Story: Wairarapa region

Page 10. Society

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Landed gentry

In the 19th century, farming made many runholders very rich. Wairarapa families such as the Riddifords, Pharazyns and Martins became substantial landowners and managed large work forces. They had a paternalistic relationship with their staff, providing shelter, board and a wage in exchange for labour. As their wealth increased, the families copied the customs of the British upper class, sending their children ‘home’ to be schooled in England, and holding garden parties and similar events. Some runholders became unofficial squires of their communities and had considerable power. John Martin even founded his own town (Martinborough).

From grey to pink

Greytown has attracted a vibrant gay community, and in the 2010s it was colloquially known as Gaytown. In a newspaper report, retailer Annabel Cowdery said the pink dollar (money spent by gay people) had benefited the town: ‘We have lots of gay visitors shopping and going to restaurants.’ But Chris Jackson thought the name was derogatory and exclusive. ‘When people call it Gaytown I think, “hello, gay men aren’t the only people in the world”.‘ 1

Class divisions

Nineteenth-century Wairarapa was a two-class society, with a small landed élite and a large working class. This changed in the 20th century when dairy farmers and professionals increased the power and influence of the middle class. Still, aspects of the old social structure remain. Some of the early runholding families – including the Riddifords and Martins – have major land holdings and influence. While schooling in England is now rare, English-style private schools (such as Rathkeale College) have taken its place.

The working class makes up a smaller proportion of the population, but remains an important group. Some are Māori who moved to towns for work. Prejudice meant that most ended up in low-skilled or irregular employment. They often experienced greater poverty, health and social problems than non-Māori.

Social institutions


Small district hospitals in Greytown and Pahīatua closed in the 1990s. Wairarapa’s only public hospital is in Masterton. Set in the hospital grounds is the Selina Sutherland Hospital, a private surgical hospital built in 1996. Selina Sutherland was a nurse who founded Masterton Hospital in 1879.


Wairarapa’s first school was set up in Greytown in 1856. When primary education was made compulsory in 1877, state education expanded and many new schools opened. As rolls have declined in recent years, some have closed, while others have merged.

Secondary schools

In 1896 a technical school was established in Masterton. In 1902 the Masterton Primary School was converted to a district high school (serving both primary and secondary students), but the secondary component was removed when a new high school opened in 1923. In 1938 the technical and high schools merged to become Wairarapa College.

Since then, other schools have opened, including Kuranui College (Greytown), Makoura College (Masterton), and Tararua College (Pahīatua). Masterton also has four integrated private schools.

Tertiary education

The Wairarapa campus of the regional polytechnic UCOL is in Masterton, and offers courses from business to nursing. Outside Masterton is the Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre.


Christianity is the main religion in Wairarapa, although there are also members of other faiths. Until the 1970s churches were an important part of community life and were well attended. As society has become more secular, their influence has waned. Some churches have fallen into disuse or been sold.

Tribal authorities

Rangitaane o Wairarapa was set up in 1989 to improve the lot of Wairarapa Māori (who make up 16.4% of the population) through advocacy and health and social services. Its success led to greater cooperation between the Rangitāne people and the region’s other main tribe, Ngāti Kahungunu. In 2006 Ngāti Kahungunu established a federation of hapū (sub-tribes) for Wairarapa.

In the 1990s the two tribes made a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal over the loss of their land and resources. The tribunal heard the inquiry in 2004–5, and reported back in 2010. The tribes and the Crown signed an agreement in principle to settle the claims in 2014.

  1. ‘Gay time in the provinces’, Herald on Sunday, 26 March 2006. › Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Wairarapa region - Society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 March 2019)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 29 Mar 2007, updated 3 Mar 2017