between the world wars (1918–39), Invercargill rivalled Whanganui for the rank of largest town after the four main centres. It acquired city status in 1930.
Post-war boom: 1945–1975
Southland’s pastoral economy thrived after the Second World War, and Invercargill followed suit. Its population rose from 27,500 in 1945 to 47,000 in 1971 (the year in which the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter opened at Bluff) – a satisfactory result for the city’s ‘40,000 club’.
Downturn from the 1980s
After the growth of the post-war years, Invercargill began to stagnate. Returns from farming were flat. The smelter did not lead to downstream industries as hoped, as it was cheaper to ship aluminium to markets than finished products.
Over 20 years, the city’s population dropped from 53,868 (in 1981) to 46,311 (2001). In a controversial move, primary and intermediate schools were merged, and two secondary schools closed in 1997. The Christchurch–Invercargill ‘Southerner’ passenger rail service ceased in 2002.
The Shadbolt era
The enthusiastic public relations of mayor Tim Shadbolt (a well-known former political radical) put paid to Invercargill’s conservative image, and gave the city a national profile. Auckland-born and raised Shadbolt was first elected mayor in 1992 and was still in office in 2020.
Invercargill’s James Hargest College operates an exchange programme with Kumagaya Nishi High School in Japan – Kumagaya is Invercargill’s twin city.
A $465 million revamp of the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter in 1996 indicated the confidence of Comalco (since 2006 Rio Tinto New Zealand) in the industry. However, the smelter is scheduled to close in 2024. The Southern Sting team dominated the national netball competition for the 10 years it ran, from 1998 to 2007, with sell-out crowds filling the new Stadium Southland. The Invercargill Licensing Trust’s underwriting of the ‘no fees’ policy of local tertiary institutions saw a big increase in student numbers at the Southern Institute of Technology. The population increased by 1,100 between 2006 and 2013.
Marae and gallery
The Murihiku marae, in the south-east of the city, dates from 1983, when the wharekai (eating house) was opened. The wharenui (meeting house), Te Rakitauneke, was opened in 1990.
The pyramid-shaped building of the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, on the edge of Queens Park, is home to art and historical exhibitions, and to 50 live tuatara.