Kōrero: Place names

Whārangi 4. The imperial connection

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Since most non-Māori New Zealanders came from the United Kingdom, they looked to place names to create a sense of home and proclaim their membership of the British Empire.

Military and colonial history

Heroes of the Empire’s battles were recalled in such place names as Auckland, Eden, Rodney, Raglan, Clive, Napier, Hastings, Havelock, Wellington, Picton, Marlborough, Nelson, Collingwood, and Wyndham (after the Crimean War general Windham). Famous battlefields of empire – Blenheim, Waterloo and Trafalgar – also feature. The Scots explorer David Livingstone gave his name to two localities, a bay and a mountain range.

Cultural heroes

Britain’s literary heritage is represented by Spenser (mountains), Tennyson (a lake and inlet) and Chaucer and Milton bays. Napier named its streets after literary figures and Shakespere [sic] was an early name for the Avon River in Christchurch. Waverley was the name of Sir Walter Scott’s first historical novel.

A town of the empire

Feilding’s street names are typical of the colonial era. The town has many names from British political, military and imperial history such as York, Marlborough, Blenheim and Gladstone, and names of New Zealand political leaders: Grey, Eyre, Fitzroy, Bowen, Stafford and Weld. These streets are laid out within a quadrant, which includes only two Māori names, Tūī and Rimu.

Political heroes

Contemporary British politicians were honoured: Russell, Howick, Palmerston, Peel, Gladstone and Herbert. Cromwell recalled a historic leader.


Royal names are largely absent from settlement names (though not street names), possibly because of the New Zealand Company’s anti-royalist attitudes. The only major ‘royal’ localities are Queenstown, Kingston and Alexandra, all dating from the early 1860s, the time of Princess Alexandra’s marriage to the Prince of Wales – though Queenstown and Kingston could have been borrowed from Irish place names.

Curiously a foreign monarch – Franz Josef of Austria – gave his name to one of the two main West Coast glaciers, whereas Prince Alfred (Queen Victoria’s son, who visited in 1870) was displaced in favour of the politician William Fox as the name for the neighbouring glacier. The Clarence River may be named after the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV.

At the local level however, towns have many Alberts, Alexandras, Alfreds, Georges, Princes, Queen Marys and Queen Elizabeths. Victoria was briefly the name for Waitangi. Today both Auckland and Wellington have Mt Victorias, and there is a Victoria Range and River. Balmoral and Sandringham, both royal residences, are Auckland suburbs. Strathmore, a Wellington suburb, is associated with Elizabeth, consort of George VI, whose father was the Earl of Strathmore.


Governors gave their names to Hobson County north of Auckland (now part of Kaipara District), Bowentown in Bay of Plenty, Gore (after Thomas Gore Browne), and Ranfurly. There is a Grey glacier, river, peak, and three places (Greytown, Greymouth and Grey Lynn). Wellington suburbs include Kelburn (family home of the Glasgows), Northland (eldest son of Ranfurly), and Onslow. Vice-regal names are used for streets in many towns.

Not so high

High Street is the commonest street name in England. Many New Zealand towns have a High Street, but it is not always the main street. In Masterton, High Street marks the approach to the town from the south, but the principal street is Queen Street. The English use of ‘the high street’ to refer to the shopping area is not found in New Zealand.

United Kingdom places

Direct borrowing of United Kingdom place names was uncommon. London is only present as a Māori transliteration (Rānana). Birkenhead, Devonport, New Plymouth, Westport (probably from Westport in Ireland), Belfast, New Brighton, Dunedin (a variant of Edinburgh), Portobello (near Edinburgh) and Roxburgh (Scotland) are some of the few names taken directly from the UK. Canterbury was applied to a province not a town, while Christchurch takes its name not from the southern English town but from a college at Oxford University. Oxford itself and Cambridge were also used.

Two rivers, the Thames and the Clutha (a variant of Clyde), have British ‘parents’. The Lammermoor and Lammerlaw ranges in Central Otago hail from the Lammermuir range near Edinburgh, and the Grampians in South Canterbury from the Scottish range. The Avon River in Christchurch is named after an Avon in Ayrshire. Lake Grassmere in Marlborough is from Grasmere in the English lake district.

English and Scottish place names feature in streets. English and Scottish river names are used for streets in Island Bay (Wellington), Ōamaru, Gore and Invercargill. Lyttelton and Christchurch have streets named after Anglican bishoprics in both England and the empire. Wyndham’s street names, like the settlement itself, recall the Crimean War.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Place names - The imperial connection', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/place-names/page-4 (accessed 15 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008