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Manawatū and Horowhenua region

by  Malcolm McKinnon

Manawatū and Horowhenua are heartlands, their towns surrounded by rich farm country. The low-key lifestyle contrasts with the powerful natural forces that have shaped the region – from the breathtaking Manawatū Gorge to the curious anticlines where land is being folded into hills.


Manawatū and Horowhenua cover 4,000 square kilometres between the North Island’s main mountain range and the Tasman Sea. The region is bounded to the north by the Rangitīkei River and to the south by Kāpiti district.

Manawatū occupies the northern part of the region, and Horowhenua the southern. Palmerston North and Feilding are the main centres of Manawatū. Foxton and Levin are the main centres of Horowhenua. Both districts fall within the territory of Horizons (Manawatū–Wanganui) regional council.

A view of Manawatū

The most striking views of Manawatū are gained from the roads that follow the ridges lying north-east/south-west: Ridge Road near Āpiti; Rangiwāhia Road near Peep-O-Day; the high ground above Mākino Road running north from Feilding; and the Mt Biggs road south from Halcombe to Mt Stewart, at the junction with State Highway 3.

  • In the foreground lie the ridge spurs, the valleys and steep drops to the major rivers – Kiwitea, Ōroua, Pohangina.
  • To the east are the summits of the Ruahine and Tararua ranges. Both lose height – and forest cover – near the Manawatū Gorge.
  • To the immediate south are the lower courses of the Manawatū and Ōroua rivers, and the wide plain that they have formed.

A view of Horowhenua

From Heights Road, which heads into the Tararua Range just south of Shannon, the whole of Horowhenua is laid out – the rolling country between Shannon and Levin, Levin itself and Lake Horowhenua.

Behind are the peaks of the Tararua Range and in front the curved Tasman Sea coast, banked by sand dunes and forest. In the far distance is the island of Kāpiti, sometimes looking like a land-bound mountain.

Significance and size

Manawatū and Horowhenua do not often feature on lists of New Zealand’s most scenic or compelling places. In many ways the two regions are ‘average New Zealand’, neither big city nor rural. Close up, their landscapes have much physical and human interest.

‘The’ Manawatū?

Some North Island districts are called ‘the’ Manawatū, ‘the’ Waikato. Others are referred to simply as ‘Auckland’, ‘Taranaki’, ‘Wellington’. In recent times the distinction has blurred, with ‘the’ disappearing (Waikato, Manawatū) or being added (‘the Hawke’s Bay’, ‘the Taranaki’).


Manawatū is one of the smallest regions in the country, even including Horowhenua. The main centre is Palmerston North, which developed later than towns such as Wellington and Whanganui. The Ruahine and Tararua ranges were a barrier to links with eastern districts. The Manawatū Gorge was roaded and railed by 1891, but both routes could be closed by slips.


Horowhenua’s largest centre is Levin. The region has been regarded as part of Manawatū, but it also has its own local institutions.

Features of the landscape


The eastern boundary of Manawatū and Horowhenua is the summit ridgeline of the Ruahine and Tararua ranges. These mountains are old greywacke blocks, like the ranges further north and the Southern Alps.

Manawatū River

The mountain ranges are separated by the Manawatū River. Rising east of the main North Island ranges, it runs through the spectacular Manawatū Gorge. Known to Māori as Te Āpiti (the narrowing), this is the region’s most striking natural feature.

Over the years there has been debate over how the gorge was formed. The river may have cut into the mountains, but the preferred explanation is that the mountains rose on either side of the river. As they rose, the river maintained its course by cutting down into them. The mountain uplift has probably been happening faster in more recent geological time.

River terraces and plains

The Manawatū River’s main tributaries are the Ōroua and the Pohangina. Some of the terraces along these rivers have formed anticlines (arch-like folds). These are easiest to see around Pohangina, Feilding and Halcombe.

Underneath the arches

A syncline is a depression or dip in the landscape. An anticline is the opposite – a fold shaped like an arch or upside-down U. This can be formed when the earth is forced up, rumpling like a blanket. The Manawatū anticlines result from uplift on the river terraces west of the Ruahine Range. The Mt Stewart/Halcombe anticline is rising by just over 1 centimetre a year. It is unusual for such hill-building to be so visible – normally it happens far beneath the earth’s surface.

The terraces and alluvial plains on the lower Ōroua and Manawatū rivers were formed from sediment that gathered at the base of the mountains. It was then shaped by wind, ocean and river action over thousands of years. The plains are well-drained in the north, but were swampy in the south around Ōpiki, Makerua and Moutoa. Further downstream, at Foxton, the Manawatū River forms a large estuary.

Dunes and lakes

A line of sand dunes stretches 200 kilometres from Pātea in Taranaki to Paekākāriki, north of Wellington. The dunes are mostly under 15 metres high, but in places reach over 30 metres.

Along the dune edge lies a chain of lagoons and lakes. Many of the lagoons have been drained. The largest lake is Lake Horowhenua. Important wetlands within the dune belt are found at the Manawatū River estuary and behind Kūkū Beach, just south of the Ōhau River.

Human impact on the environment

The landscape in 1840

In 1840, when European colonisation began, forests covered the interior, and there were dunes, grassland and swamp on the coast. The most stable sand dunes were covered in mānuka, flax, toetoe, cabbage trees and bracken fern. Kahikatea and pukatea were the dominant trees on the floodplains of rivers and wet sand plains, but where the land was well-drained tōtara, tītoki, ngaio, kānuka and akeake flourished.

