Kōrero: City history and people

Whārangi 3. Towns to cities

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

The growth of towns was influenced by their ability to dominate their hinterland, build strong transport links, and attract commerce, industry and government.


In an economy based on agriculture and extractive industries, a productive hinterland was essential for growth. Those towns best able to dominate their regions and ship commodities through their ports had the strongest growth prospects. Agriculture supported Auckland in the 1840s, but it was kauri timber from Northland and gold from Coromandel that transformed the town into a city in the 1870s. Auckland also had two ports, one on each side of the North Island. This helped it ward off regional competitors, such as Thames.

On the other hand Nelson never realised its early promise. It was centrally sited, but lacked a deep-water port. Its hinterland was relatively fertile, but not extensive. Attempts to secure further land were unsuccessful. With little gold or other resources to exploit, Nelson’s growth was sluggish. The gold town of Dunedin and grain town of Christchurch became the South Island’s main cities.

Road and rail

Strong transport links also drove growth. Politicians lobbied for new railways and roads which would channel trade through their electorate’s ports. Wellington was given a boost in 1878 when a railway reached its Wairarapa hinterland. A further line to Manawatū in 1886 enabled it to dominate trade in the lower North Island. As trade was centralised, there were inevitable losers. Riverton declined after Bluff, much closer to Invercargill and the most productive part of Southland, became the region’s main port.

The Shacklock range

Dissatisfaction with his domestic coal range led Dunedin ironmonger and entrepreneur Henry Shacklock to design and build his own cast-iron model. After some modifications it proved successful, and he began manufacturing it at his South End Foundry. It found a ready market and by 1894 Shacklock employed over 40 men. The Shacklock brand survived company changes, dominating the coal and electric range market until the late 20th century, when owners Fisher and Paykel withdrew it.


Towns that had an entrepreneurial business culture were well placed to get ahead. Dunedin’s entrepreneurs used the capital generated by the 1860s Otago gold rushes to begin businesses. People like James Mills (who founded the Union Steam Ship Company) and Bendix Hallenstein (who founded the Hallensteins clothing chain) energised Dunedin commerce. By the late 1870s the city was New Zealand’s financial capital.


Industry was another path to growth. Christchurch’s agricultural hinterland encouraged rural processing industries; by the 1890s the city supported five freezing works and two woollen mills. Other industries included clothing, shoe, bicycle and even locomotive manufacture. It did not always work out. Foxton’s reliance on a single industry – flax milling – meant its growth stalled when the industry declined.

Government and administration

Becoming the seat of government or administration could be a boon. Wellington gained a new lease of life when it became the colony’s capital in 1865. As the government expanded, so did the city. Townships were eager to become boroughs because it attracted government business, giving them a competitive advantage over neighbouring settlements. Waimate in South Canterbury saw off all rivals in the 1870s when it became the seat for both the local borough and county councils.

Towns to cities

Towns that successfully worked these factors to their advantage grew to become cities. By the early 1870s New Zealand had five cities. Christchurch was the first, becoming a city in 1856 by letters patent – a practice under British law whereby the monarch could designate a town a city if it became the seat of a bishop. Two years later Nelson also became a city this way.

Patently a city

In 1858 Queen Victoria constituted Nelson a bishop’s seat and city by letters patent, even though its population was barely 3,000. However, it was not until 1874 that a city council came into being.

Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin each had city status conferred by their provincial governments in the 1860s, a status ratified by the Municipal Corporations Act 1886. Dunedin was the first to form a city council, in 1865. Christchurch followed in 1868, Wellington in 1870, and Auckland in 1871. In 1886 a population threshold of 20,000 was introduced for a town to become a city.

The four main centres

By 1901 Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin had far outgrown their potential rivals and were known as the four main centres. Nelson was the only other city. With 67,000 residents, Auckland was the largest city, but the other main centres were not far behind. Between them they accounted for nearly two-thirds of the urban population (defined as residents of boroughs). While each city dominated its immediate hinterland, and had a sphere of influence beyond it (Christchurch over Timaru, for example), none was powerful enough to dominate the others.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

David Thorns and Ben Schrader, 'City history and people - Towns to cities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/city-history-and-people/page-3 (accessed 13 July 2024)

He kōrero nā David Thorns and Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010