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Capital city

by Stephen Levine

New Zealand has had three capital cities – first at Russell, in the Bay of Islands, in 1840, then, just a year later, at Auckland. Since 1865 the more centrally located Wellington has been the country’s capital. In 2011 travel publisher Lonely Planet dubbed Wellington the ‘coolest little capital in the world’.

New Zealand’s capital

Every independent nation has a capital city. The capital city is the site of a country’s principal institutions of government. As the seat of government, it also serves as a focus for the country’s politics and its evolving sense of national identity and purpose.


New Zealand’s capital city is Wellington, situated at the southern tip of the North Island, near the centre of the country. Wellington is the site of the country’s national Parliament, of the executive (offices of the cabinet and the prime minister) and of the official residences of the prime minister and the sovereign’s representative, the governor-general. It is also the location of the country’s two highest judicial bodies, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

Images of New Zealand

New Zealand is often represented visually by its capital, with images of the Beehive – the executive wing of Parliament, housing the offices of the prime minister and other senior cabinet members – used to illustrate or accompany news or information about the country and its politics.

Changes of national capitals

Other countries have changed the site of their capital from time to time – for instance, Washington, DC is not the United States of America’s first capital city (Philadelphia has that honour). Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to the new city of Brasilia in 1960 – and New Zealand, likewise, has not always had ‘windy Wellington’ as its capital. Earlier capitals were at Russell in the Bay of Islands and Auckland.

The first two capitals

When the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840 and New Zealand became part of the British Empire, a beginning was made towards establishing a nation, a capital and a government.

Russells old and new

The site of New Zealand’s first capital was bought in 1830 by a London merchant and ship owner, James Clendon, who had established a friendship with local Ngāpuhi chiefs. In 1839 Clendon was appointed the first US consul in New Zealand. Following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson purchased Clendon’s property (about 150 hectares) as the site for the colony’s capital. After the capital moved to Auckland, the settlement burned to the ground in 1842. Its name, Russell, was transferred to Kororāreka – today’s Russell. The site of the first Government House, at Okiato, is sometimes referred to as Old Russell.

New Zealand’s first capital

After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840, New Zealand’s first resident governor, William Hobson, established his first official residence – the country’s first Government House. It was located at Okiato, in the Bay of Islands, 7 kilometres south of Kororāreka (the only sizeable European town, but inconveniently situated, insecure and with a reputation for lawlessness). Hobson named the new capital Russell, after Britain’s then secretary of state for the colonies (Lord John Russell).

A second capital

Hobson was subsequently offered land by several Māori chiefs for the purpose of establishing his capital in a more favourable position. The land, some 250 kilometres south of the Bay of Islands on the shores of the Waitematā Harbour, was known as Tāmaki-makau-rau (Tāmaki of a hundred lovers). Hobson accepted the offer, made his purchase and named the site Auckland, after his patron, Lord Auckland, governor-general of India and former first lord of the admiralty. The new town – the colony’s new capital – began to be built on 15 September 1840.

Tough trip

It was not easy for South Island members to travel to Auckland for the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1854. Otago members arrived at Lyttelton on 2 April, but they did not leave for Auckland until 11 May. The steamer took 12 days and they reached Auckland the day before Parliament opened. The ship anchored a mile offshore, and the men were forced to wade in their shoes and stockings through mud and stones. Once on dry land, they had to carry their bags along the shore for half a mile before meeting the carriages sent to pick them up.

Moving to Auckland

The governor’s establishment of his premises there in March 1841 made Auckland, by definition, the colonial capital and the hub of government, politics and official decision-making. The passage by the British Parliament of the New Zealand Constitution Act in June 1852 gave further impetus to what might today be described as a nation-building process. The act provided for the establishment of a colonial legislature, and elections in October 1853 led to the convening of the colony’s first General Assembly (as the legislature was called) in May 1854, in Parliament Buildings erected on a hill in Auckland.

Dissatisfaction with Auckland

There was dissatisfaction with Auckland as the site of a national capital virtually from the outset. In the mid-19th century, communication and transport links between the colony’s scattered European settlements were in early stages of development. There were also provincial rivalries, with those living in Wellington and the South Island resentful of Auckland and the governor’s residence there.

Auckland’s location, far from the centre of the colony, made it an especially unpopular choice for many of those elected to serve in the General Assembly. In addition to the length and discomfort of travel to Auckland, there was also displeasure over the long periods of separation from family, farms and businesses for those serving as representatives in the capital. By the 1860s, partly as a result of the discovery of gold, the South Island had a considerably larger population than the North Island. Moving the capital southwards was also contemplated in part to forestall South Island discontent and possible secessionist tendencies.

