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Taranaki region

by Ron Lambert

The dramatic volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki is surrounded by dairy farms, with sweeping surf beaches to its west. Māori opposition to land purchases and confiscation led to conflict in Taranaki through the 1860s, and in the late 1870s Parihaka became a centre for peaceful protest. From the 1880s dozens of small dairy factories were built – now replaced by one massive complex near Hāwera.


Land, climate and vegetation

Taranaki region projects into the Tasman Sea on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The region is dominated by the 2,518-metre, cone-shaped volcanic peak of Mt Taranaki (Taranaki Maunga), often dramatically capped with snow. The earlier volcanoes of Paritutū, Kaitake and Pouākai form part of the Taranaki volcanic sequence.

The peaks and their surrounding ring-plain of volcanic debris sit on mudstones and sandstones. These rocks rise to the surface east of the Taranaki Fault, forming the rugged inland hill country that meets with the Whanganui River watershed in the east. To the north and south of the region are fertile coastal terraces with light, sandy soils.

Around 8 metres of rain falls annually on Mt Taranaki, and more than 365 turbulent, fast-flowing rivers flow from the mountain in a radial pattern across the volcanic ring-plain. The rivers that rise in the eastern hill country – the Waitara and the Whenuakura – have lower gradients and are more sluggish and silt-laden.

Humans have permanently changed the ecology of Taranaki. Large areas of native forest have been cleared and dozens of native plant and animal species have been eliminated or greatly reduced in numbers. The forests were replaced by pastures of ryegrass and clover for dairy farming, which became the economic basis of Taranaki.

Starring on stamps

Between 1901 and 2009 Mt Taranaki appeared on 25 different New Zealand postage stamps. Few topographic features have achieved such coverage.

Mt Taranaki

Mt Taranaki is an important aspect of the identity of Taranaki people, and a crucial element in their sense of place. It is of great spiritual importance to local tribes. The mountain is responsible for the region’s moist climate and its fertile volcanic soils.

Māori arrive

Māori occupation of the area began about 1250–1300 CE. Several archaeological sites in South Taranaki – Waitore, Ōhawe and Kaūpokonui – have provided valuable information on these first settlers, their Polynesian origins and their moa-hunting lifestyle.

Taranaki Māori developed efficient horticultural systems and a distinctive wood-carving style. They built many hilltop near the coast, the earthworks of which remain visible. Eight iwi (tribes) and their hapū (sub-tribes) identify with the Taranaki region.

In the early 19th century northern Taranaki in particular was devastated by intertribal warfare. As a result of this, many Māori migrated southward to settle on the Kāpiti Coast and at Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington), where their descendants still live.

European settlement and conflict

Systematic Pākehā settlement by the Plymouth Company began in 1841. Taranaki was one of the initial six provinces established in 1853, and was called New Plymouth until 1858. In 1860 more than a decade of conflict between Māori and Pākehā began over land and sovereignty. It was not until the 1870s that new waves of settlers from Europe began to clear the dense ring-plain forests for dairy farms.

In 1881 the Māori settlement of Parihaka – the centre of a passive-resistance campaign against the loss of land – was invaded by government troops.


In the 2000s the dairy industry remained the basis of the region’s economy. The oil industry’s substantial economic input since the 1960s has helped to shield Taranaki’s economy from the impact of fluctuating dairy and wool prices.

The Naki

In the early 2000s Taranaki was sometimes colloquially known as ‘the Naki’. When Hollywood movie The last samurai was filmed in Taranaki in 2003, locals began calling the region Nakiwood – or Tomanaki, after the film’s star, Tom Cruise. Some Māori consider the term ‘Naki’ offensive because it is an abbreviation of the name of an ancestor, Rua Taranaki.


Until the mid-20th century most residents lived in rural areas or in small service townships based around a multitude of dairy factories. In 2013 almost three-quarters of Taranaki’s total population of 109,608 lived in towns of over 1,000 people. 86.2% of the region’s population identified as European and 17.4% as Māori; just 1.6% identified as Pacific Islanders and 3.4% as Asian.

The largest towns in the region are New Plymouth, Hāwera and Stratford. Smaller centres include Waitara, Inglewood, Eltham, Pātea and Ōpunake.


A combination of regional identity, isolation and innovation fostered a ‘can-do’ and ‘go-it-alone’ attitude in Taranaki’s people and local authorities, as well as a certain amount of parochialism.

The sometimes harsh struggle of farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries meant the rest of the country sometimes saw Taranaki as isolated, rustic and impoverished.

Geology and climate

Taranaki is a geologically young region, dominated by the 2,518-metre dormant volcano of Mt Taranaki (Taranaki Maunga).

Taranaki Basin

The Taranaki Basin is a large, sinking block, formed by movement between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. Over the past 80 to 100 million years, rocks eroded from the surrounding land have been deposited in the basin as mudstone and sandstone, up to 7 kilometres deep in places. These sediments are still being deposited, although the shape of the land has changed dramatically over time.



The mineral taranakite was discovered by Henry Richmond, superintendent of Taranaki, in crevices at Sugar Loaf Point in New Plymouth. It was described by government geologist James Hector during the 1865 Dunedin exhibition after being presented by Richmond. With an impressive chemical formula of KAl3(PO4)3(OH)9H2O, taranakite is a hydrated phosphate of potassium and aluminium, derived from bird guano deposited on aluminium-rich rocks in damp conditions.


Within the basin, a large block of crust has dropped down between the Taranaki Fault in the east and the offshore Cape Egmont Fault in the west, forming the Taranaki graben. Many of Taranaki’s oil and gas fields are found along these two main faults.

The mudstones (papa) of the Taranaki Basin are largely covered by volcanic debris in the west. To the east they form the deeply dissected hill country of inland Taranaki.