In low-lying, inland Kairanga, the trees were mainly podocarps – tōtara, rimu, kahikatea – and also tawa. Flax, toetoe and raupō (bulrush) grew in open swampy locations. Towards the Ruahine Range, in the Pohangina valley, tōtara grew in the lower areas, and other podocarps and tawa higher up the slopes.

Māori food sources

Māori used the coast as a source of shellfish, the rivers and streams for eels, and the forests to obtain birds, particularly kākā (parrots) and kererū (New Zealand pigeons).

Change after 1840

Between 1870 and 1910 there was a massive forest clearance to make land available for the settlers. Indigenous trees gave way to European grasses, first on the drier bush-cleared tracts and then on the drained wetlands. Native birds and freshwater fish became scarcer as the forests were felled and waterways channelled.

The first attempts at drainage around Makerua in the 1890s triggered the growth of native flax in place of raupō. Further drainage in the 1920s opened the way for pasture.

From dunelands to pasture

On dunelands the native cover was mostly spinifex and pīngao, with ground-hugging shrubs on the landward side. Further inland were toetoe, mānuka and shrub daisies.

From the 1860s the ground cover was replaced with pasture grasses for sheep and cattle to graze on. The dunes expanded but are now held in check by plantings of lupins, marram grass and California conifers – the macrocarpa (Cupressus macrocarpa) and radiata pine (Pinus radiata).

Flood control

In the 20th century, swamp drainage and flood control involved major engineering work in Manawatū, culminating in the building of the Moutoa sluice gates and floodway between 1959 and 1962. This project remains one of New Zealand’s key flood-control structures. It covers 300 square kilometres of rural land, along with flood-prone areas of Palmerston North.

Giant dunes

The region’s sand dunes are aligned not with the coast but with the prevailing westerly wind. The longest stretch, 18 kilometres, is inland from Hīmatangi.

Wind farms

Rivalling Wellington as an accessible, windy environment, the mountain ranges on either side of the Manawatū Gorge have proved ideal for wind farms. In 1999, 48 turbines were installed, and 110 were added in 2004. Manawatū provides 300 megawatts of New Zealand’s total installed wind-farm capacity (690 megawatts). 

Early Māori history


Before the 1820s the principal iwi (tribes) of the region were Rangitāne, Muaūpoko and Ngāti Apa. Rangitāne were found particularly in Manawatū, Muaūpoko in Horowhenua, and Ngāti Apa along the Rangitīkei River. Their traditions looked back to the Aotea and Kurahaupō canoes.


The Aotea arrived at Pātea in Taranaki. Kurahaupō landed far away at Nukutaurua, near Māhia on the East Coast, a region to which many lower North Island traditions can be traced. One important route to Manawatū from Māhia followed the coast south to Cape Palliser, then west to Wellington and Rimurapa (Sinclair Head), and north up the west coast.

Tradition recalls that the explorer Whātonga travelled along this route. He named the area now known as Wellington after his son Tara – Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He then made his way up the west coast to the Manawatū River and through the gorge to return to his home in Heretaunga (Hawke’s Bay).


Rangitāne was the grandson of Whātonga. He does not play a part in the history of Manawatū, except through his descendants.

Hau’s journey

Haunui (Hau) travelled south along the west coast in search of his wife Wairaka, who had fled with a lover. He reached Rangitīkei in one day (from which comes the place name: rangi – day, tīkei – to stride out), then Manawatū. Thinking a whistling noise was made by a hōkio bird, he named a place there Hōkio. He named Ōhau after himself.

Rangitane’s descendants included Tāwhakahiku and Māngere, and their cousins Rākaumauī, Poutoa and Tamakere. They were the first of this line to settle in Manawatū. A marriage between Whakarongotau, another cousin, and a Ngāi Tara chief cemented links with Whātonga’s descendants already in the region.


The Muaūpoko people lived in Horowhenua. One famous ancestor is the Ngāi Tara warrior chief Tūteremoana. The highest point on Kāpiti Island is named after him, and he is referred to in the saying, ‘Te tama whakaete tūranga rau, i tītī te ūpoko ki te kura a rangi’ (the young man who forced his way on to a hundred standing places and whose head was adorned with the glow of heaven).

Settlements and food

Excavations of early settlements reveal that at one time, the huge flightless moa was hunted along the coast. Following its extinction, food came from more modest sources – fish, shellfish, eels and birds.

Songs and stories tell of journeys along the coast and rivers. Along with the Horowhenua and Waiwiwi lakes (the latter also known as Papaitonga after the island in it), these were the principal zones of settlement.

Eels were an important part of the diet. Much later, after migrating from Waikato, the Ngāti Raukawa leader and warrior Te Whatanui gave land to those he had defeated around Lake Horowhenua. To keep control of the supply of eels, he excluded the Hōkio stream from this gift.

Away from the coast and riverbanks, the dense forest cover prevented permanent settlement, but provided a ‘storehouse’ of berries, and birds such as kererū and kākā.

Māori and European newcomers, 1820–1870

Invaders from the north

In the 19th century the area between the Whanganui River and Kāpiti Island saw two large-scale human movements.

1820s: tribal migrations

Armed parties of Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa from the Waikato region came into Manawatū and Horowhenua and challenged the local people for their lands.

1840s: European settlers

The invading hapū were attracted by the prospect of fruitful contact with European ships and their crews around Cook Strait. An inflow of immigrants from Britain began in the 1840s, but it had only lapped at the edge of the region by 1870.

