Across the harbour from downtown Wellington is a line of seaside settlements backed by beech forest – a peaceful contrast to the city’s bustle.
Flat land is limited to Lowry Bay, Days Bay and Eastbourne. Elsewhere houses cling to hillsides. Eastbourne, named after a seaside resort in southern England, is the largest. It occupies a foreland built up by the meeting of sediment-laden currents.
For centuries Māori occupied kāinga (settlements) in the sheltered bays, and more substantial pā on the headlands. Pā sites include Ngāmatau (Point Howard) and Oruamatoro (Days Bay), as well as Matuaiwi and Korohiwa, to the north and south of what is now Eastbourne.
These pā were essential because the nearby Rimutaka Range was the boundary between the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe in the Wairarapa, and the tribes of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour). Frequent raids on the area meant that Māori were always vigilant.
From the Hutt Valley, a track followed the coast around to the Wairarapa.
William ‘Okiwi’ Brown, the first European to settle in the eastern bays, provided overnight grazing, and accommodation en route to the Wairarapa.
Whaler William Brown built a shack at Brown’s Bay (now Rona Bay) in the early 1840s. In 1846, a boy in his employ was murdered. Six years later, a man seen arguing with Brown died violently soon after. Brown was arrested and his wife, whom he had beaten, testified against him. However, he was acquitted, and she stayed with him. He died in 1885, but she lived with his corpse in the shack for a month before police broke in, removed her and burnt the dwelling.
Access to the Wairarapa improved after the massive 1855 earthquake, which raised the eastern shore of the harbour by 2 metres.
This bay was originally known as Brown’s Bay. In 1892 it was renamed Russo Bay after Italian immigrants Bartolo and Italia Russo settled there. They started several enterprises, including fishing, horticulture and a hotel. Relatives from their home of Stromboli (an island near Sicily) also migrated, and the bay became a thriving fishing village. Rona was the name of Russo's boat.
Lowry Bay and Days Bay
At the same time, the eastern bays became Wellington’s seaside playground, famously depicted in Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘At the bay’, which recalls her family’s summer holidays at Muritai, now part of Eastbourne.
Lowry Bay was an exclusive retreat, in contrast with Days Bay which catered for the general public. Developed in the 1890s, Days Bay had a large pavilion for dining and dancing, a hotel and an amusement park. For the more energetic, there were cricket grounds, tennis courts and hockey fields.
Days Bay’s golden era ended before the First World War, when John Williams’s land was subdivided for housing. The hotel became a school, known today as Wellesley College. Williams Park is still a popular picnic place.
Since the Second World War, better roads and cars have turned Eastbourne and the bays into affluent Wellington suburbs. This trend continues today, and residents can commute to the city by ferry.