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Ports and harbours

by  Gavin McLean

Some of New Zealand’s earliest ports were little more than a few planks leading into the sea. Others were dangerous – at Hokitika Harbour a ship became stranded on sandbars every 10 days. But some ports thrived and grew. Twentieth-century industrialisation has made wharves an impressive landscape of soaring cranes and multicoloured containers.

Beachheads and beginnings

Ports determined settlement

Maritime commerce linked New Zealand and the British Empire, and promoters looked for safe anchorages for their new settlements. Captain David Rough, for example, recalled Lieutenant-Governor William Hobson’s interest in 1840 in ‘the anchorage and depth of water near the shore where I had taken soundings’ when Hobson was inspecting the harbour at Waitematā, Auckland, for a possible site for his capital. 1

When choosing settlement sites, sometimes people had to make difficult trade-offs between harbours and hinterlands. Wellington’s magnificent harbour needed little promotion, but even Charles Heaphy’s famous 1839 birds’-eye-view painting bent the truth, making the Hutt River look navigable and softening Wellington’s slopes. Here, as at Lyttelton, the hills would remain inconvenient barriers until the advent of trains and railway tunnels.

When everything had to be moved by muscle power, the distance between ship and store really mattered. Dunedin’s deep-water anchorage, Port Chalmers, is only a few minutes’ drive from the city today, but in the mid-19th century it seemed inconveniently far. But at least it had deep water. Whanganui had only a dangerous, shallow river, and New Plymouth a wild, open beach.

Harbour masters

In the 1840s the governor appointed harbour masters. By that time the settlers who had come from Britain on the New Zealand Company’s immigration schemes had built some rickety port works. At Port Chalmers in 1848 a crane was perched on Wickliffe Pier, which was roughly assembled from mānuka posts and planks, and only really usable at high tide. Further up the harbour at Dunedin, newcomers squelched ashore through mud. In Wellington, Wallace’s Wharf was merely a line of planks and trestles at the sea end. Ferrying everyone and everything back and forth in small boats made cargo work slow and laborious.

The government steps in

The New Zealand government was nearly as broke as the New Zealand Company, so its Chief Marine Board, established in 1862 and succeeded by the Marine Department in 1866, set a pattern that endured: central government looked after lighthouses, surveying, certification and regulations, while local (initially provincial) government (more recently port companies) ran the trading ports. The system started shakily. The problem was that as settlement fanned out, the demand for harbour works grew, pitting settlers from the outports against townsfolk.

Harbour boards

Harbour boards were established by statute in 1870. Eventually there would be more than 60. Big city boards like Wellington’s had plenty of influence. Busy wharves made merchants rich, and changed the face of cities. Wellington Harbour Board engineer William Ferguson directed port development, which covered everything from shipping channels to street layouts on reclamations.

At the other end of the scale were the local road boards or county councils that doubled as harbour authorities. In places like Castlepoint, for example, on the windswept Wairarapa coast, the local road board also became the Castle Point Harbour Board in 1876. Boards could levy ratepayers to fund port development, and town and country often disagreed about where costs should fall, so harbour board politics could be fiery.

The impermanence of ports

Many ports did not last long. The harbour boards might put up a flagstaff, remove debris from the river, build a small jetty and shed, and then trade precariously for a decade or two. Even less substantial were the landings. In Northland and along the east coast of the North Island, for example, there were hundreds of places where drays backed into the surf and open surf boats ferried farmers’ wool clips out to small ships.

Not even the lack of natural shelter could stop some communities from seeking port status. Some were motivated by parochialism or were purely speculative, and they often failed.

    • Quoted in Russell Stone, From Tamaki-makau-rau to Auckland. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001, p. 246. › Back

Port development

Most New Zealand ports developed in a similar pattern.

Establishment and growth

Numerous small, scattered ports appeared, each serving the immediate needs of its own community. As some of these ports grew into larger centres, they increased their share of imports and transhipments, and they increasingly prospered as railway lines ran out from their wharves to the interior. By 1881, for example, Dunedin, Wellington, Auckland and Lyttelton were dealing with 80% of overseas trade. The number of ports peaked in the mid-1860s, but fell from 86 in 1867 to 64 in 1881, a third of the remaining ports being in the under-developed Northland–Auckland area.


Eventually, lateral connections were made between ports, as road and rail links moved out along the coast from the bigger ports to siphon trade from the remaining struggling minor ports. This happened first along the Canterbury and Otago coasts. All the minor ports trading along the 50 nautical miles between Dunedin and Ōamaru, for example Waikouaiti, Shag Point, Moeraki, Kakanui and Allday Bay, died soon after the two towns were connected by rail in 1878. Elsewhere, geographical isolation, rough terrain or low population densities delayed such connection until well into the 20th century. Coastal shipping survived the closure of minor ports, switching to bigger, more efficient steam ships, and benefiting from the growth of the coal trade.

Types of ports

Each port had its own characteristics, but they can be divided into three broad categories: major ports, river ports and breakwater ports.