Te Rauparaha and Te Whatanui

The leader of the Tainui invaders was Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa. From 1822, with Te Āti Awa allies from Taranaki, he challenged the local tribes – Ngāti Apa, Rangitāne and Muaūpoko.

While Ngāti Apa were partly protected by kinship links with Ngāti Toa, Muaūpoko and Rangitāne resisted, and paid a heavy price. A group of Ngāti Raukawa, led by Te Whatanui, joined Ngāti Toa in the south. Te Rauparaha was related to Ngāti Raukawa through his mother and a chief of the tribe. Rangitīkei, Manawatū and Horowhenua were won by occupation.

Te Whatanui was a benign overlord: he allowed Ngāti Apa to share territory with Ngāti Raukawa, negotiated a peaceful settlement with Rangitāne at Hotuiti, and placed the few remaining Muaūpoko people under his mana. He allocated them a small piece of land around Lake Horowhenua, bounded by Ngāti Raukawa settlements to the north and south. Together, Rangitāne, Muaūpoko and Ngāti Raukawa engaged with Pākehā in the flax trade, forming many settlements along the lower Manawatū River.

Pākehā arrivals

The Māori newcomers were still determining land entitlements, with some sharp quarrels, when the London-based New Zealand Company became active in the region in 1839.

The company bought 62,000 acres (26,000 hectares) in the lower Manawatū from Ngāti Raukawa, but most of the sale was later voided. It had come after the 1840 signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, under which only the Crown could buy land from Māori.

The company’s energies went into the Whanganui settlement and the nearby Rangitīkei district, which was sold by Māori in 1851. A small settlement at Paiaka, near present-day Shannon, did not survive the 1855 earthquake. The few settlers there moved to Te Awahou (later named Foxton) on the coast, where Māori sold a block of land to the Crown in 1859.

The Kebbel steam mill

When Manawatū Māori saw the steam sawmill being built by the Kebbel brothers at Paiaka in the 1840s, it reminded them of the bubbling springs in the Taupō district:

‘[They] displayed the keenest interest in what was going on, and when the cast-iron chimney, forty feet high, rose from out of the heap of angles, and the steam was sent hissing through the pipes, the recollection . . . came back [of] he puia mokai, i.e. ‘tame boiling spring’. 1

At the end of the 1850s around 85,000 acres (34,000 hectares) – about half the unforested land between the Rangitīkei and Manawatū rivers – was being leased by Pākehā from Māori owners for grazing sheep and cattle. The few Europeans were shepherds, or ferrymen at the river crossings on the coast route from Wellington to Whanganui – the only ‘road’ before the 1870s.

Land selling

The leased and other land west of the ranges was sold between 1864 and 1867. This was a different process to the fighting and subsequent land confiscation in Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki. Ngāti Raukawa did not have a long association with the land, but the negotiations over the 220,000-acre (84,000-hectare) Rangitīkei–Manawatū block still took time. There was debate over who had the right to sell. Rangitāne hapū maintained that they had retained ownership of significant land blocks even after Te Rauparaha’s conquest. In contrast, Ngāti Raukawa conceded Rangitāne’s right to sell the 250,000-acre (100,000-hectare) Te Ahuaturanga block in upper Manawatū.

Flax trading

The lower Manawatū remained rich in flax. A boom in 1869–70 improved the fortunes of Foxton. Manawatū may have been fairly described at the end of the 1860s as ‘the home of the flax trade and the terra incognita [unknown land] of everyone except the actual residents.’ 2 But with most of it now in Crown ownership, Pākehā colonisation could begin in earnest.

    • Thomas Lindsay Buick, Old Manawatu. Christchurch: Capper, 1975, p. 139 (originally published 1903). › Back
    • Wellington Independent, cited in G. C. Petersen, The pioneering days of Palmerston North. Levin: G. C. Petersen, 1952, p. 38. › Back

Rapid change: 1870–1880

A ‘heroic’ decade?

Between the 1870s and 1910s there was greater change than the region had seen before, or has seen since.

The first decade was particularly dramatic for Manawatū. In 1871 the Māori and Pākehā population was probably no more than 1,000 of each, and between Ōtaki and the Rangitīkei River there was only one town – Foxton. By 1881 the Pākehā population had increased to nearly 9,000, with more living in Palmerston North than Foxton. The Māori population had probably declined. The settlement pattern changed too, with people living in forested areas as well as along the coast and in open country.

Colonisation begins

There were two main triggers for the transformation:

  • the government’s purchase between 1864 and 1867 of Māori land which it now aimed to sell to Europeans
  • ‘Vogelism’ – a shorthand term for Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel’s vigorous programme of borrowing to pay for immigration and public works.

In 1869 the Taranaki war leader Tītokowaru had posed a threat to Whanganui and nearby districts. The roads, railways and immigrants were also intended to secure land against further incursion.

Rail and road

The government built a tramway from the port at Foxton to Palmerston North, completed in 1873 and replaced by a railway three years later. A railway from Whanganui to Palmerston North opened in 1878. The Manawatū Gorge road, completed in 1872, cost £5,000. It was closed permanently in 2017 after repeated massive slips made it unviable. The 1875 bridge over the Manawatū River near Woodville cost £12,000. The 24-kilometre gorge rail link cost £170,000. Including two tunnels and a bridge over the Pohangina River, it did not open until 1891.


