Story: Wellington places

Page 4. Western suburbs

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Taranaki tribes migrated to the Thorndon area in the 1820s and 1830s, attracted by its level terrain and its proximity to the harbour. They built a number of kāinga (villages), as well as fortified at Kumutoto and Pipitea. From 1840 European colonists settled the area, naming it Thorndon after the Essex home of the New Zealand Company director, Lord Petre. In 1865 Thorndon became the location for New Zealand’s Parliament.

Wellington’s founder, William Wakefield, and other early settlers are buried in Thorndon’s historic Bolton Street Cemetery. When the Wellington motorway was built in the 1960s, many of the graves were destroyed.

Desecration Road

Plans to build a motorway through the Bolton Street Cemetery alarmed many people including the painter Rita Angus, who lived nearby. As workmen demolished headstones, graves and mausoleums, she sketched and painted the destruction. 3,693 early settlers were re-interred in a mass grave. Angus’s work endures as a record of the cemetery.

Pockets of historic Thorndon survived the motorway. Workers’ cottages remain around Sydney Street West, and there are early commercial buildings along Tinakori Road.

Steep, forested Te Ahumairangi Hill (formerly Tinakori Hill), rising 300 metres behind Thorndon, is part of the Town Belt. After severe storms in 2004, the lower slopes were cleared and replanted with native trees, especially northern rātā.

Between Thorndon and the suburb of Kelburn is the Botanic Garden, which was established in 1869 and contains native and exotic species, including rare conifers.

Aro Valley, Kelburn and Northland

Aro Valley is named after a stream that once ran through it. It was settled from the 1860s as a working-class community, and for much of the 20th century had a bohemian atmosphere: home to students, artists, and musicians. Since the 1980s it has become gentrified.

Kelburn is built on the former ‘Upland Farm’ and is named after Viscount Kelburn, the son of a former governor, Lord Glasgow. Access to Kelburn improved in 1902 when a cable car from the city was built, triggering the suburb’s growth. In 1906 Victoria College (later University) was built nearby, attracting students and academics.

Northland, also named after a former governor’s son, is separated from Kelburn by a steep gully. The area was farmed until 1900, when it was subdivided for housing. It remained quite isolated until 1929, when trams reached the Northland shops.


Situated in a basin, Karori (which means ‘the rope of bird snares’) was renowned for its birdlife. Europeans settled there in the 1840s, and by 1845 there were 215 residents. In 1854 it became the site of Wellington’s Lunatic Asylum. This moved to Mt Victoria in 1873, and Karori Normal School was built in its place.

Safe in the city

Karori is known for its wildlife sanctuary. The headwaters of the Kaiwharawhara Stream, previously a reservoir, have been enclosed by a predator-proof fence to create a ‘mainland island’. Several endangered native bird species, including kiwi, have been transferred there from island refuges.

In 1891 the Karori Cemetery opened, replacing the Bolton Street Cemetery. In 1909 a crematorium was built at Karori – the first in the southern hemisphere.

Colonial Karori is described in several stories by Katherine Mansfield, whose family moved there in 1893 from Thorndon. At that time the suburb was difficult to reach. The Karori Tunnel (1900) made access easier, and by 1907 trams ran to Nottingham Street.

Karori continued to grow. By the 1960s it was one of New Zealand’s biggest suburbs, and remained so in the 2010s.

How to cite this page:

Chris Maclean, 'Wellington places - Western suburbs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Chris Maclean, published 9 Jul 2007, updated 1 Mar 2016