Coastal terraces

For a few kilometres inland in the north and south of the region there are fertile coastal terraces with sandy soils.

Fossil fauna


The Tangahoe Formation mudstones, exposed in the cliffs of South Taranaki, were formed in the Pliocene period, between 2 and 5 million years ago. Palaeontologist Joseph McKee recovered a remarkable range of marine fossils from the mudstones. They include a 10–12-metre-long shark (Carcharodon megalodon), whales, dolphins, penguins and seals, as well as fragments of Pseudodontornis, a huge seabird with a 6-metre wingspan and bony, tooth-like projections on its beak.


Volcanic sequence

Taranaki is one of New Zealand’s major volcanic regions. Over the past 20 million years a series of eruptive centres have progressively moved south.

Around 15 million years ago, a number of underwater volcanoes erupted off the coast of northern Taranaki and Waikato. These long-extinct volcanoes are now buried deep below the sea floor.


Paritutū and the Sugar Loaf Islands (Ngā Motu), off the coast of New Plymouth, are the 1.75-million-year-old eroded remnants of Taranaki’s first onshore volcano. Paritutū is thought to be the plug of lava from that cone.


The next oldest volcano is centred on Kaitake, about 15 kilometres south-west of New Plymouth. It was active around 575,000 years ago, and was probably once as big as Mt Taranaki. Erosion has reduced it to a range of hills only 680 metres high.


Pouākai, due south of New Plymouth, first erupted about 670,000 years ago and was strongly active about 250,000 years ago. Geologists believe this volcano was eventually about 2,000 metres high. Most of its extensive ring plain of ash and lahars (avalanches of mud and rock) has been buried by the later activity of Mt Taranaki, but to the north are deeply eroded remnants of Pouākai’s immense debris flows.

Egmont volcano – first cones

Geologically, Mt Taranaki consists of two eruptive centres, Egmont volcano and Fanthams Peak. Their history is complex and is still being unravelled.

Activity at Egmont volcano began over 125,000 years ago, building a cone which collapsed about 105,000 years ago (Ōkawa Formation).

Another cone then formed and collapsed about 50,000 years ago (Stratford Formation). Later, a third peak suffered two major collapses. The first, 27,000 years ago, flowed south-east (Ngaere Formation), and the second, 23,000 years ago (Pungarehu Formation), slid westward in a massive avalanche. This lahar covers more than 250 square kilometres and is up to 20 metres deep, forming thousands of small hills inland of Cape Egmont.

Drowned forests


At Waitara, and at Wai-iti beach near Urenui, stumps and logs from former forests are visible at low tide. The tree stumps at Wai-iti are fossilised remnants of a tōtara forest killed by a rise in sea level about 7,000 years ago. Tree trunks on the beach at Airedale Reef, Waitara, are the remains of a forest destroyed by a debris avalanche from an early Egmont volcano about 105,000 years ago.


Fanthams Peak and present Egmont cone

Fanthams Peak (Panitahi), on the southern slopes of Egmont volcano, was last active around 3,000 years ago. The present upper Egmont cone was built by eruptions over the last 4,000 years.

Around 1500 CE, several extremely hot clouds of ash exploded from the crater and destroyed much of the forest on the north-western slopes. About 150 years later, a pumice shower buried a Māori campsite near the present-day Stratford Mountain House. The last known eruption, called the Tahurangi Ash, was around 1755, although a 2007 study suggested some activity occurred in the crater area in the 19th century.


There are 286 main river catchment areas and 530 named rivers in Taranaki. The ring plain around Mt Taranaki is crossed by many rivers and streams which run down to the lowlands in a radial pattern. The longest is the Pātea River. The Waitara River and many tributaries of the Pātea rise in the eastern hill country. Man-made Lake Rotorangi on the Pātea River is the largest lake. It is 46 kilometres long and up to 65 metres deep, and covers 6.45 square kilometres.


On the west coast of the North Island, Taranaki is exposed to weather systems from the Tasman Sea. It is usually sunny (averaging 2,200 hours annually at New Plymouth) and windy, with year-round rainfall and moderate temperatures. Annual rainfall ranges from 8,000 mm at North Egmont to 2,000 mm at inland Whangamōmona, 1,400 mm at New Plymouth and 1,200 mm at Pātea. Mt Taranaki causes a rain-shadow effect, with less rain to its south and east.

In the early 2000s intensified dairying and horticulture was putting pressure on the water table.

The mountain

Mt Taranaki (Taranaki Maunga) has always been a focus for those who live under its 2,518-metre peak. The mountain appears in many guises – on postage stamps and postcards; club, school and commercial logos; sports and social club badges; corporate letterheads; calendars; gravestones; and even in the design of a Crown Lynn dinner set.

Turning Japanese

The 2003 film The last samurai, which starred Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, was filmed in Taranaki. The mountain stood in for Japan’s Mt Fuji, and a Japanese village was built in the Urutī valley north-east of New Plymouth.

Māori tradition

Māori know the mountain as Taranaki, Pukeonaki or Pukehaupapa, and venerate its peak.

In tradition, Taranaki Maunga once dwelled with the volcanic peaks of the central North Island. Taranaki and Tongariro fought for the favours of the bush-clad beauty of Mt Pīhanga. After a titanic battle, Taranaki was defeated and fled west, gouging out the valley of the Whanganui River to the sea. Then, guided by his guardian rock Te Toka-a-Rauhoto, he turned towards the north and rested. While he did so, Pouākai mountain extended a ridge that stopped him from continuing his flight. Taranaki remains there to this day, with his guiding rock cemented firmly in place at the marae at Pūniho, near Ōkato.

European arrival

In 1642 Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed past Taranaki and named what is now Cape Egmont ‘Cabo Pieter Boreels’. Cloud hid the mountain from view.