A new capital

In September 1854 James FitzGerald, briefly New Zealand’s first head of government, proposed in the Assembly that the next session ‘should be held in a more central position in the colony’.1 The proposal was defeated 13–11 as a result of FitzGerald’s failure to consult sufficiently with other members of the Assembly, with many South Island members absent from the chamber at the time of the vote.

Big shake-up

Wellington was affected by a major earthquake in the Wairarapa in January 1855. At magnitude 8.2, it is the largest earthquake ever recorded in New Zealand. The quake destroyed the offices of the Wellington provincial government. While this did not deter those recommending Wellington as a preferred site for the country’s capital, in modern times significant effort has gone into the installation of building stabilisation techniques (in Parliament and the Beehive, for instance) in order to guard against the effects of another earthquake – seen as inevitable given the capital’s location at the site of several fault lines.

Auckland and Wellington

In May 1856 a resolution affirming that the General Assembly’s next meeting should be held in Auckland was amended, by deleting ‘Auckland’ and substituting ‘a more central position’. While ultimately the Assembly chose to leave the matter to the governor, in July the question was debated again, with a vote for Nelson – New Zealand’s most centrally situated community, in the north of the South Island – only narrowly defeated. Following support for meeting in Wellington, the colony’s upper house – the Legislative Council – decided to advise the governor of ‘the great inconvenience and mischief’2 that would result from a move away from Auckland. In response, Governor Thomas Gore Browne suggested that there might be merit in alternating meetings between Auckland and Wellington.

Wellington and Nelson

In 1862 Wellington was given the opportunity to host a session of the General Assembly, but a proposal for the arrangement to be made permanent was defeated – by a single vote. The following year, a group of Wellington and Nelson legislators proposed that the capital be moved somewhere on the shores of Cook Strait between the North and South islands – Wellington was at one end of the strait and Nelson more or less at the other. The choice was to be made by an independent tribunal.

Heroic names

Both Wellington and Nelson were named for British military heroes of the Napoleonic period, with Wellington honouring the first Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley), victorious at Waterloo in 1815, and Nelson celebrating Admiral Horatio Nelson, hero of the battle of Trafalgar (1805). European settlement, under the auspices of the New Zealand Company, began in Wellington in 1840 and in Nelson in 1842.

Choosing a new capital

The resolution proposed that three of Australia’s governors (of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania) should appoint commissioners to select the site of the New Zealand capital. New Zealand is in the unusual position of having had its capital city chosen – on the preference of its own elected legislators – by a commission comprising people who lived in another country.

The Australian commissioners

The three commissioners who chose Wellington as New Zealand’s capital were Francis Murphy, speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Colony of Victoria; Joseph Docker, a member of the Legislative Council of the Colony of New South Wales; and Ronald C. Gunn, formerly a member of Tasmania’s Legislative Council and House of Assembly.

The commissioners’ report

The commissioners were appointed by Governor George Grey, following a resolution from the Legislative Council declaring ‘that the Seat of Government should be placed in a central position, that is to say, somewhere upon the shores of Cook’s Straits’.3 The commissioners submitted their report from Government House, Nelson, on 3 October 1864. It was a brief statement – a letter – taking up only two pages when reprinted in the records of the New Zealand Parliament.

The commissioners reviewed their travels in New Zealand, noting that they had inspected Wellington and various sites in the north of the South Island, including Picton, Queen Charlotte’s Sound and the Tory Channel, Blenheim, Pelorus Sound, Havelock and Nelson. They stated that the main criteria to be followed in determining the choice of capital were the central position of the site; the ‘water capabilities’, including the character of the harbour; the ‘land capabilities’, including the extent of the proposed site; the resources of the surrounding country; the ‘capabilities of defence’, with respect to both attack by land or sea; and any natural disadvantages.4

Nelson as New Zealand’s capital

Most New Zealanders are probably unaware that Wellington and Nelson had once competed to be the site of the capital. The choice of a country’s capital can have significant economic and regional consequences, affecting political, social and cultural developments. A view of how New Zealand might have been dramatically altered had Nelson been chosen rather than Wellington is offered in ‘What if Nelson had been made the capital of New Zealand?’, a chapter in the 2008 book New Zealand as it might have been.

