Kōrero: East Coast places

Whārangi 6. Gisborne

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Gisborne (previously known as Tūranga) is the only city in the East Coast region. In 2013 it had an urban-area population of 30,960.

First to see the sun? 

Gisborne claims to be the first city to see the sun each day. While Suva in Fiji and Nuku’alofa in Tonga are closer to the international date line, the sun rises earlier in summer the further the location is from the equator, so for part of the year the claim is correct. 

Gisborne was the region’s first Pākehā settlement and has always been by far the largest. It houses the offices of the Gisborne District Council.

At its heart the Taruheru and the Waimata rivers join to form the Tūranganui River. Gisborne is sometimes known as the City of Rivers or the City of Bridges.


To early Māori the Gisborne area was known as Tūranganui-a-Kiwa. Kiwa was the captain aboard the Tākitimu canoe, which, like the Horouta, made landfall at the Tūranganui River.

In 1831 John Harris set up the first trading station in Tūranga on behalf of a Sydney firm. The founding of the town is attributed to G. E. Read, who settled on the Kaiti (east) side of the river in 1852, but later built stores on the west bank. Over the next 30 years other traders and missionaries also came.

Conflict in Poverty Bay in 1865–66 alerted the government to the strategic position of the settlement, and in 1868 the it bought 300 hectares of land for a town site. The town was laid out in 1870 and named Gisborne, after the then colonial secretary and to avoid Pākehā confusing it with Tauranga.

A borough (town) council was formed in 1877. Rapid development came towards the end of the century on the back of a thriving pastoral hinterland. Two freezing works and many other industries were established. The population rose from 2,737 in 1901 to more than 15,000 in 1926. It was overwhelmingly Pākehā – in 1926 fewer than 2% of the population were Māori, although Māori from country districts were frequently seen in the streets and the opening of a new meeting house at Te Poho-o-Rāwiri marae in 1930 was a major public event.

At the end of the 1920s Gisborne had all the markers of a provincial capital except a railway line – an improved harbour, a substantial post office, a high school and an impressive main street (Gladstone Road). Large houses were built along the left bank of the Taruheru River and a botanical garden developed on the right bank. Suburban Mangapapa had its own town council from 1914 to 1924, when most of it joined Gisborne.

Giving to Gisborne 

The Williams family have been great philanthropists in Gisborne. Grants from their family trusts have set up the H. B. Williams Memorial Library, the Gisborne Olympic Pool and its water slide, the Childers Road Reserve grandstand and many other civic amenities. 

The 1950s and 1960s was a further buoyant period. Pastoral farming thrived, the port was complemented by a rail link and an airport, and a food-processing and canning industry developed.

Substantial areas of state (public) housing were built off Childers Road, towards the airport. Gisborne attained city status (a population of 20,000) in 1955. Gisborne High School was divided into boys’ and girls’ schools, and Lytton and Campion colleges opened. The city celebrated the bicentennial of Cook’s landing with great enthusiasm in 1969. The population reached 30,000 in 1976. After 1970 the pastoral economy grew more slowly and the city’s population was stable.

Gisborne in the 2000s

There was less industry in the town in the 2000s than in the 1960s, but the port stayed busy shipping logs from the many plantation forests established since the 1970s.

The city remained popular with holidaymakers drawn to its magnificent beaches – Waikanae, Midway, Wainui and others – and to the town itself, often during a trip around the East Coast. A paved walkway along the banks of the Tūranganui and Taruheru rivers provides an attractive view of the inner harbour and downtown area.

The city is a major centre of Māori cultural life. While in 1961 the Māori population was only 3,000, just under 12% of the total, in 2013 the proportion who identified as Māori was close to 50%.

Gisborne is home to the Tairāwhiti Museum, the region’s museum and art gallery, which features the historic Wyllie Cottage (built in 1872). In the 2000s the city has hosted Rhythm and Vines, an annual three-day outdoor music festival.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Monty Soutar, 'East Coast places - Gisborne', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/east-coast-places/page-6 (accessed 26 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Monty Soutar, i tāngia i te 25 Aug 2011, updated 1 Mar 2015