The immigrants came from near and far. At Sanson, 27 members of the Hutt Small Farm Association took up 5,000 acres in 1871. The South Island runholders Robert Campbell and John Douglas settled 70 families on their block of land around present-day Rongotea.


The government brought 120 immigrants from Scandinavia – the first organised group of settlers at Palmerston North. The town was laid out in a large forest clearing – Papaioea – in 1866. Scandinavians added a distinctive flavour to the region in these years.

Music for the bishop

One Scandinavian who emigrated to Manawatū was Bishop Ditlev Monrad, a former prime minister of Denmark. Although he and his family faced hardship and primitive conditions, they brought some luxuries, including a grand piano. It was strapped across two canoes and carried up the Manawatū River to Kārere, where they settled.


The Emigrant and Colonist’s Aid Corporation was established to assist emigration from Great Britain. It bought 106,000 acres (42,000 hectares) which it called the Manchester block, after the association’s president. By 1877 it had placed 1,600 settlers on the block. The first group arrived at Feilding in January 1874. The next settlement was at Halcombe (from April 1876, as the railway reached there), and the third, from August 1877, around Ashhurst.

Work for settlers

Settlers faced the hard task of clearing the forest before they could farm the land. Many survived by working for the government at roadmaking. The first Scandinavians also worked on the Foxton–Palmerston North tramline and railway, and Manchester block settlers on the railway to Whanganui, which ran the length of the block.

Settlers could also work in sawmills and flax mills. Two partnerships, Manson and Bartholomew, and the Scandinavians Richter, Nannestad and Jenssen (who had come to the colony independently) set up sawmills near Palmerston North to deal with the mass of timber. Foxton locals invested in flax mills.

Unsettled times: 1880–1910

The Wellington–Manawatū railway

Lack of money stopped work on the government’s Wellington–Manawatū railway in 1880. Wellington capitalists took over and largely financed the line, which operated from 1886.

Crown land along the railway line was granted to the developers, who on-sold it to finance construction. The new line opened Horowhenua to European settlement, and the district grew as fast as Manawatū had in the 1870s. The rail linked with the government railway just outside Palmerston North. This also became the junction of the rail route through the Manawatū Gorge when that was completed in 1891. Rail created a new focus centred on inland Palmerston North, not coastal Foxton. It linked Manawatū to Wellington as well as Whanganui.

Joe on the go

In 1910, 22-year-old Palmerston North burglar Joe Pawelka escaped from police custody. An armed and masked man who confronted a Palmerston North couple was thought to be Pawelka. Panic mounted three days later when fires destroyed the high school and two shops. By the time Pawelka was finally caught, two searchers had died, one at the hands of a fellow searcher. Pawelka was sentenced, but escaped from jail in Wellington in August 1911. He was never seen again.

Businessmen and settlers

Most of the Wellington capitalists also leased or bought land for themselves in Manawatū and engaged in other ventures. Joseph Nathan and his sons invested in stores, money lending, and dairy factories. John Plimmer and Sydney Kirkcaldie collaborated with Alfred Seifert and W. A. Chapple in the Makerua Estate Company, which milled flax on railway land near Shannon (named after another Wellington businessman) from 1902.

Assisted immigration from Europe was suspended in 1884, but land-hungry New Zealanders still came to the region. The Kairanga, Kiwitea and Ōtamakapua blocks were developed from the late 1870s and 1880s, most as farm homesteads or special settlements. The railway from Wellington opened up Māori land along its route, and much of the 52,000-acre (21,000-hectare) Horowhenua block was quickly sold.

From flax and timber to sheep and cattle

Some of the new settlers and itinerants worked as herdsmen, shepherds or shearers – 635,000 sheep grazed between Whanganui and Foxton in 1885. Other men worked in sawmills. Until about 1906 the remaining forest was burnt or felled, except in the Ruahine and Tararua ranges. In 1879, 23 sawmills were operating near Palmerston North and Feilding. Later these followed the receding bush line inland.

Felling giants

Not all timber made it to the sawmills. Some trees were burnt in late summer, as reported in Palmerston North in 1880: ‘The smoke that encircles our township by day and the lurid flames by night tell of the advent of March, the month fatal to sylvan giants . . . from almost any point of the compass may be seen rising columns of smoke spreading themselves in fantastic cloud wreaths and not infrequently descending upon the town itself. . . although the smoke may inconvenience us and the charred avenues offend the eye we must accept all thankfully as a mark of local progress’. 1

Flax mills flourished along the swampy lower reaches of the Manawatū River during the booms of 1889–90 and from 1898 until after the First World War. The ‘flaxies’ who worked in them brought a working man’s outlook to the Manawatū, distinct from that of the runholders or small farmers. Disease, and competition from other fibres, notably sisal, put an end to the last flax boom, although woolpacks were produced from flax at Foxton from 1934 until 1972.

With the bush cleared and an uncertain future for flax, intensive pastoral farming provided welcome new opportunities. There were two butter factories in 1886, and nearly 20 by 1911. Large freezing works opened at Longburn near Palmerston North (1890) and Feilding (1916). The 1871 population of 2,000 had swelled to 40,000 by 1911.

    • Manawatu Daily Times cited in G. C. Petersen, The pioneering days of Palmerston North. Levin: G. C. Petersen, 1952, p. 58. › Back

Heyday: 1910s to 1960s

By 1910 Manawatū, the district that came late in the story of Pākehā settlement, had equal standing with regions such as Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay, Whanganui and Southland. The economy was buoyant and in 1911 the Pākehā population had grown 40-fold since 1871 – from 1,000 to 40,000.

