Story: Waikato places

Page 7. Hamilton

All images & media in this story

New Zealand’s fourth-largest city, located 129 km south-east of Auckland, with a 2013 city population of 141,612.

Hamilton was established in 1864 by the 4th Waikato militia. Built around two redoubts, on either side of the Waikato River, the town was an administrative and commercial centre and a refuge for outlying settlers in case of renewed war. It was named after Captain J. F. C. Hamilton, a British officer killed at Gate Pā near Tauranga in 1864.

Hamilton was strategically founded near the abandoned Māori village of Kirikiriroa, on the west bank. Remains of other villages on both banks confirm this stretch of river had been well-occupied. There were also large Māori settlements nearby at Te Rapa, Tamahere, Tauwhare, Whatawhata and Horotiu.

Two towns

Divided by the river, which could be crossed only by punt, Hamilton developed as two separate settlements: Hamilton East and Hamilton West. By joining forces they could get a government loan for a bridge, so they combined as one borough in December 1877. The aptly named Union Bridge was completed the following year.

Old Hamilton

In the 1800s Hamilton was a mere village compared with settlements such as Napier, New Plymouth, Whanganui and Nelson. By 1911 its population was 3,542 – a little over half the size of Waihī, then a booming gold town of 6,436 people. Before Waikato dairy farming developed, Hamilton remained small.


One account of the naming of the Eureka estate says that syndicate member William Steele rode out with a group looking for a suitable headquarters, and reaching a hilltop announced ‘Eureka I have found it!’ 1 Another story says the name was made up of letters from the names of all the women in the party. 

On its outskirts were huge swamps, which were drained only slowly. Militia settlers allocated land there usually departed, but some stayed, and farming settlements like Newstead, Tamahere and Matangi developed in the 1870s and 1880s. The Rukuhia estate of 6,000 hectares to the south-west and the Eureka estate of 35,000 hectares to the north-east were gradually subdivided. Tauwhare was surveyed in 1882, and the villages of Eureka and Gordonton grew from the 1890s.


Hamilton’s growth spurt began around the First World War, as it became the transport hub for the region. It was located on the main north–south road, and was also a major river port. From 1916 produce was shipped from Hamilton directly to Auckland via Port Waikato. In 1917 Hamilton absorbed the separate borough of Frankton, an important junction on the main trunk railway line. Branch lines extended from Frankton to Cambridge, Rotorua and Te Aroha. Hamilton’s position as Waikato’s main centre was cemented when an airport, established at Rukuhia in the 1930s, developed after the war. There were 21,982 people by 1945, the year Hamilton gained city status.

From piles to plastics 

Hamilton was the birthplace of some important construction and manufacturing industries. As the city expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, construction firms F.T. Hawkins (now Hawkins Construction) and Brian Perry (now Perry Group) flourished and spread beyond the region. Building on Hamilton’s engineering skill base, Plastic Products, Trigon Plastics, and aluminium manufacturer Ullrich Aluminium also expanded into national and international markets. 

New Hamilton

More tertiary-educated residents arriving in the 1950s and 1960s challenged ‘small town’ views. The hospital employed medically skilled workers, scientists joined agricultural research institutions, the university and teachers’ college attracted academics from around the world, and teachers were recruited by new schools. Branches of government departments opened. A pattern of transience became established, with many people living in Hamilton temporarily. The city’s population had leapt to 63,000 by 1966.

There were only 194 Māori in Hamilton in 1936, 1% of the population of 16,150, but by 1976 over 10% of inhabitants (9,077 of 87,968 people) were Māori. Once a wholly Pākehā town, Hamilton had become a major centre of Māori population. In 2013 one-fifth of Hamilton city’s residents were Māori.

From town to city

Hamilton’s boundaries were extended from the late 1940s and had more than doubled by 1962, a consequence of post-war population growth which surpassed that of other provincial cities. Tall buildings altered the skyline of the west-bank business district. Suburbs including Beerescourt, Melville, Fairfield, Hillcrest and Enderley emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, and Te Rapa, Pukete and Silverdale in the 1960s.

By then there were concerns that Hamilton had turned its back on the river, and the process of developing the riverbanks with walkways began. This continued in the 2000s, and new suburbs spread, particularly to the north and west of the city. In 2011, work began on a ring road around the city to ease traffic congestion. It was expected to be completed in late 2015.

Hamilton’s outskirts

As Hamilton expanded, once-rural settlements such as Rototuna were absorbed. Others such as Tamahere became essentially outlying suburbs of the city. Dairy farms were turned into lifestyle blocks, and horticulture, including blueberry, kiwifruit and asparagus growing, developed.

  1. T J Muir, ‘Farming the Eureka landscape,’ in Settling the Waikato and beyond, 2006: proceedings of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists 2006 Conference. Hamilton: New Zealand Society of Genealogists, 2006, p. 38. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Waikato places - Hamilton', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 31 May 2010, updated 11 Jun 2015