British navigator James Cook and his crew were the first Europeans to see Mt Taranaki. On 11 January 1770, sailing south off the Raglan coast, they saw ‘a very high Mountain ... made very much like the Peak of Tenerieff’1 (Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands). A couple of days later, sailing off the future site of New Plymouth, Cook named the nearby islands the ‘Sugar Loaves’, and the mountain after the Earl of Egmont, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

Two years later French explorer Marion du Fresne caught a glimpse of the peak and dubbed it ‘Le Pic de Mascarin’ after his ship.

Early climbers

The chief Tahurangi is reputed to have been first to conquer the peak. He lit a fire on the summit to claim the land for his tribe, about 1420.

New Zealand Company naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach was the first Pākehā to climb Mt Taranaki. He made two unsuccessful attempts in 1839, accompanied by Māori guides. On 23 December, with Wellington whaler James (‘Worser’) Heberley, he finally reached the summit.

Jane Maria Atkinson was the first Pākehā woman to climb Mt Taranaki, with her husband Arthur and five others in February 1855. Each day, the men cut a line through the bush before returning in the evening to Maria, who remained at their camp, cooking. After eating they all moved forward along the newly cut track and made camp for the night.

What’s in a name?

For generations Taranaki Māori battled for official restoration of the mountain’s Māori name. In 1985 the New Zealand Geographic Board approved the name change, beginning an emotionally charged debate. Tempers flared on radio talkback shows and in newspaper correspondence. In 1986 it was announced that both Taranaki and Egmont would be official names for the peak. Following Treaty of Waitangi negotiations between Taranaki iwi and the Crown, it was announced in 2019 that from 2020 the mountain would be known only as Taranaki Maunga. Egmont National Park would be renamed Te Papakura o Taranaki.


Recognising the importance of the forest cover on the mountain, the Taranaki Provincial Council reserved a large area in 1875. In 1881 the mountain and land within a radius of 6 miles (9.6 kilometres) was made a forest reserve to preserve the timber resource – a far-sighted decision for the time. The Egmont National Park Act 1900 made Mt Taranaki, with the Pouākai and Kaitake ranges, New Zealand’s second national park.


Native plants and animals

Mountain vegetation

Mt Taranaki’s montane forests are found only in Egmont National Park, and extend up to about 1,000 metres above sea level. Kāmahi, Hall’s tōtara and rātā dominate the forest, with kaikawaka (mountain cedar) at higher altitudes.

Forest of goblins

Part of the forest on the eastern slopes of Mt Taranaki is known as goblin forest. Trailing ferns and moss hang from the gnarled kāmahi tree trunks, creating a mystical, slightly eerie atmosphere. Kāmahi became the dominant species in the area after volcanic eruptions destroyed rimu forest about 400 years ago.

The subalpine and alpine zones occur only on Mt Taranaki and the Pouākai Range. The subalpine zone consists mainly of scrub, especially leatherleaf and inaka (turpentine bush). The alpine zone, above 1,250 metres, consists of red tussock grasslands, herbfields, and at its upper limit, moss fields. It is an area of extreme temperatures and very high rainfall – often more than 8 metres per year.

The original forests of the Taranaki ring plain were mostly cleared and turned into pasture. They survive now only as scattered remnants in reserves and covenanted areas. Eruptions and debris flows from the Egmont, Pouākai and Kaitake volcanoes also destroyed forests.

Lowland vegetation

The lowland area features tawa forest, with kahikatea and pukatea forest on the swampy flats. Rimu grows on the lowlands and extends into the lower reaches of the mountains. Kāmahi and rātā become increasingly common as the altitude increases. Everett Park near Inglewood is one of the best remaining reserves of lowland forest in the region.

More forest survives on the inland mudstone hill country, some of which forms part of Whanganui National Park. On the steep ridges of inland Taranaki, black and hard beech forest is found, and isolated pockets of silver beech occur in the Waitaanga area.

The fringes of the coast contain cliff or dune plants, and there are some areas of coastal herbfields. The forest cover includes taupata, karo, whau, flax and the introduced boxthorn.

The semi-coastal zone reaches 10 kilometres inland. Its canopy of tawa combined with kohekohe, karaka, pūriri and ngaio is mostly restricted to gullies, riverbanks and the slopes of the Kaitake Range.

The canoe tree

New Zealand’s last two naturally occurring populations of tainui trees are in a couple of small gullies between Tongapōrutu and Mōkau. The species is also found in Australia (Victoria and Tasmania). The Mōkau trees were recorded in 1879 by botanist James Hector. Māori told him that tainui came to New Zealand from the Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki as timber used in the construction of the Tainui canoe.

Animals and birds

The region is home to a number of rare native animals, including the gold-striped gecko (found only on the Taranaki coast between Waitara and Pātea, and on Mana Island near Wellington), the short-tailed bat, and Powelliphanta ‘Egmont’, a large carnivorous snail that lives only in two small areas of Egmont National Park.

Some indication of the spectacular bird fauna of the past can be gained from the remains of a moa-hunter camp at the mouth of the Kaūpokonui River, near Hāwera. The site has been radiocarbon-dated to 1300–1400 CE.

The bones of 55 bird species have been identified. As well as six kinds of moa, the remains of weka, pigeons, kākā, kiwi, tūī, kōkako, ducks, parakeets and takahē were the most common. Also present were at least 18 other now-extinct or endangered species, including New Zealand quails, saddlebacks, kākāpō, adzebills, huia, New Zealand crows, piopio (thrush), blue ducks, cave rails and little weka. There were also elephant seals and Hooker’s sea lions, as well as the introduced kurī (dogs) and kiore (Pacific rats), and even a rare native tuatara.

