Story: Wellington region

Page 9. Boom and bust: 1900–1940

All images & media in this story

At the beginning of the 20th century Wellington was known as ‘the Empire City’, reflecting its strong links with Britain, and an ambitious outlook. Times were prosperous, and department stores, banks, and specialist shops sprang up along the city’s main streets.

New technology

This growth coincided with a wave of technological innovation. In 1898 New Zealand’s first cars appeared on Wellington’s streets. Within a decade, they were common. In 1902 a new cable car ran from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn. Two years later electric trams began to replace horse-drawn ones, and isolated villages became city suburbs.

The first aeroplane flight from Wellington was in 1911, when Arthur Schaef coaxed his home-made aircraft aloft at Lyall Bay. He flew only a short distance, yet just nine years later, planes began to cross Cook Strait.

At the same time, ‘motion pictures’ arrived in Wellington, triggering a boom in theatre building.

In 1909 a crematorium was built at the Karori cemetery, allowing Wellingtonians, for the first time, a choice of burial or cremation.

The city unites and grows

The amalgamation of outlying boroughs with the city improved services such as drainage, sewerage and water supply, as well as greatly increasing the size of Wellington. In 1921 the last such borough, Miramar, became part of the city. Wellington had grown five-fold in 20 years.

Discovering the beach

From the 1920s, excursion trains began taking city holidaymakers to boarding houses and hotels on the Kāpiti Coast. Developers sold land for baches (holiday cottages) at Ōtaki, Paraparaumu and Raumati beaches.

For whom the bells toll

Of the 99,500 New Zealanders who went to the First World War, 16,697 did not return. To mark their sacrifice the government built a bell tower with a carillon (a set of bells) in Wellington – its music to be broadcast on radio. On Anzac Day in 1932, a huge crowd gathered for the opening of the National War Memorial.

The First World War

During the First World War (1914–18), the region’s men fought on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East. Thousands were killed or maimed. For some people, this sacrifice illustrated the city’s loyalty to the empire.

New industries

In the 1920s the Hutt Valley became the focus of New Zealand’s motor-vehicle assembly industry. The region was chosen because it was central to national markets. General Motors, Ford, Austin, and Todd Motors all built plants in the valley, providing hundreds of jobs.

The tobacco factory of W. D. & H. O. Wills was another newcomer. It employed over 700 people, many of them women.

Economic depression, local revival

Economic depression ended the 1920s boom. But Wellington city was spared its worst effects by mayor George Troup’s visionary leadership. Using government subsidies for relief workers, he promoted projects such as Wellington’s first airport, the National War Memorial, the National Art Gallery, a new milk depot and a new railway station.

From 1935 rising export prices allowed the first Labour government to kick-start the economy. Work began on large state rental housing schemes in Wellington and the Hutt Valley, and on a suburban train network. By the end of the decade there was renewed growth and confidence.

The Centennial Exhibition: a nation celebrates

The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition held at Rongotai (an eastern suburb) in 1939–40 was a triumph for both Wellington and the nation. Open for six months, it attracted more than 2.5 million visitors at a time when the country’s population was 1.6 million – many people made repeat visits. It was a celebration of nationhood in the most spectacular amusement park in the southern hemisphere.

How to cite this page:

Chris Maclean, 'Wellington region - Boom and bust: 1900–1940', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Chris Maclean, published 9 Jul 2007, updated 1 Aug 2015