Story: Waikato region

Page 6. European settlement and population

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As the war was being fought, the government planned to confiscate Waikato lands and establish defended townships to deter Māori from reoccupying their territory. The chosen settlers were the Waikato militia – four regiments recruited in Otago and Australia in late 1863 with the promise of land grants.

Struggling to survive

Military settlers were expected to defend Waikato towns in the event of a Māori attack, in return for grants of a town acre (0.4 hectares) and at least 50 country acres (20 hectares). Once the country sections were surveyed, the settlers’ military pay was cut, and food rations continued for only a year. Survival was so difficult that many left before they gained freehold title to their land on completion of three years’ service.

Military settlers

From mid-1864 towns were surveyed at Alexandra (now Pirongia), Cambridge and the former Māori villages of Kihikihi and Kirikiriroa (renamed Hamilton). They were occupied by militiamen and their families, who were allocated sections in the adjacent countryside. Settlers also moved into the former military outposts of Te Awamutu, Ōhaupō, Whatawhata, Rāhui Pōkeka (Huntly) and Ngāruawāhia.

Most British troops were withdrawn in 1865–66, and in 1867 the militia was replaced by a professional Armed Constabulary charged with guarding the confiscation line. Discovering that their land was inaccessible and swampy, many military settlers departed.

Large estates

As they moved on, speculators moved in. Māori owners in the Thames valley whose lands had escaped confiscation were pressured into leasing, then selling them. Huge estates were established by men such as Josiah Clifton Firth and Thomas and Samuel Morrin. Land companies were also formed by Auckland financiers. The main ones were the Waikato Land Association, Auckland Agricultural Company and Thames Valley Land Company, which by 1890 together owned almost 150,000 hectares. However, developing the waterlogged lands was costly. By the 1890s most estates had failed financially, and they were taken over by the government to subdivide into smaller farms.

Settlement spreads

Two Waikato towns that got off to a good start were the coal-mining settlement of Huntly in the 1870s and the thermal spa of Te Aroha in the 1880s. Other centres began to expand after 1900, and Hamilton emerged as the region’s main town. Completion of railway networks and development of dairying assisted in the first part of the 20th century, and from the 1920s many of the region’s towns grew rapidly. Following the Second World War agricultural research and industries, hydroelectric dam construction and timber milling boosted growth.

Varying growth rates

In post-war years Hamilton remained dominant in the region, and by 1991 it had overtaken Dunedin as New Zealand’s fourth-largest city. The nearby centres of Te Awamutu and Cambridge grew strongly, becoming dormitory towns for workers commuting to Hamilton.

From the early 1950s to the mid-1970s Raglan, Huntly and Ngāruawāhia, which also provided workers for Hamilton, expanded steadily. So did the prosperous farming towns of Matamata and Morrinsville. Te Aroha grew more slowly. Population increases in these places began to level off from 1976.

Timber industry developments in south Waikato caused its population to surge from 1951. By 1976 Tokoroa was the fastest-growing place in the Waikato, and Putaruru’s population had more than doubled. Cutbacks in the industry caused the populations of both towns to decline from the 1980s.


Waikato’s first non-Māori inhabitants were mostly from England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia. Between 1840 and 1890 the proportion of Irish-born settlers was high compared with other New Zealand regions. Italians, Indians and Chinese also had longstanding communities in the region. Immigration in the 20th century brought people from other European, Pacific and Asian countries. A Somali community grew in Hamilton from the 1990s.

In 2013 most Waikato residents (76.3%) were European, with 20.9% identifying as Māori. Asian people accounted for 8.2% of the population, Pacific peoples 4.3% and Middle Eastern, Latin American and African 1.1%. Percentages of Asian, Pacific, Middle Eastern, Latin American and African peoples were lower than for the total New Zealand population, while the proportion of Māori and Europeans was higher.

Population in 2013

In 2013 the population of the Waikato region was 305,265 – 7% of the national total. The Waikato district was most highly populated, with 63,381 people, followed by Waipā with 46,668, Matamata–Piako with 31,536 and South Waikato with 22,074. Nearly half of Waikato’s people lived in Hamilton.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Waikato region - European settlement and population', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 31 May 2010, updated 1 Jul 2015