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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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Westland, the last of the 10 provinces to be established, was created by the Province of Westland Act of 1873, almost on the eve of the abolition of provincial government. Before this the area had undergone a sequence of changes in political status that made it unique in the country.

Boundary Difficulties

Until 1868 Westland was part of the Province of Canterbury. The northern boundary with Nelson Province, as defined by Governor Sir George Grey's general proclamation of provincial boundaries in February 1853, followed the Grey and Arnold Rivers to Lake Brunner, then ran in a straight line across unknown country to the head of the Hurunui River. At that time the South Island west of the main divide was a forested wilderness, virtually unknown to Europeans and inhabited by about 100 Maoris. The goldrushes of 1864–67 resulted in an influx of about 30,000 people to west Canterbury and south-west Nelson, and a lively and migratory community with strong identity of economic and social interests quickly grew up on both sides of the provincial boundary. Little did Governor Grey and his advisers anticipate that their boundary was to bisect the West Coast gold-bearing country in what was to become one of its most densely populated parts and along one of its main routes of communication. As Sir John Hall said later: “What nature intended for one district the New Zealand Government had made into two”. The boundary proved irksome to miners, officials, and merchants alike, but, despite the anomaly, the decision of 1853 remained effective on the political map of New Zealand until the abolition of the provinces in 1876. Fortunately abolition came just before there were intensive coal-mining developments at Brunner, where the most accessible coal seam outcropped on the Nelson side of the boundary and dipped south into Westland.

Early Administration

When the inrush of diggers gathered momentum early in 1865, the Canterbury provincial government recognised the distinctive administrative needs of the west coast by proclaiming the whole area beyond the main divide to be the West Canterbury Goldfields. George S. Sale was appointed goldfields commissioner with very wide discretionary powers to supervise all branches of provincial government there and was responsible only to the executive of the Provincial Council in Christchurch. Administrative headquarters were established at Hokitika which became, in effect, a provincial subcapital. Although this method of political organisation of a newly settled district was probably the nearest approach to autocracy by nominated officials since the establishment of responsible government in New Zealand, it was much more restrained than the arbitrary administration of the goldfields of Victoria in the early 1850s.

Tensions soon developed between “West” and “East” Canterbury mainly over the provision of public works. Especially obnoxious, in the eyes of West Coasters, was the decision to build a transalpine dray road from Christchurch to Hokitika via Arthur's Pass and debit its construction costs to revenues raised on the goldfields. The road was an expression of the misplaced hopes of Christchurch merchants to emulate the success of the Dunedin merchants who had profited so greatly from trade with the goldfields of interior Otago. The politically vocal section of the West Coast community – the merchants, publicans, and shop keepers – wanted the money to be spent on local tracks, roads, and bridges to link the many scattered mining camps with the seaports, as well as on harbour improvements to make safer their already flourishing sea trade with Melbourne and Dunedin. Matters came to a head in July 1867 when the discretionary powers of the goldfields commissioner to spend money on public works were curtailed. A separation league sponsored by the businessmen of Hokitika and the miners of the nearby Kaniere diggings dispatched a petition to the Legislative Council praying that the West Canterbury Gold-fields be made into a separate province. The citizens of Greymouth, anxious lest the yoke of Christ-church be replaced by that of Hokitika, dispatched a separate petition to the General Assembly urging that the Greymouth district be annexed to the Province of Nelson. The aspirations of Hokitika, however, won the day. The “centralist” ministry under E. W. Stafford, then in ascendancy, saw another opportunity to weaken the provincial system by dismembering Canterbury, one of the strongest provinces.

The County Established

Rather than add to the already cumbersome machinery of provincial institutions, the central government decided to experiment with a new form of local government and in 1868 established the County of Westland. The country had the same wide range of administrative functions as the provinces – for example, the sale of land, the control of education and hospitals, public works, surveys, and administration of the goldfields – but legislative powers were reserved to the central government. The idea seems to have originated with the Canterbury pastoralist and landowner, John Hall, and many people anticipated that a county form of government would soon be applied to the steadily increasing number of outlying pockets of settlement in New Zealand. The experiment was not a conspicuous success. The County of Westland was saddled with 30 per cent of the Canterbury provincial debt at a time of declining goldfields revenue, and the deliberations of the County Council were notorious for their displays of petty rivalries and unseemly conduct. Since the General Assembly was required to spend time in purely local legislation for Westland, it was decided in 1873 to end the country's unique political status and invest the area with full status as a province. Because of its anomalous northern boundary, the Provincial District has never been satisfactory as a definition of an area of economic and social community of interest. The boundary bisects the boroughs of Brunner and of Greymouth. When the counties were established in 1876 as units of local government (with greatly shorn powers compared with the provinces and the old County of Westland), the Grey county incorporated what was virtually the hinterland of Greymouth and included parts of the Westland and Nelson Provincial Districts.

Gold Discoveries

The few Maoris in Westland before European settlement were migratory food gatherers who established small temporary settlements near the river mouths. The most valued areas were the riverbeds of the Arahura and Taramakau where the highly prized nephrite or greenstone was gathered as pebbles or rough blocks and carried on men's backs across alpine passes to Canterbury and thence throughout New Zealand. Apart from spasmodic visits by sealers from 1810 onwards, Europeans took little interest in the area until the discovery of payable gold by Albert Hunt and others on the Greenstone River in July 1864. The subsequent influx of population, mainly from the declining alluvial goldfields of Otago and Victoria, comprised the only large group of people to enter Westland and was responsible for the first considerable settlement of Europeans in a New Zealand rain forest environment. Alluvial gold was worked on the coastal beaches throughout the length of the province. It was worked in greater quantities, though distributed patchily, in the stream and high-terrace gravels of a 5-mile-wide zone between Ross and the Arnold Valley. The diggers entered Westland at two points: by land across Harper or Arthur's Passes and thence via the Taramakau Valley, and by sea through the bar-bound river port of Hokitika. New discoveries were made rapidly in 1865 and 1866, and by 1867 the outer limits of the gold country had been reached and the swirl of population movements subsided. The dense forest cover, however, made prospecting a chancy business and in 1876 there was a final stampede of some 4,000 to Kumara, situated within a few miles of the initial gold finds of 12 years earlier.