Major ports

Auckland, Wellington and Lyttelton were safe natural anchorages and required little improvement. The people who administered these large ports squabbled and struggled from time to time, but all followed the same process of reclaiming land, and building wharves and slipways or dry docks. All three ports did enough business to keep up with the growth in ship size, which seldom exceeded 1,500 tons until the early 1880s, then soared to 5,000–6,000 tons, and by the early 1900s exceeded 10,000 tons in a few cases.

Otago, the other major port, had greater problems, but managed to keep up with its competitors. It could never decide whether it wanted the big ships up at its city wharves or at nearby Port Chalmers, where the deep water ran out. In 1881, after much controversy, it opened ‘The Big Ditch’, Victoria Channel, which it continued to deepen over time.

River ports

River ports were very common. River mouths gave some natural shelter and they could be improved if communities were willing to pay for dredging and training walls. Unfortunately New Zealand’s mountain-fed rivers are short, shallow and dangerous. Only the Waikato, Whanganui and Clutha were navigable inland for any real distance and all rivers concealed real dangers. Shifting, submerged sandbars guarded entrances, and many river mouths moved, cutting fresh entrances after heavy storms. In the river itself there were snags, shallows and other hazards. The more significant river ports are on the west of the country – Greymouth and Westport in the South Island, and Whanganui in the North.

Hokitika was a very colourful river port. Despite its dangerous entrance and the snags that infested the river, it sprang into life in 1864 when gold was found nearby. The Canterbury provincial government, desperate for revenue, declared it a port of entry the next year, and by 1866 Gibson Quay was usually crowded with small ships – or at least those that had survived the ordeal of entering port. Between 1865 and 1867 there were 108 strandings – one every 10 days – 32 of which were total wrecks. Hokitika Harbour limped on long after the gold ran out, but its trade dwindled and it was closed in 1954.

Only a few river ports could handle ships over 200–300 tons and many were abandoned, caught between rising ship sizes on one hand, and by silting (often caused by upstream bush clearance) on the other. The last small river ports, Whakatāne, Pātea, Kaiapoi, Blenheim, Motueka and Māpua, closed between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, undermined by road and rail competition. Whanganui limped on, but in the 2010s only the physically isolated river ports still handled much traffic, notably Gisborne (which developed as a hybrid river–breakwater port).

Breakwater ports

The river ports had their shortcomings, but at least they offered some natural protection. It was even harder for settlements that tried to set down roots on completely exposed beaches. The open roadstead ports, as they were called, included Ōamaru, Timaru, New Plymouth and Napier. In their early days they offered virtually no shelter and could be made safe only by building massive artificial harbours protected by breakwaters and causeways.

The cost worried many. It was not until the interwar years that Napier people finished their breakwater port, ending the days of transferring cargo from big ships out in the bay. Much earlier, even Ōamaru and Timaru people had looked at cheaper options – the shallow creek in Ōamaru’s case, and Milford Lagoon at Timaru.

When the town of Ōamaru sprang up to serve the new pastoral runs in the 1850s, it depended on surf boats. The town boomed in the 1860s, but the provincial authorities built only an exposed jetty, which was swept away in a storm in February 1868 along with the ships Star of Tasmania, Water Nymph and Otago. Ōamaru became a shipwreck black spot, claiming over 22 total wrecks between 1862 and 1875. A harbour board was formed in 1874, and work began on a 600-metre breakwater. By 1876 construction had advanced far enough to shelter large steamers. The days of shipwrecks were virtually over at Ōamaru, which had built four wharves by the time the sheltering breakwater and causeway were finished in 1884.

Ōamaru port closed in 1974, but in general the breakwater ports have fared better than the river ports. In the 2010s large ships still used Timaru, New Plymouth and Napier.

19th- and 20th-century changes

Victorian developments

Whether ports handled overseas or coastal shipping, all came under pressure at some time to keep up with the ever-increasing size of ships. Channels were dug to accommodate them. With deeper shipping channels came the need for larger, stronger wharves and bigger wharf sheds, usually served by the Railway Department, which often oversaw cargo handling on the wharves.

Most ports required dredging, for either development or maintenance work. Bucket and later suction dredges became a common sight from the 1870s. Tugs were also common. Private operators ran the Wellington tugs until the 1970s, but from the 1870s most other major harbour boards had tugs of their own. Ship’s deck machinery did most of the lifting at the smaller ports, sometimes supplemented by a steam crane or two, but from late Victorian times, the major ports added hydraulic or electric wharf cranes, capable of lifting up to 5 tonnes at a time.

Twentieth-century trends

Change was a constant feature of the 20th-century waterfront, but until the 1960s it tended to be incremental rather than revolutionary.

Generally, waterfront work was (and is) dirty and dangerous. Furthermore, many New Zealand ports were slow to introduce labour-saving equipment. It is no coincidence that the major industrial disputes in New Zealand history, in 1890, 1913 and 1951, were fought most fiercely on the waterfront. After industrial protests in 1951, the government created a centralised labour bureau, the Waterfront Industry Commission, to employ wharfies.

In 1940 the wartime need for efficiency led to the centralisation of overseas shipping at the main ports. Big ships returned to all the ports except for Ōamaru, Whanganui, Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay; even the small wharf at Ōpua in the Bay of Islands reopened in 1957.

