Early days: Otago–Southland
When provincial government was established in New Zealand in 1853, thinly-populated Southland was part of Otago province. The whole area had only 2,500 Europeans, mostly in and around Dunedin. In July 1861, after more immigration into the area, approximately that number of southerners secured a separate province. After the provincial council embarked on a grand public works programme, it went bankrupt and reunited with Otago in 1870. But the idea of a distinct area called Southland survived.
Town and country
On 26 August 1871, Invercargill property owners elected the town’s first council. In 1876, the provinces were abolished, and two counties were established:
- Southland, covering the central and eastern parts of the region
- Wallace, covering the west.
A Fiord county was defined in 1876 but as it had virtually no residents, no council was ever established. Borough (town) councils were set up at Gore, Mataura, Winton, Bluff and Riverton/Aparima, and in the suburbs of Invercargill. Edendale, Wyndham, Lumsden, Nightcaps and Ōtautau had limited self-government.
Southland at war
Southlanders played a full part in the wars of the 20th century. Of the 228 New Zealanders who died in the South African War, 24 were from Southland. 699 Southlanders lost their lives in the First World War, 638 in the Second World War and two each in Korea and Malaya during the 1950s. Victor Spencer, a 20-year-old soldier from Bluff, was the only Southlander, and the last of five New Zealanders, to be executed by the military authorities in the First World War. He was shot for desertion in Belgium on 24 February 1918.
Invercargill becomes a city
Suburban Gladstone, Avenal and North and East Invercargill amalgamated with Invercargill in 1909, and the town gained city status in 1929.
In the 1940s and 1950s, after the Second World War, new suburbs were built, including Clifton, which housed construction workers for the Tīwai Point aluminium smelter. South Invercargill borough amalgamated with the city in 1956.
Local government since 1989
In 1989 local government was restructured:
- Southland district replaced the county councils of Wallace, Southland and Stewart Island, and the boroughs of Winton and Riverton. It also encompassed part of Lake County.
- Gore district covered most of eastern Southland, Gore and Mataura.
- Invercargill city took in Bluff.
The Southland regional council, established in 1989, looks after the environment and transport. Venture Southland (from 2019 the Southland Regional Development Agency), a successor to the Southland Progress League, and a joint initiative of the regional and district councils, promotes the region.
All about Eve
Eve Poole served as Invercargill’s mayor from 1983 to 1992. She is the only woman to have held the office, and the city’s only Jewish mayor to date. A public library building which she was instrumental in getting built carries her name.
From 1893 to 1946, Southland was represented by four electorates in Parliament: Invercargill, Wallace, Riverton/Awarua and Mataura. The Mataura electorate was abolished in 1946. Since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996, Southland has been represented by the Invercargill and Clutha–Southland electorates.
The rural electorates have usually been held by conservative parties, but Invercargill has changed hands between left and right several times.
Southland was always a part of the Southern Māori electorate, and is now within its successor, Te Tai Tonga.
Up to 1935, Southland Boys’ High School had produced more Rhodes scholars than any other high school in the country. They were Frederick Miles (1912), Hubert Ryburn (1925), James Dakin (1929), Geoffrey Cox (1931) and Eric Haslam (1935). The Southland-born writer Dan Davin, who attended the Marist brothers' school, was a Rhodes scholar in 1935.
The principal high schools in Southland are Southland Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools, James Hargest High School, Verdon College and Te Wharekura o Arowhenua (Invercargill); Aparima College (Riverton/Aparima), Central Southland College (Winton), Fiordland College (Te Anau), Gore High School and St Peter’s College (Gore), Menzies College (Wyndham), Northern Southland College (Lumsden) and Tūātapere Community College.
The Southern Institute of Technology, with campuses in Invercargill, Gore, Queenstown, Balclutha, Christchurch and Auckland, is the region’s principal tertiary education institution. In the 2000s it became one of the country’s largest such institutions by charging no course fees to New Zealand citizens and permanent residents.
In 2010 the Southland district health board, which covered the whole of Southland region and the Queenstown district, merged with the Otago district health board to form Southern DHB. In 2022 district health boards were replaced by Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand and Te Aka Whai Ora Māori Health Authority..