In the 1860s high-pressure hydraulic sluicing was introduced and maintained gold production for another 50 years, although with steadily diminishing yields. Capital, for the construction of dams and many miles of water races, came partly from the boom-year trading profits of merchants, publicans, and storekeepers, and partly by central government funds under the Public Works and Immigration Act of 1871. In 1875 a special settlement, jointly sponsored by the central and provincial governments, was established at the far south of Westland in the swamp forests on the coastal plain between Jackson Bay and the Haast River. There were 400 settlers of varied European nationality, having only recently arrived in the country and ill equipped for the rigours of bush life under an annual rainfall of some 200 in. This dubious and ill-starred venture in pioneering was the only instance of organised settlement in Westland and within a few years most of the settlers had left the district.

Development of Farming

In the 1870s and 1880s the more lightly timbered river flats in North Westland were slowly cleared for farming and the produce marketed in the local towns and mining camps. Due to isolation, very little progress was made south of Ross. The northern extremity of the Provincial District at Greymouth and Brunner received impetus from the development of the Greymouth coalfield in the 1880s. Hokitika, the premier town and seaport of the gold-rush era, gradually declined as Greymouth with its better harbour and central position could tap the trade of those mining areas on the West Coast which had stable or expanding populations.


Renewed stimulus came in the early years of the twentieth century with the development of dairying, and pioneer farming extended rapidly on the river flats of South Westland – many of the farms being taken up by the sons of the gold miners. In 1900 a gold-dredging boom led to the erection of some 25 steam-driven gold dredges of Otago design. Few of these were successful because the light construction proved unsuited to the heavy boulders and buried timber of the West Coast river beds. Of greater consequence was the rapid expansion of sawmilling after 1895. Large mills were erected on the Greymouth-Ross railway line and on the Midland line in the Arnold Valley where there was ready access to high-volume rimu timber stands on level terrain. Sixty years of clear-felling followed by fires and waterlogging in the cutover, has left much of North Westland in a devastated condition. Logging is now conducted mainly in hilly country and in some State forests felling is carried out in strips to check waterlogging and promote regeneration. The provincial district holds almost one-half of the Dominion's remaining native softwood timber resources.

The final revival of gold mining began in 1919 with the construction at Rimu of an electrically operated gold dredge of Californian design. Much prospecting of dredging sites was carried out in the 1930s by companies representing Australian, American, and New Zealand interests, and after 1937, when an electric power transmission line from Lake Coleridge was completed, several dredges were at work. Most of these ceased operations between 1948 and 1961, leaving only one dredge working in the Taramakau River at Kumara. Since the Second World War considerable interest has been shown in the development of farm land.

Farming practices had lagged behind those of other parts of New Zealand but awareness of the diminishing resources of the extractive industries (gold, coal, and timber) has promoted considerable improvements on existing farms and the first experimental ventures by the State to reclaim marginal or “problem” lands.

Social Characteristics

The highest recorded gold-rush population was 15,400 in 1867. There have been several minor fluctuations but little growth since the first years of settlement when most of the population consisted of young males of working age. In 1874 there were 14,860 people, 15,714 in 1911, 18,506 in 1956 and 17,954 in 1961. Since 1911 Westland has had the smallest population of any provincial district, and since 1951 it has had less than 1 per cent of the Dominion's population. Westland has always had the highest proportion of males to females of any provincial district, a reflection of the manner of its early settlement, its continued “pioneer” character, and the predominance of primary industries. Persons of Irish birth formed about one-third of the gold-rush community, compared with about 14 per cent of the European population of New Zealand at the time. A permanent legacy of the gold-rush migration has been the high proportion of Roman Catholics in the population – for 90 years it has stood consistently at about 30 per cent, or twice the ratio for the country as a whole. Other distinctive national groups included a relatively high number of continental Europeans among the gold-rush migrants and the several hundred male Chinese who settled in the alluvial-gold-bearing zone after 1872. As local employment opportunities have seldom kept pace with the natural increase in the population, Westland has long been a region of outwards migration to other parts of New Zealand, notably to Christchurch and to the North Island. The only period during this century of net inwards migration was during the depression of the 1930s when many men were employed as subsidised prospectors and, later, on public works projects. Other social characteristics of the population are less easily defined, but the widely accepted image of the “West Coaster” depicts a product of a close-knit community, generous, friendly, and self-reliant, yet distrustful of authority. Westland's many expatriates have undoubtedly fostered this image.

by Murray McCaskill, M.A., PH.D., Reader in Geography, University of Canterbury.

  • Westland's Golden Century, 1860–1960, Westland Centennial Council (1959)
  • The Romance of Westland, Harrop, A. J. (1923)
  • The West Coast Region, National Resources Survey Part I, Ministry of Works (1959)
  • The West Coast Gold Rushes, May, Philip Ross (1962).


Murray McCaskill, M.A., PH.D., Reader in Geography, University of Canterbury.