A booming region

Was there anything distinctive about Manawatū’s time in the sun? Its rich farming economy rested on the three pillars of dairying, frozen meat, and wool. In comparison, Taranaki relied on dairying, and Hawke’s Bay on sheep. Manawatū lay at the heart of the booming lower North Island, and at the hub (a favoured Manawatū word) of its rail network.

Learning institutions

The region’s varied farming made it a logical location in the 1920s for the North Island’s only agricultural high school, at Feilding. In 1928 Massey Agricultural College was set up just outside Palmerston North, along with the Plant Research Station (later Bureau), the Dairy Research Institute and the Grasslands Division of the Department of Industrial Research. These centres drew a remarkable generation of scientists to Manawatū. The college became Massey University in 1964, and has long been New Zealand’s principal centre for extramural (distance) education.


Affluent and adventurous farmers and local businessmen had the money, the land and the enthusiasm to promote aviation. The Manawatū Aero Club (1928) aimed to make Manawatū a major terminal point for air transport. Union Airways, the forerunner of NAC (National Airways Corporation) and the first major commercial airline in the country, started at Milson Airport in Palmerston North in 1936.

Cooperative businesses

Dairy farmers, in Manawatū as elsewhere, took readily to cooperative ownership of factories. Farmers generally supported firms like the Manawatū Farmers’ and the United Farmers’ cooperative associations. But the Manawatū Consumers’ Co-operative Society (1935) had a far longer and more successful life than similar ventures elsewhere. In the 1960s it had 30,000 members and 40 stores around the region, including butcheries and groceries which offered member rebates. Its success owed much to the energy of a long-serving manager, Gordon Brown.

Two for one

Geoffrey Peren was New Zealand’s first professor of agriculture, at Victoria University College in 1924. Auckland University College then appointed William Riddet to the equivalent post. To avoid duplication it was decided to set up one college where both men would teach. It was named Massey Agricultural College after the late William F. Massey (the ‘farmer’ prime minister).

From swamp to dairy farm

By 1930 Manawatū’s bush, but not all its swamps, had become farmland. It was only after the collapse of the flax boom in 1919, when international prices fell sharply, that low-lying land at Ōpiki, Shannon and Foxton was drained for farm use. ‘Flaxies’ gave way to ‘cow cockies’.

Dairy farms needed more flood control than flax did. Stopbanks were built in the 1920s and the Moutoa sluice gates and floodway between 1959 and 1962.

Māori in Manawatū

The number of Māori increased from the 1920s. But even in 1961 Māori accounted for only 4% of the region’s population. Most adults were employed in seasonal work on farms or on the roads, but some individuals of Rangitāne descent, such as Rangiputangatahi Mawhete and John Mason Durie, ensured that the tribes were not completely marginalised. They were particularly active in mobilising Māori labour during the Second World War, through the Maori War Effort Organisation. The 28 (Maori) Battalion assembled and trained at the Palmerston North showgrounds for three months before embarking for war service in May 1940.

Growth in towns

In 1921 the population was two-fifths rural, but as flax and sawmilling waned the rural labour force declined. The towns thrived. Unlike Whanganui, Palmerston North’s growth did not falter during the 1930s economic depression, and by the 1940s it had more residents than the older city.

In the 1950s Levin, being near Wellington, gained from policies encouraging industrialisation, including protection from imports. Manufacturing plants turned out clothing, textiles and dyes, refrigerated trucks, and caravans. By 1961 the population of Levin’s urban area (11,402) exceeded that of Feilding (9,031), which remained mainly a farming service town.

In 1961 the region’s population was 88,000 – nearly double that of 1921. Only one quarter of residents now lived in rural areas.

Challenges: 1960s to 2000s

From the 1960s, Manawatū’s economic and population growth slowed – as in other regions away from the main centres.

Rural decline

Rural areas virtually stopped growing. Dairy factories merged (most North Island processing is now carried out at a plant in Hāwera, Taranaki). Improved communications and transport, and restructuring of government services (itself partly a product of those improvements) combined to focus activities in towns and cities.

Impact on towns

The towns were also hit. Feilding suffered from the rural downturn of the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s, and from cutbacks in the frozen-meat industry. Levin was now less protected from imports, especially of clothing. The Manawatū Consumers’ Co-operative Society was a victim of both increased competition from supermarkets and the 1987 sharemarket crash. It stopped trading in 1988.

Growth in Palmerston North

Unlike many South Island centres, Palmerston North did not have a substantial tourist economy. Nor did it have a large domestic market, as Auckland did. Its population crept up from 64,000 to 80,000 between 1976 and 2013. But its share of Manawatū’s population increased from 61% in 1961 to 74% in 2013.

A new cultural vitality saw the establishment of a professionally run art gallery, a museum and a theatre in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


Manawatū hosts key bases of New Zealand’s army and air force. The army base at Linton expanded in the 1960s, and some of the region’s biggest spending in the 1990s and 2000s was defence-related. In 2013 public administration and defence employed 8% of the labour force, compared with 3% nationally. The defence share will increase with further development of Ōhakea air force base, established in 1939, following expansion of the Linton army camp in the 1990s.

Education and research

Over the same period there was also a big investment in education. By 2013 the education sector employed 11.5% of the Manawatū labour force (more than 6,100 out of 53,900), compared with 8.6% nationally.