The choice of Wellington

The choice of Wellington by the commissioners was announced, without elaboration, in a single sentence: ‘Having thus made themselves acquainted, as far as was practicable, with the character and capabilities of both shores of Cook’s Strait, the Commissioners have arrived at the unanimous conclusion that Wellington, in Port Nicholson, is the site upon the shores of Cook’s Straits which presents the greatest advantages for the administration of the Government of the Colony.’5 No further explanation was given. It is assumed that their preference for Wellington reflected the city’s superior harbour, particularly important at a time when most members of Parliament would have travelled to the capital by sea.

Having made their recommendation, the commissioners were paid for their services and left the country. In the aftermath there was public protest in Auckland and a bid by Auckland’s assembly members to separate Auckland from the rest of the country. The proposed secession did not proceed, and a subsequent measure to separate the North and South islands likewise came to naught. The move to Wellington – as the capital for a united New Zealand – took place in 1865.

  1. Quoted in Stephen Levine, ‘What if Nelson had been made the capital of New Zealand?’ In New Zealand as it might have been, edited by Stephen Levine. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006, p. 60. Back
  2. Quoted in ‘What if Nelson had been made the capital of New Zealand?’, p. 61. Back
  3. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1864, D-2, p. 10. Back
  4. AJHR, 1864, D-2, pp. 12–13. Back
  5. AJHR, 1864, D-2, p. 13. Back

Wellington, capital city

As New Zealand has no formal written constitution, Wellington’s status as the capital city is not given distinctive protection in a supreme national statute. There is, however, no serious movement to shift the capital (despite some complaints about Wellington’s weather). While Auckland has become a significantly larger city, with approximately one-quarter of New Zealand’s population in the 2000s, there have been no efforts to return the capital to that city, which was content to be the country’s economic capital – the focal point of immigration and economic growth – and a recreational ‘city of sails’.

Wellington City Council

While Wellington’s position as the capital city is not mentioned in the New Zealand Constitution Act 1986, the city’s status and its architectural and historic features are acknowledged in the City of Wellington’s district plan, which sets aside a parliamentary precinct heritage area for the part of the city containing parliamentary buildings and grounds, as well as other government buildings and monuments.

The capital city gains economic benefits through the employment of public servants and central-government investment in major public institutions and infrastructure. While the value of Wellington property is substantially affected by its hosting the national capital, Wellington City Council is unable to collect revenue from some of the city’s most valuable real estate. The Local Government (Rating) Act 2002 provides for an exemption from local property tax (rates) for ‘land on which any vice-regal [governor-general’s] residence or Parliament building is situated’. While the Crown provides revenue to New Zealand’s local authorities, the Local Government Rates Inquiry Panel in 2007 concluded that in some circumstances Crown contributions in lieu of rates might be worth considering.

National institutions

Wellington’s position as the New Zealand capital contributes to decisions about the location of monuments or institutions considered to be of national importance. As a result, resources are sometimes directed towards Wellington rather than other parts of the country. For instance, the decision in 1992 to establish a new national museum led to the construction of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which opened on the Wellington waterfront in 1998.

The city is also the home of other national cultural institutions, such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. In 2004 the remains of an unknown New Zealand soldier from a First World War European cemetery were returned to New Zealand and interred in a new monument, the tomb of the unknown warrior, adjacent to the national war memorial carillon in Wellington. In 2015 the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park was opened at this site. The Queen Elizabeth II Pukeahu Education Centre opened within the park in 2016.

Capital university

At least one educational institution – Victoria University – markets itself explicitly on its position in the New Zealand capital. Its website describes the university as ‘situated in the capital city’, and thus able to ‘take advantage of connections’ with, among others, ‘government, the judiciary, public and private research organisations, cultural organisations and resources … and the international community through the diplomatic corps’.1 Massey University, which has its main campus in Palmerston North, has also established a Wellington campus.

The public service

As a capital city, Wellington has distinctive features, with many people employed in the public service and many office buildings being leased by government departments and other elements of the wider bureaucracy. The city has a more political atmosphere than others, with residents more likely to be involved in the government and possibly more interested in politics. There is also something of an international flavour to the city, with diplomatic missions – both offices and residences – being situated in the capital (as is New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade).

The ‘coolest little capital’

As New Zealand’s capital, in the early 2000s Wellington was the North Island’s second-largest city, with its own attractions. It is the world’s southernmost national capital, and in 2011 was described by international travel publisher Lonely Planet as the ‘coolest little capital in the world’.2


Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Stephen Levine, 'Capital city', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Stephen Levine, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012, updated 1 o Ākuhata 2016