Changing the environment

From forest to pasture

Before humans arrived, the Taranaki region was one of the most densely forested areas of New Zealand. Over several hundred years Māori partially cleared the bush for several kilometres inland from the coast, and in tiny areas further inland.

The arrival of Pākehā settlers in the 1840s began the near-complete devastation of Taranaki’s ring-plain forests, and of much of the inland hill-country bush. The land east of the mountain was cleared for farming in the 1870s and 1880s, after the Taranaki wars. Clearfelling was followed by summer burning, which sometimes flared into huge bushfires and devastated the fledgling dairy farms.

Barberry and boxthorn

Hedges on the region’s dairy farms are usually either boxthorn or barberry. Boxthorn is used in coastal and south Taranaki where hedges are exposed to salt-laden winds. Barberry hedges predominate in wetter areas on the slopes of the mountain. Unless trimmed, both species can grow to an immense size. This problem spawned a bizarre assortment of home-made mechanical hedgecutters – including customised tanks and tractors – from the 1950s on. Boxthorn has been declared a pest plant that cannot be propagated, sold or planted.

In the 2010s only 30% of the former forests remained – most had been replaced by pasture. Dairy cows were the most common large mammal, and introduced blackbirds, house sparrows and starlings were the most abundant birds.

Pest species

Like much of New Zealand, Taranaki has battled with introduced plants that have become pests. Farmers have fought gorse, Californian thistles, giant buttercup, foxgloves and many other weeds that invade pasture. Native mānuka and carpet fern also quickly reclaim hill-country pasture if not controlled.

Wild goats, pigs, mustelids (weasels and stoats), possums and rats have damaged the bush and harmed native animals – although the high rainfall has stopped rabbits becoming major pests in the region.

Vegetable wonders

Taranaki’s fertile soil was a boon to early Pākehā settlers, as this letter suggests: ‘[W]e have had almost every vegetable you can name. We have peas now, though nearly mid-winter. Beans here grow for seven or eight years without being replanted. Some melon and cucumber seed I brought has produced beautiful fruit. I have grown vegetable marrows, from William Bayly’s seed, 2 feet 6 inches [76 centimetres] long, and I have one now in the garden, 27 inches [70 centimetres] in circumference. We have had “enormous radishes,” “stupendous carrots,” and all sorts of vegetable wonders.’1

In the 2010s the Taranaki Regional Council was responsible for many aspects of local environmental issues, and ran programmes for possum control, riparian (riverside) revegetation and dairy effluent cleanup.

The garden of New Zealand

The Taranaki ring plain has some of the deepest and most fertile soils in the world. These yellow-brown loams produce excellent horticultural crops and support a highly efficient dairy industry. With its combination of year-round rainfall, mild temperatures, plentiful water and fertile soil, the area was dubbed ‘the garden of New Zealand’ as early as 1840.

In the 2010s Taranaki was still known for its gardens. The Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust, Pukekura Park, Tūpare, Hollard Gardens and many private homes were open to the public during the annual Taranaki Rhododendron Festival and the Fringe Garden Festival.

Plants for the world

One of New Zealand’s oldest and best-known horticultural firms is Duncan and Davies, outside New Plymouth. In 1910, 23-year-old Victor Davies and James Duncan formed the partnership. After the First World War the firm expanded, and by the 1970s ‘D & D’s’ had 170 employees working on 100 hectares, producing 2.5 million plants annually. The firm propagated many rare native species, which they sent to botanical gardens in Britain and Europe, and exported to markets around the world. It was still in business in 2019.

Marine protected areas

In 1991 the Sugar Loaf Islands Marine Protected Area was created around the islands adjoining Port Taranaki. Although nets and set lines are prohibited, recreational and some commercial fishing is permitted. The islands are home to one of the northernmost breeding colonies of the New Zealand fur seal.

There are two marine reserves, where all fishing is prohibited: Parininihi (2006), offshore from the White Cliffs north of Pukearuhe, and Tapuae (2008), off the Ōmatā coast. The West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary runs from Maunganui Bluff to Ōakura beach, south-west of New Plymouth.

Dioxin scare

In the 1980s illnesses among residents of the New Plymouth suburb of Paritutū, near the agricultural chemicals firm of Ivon Watkins Dow (now Corteva Agroscience), received publicity. Decades of investigation suggested that many residents had been exposed to high concentrations of dioxin, a by-product of manufacturing the herbicide 2,4,5-T. Although the plant ceased making 2,4,5-T in 1987, neighbours were still raising concerns about further emissions in the early 2000s. However, some people argued that the exposure to dioxin was limited and not harmful.

Pollution claim

A plan to discharge industrial waste to the sea from the synthetic petrol plant Synfuel (later Methanex) near Waitara was opposed by Te Āti Awa. In 1981 the tribe took a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal over the proposed discharge. The tribunal recommended that the waste should be piped to the existing Waitara outfall, preventing pollution of traditional kai moana (seafood) reefs along the coast.

Despite opposition from Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, the iwi continued their battle and were eventually rewarded with wide-ranging changes to regional planning laws concerning pollution and waste disposal.

    • Quoted in Charles Hursthouse, New Zealand, the emigration field of 1851: an account of New Plymouth, or, guide to the garden of New Zealand, and, An article on the Canterbury settlement. Aberdeen [Scotland]: D. Chalmers, 1851, p. 133. Back

Early settlers

It is likely that the first settlers came to Taranaki about 1250–1300 CE. These migrants from eastern Polynesia found a heavily forested land, rich in natural resources.

The earliest people

Some of the early Māori settlements at the mouths of South Taranaki streams have been investigated by archaeologists. Since the 1840s, the beaches near the Waingongoro and Kaūpokonui streams have yielded moa bones from their sand dunes. In the 1960s and 1970s both sites, dated at around 1300 CE, were proved to be butchering areas for moa and other birds now long extinct in the region. The most common moa was the medium-sized Pachyornis mappini. Weka, kererū (wood pigeons), kākā and tūī were also major food items.

