The largest centre of Manawatū, Palmerston North city is 140 km north-east of Wellington and 546 km south of Auckland, with a 2013 population of 77,259.
Until 1866 it was a clearing, known as Papaioea, in the forest that stretched from the main ranges almost to the west coast. In 1846 trader Charles Hartly was led through stands of tall trees to open country covered by mānuka, flax and fern, and noted ‘the crumbling remains of the stockade of the old Papaioea pa which had been built by the Rangitāne.’ 1
A struggling township
The land was sold to the Crown in 1864 and in 1866 a township, designed by J. T. Stewart, was laid out in the clearing. It included a large central square, and in 1878 Rangitāne and Ngāti Raukawa asked, unsuccessfully, that it be named Te Marae o Hine.
The township stagnated until the revival of immigration and public works in 1871. The first settlers were Scandinavians. They, and later others, worked at first on road-making. Links to the Rangitīkei and through the gorge reduced the isolation.
In 1873 the town was renamed Palmerston North, to avoid confusion with Palmerston in Otago. By 1875 there were newspapers, a doctor and a post office.
For many years Palmerston North relied on public works and sawmilling. But by 1886 its future was assured. The west coast railway from Wellington was built, and pastoral farming was underway.
A thriving centre
In 1911 Palmerston North had a population of 10,000. By 1927 this had reached 20,000 and it became a city. The saleyards were closed in 1926, and signs of city status included modern buildings, parks and suburbs. Bigger hospitals, schools, churches, offices and department stores appeared.
Tearooms, with live background music, became a social focal point from 1915, and seasonal fashion parades were a feature from 1926. Generations of children were entranced by the Christmas 'magic cave' at Collinson and Cunninghame’s department store, where mechanical characters and animals moved among rainbow-lit scenery.
Sportspeople, musicians, artists and actors, journalists, racehorse trainers – a wide variety of people contributed to city life and culture. Prominent were promoters and local politicians such as Jimmy Nash and Matthew Oram. Also significant were Constance Abraham, a community leader; Charlotte Warburton, active with the Girl Guides and the National Party; music teacher Evelyn Rawlins; and Cath Vautier, active in sporting and community organisations. Apart from Abraham, they were from a first generation of native Palmerstonians.
Surviving the 1930s depression
The 1930s economic depression did less harm than in nearby Whanganui, because Palmerston North’s farming economy was more varied. Stock and station agents and farm equipment dealers continued to trade on Rangitīkei Street. From 1936 the transport network included Union Airways.
The city today
Modern-day Palmerston North dates from 1963, when the railway through the Square was moved to the outskirts. Massey University (including the teachers’ college), the military camp at Linton, and Palmerston North hospital reduced the dependence on farming.
A rugby museum opened in 1969, and professional theatre dates from 1974. In the 1990s café culture transformed many city streets. Families in the low-income suburb of Highbury started a whānau resource centre, tackling youth problems and developing outreach programmes. The city has three marae: Te Kūpenga o te Matauranga (Massey University), St Michaels (Highbury) and Rangitāne (Awapuni).
The character of Palmerston North’s central Square has caused heated discussion in the community. One online newspaper offers an ‘interactive square clock tower designer’ and a quiz – ‘Palmy’s Square or minefield?’, where contestants must identify whether 10 photographs are of the Square, or a First World War battlefield! 2
Innovation thrives in the city. Ezibuy, a nationwide mail-order company, has headquarters there. Smaller enterprises include Obo (the country’s leading maker of protective sportswear), Integration Technologies and R&D Solutionz (electronic products). With Massey University and related agriculture and research institutes, as well as defence establishments, the city also has substantial biotech and defence employment.