Story: Wairarapa region

Page 11. A divided region

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Population divide

Census data show a geographical and rural–urban divide in Wairarapa. In the early 2000s, after a long period of decline, the region’s population overall stabilised, and then grew by 5% between 2006 and 2013. The population had grown in the south, but continued to decline in the north. The Carterton, South Wairarapa and Masterton districts grew by 15%, 7% and 3% respectively in this period. Northern Wairarapa declined by 4%.

The fall is probably because of rationalisation in the farming sector. The rise is largely due to growth in lifestyle blocks, viticulture and timber processing.

Rural–urban divide

The rural–urban divide is more complex. In 2013 nearly 29% of the region’s population was rural (compared with 14% nationally). Farming and fishing work were the main rural occupations. In the towns, service and sales workers prevailed. Compared to town dwellers, rural people were younger, better educated, had higher incomes and less unemployment. They were more likely to be non-Māori, and to live in two-parent families with children.

Children at risk

Statistics in 2004 showed that Wairarapa children were twice as likely to be hospitalised for accidental burns and poisoning as other New Zealand children. Teenage pregnancy rates were higher than elsewhere, and 15- to 24-year-olds were dying in car accidents at a rate 40% above the national average. 

This contrast is due to a number of factors. Since the 1840s Wairarapa’s wealth has been made on the land. Towns have provided rural workers in economic good times and taken them back in bad. For low-income earners, single-parent families, and beneficiaries, life is often easier in towns. Support and social services are within reach. Retired people from the country also often move into town.

Conversely, farmers have long been high earners, and lifestylers also tend to have higher incomes and education levels.

A ‘dark underbelly’

Wairarapa’s social divide was highlighted in the 1990s and early 2000s when the towns experienced a series of murders. These showed deep social problems within its urban underclass.

  • In 1992 Raymond Ratima stabbed and beat two adults and five children to death in his Masterton home.
  • Later that year, firefighters called to a burning Carterton house found Huia Tawhai and Wallace Waru Iopata chanting naked behind the house. Inside were the body parts of Tawhai’s husband, Lou.
  • In 2000 Rachealle Namana shook to death her 23-month-old niece, Hinewaoriki Karaitiana Matiaha (known as Lillybing). The Carterton toddler had been scalded, beaten, and sexually abused.
  • A year later, Masterton sisters Saliel and Olympia Aplin were stabbed to death by their stepfather Bruce Howse. It was alleged that he had abused them physically and sexually.
  • In 2003, Featherston five-year-old Coral Burrows was beaten to death by her stepfather, Steven Williams, who left her body under toetoe bushes at Lake Ōnoke.

In response to this violence, the Wairarapa MP Georgina Beyer spoke of a ‘dark underbelly’ of abuse in the region. Families were growing up accustomed to violence and mistreatment, often inflamed by drug and alcohol abuse. Edwin Perry, a spokesperson for the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe, thought problems among Māori stemmed from urbanisation and the breakdown of whānau (family) support.

Working against violence

After Lillybing’s death, Masterton mayor Bob Francis began the Violence Free Wairarapa campaign. A task force was set up to help co-ordinate social agencies working with at-risk families. Coral Burrows was murdered after this, but campaigners were confident of good long-term results.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Wairarapa region - A divided region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 November 2019)

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