At Waitore, just south of Pātea, a remarkable collection of wooden objects has been recovered, some decorated in typical eastern Polynesian styles. This site has been dated at around 1450 CE.

Taranaki waka


The iwi of Taranaki relate to three major voyaging waka (canoes). Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Maru and Te Āti Awa descend from the Tokomaru, Taranaki from the Kurahaupō, and Ngā Ruahine, Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru from the Aotea. In tradition there were also 10 or more lesser-known waka that arrived earlier. Their people became Te Kāhui Maunga (the mountain people). The descendants of both waves of settlers form the present iwi of the region.


Tribal groups

The contemporary Māori tribal structure of Taranaki was established from the 16th century.

Eight iwi (tribes) make up the regional tribal structure. In the north is Ngāti Tama, whose lands border those of the Tainui people at the White Cliffs (Parininihi). Ngāti Mutunga is based around Urenui, and Te Āti Awa, with its several hapū (sub-tribes), includes Waitara and New Plymouth. Inland, along the middle and upper Waitara River and its tributaries, are the Ngāti Maru people.

Further around the coast are the lands of the Taranaki tribe’s hapū. Just south of Ōpunake, the lands of Ngā Ruahine and Ngāti Ruanui begin. In the far south is Ngā Rauru, whose territory borders the Whanganui tribes at Waitōtara.

The musket wars

The clashes between the iwi of the area were traditional hand-to-hand warfare until 1818, when a musket-armed war party of Ngāpuhi from Northland and Ngāti Toa from Kāwhia arrived. This marked the beginning of 20 long years of raids by the Northland and Waikato tribes.

In the face of these devastating raids, many North Taranaki and coastal hapū joined Te Rauparaha and his Ngāti Toa people when they moved south to Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington), Petone and the Kāpiti Coast. By the mid-1830s, when a few Pākehā traders arrived around the coasts, much of northern Taranaki had only a few inhabitants.

Island invasion


In 1835 a number of Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga took over the trading vessel Rodney in Palliser Bay, east of Wellington. They forced the captain to take them to the Chatham Islands, where they killed many of the resident Moriori people and enslaved the survivors. The descendants of these northern Taranaki iwi often supplied eels, fish, preserved birds and other food to huge gatherings at Parihaka (near Cape Egmont) when the community was led by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi.


Pākehā traders

The schooner Adventure arrived off the Māori settlement of Ngāmotu (present-day New Plymouth) in 1828 while on a flax-trading trip from Sydney. Jacky Love and Dicky Barrett, partners in the venture, established a trading station at Ngāmotu. Both later married women (Hikanui and Rawinia respectively) from Ngāti Te Whiti, the local hapū.

In 1832 the Pākehā at the station and the local hapū at Ōtaka were besieged by a war party from Waikato. After the battle many Te Āti Awa people, along with Love, Barrett and the other traders, moved to the Cook Strait area and settled there.

Barrett became involved in the sale of Te Āti Awa land to the Plymouth Company. In 1839 he returned to Ngāmotu with Love, William Keenan and others to establish a short-lived shore whaling station.


Wesleyan (Methodist) mission stations were established in the early 1840s at New Plymouth, Waimate (near Hāwera) and Pātea. Missionary John Whiteley was killed during a Ngāti Maniapoto attack on a military redoubt at Pukearuhe in 1869.

Pākehā settlement

Individuals and small groups of Pākehā lived in the region before organised European settlement began.

Supply problems


The first Pākehā settlers encountered a few vexing, and probably unforeseen, challenges. Material goods and services taken for granted in England were difficult to obtain in 1840s New Zealand, as settler Stephen Gillingham wrote to his brother: ‘Send out a watch and clock maker, for all the clocks and watches are stopped, and no person[s] here are able to repair them. And above all things use your diligence in sending a hair dresser, for all the gentlemen are perfect frights because their hair is so long; they look more like women then men, not having had their hair cut since they left England.’1


Organised settlement

Planned immigration to Taranaki began in 1841, when the Plymouth Company, an offshoot of the New Zealand Company, brought immigrants from Devon and Cornwall in south-west England to the newly surveyed town of New Plymouth. Between 1841 and 1843, six ships contracted by the company arrived in New Plymouth with over 1,000 settlers. The financially insecure Plymouth Company was taken over by the New Zealand Company in 1843.

The first two ships arrived on Ngāmotu beach, Port Taranaki, where Dicky Barrett and local Māori had built temporary accommodation to house the passengers. The later vessels anchored off the mouth of the Huatoki Stream in central New Plymouth.

Crossing the ditch


One of the important sources of immigrants to Taranaki in the mid-19th century was Australia. When the Taranaki Military Settlers were established in 1865, their ranks were swelled, on the promise of land, by men-of-fortune from Australia as well as ‘Aussies’ from the Otago goldfields. Just over half of the military settlers were Australians by birth or migration. At the end of their three-year military service a number sold their allocations and went on to further adventures, but many did stay.


Expansion of settlements

A number of towns were founded as military settlements during the Taranaki wars of the 1860s, including Pātea (1865) and Hāwera (1866). From this period Pākehā settlement expanded north into Taranaki from Whanganui, aided by road and later rail links. Native bush covered the land, apart from a clear strip along the coast. The development of the Mountain Road (later State Highway 3 and 3A) in the 1870s enabled the forested land east of Mt Taranaki to be cleared and settled. The occupation of Parihaka, the Māori village west of the mountain, by colonial troops in 1881, and completion of the rail link between New Plymouth and Whanganui in 1886, meant that the mountain was encircled by Pākehā settlement.