However, coastal ports continued to close under pressure from rail and road. The post-war economic boom sustained the majority until the 1960s. A decline in coal (an important commodity for many ports), the move of oil and cement to large specialist bulk carriers, but above all competition from the new rail ferries, started to take their toll. Kaiapoi was briefly a rare exception, reopening to very small ships in 1958 to bypass Lyttelton’s congested wharves, but closing again in 1967.

The modern era, 1960 onwards

The container revolution

In the 20th century wharf cranes got faster, and motor vehicles and forklifts relieved some of the strain on wharfies’ muscles. But a more fundamental shake-up came in the 1960s, when roll-on, roll-off terminals were built for the short-sea trades. Bluff and Timaru built all-weather mechanical meat loaders, but deep-sea ships were still being held up at congested wharves as the conference lines (cartels that controlled UK trade ships) dawdled over containerising the Europe trade.

In 1971 the Columbus Line put container ships on the North American run. By then the ports were feuding over which ones would become container terminals. Northland thought it could do the job by itself. The conference lines would have preferred Auckland, Wellington and Port Chalmers, but had to accept Lyttelton thanks to politics. Harbour boards deepened shipping channels and reclaimed land for container storage. They bought gantry cranes, straddle carriers and powerful tugs to handle 45,000-ton ships. It was a transport revolution, far more radical than the switch from sail to steam a century earlier.


Bigger ships demanded more powerful tugs. From the mid-1960s harbour boards built a new type of tug, which could move in any direction and turn in its own length. By the 1970s tugs had bollard pulls of 28–30 tonnes, two or three times that of their conventional predecessors. In the early 21st century, port companies were building even more powerful tugs. Lyttelton’s Blackadder has a bollard pull of 62.5 tonnes and Port Otago’s Otago 57 tonnes.

Provincial ports

The provincial ports lost some business and then bounced back as trade flows diversified after Britain entered the European Economic Community in 1973. The new Asian and Middle Eastern trades used smaller, multipurpose ships that could handle both conventional cargo and containers, and that could go anywhere. By the 1980s therefore, Bluff, Timaru, Nelson, New Plymouth and Napier were busy with containers, pallets of fruit, and logs, wood chips and sawn timber. Some new ‘ports’ even appeared at sea. At Taharoa and Waverley off the west coast of the North Island, huge bulk carriers were tied up to buoys to load vast cargoes of ironsands.

Coastal ports did not fare well. The rail ferries killed off the last small river ports, then Ōamaru and Raglan. Whanganui and Greymouth barely held on. The planned closure of the Westport cement works in 2016 will deprive Westport and Onehunga of their main trade.

Commerce and competition

In the late 1980s the government made ports competitive and commercially focused. It abolished the Ports Authority (which controlled capital expenditure) and passed the Port Companies Act 1988 and the Waterfront Industry Reform Act 1989. The Port Companies Act transferred the harbour boards’ commercial activities to new port companies and their social and environmental responsibilities to regional councils. The Waterfront Industry Reform Act axed the Waterfront Industry Commission and put wharfies on local payrolls. Thousands lost their jobs, but port costs fell.

Since then port companies, some with new-style names like Westgate (New Plymouth), PrimePort (Timaru) or CentrePort (Wellington), have invested heavily in container cranes and other machinery. Northland and Marlborough have built terminals in deep water for ships carrying logs. While high land-transport costs still keep bulky, low-value cargo captive to nearby ports, container cargo is more flexible. The container trade has generated particularly fierce competition between Auckland and Tauranga, between Napier and Wellington, and between the South Island ports of Lyttelton, Timaru and Port Chalmers.

Tauranga has been the main game changer. Over recent decades, it has put the heat on Auckland, luring several shipping lines to its container terminal at Sulphur Point (Mt Maunganui), which had seven container cranes in 2015. Its inland or ‘dry’ port, MetroPort, in South Auckland, consolidates cargo for railing to and from Tauranga. More recently it acquired PrimePort’s container terminal.

Another challenge came from ports of a different type – airports. As far as weight goes, there is no contest. In 2001, cargo exported through seaports made up 99.6% of total overseas cargo by weight. But airports exported 15% by value.

From ship to shop

Harbours are also playgrounds. People walk along their beaches, fish from the wharves, or simply watch the passing parade. In the 20th century most harbour boards or councils made at least token provision for recreation – Wellington’s early-1900s Clyde Quay boat harbour and Auckland’s large Westhaven Marina are good examples. Recently, old waterfront areas made redundant by the container revolution have been redeveloped by several cities – ‘from ship to shop’, the trend is called – for commercial, residential and recreational use. Wellingtonians have spent many years arguing over the shape of their ambitious Lambton Harbour project. At Auckland the old Viaduct Basin became the America’s Cup Village in the late 1990s but in 2015 a public backlash stalled – for the time at least – the port company’s plans to extend Bledisloe Wharf into the harbour.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Gavin McLean, 'Ports and harbours', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Gavin McLean, i tāngia i te 12 o Hune 2006, updated 30 o Hūrae 2015