The region has a high proportion of workers in the knowledge industry, and in the early 2000s over 1,000 people were employed full-time in research.

Going global

In 2004 Integration Technologies of Palmerston North won a contract to outfit more than 1,000 petrol stations run by Pakistan State Oil with automated hardware for supply and billing. The same year R&D Solutionz, also Palmerston North-based, won a contract with a Korean company for worldwide use of a watchdog electronic system.


In the early 2000s the Manawatū Bio Commerce Centre provided incubation, marketing and brokerage services to assist interaction between business and science. Manawatū was also home to other entrepreneurial businesses, including Obo, Clickclack, R&D Solutionz and Integration Technologies.


In 2013, 23.7% of the Horowhenua population was aged 65 years and over (compared with 14.3% nationally). Businesses catering for retired people were important in Horowhenua, and there was more health-related industry than the national average.

Organic horticulture contributed to employment and growth: in 2013 the proportion of the Horowhenua labour force working in agriculture, forestry and fishing (16.7%) was well above the national figure (5.7%).

Manufacturing was a significant employer, surviving despite competition from low-cost producers in Asia and the Pacific. In 2013 nearly 15% of the labour force was employed in manufacturing, compared to 10.9% nationally. Carter Holt Harvey was one of the biggest employers in Levin, near where F. J. Carter started the original sawmilling business in 1896. A new company, but in a traditional line, was Turk’s Poultry in Foxton.


Manawatū: an average region?

In 2013 Manawatū (including Palmerston North) had a population of just over 107,500. The 2013 census revealed an extraordinarily ‘ordinary’ Manawatū. On most indicators – age distribution, median income, income distribution, family type, household size, household spending – it was close to the New Zealand average. This was particularly marked for Manawatū district (the rural areas plus Feilding). The only variations were in ethnicity (notably European, with small Pacific and Asian populations) and slower population growth. 

Palmerston North, like the entire Manawatū district, grew only slightly between 1996 and 2006 – much less than New Zealand as a whole.


Horowhenua includes Levin, Foxton and Shannon. Compared to the nation as a whole, its people were older and there were more Māori: one-fifth claimed Māori identity in 2013. More of the population were out of work than in Manawatū or New Zealand as a whole. People were earning significantly less than the median wage.

Population change

In 1879 around 2,000 people – about half of them Māori – were living in Manawatū and Horowhenua. In 1881 the non-Māori population was 9,000. By 1921 non-Māori numbers had swelled to over 46,000, with fewer than 1,500 Māori.

Between 1921 and 1961 the population almost doubled, to nearly 88,000. Only about one-quarter now lived in rural areas. The Māori population had increased, but numbers were still small and unevenly distributed. There were larger groups of Māori in Horowhenua and Palmerston North than in rural Manawatū.

By 2013 the population had grown to 137,000, with most of the increase before 1976. From 1996 to 2006, there was an increase of just over 2,000 – all in Palmerston North. Between 2006 and 2013 the population also increased in rural areas and small towns – Palmerston North contributed 59% of the growth in that period, rural Manawatū (including Feilding) 35% and Horowhenua 6%.


Manawatū and Horowhenua formed part of Wellington province until 1876.

Counties and boroughs

A Manawatū county council was established in 1876 to administer the huge region between the Rangitīkei and Waikanae rivers. But the different areas, and town and country, had varied needs. By 1910 many smaller entities had formed, including a Horowhenua county reaching from Foxton to Waikanae, and a number of boroughs (towns).

In 1989 Foxton and Levin merged into the district of Horowhenua. Feilding joined with Pohangina, Kiwitea, Ōroua and Manawatū counties as Manawatū district. Palmerston North city expanded to include Ashhurst, Whakarongo, and areas across the Manawatū River.


Local politics mostly reflected wider patterns of political allegiance. Flax workers were able to elect the socialist John Robertson for Ōtaki in 1911, because of a brief split in the non-socialist vote (he lost three years later). In 1935 Palmerston North elected Labour candidate Joseph Hodgens, who represented the electorate for the next 11 years. After that the seat alternated between Labour and National. Notable MPs have included lawyer Matthew Oram (1943–57) for National and businessman Joe Walding (1967–75; 1978–81) and academic Steve Maharey (1990–2008) for Labour. Iain Lees-Galloway has held Palmerston North for Labour since 2008.

Increased town populations gave the region one fully urban electorate from 1938 and a second in the 1980s. The redistricting that accompanied the introduction of the MMP (mixed member proportional) system in 1996 saw a return to one urban seat bounded by two more rural ones.

The whole region was part of the Western Māori electorate until 1954, and then Southern Māori until 1984. Under MMP the region has been part of Te Tai Hauāuru.

School and scandal

Julia Millen, biographer of teacher and writer Guthrie Wilson (1914–1984), records his successful suing of the Manawatu Daily Times in 1957. The paper’s review of his novel Sweet white wine claimed the work was written in revenge for Wilson’s failure to be made rector (principal) of Palmerston North Boys’ High School. The case divided the community, and Wilson left town soon after.


Boys’ and girls’ high schools were established in Palmerston North in the early 1900s. Feilding, Levin and Palmerston North set up technical high schools. The Feilding institution evolved into Feilding Agricultural High School, opened by Prime Minister William F. Massey in 1921, which was famed for its integrated academic and farming curriculum. At the tertiary level, Palmerston North is presently home to Massey University, a campus of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, IPU New Zealand (formerly International Pacific College, with an offshoot in Japan), and the main campus of UCOL, an institute of technology.