From the 1890s the inland hill country was settled. This land was difficult to farm profitably, and construction of transport links lagged behind settlement. Farmers persevered, but a slump in wool prices in 1922 led to many abandoning their farms.


New Zealand’s European population doubled between 1871 and 1881. In the same period Taranaki’s European population more than tripled from 4,480 to 14,858. At the same time, the Māori population declined because of epidemics of introduced European diseases such as influenza and measles.

Chinese entrepreneur


Taranaki’s most celebrated Chinese immigrant, the businessman and dairy entrepreneur Chew Chong, married a European woman, Elizabeth Whatton, in 1875 – a time when such an interracial marriage was almost unheard of in New Zealand. Chew Chong became a much-respected member of the Taranaki community. Perhaps because of his status and their relatively low numbers, Chinese people were viewed positively in Taranaki – unlike in many other parts of New Zealand at the time.


Immigrant groups

Many new British immigrants came to Taranaki under Premier Julius Vogel’s assisted immigration policy. Until the 1890s the proportion of Taranaki residents born in England and Wales was about 20% above the national average. Other significant groups who immigrated to Taranaki in the 19th century were Poles (who settled near Inglewood), Dalmatians (Croatians), and Swiss (who settled around Manaia and Kaponga, and at Kaimata). By 1916 South Taranaki had half of New Zealand’s Swiss-born population.

    • Letters from settlers & labouring emigrants in the New Zealand Company’s settlements of Wellington, Nelson, & New Plymouth: from February, 1842, to January, 1843. London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1843, pp. 191–192. Back

Māori–Pākehā conflict

Origins of conflict

Several land purchases in Taranaki were negotiated during the first years of European settlement, but many Māori opposed the sales. Relations between Māori and Pākehā deteriorated after nearly 600 Te Āti Awa returned from Wellington and Hutt Valley in 1847.

First clash

The first-ever clash between Māori and British troops took place on the Taranaki coast in 1834. When trader John Guard’s ship, Harriet, was wrecked near Rāhotu, the survivors, including Guard’s wife Betty, their two children and several crew, were held to ransom by local Māori. A detachment of the 50th Regiment was sent from Sydney aboard HMS Alligator to rescue the hostages. They were freed, but a number of Māori were killed, and two major – Waimate and Te Namu – were bombarded, looted and burned.

Violent clashes over land sales occurred within the Puketapu hapū at Bell Block during the 1850s. This alarmed many Pākehā settlers, and as a result of their submissions, British troops arrived in New Plymouth in 1855. Tension further increased when a faction of local Māori under Te Teira Mānuka offered to sell the Pekapeka block at Waitara. An ultimatum from the government was ignored by Waitara Māori opposed to the sale. The block was occupied by the army, and the first Taranaki war began on 17 March 1860.

For the next 10 years – longer than in any other New Zealand region – Māori and Pākehā society in Taranaki was fractured by periodic fighting that saw several thousand British troops garrisoned in the region. As these began to withdraw in 1867, a locally recruited Armed Constabulary was established. This and allied Māori bore the brunt of fighting in the last years of the war.

More than 700 people were killed in total on both sides of the conflict, and many more were wounded. The legacy of those times remains with Taranaki in the 21st century.

Imperial impact

The arrival of the first British troops in 1855 had a major impact on the town of New Plymouth. By 1861, there were about 3,000 troops stationed in Taranaki, many of whom had recently served in India or fought in the Crimean War. To counter the usual boredom, rank-and-file soldiers drank in the many bars that sprang up in New Plymouth, brawled, arrived drunk for duty and had affairs with local Māori women. Defaulters’ registers record the details of their crimes and punishments.

The Taranaki wars

The Taranaki wars took place between 1860 and 1881. There were four main phases.

The first war, 1860–61

The first war was fought mainly around New Plymouth and Waitara. British forces sought battle either in response to an immediate threat or to Māori provocation.

The isolation of the New Plymouth settlement and its fight for survival during the winter of 1860 was a major aspect of this first phase. A truce in March 1861 ended the fighting – but its causes remained.

The second war, 1863–66

The second war began when the Crown reoccupied the Tātaraimaka block west of New Plymouth. An important element in the conflict was the rise of the Pai Mārire faith, founded by Taranaki leader Te Ua Haumēne. Pai Mārire (or Hauhau) was a religion blending aspects of Old Testament teaching with the traditions and priestcraft of Māori. A number of battles were fought between government forces and Pai Mārire adherents. The Crown had the upper hand by 1866, when Te Ua was captured. He died soon after.

The war was, militarily, largely strategic – there was a long-term objective to confront Māori forces by establishing fortified redoubts on the frontier. The New Zealand Settlements Act 1863 enabled the confiscation of land from ‘rebels’. All land appropriated under the act was made available to Pākehā settlers. No serious effort was made to compensate ‘loyal’ or non-combatant Māori.

By 1865, 2 million acres (809,000 hectares) – the whole of the western projection of the North Island, from Pukearuhe in the north to the Waitōtara River in the south – had been seized, at least on paper.

The third war, 1868–69

The third Taranaki war (sometimes called Tītokowaru’s war) began when southern Taranaki iwi responded with force to the ongoing Pākehā occupation of their land. They were led by Riwha Tītokowaru, whose campaign threatened the settlers.

After several humiliating defeats in 1868, including at Tītokowaru’s pā Te Ngutu-o-te-manu, Pākehā forces gained the upper hand after the collapse of Māori support for Tītokowaru. A decade of fighting in Taranaki came to an end in mid-1869.


From the 1860s the Māori settlement of Parihaka became the base for a peaceful resistance campaign against land confiscations, led by Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi. In May 1879 men from Parihaka began ploughing and fencing land occupied by settlers.

Over the following months the ploughing campaign humiliated and frustrated the government. Many ploughmen were arrested and jailed without trial in the South Island.