A Palmerston North hospital board was set up in 1891, and Horowhenua affiliated in 1918. Two important influences were matrons Ellen Dougherty (in the early years of the hospital) and Winnifred Train (after the Second World War). Dougherty was one of the first state-registered nurses in the world.


Early days

The story of leisure in colonial Manawatū and Horowhenua echoes that of other parts of New Zealand – enthusiasm, shared by both Māori and Europeans, for horse racing; quickly organised games of cricket and later rugby; and informal gatherings of settlers for social purposes, especially in the summer. Churches often played a role in such occasions, which often involve concerts, even in as small a settlement as Kimbolton.

From the 1920s increasing car ownership prompted people to build baches (holiday homes) at previously remote places such as Tangimoana, Hīmatangi Beach and Waitārere, as well as at Foxton Beach.

Rugby union

The region’s first rugby football club formed in Feilding in 1878, the same year as a cricket club was set up in Palmerston North. The Manawatū union was formed in 1886 with membership from Palmerston North, Feilding and Marton. It was one of the founding unions of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union in 1892, but had an erratic existence for a decade after that. Edward Secker, Manawatu’s first captain, composed the words to the once-famous rugby song, ‘On the ball’.

The Horowhenua union was established in 1893, and usually included teams from Foxton, Levin, Shannon and Ōtaki. Since 1902 a Horowhenua–Manawatū game has been an almost annual fixture. Between 1926 and 1933 the two unions combined as Manawhenua. The combined team, captained by former All Black Harry Jacobs, held the Ranfurly Shield for three matches in 1927.

Te gusta mucho el rugby?

In 2004 a Chilean and an Argentinian rugby coach helped run coaching courses at the International Rugby Academy in Palmerston North. The same month the academy hosted Claudio Larrosa, producer of the Argentinian television show, Rugbier. The academy, the brainchild of former All Black Murray Mexted, is at the Rugby Institute’s premises.

By 2019 Manawatū had produced 40 All Blacks. It held the Ranfurly Shield from 1976 to 1978 and won the national provincial championship in 1980. In the 2010s Manawatū played in the second-tier Mitre 10 Championship competition. The ‘Turbos’ have always worn the distinctive white and green ‘tramlines’ jersey.

The New Zealand rugby museum opened in 1969, and owes much to the efforts of local rugby enthusiast, John Sinclair. A Sport and Rugby Institute opened at Massey University in 1999. Despite expectations, it has been little used by the All Blacks. But two government-sponsored South American coaches took part in coaching courses at the institute’s Rugby Academy in June 2004.


Horse races were held in Foxton as early as 1855. Manawatū people, both Pākehā and Māori, petitioned for a racecourse in 1865, when the population was sparse. The Palmerston North racing club was formed in 1880, and the racetrack at Awapuni dates from 1903.

Horse racing and breeding thrived in Manawatū, which had wealthy patrons and excellent conditions for raising and training horses. Manawatū jockey Bill Broughton rode his first winner in October 1928, won the New Zealand Cup in 1931 and 1952, and was the country’s leading jockey in the 1940s. At that time two women, ‘Granny’ Maher and Evelyn White, were notable trainers. Maher had married steeplechase jockey Allan McDonald in 1929. A biographer commented that ‘[McDonald] was noted for his quiet, gentle nature and did not smoke, drink or swear. Granny did all three.’ 1

Motor racing

A permanent motor racing circuit was established at Levin in 1956. The 3.033-kilometre Manfeild Autocourse (at Feilding) was built by the Manawatū Car Club, and held its first event in 1973. The name was a combination of Manchester (the Manchester block of settlers’ land) and Feilding. Feilding’s Coach House Museum celebrates horse-drawn transport.


In the 1970s New Zealand canoeing was dominated by members of the Palmerston North Canoe Club, notably Tom Dooney and Bernard Fletcher. The club developed white-water rafting on the Mangaore River, just below the Mangahao power station. Incorporating concrete blocks and groynes, it qualified as an international-standard white-water park.


The region has favourable growing conditions and gardening is a popular activity. Rhododendron gardens in northern Manawatū at Crosshills, and Haggerty Street, Kimbolton, were established in the 1970s, and attract many visitors locally and from further afield. In 2003 Dugald McKenzie’s rose-breeding centre in Palmerston North was voted one of the top five rose gardens in the world.

    • Mary Mountier, 'McDonald, Hedwick Wilhelmina 1893–1959'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, › Back

Culture and heritage to 1940

Māori traditions

Cultural life in Manawatū and Horowhenua dates back to the oral traditions of the Rangitāne hapū (sub-tribes) and other iwi (tribes), which had settlements throughout the region. They passed on a rich lore linking their people to the land – explaining the origins of Te Āpiti (the Manawatū Gorge), or recording the arrival from Polynesia of the Kurahaupō canoe at Nukutaurua, on Māhia Peninsula. Other important accounts describe the explorations of the ancestor Whātonga, the upbringing of his grandson Rangitāne, the west coast journey of Haunui, and the beginnings of the Muaūpoko tribe.

In the late 1820s the Ngāti Raukawa tribe arrived, bringing new traditions that linked the region to Waikato. These were woven into a dense mesh of experience and memory, often painful, of newcomers and the Rangitāne and Muaūpoko tribes. Recollections centred on the actions of Te Rauparaha, Te Whatanui, Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Te Peeti Te Aweawe, Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotū and others. All are often referred to on marae in both regions.

Songs from the north

Scandinavians were in demand at concerts because many were good singers. In 1878 sawmill owner John Kristian Richter returned to Palmerston North from a visit to Sydney, bringing with him a young bride. His compatriots – bushmen and millhands from Hokowhitu, Terrace End and Trondhjem – marched 300-strong, all singing, in procession to his house in Main Street.

Scandinavian settlers

During the early pioneering days, Scandinavian immigrants introduced their language, culture and religious customs. The Manawatu Times started publishing in 1875, alongside a Danish newspaper, Skandia, edited by Hjamlar Graff. The first printing was delayed while Danish type was found, and very few issues appeared. The Scandinavian influence declined as the general population increased, and assimilation became common. By the 1920s, for example, Lutheran church services were only conducted in English.

Amateur enthusiasts

As in many other regions, newspapers played an important cultural role in the early years, when there were few schools and no universities. Local enthusiasts also fostered music, drama, painting, drawing and other pursuits. A brass band society was started in Palmerston North as early as 1884, and another in 1930. Such bands thrived in Feilding and Levin too. A Palmerston North choral society, the Liedertafel, was founded in 1907 (it was renamed the Orpheus Society in 1915 because of anti-German sentiment during the First World War). An operatic society was first established in 1900, although its continuous history starts in 1913. A repertory society also flourished.

Culture and heritage since 1940

Writing about the region

George Petersen, Charlotte Warburton and Roy Clevely all published books on the early history of the region. Monte Holcroft set a high literary standard for rural history with his account of Manawatū county, The line of the road (1977). Helen Wilson’s My first eighty years (1950) touched on early Levin, and Leslie Adkin wrote extensively on Māori and the natural history of Horowhenua and neighbouring districts.

Others have captured aspects of Manawatū and Horowhenua life in fiction or memoir. John Reece Cole’s widowed mother worked for well-off landowners, and he described the stratification of that world in his short stories, most notably ‘It was so late’ (1946) – about a soldier returning, unrecognised, to where his mother used to work. Yvonne Du Fresne wrote about her Danish immigrant forebears in Farvel and other stories (1980). Janet Frame, who lived in both Palmerston North and Levin, turned Levin into the ‘memory town’ of Puamahara in her 1988 novel The Carpathians. In his memoir Looking for the phoenix (2002), W. H. Oliver described his working-class upbringing in Feilding in the 1930s.

Local wits

Cartoonist and humorist Tom Scott has written about his birthplace, Rongotea. Murray Ball, who produced the Footrot Flats cartoon strip, grew up in Feilding and worked first on the Manawatu Times. John Clarke, comedian and creator of laconic farmer Fred Dagg, was born in Palmerston North.

Theatre, art and museums

Centrepoint Theatre originated in 1973 as a professional theatre–restaurant. Director Alison Quigan worked and also wrote for the company from her appointment in 1986 until her resignation in 2004.

The Palmerston North City Art Gallery developed from an institution run by the Manawatū Art Society to a gallery with professional directors, including Luit Bieringa. During his time a purpose-built gallery was completed, opening in 1977.

The Manawatū Museum, under director Mina McKenzie, went through similar changes. From the 1980s there were professional staff, and in 1994 the museum was moved from an old brick building to purpose-built premises which also housed a science centre. The museum, science centre and art gallery were amalgamated in 2000 and took the name Te Manawa.

Centre stage

Centrepoint Theatre company aimed to tour from one central location, in Palmerston North. It did not come out of nowhere – David McKenzie, one of the founders, was first onstage at age 11 in Peter Pan. Pat Evison performed Readings from Katherine Mansfield in December 1973, and the first play opened in January 1974. It is New Zealand’s only professional theatre company outside the four main centres.

In 1973 Māori artist Cliff Whiting was appointed as lecturer in art at the Palmerston North Teachers’ College. This was the first tertiary institution in the country to establish a marae, in 1980. John Bevan Ford was a Manawatū-based sculptor and artist whose works are displayed in many collections in New Zealand and overseas.


In 2003, Palmerston North City Library issued the most materials of any New Zealand public library, and rated second in visitor numbers after Wellington. The new part of the library was designed by Wellington architect Ian Athfield; the older part is the former Rosco’s department store on the Square.

The immense historical and archival work of Ian Matheson, particularly on the flax industry, was commemorated when the Palmerston North City Archives were named after him.

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 4,031 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km

Climate (Palmerston North)

(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)

  • Mean temperature, January: 17.8°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 9.1°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 917 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 1,744 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 133,665 (2006); 137,631 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 81.8%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 17.5%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 4.0%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 6.6%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 0.9%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes and sub-tribes

Muaūpoko, Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Raukawa, Rangitāne, Ngāti Kauwhata

Population of major urban areas, 2013

  • Palmerston North: 77,259
  • Levin: 19,437

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 19.8%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 64.1%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

Over 65

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 16.1%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 2013

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Public administration and defence

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 8.0%
  • New Zealand: 3.0%


  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 11.1%
  • New Zealand: 8.6%


  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 13.4%
  • New Zealand: 10.9%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 5.0%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012


  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 784,264
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 228,691
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Manawatū and Horowhenua: 112,643
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Malcolm McKinnon, 'Manawatū and Horowhenua region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 24 o Hūrae 2006, updated 1 o Āpereira 2015