In November 1881, more than 1,500 volunteers and members of the Constabulary Field Force invaded Parihaka. Te Whiti and Tohu were arrested, many houses were destroyed, and most of the residents were forcibly evicted. The invasion of Parihaka is often now considered part of the Taranaki wars.


Dairy farming has been the basis of Taranaki’s economy since the 1880s, and has made a major contribution to the region’s social structure.

Because of amalgamation and automation, the many small farms and factories of the 20th century have been replaced by much larger farms and a single massive milk-processing plant.

What breed?

Over the years, several varieties of cow have made up the dairy herds of Taranaki. Generally the breed chosen has depended upon the type of factory the farmer supplied. Butter factories needed milk with a high fat content, which was best provided by Jerseys. Cheese manufacture required a high volume and daily supply of milk, for which Friesians or Ayrshires were preferred.

The beginnings

A few Taranaki dairy cooperatives were set up in the mid-1880s, but they were soon replaced by privately owned factories. The cooperative system that formed the basis of the Taranaki dairy industry was founded in the 1890s.

Cooperatives were controlled by an elected board of farmer shareholders and run by a professional manager and staff, with factory hands hired from the surrounding district. Some of these early undertakings had as few as a dozen suppliers. The larger ones had outlying skimming stations or creameries which contributed to the main factories.

Mechanical milking

During the mid-1890s milking machines appeared on the market. The Australian Lawrence-Kennedy-Gillies (LKG) milker was popular in New Zealand, but at least nine different makes were developed in Taranaki. Locally invented brands included Gane, Ridd, AWR, Simplex, Plymex, Uneda Cremo, Ezy, and – of course – Egmont.

By 1901 Taranaki had 95 butter and 31 cheese factories. After a slump in butter prices in 1905, many butter factories converted to cheese-making, which became very important in Taranaki.


In the 1960s the dairy industry began to consolidate. New regulations imposed by overseas markets saw many smaller factories amalgamate, often seriously affecting the viability of local communities.

One of the antecedents of New Zealand’s huge dairy company Fonterra is the T. L. Joll Co-operative. In South Taranaki during the 1880s Thomas Joll founded a chain of private factories, which became a cooperative after his death in 1908. In 1963 the company amalgamated with the Kaūpokonui Co-operative to form Kiwi Co-operative Dairies – which in turn merged with the Inglewood-based Moa-nui Co-operative in 1992.

The concern continued to expand and took over companies in Hawke’s Bay, Manawatū, Wairarapa, South Canterbury and Otago in the late 1990s. In 2001 the Waikato-based New Zealand Dairy Group and Kiwi merged to form Fonterra, one of the world’s largest dairy companies, with Northland about 11,000 farmer-suppliers.

In the 2010s up to 14 million litres of milk was processed at Fonterra’s huge Whareroa factory near Hāwera each day. A fleet of tankers collected milk around the clock from thousands of lower North Island farms.

In 2013, 2,370 people In Taranaki were employed in dairy cattle farming, 1,990 in meat and meat product manufacturing, and 1,730 in dairy product manufacturing.

Save the cows?

A study published in 2009 estimated that it would take at least three months and cost about $2 million to evacuate the region’s 590,000 dairy cows if Mt Taranaki erupted. The author pointed out that evacuation would not be very effective because many animals would be dying of starvation and/or dehydration by the time they could be moved.


After the massive bush burns of the 19th century, cocksfoot grass played a major part in establishing new pastures – it was drought-tolerant and grew robustly in Taranaki’s free-draining soils. A local trade in cocksfoot seed was established by Eltham businessman Charles Wilkinson, and during the 1880s and 1890s Taranaki became New Zealand’s most important source of the seed after Banks Peninsula.

Taranaki Māori also became major players in the industry. In the 2010s cocksfoot played only a small part in modern pastures, but still thrived on roadsides and in ungrazed places.

Taranaki wool

Collecting wood ear fungus (Auricularia cornea), also known as Jew’s ear or Taranaki wool, was a booming industry in the late 19th century. The edible fungus grows on dead trees, and was common on felled logs around the new pastures of the region. The trade was begun by Chinese merchant Chew Chong, who recognised the fungus as a sought-after food in his homeland.

The cash Chew Chong paid for fungus helped many struggling farmers survive financially while their dairy farms became established.

Energy and ironsands

Oil and gas

Taranaki’s petroleum industry dates back to the first decades of Pākehā settlement. Since 1865 attempts have been made to tap oil deposits around the region.

Relatively small amounts of oil were produced and refined in the first half of the 20th century. The modern petrochemical industry was established in the 1950s.

A refined bunch

New Zealand’s first oil refinery opened at New Plymouth in July 1913 with appropriate fanfare and an impressive programme of speeches. The Taranaki Daily News commented, tongue-in-cheek, on the occasion: ‘The building with its intricate maze of spirals and whorls and retorts … has now been completed, and it was opened yesterday in the presence of a large gallery of enthusiasts, most of whom were, or ought to have been, if their comments can be taken at face value, experts in the refining of anything from pure gold to influences … The average shareholder does not know what a refinery is, and he is prone to regard it as something between a finishing school for girls and a meeting of the Brotherhood.’1

A number of major oil and gas fields were discovered between 1959 and the early 2000s, including:

  • the Kapuni gas field (1959)
  • the Māui offshore gas field (1969)
  • inland oil fields – McKee (1979), Kaimiro (1982), Tariki (1986), Waihapa (1987), Ngaere (1987), Ngātoro (1992) and Windsor (2000)
  • offshore oil and gas fields – Kupe (1986), Rimu (1999) and Tūī (2004).

Taranaki became the centre of New Zealand’s oil and gas production, with downstream gas processing plants and associated petrochemical industries. In 2013, 500 people were directly employed in oil and gas extraction in the region.


Taranaki was at the forefront of the early development of hydroelectricity in New Zealand. Of the first 14 public electricity supplies in New Zealand, seven were in Taranaki. Most were hydroelectric schemes, based on the seasonally consistent water supply from Mt Taranaki’s many streams. The first venture was at Stratford in 1898, followed by Parihaka (1899), Pātea (1902), Hāwera (1903), Inglewood (1904), Waitara (1905) and New Plymouth (1906).

An oily story

In 1877 Polish writer Sygurd Wiśniowski published a novel based in New Zealand – including Taranaki – during the 1860s conflict. Tikera, or children of the Queen of Oceania, was published in Polish and only appeared in English in 1972. Wiśniowski, who visited New Zealand in 1864, describes soldiers mining in Taranaki: ‘A martial mode gradually prevailed over the speculative fever raging in the garrison. Although each day the drills penetrated deeper into the earth and came closer to solving the mystery of the oily streams … one detachment after another march merrily away, hoping to gain a brilliant victory and to return safe and sound, after a short campaign, to the riches awaiting them.’2

Ironsand mining

The black sands of Taranaki’s beaches contain the mineral titanomagnetite, which has a high percentage of iron eroded from the region’s volcanoes.

Some of the first immigrants to New Plymouth began a series of trial iron smeltings, but these proved unsuccessful. In the late 1850s and 1860s Captain Edward Morshead took some Taranaki ironsand to Britain, where it was smelted. The resulting steel was highly praised.

In 1872 Edward Metcalf Smith, a gunsmith from England, formed the New Zealand Titanic Steel and Iron Company and built a smelter at Te Hēnui in New Plymouth. After a series of failures, Smith finally produced Taranaki’s first iron in 1876.

There was little iron production in Taranaki after 1883, though in the 1970s and 1980s ironsand from Waipipi (near Waverley) was exported to Japan.

    • Taranaki Daily News supplement, 29 July 1913, p. 2. Back
    • Sygurd Wiśniowski, Tikera, or Children of the Queen of Oceania. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1972, p. 183. Back

Arts and heritage


Early settler Jane Maria Atkinson left a valuable record of life in Taranaki through her letters. Taranaki ethnologist Stephenson Percy Smith co-founded the Polynesian Society in 1892 and edited its journal from New Plymouth. 

Fiction on film

John Brodie’s 1952 novel The seekers, a fictional account of Taranaki during the 1860s wars, was in 1954 made into a movie starring Jack Hawkins, Glynis Johns and opera singer Īnia Te Wīata. All four of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s novels have been made into movies – The scarecrow (1981), Pallet on the floor (1984), Came a hot Friday (1985), starring comedian Billy T. James, and Predicament (2010), starring Jemaine Clement and Tim Finn.

Frank Anthony, writing in the 1920s, gained fame posthumously for his acute but often charming portrayal of the pioneer dairy-farming days, which included the Me and Gus comic sketches. In the 1940s and 1950s John Brodie, writing as John Guthrie, caused consternation among New Plymouth locals who thought they recognised themselves in his novels Paradise Bay and The little country. Ronald Hugh Morrieson caused a similar reaction in Hāwera when The scarecrow lifted the lid on the sordid, booze-ridden side of small-town Taranaki. Musicologist Allan Thomas’s study of music in Hāwera in 1946 was published in 2004.

Writer Fiona Kidman lived in Hāwera until she was nine. The area featured in her 2005 novel The captive wife, about Betty Guard.

In the 2010s poet and novelist Elizabeth Smither and columnist and writer David Hill lived in Taranaki.

Visual arts

Taranaki’s 19th-century artists included Emma Wicksteed, Edith Halcombe, Georgina Hetley, Martha King, and Hamer and Francis Arden. Charles Heaphy and Gustavus von Tempsky produced important early Taranaki work, but weren’t locals. Early settlers Edwin Harris and John Gully made a significant contribution, but moved to Nelson in 1860 when war broke out in Taranaki.

In the 20th century Bernard Aris produced over 600 sketches and paintings of Mt Taranaki. Michael Smither, Don Driver, Tom Mutch, Rangi Kipa, Fiona Clark and Janet Marshall have all lived and worked in the region.

New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery opened in 1970 and quickly attained a national reputation for ground-breaking exhibitions of contemporary art. An extension, the Len Lye Centre, opened in 2015 to showcase the work of the internationally-known New Zealand kinetic artist.


New Plymouth is home to Puke Ariki, the regional museum, information centre and library. The Tāwhiti Museum, outside Hāwera, documents local history using life-sized figures and scale panoramas. South Taranaki District Museum is in Pātea.


New Plymouth City Band, whose origins lie in the Taranaki Militia and Volunteers band formed in 1859, is New Zealand’s oldest brass ensemble. The Pātea Māori Club’s ‘Poi e’, written by Dalvanius Prime and Ngoi Pēwhairangi and mixing poi with breakdancing, reached number one in the New Zealand music charts in 1984. Taranaki’s thriving punk scene in the 1980s included bands such as Sticky Filth, the Toxic Avengers and Nefarious.

The controversial ‘mushroom ball’ dances of the late 1980s and early 1990s, involving use of hallucinogenic ‘magic mushrooms’, attracted much public and police attention.

Contemporary musicians with Taranaki connections in the 21st century included Midge Marsden, Julia Darling, MC Talia, Mike Harding, Alan Muggeridge and Victoria Girling-Butcher of Lucid 3. The bands Goodshirt and Kitsch started in the region. Opera singer Dame Malvina Major lived in Taranaki for many years.

Festival time

Since 1988 the Taranaki Rhododendron and Garden Festival has attracted thousands of garden enthusiasts each November. The Taranaki Festival of Arts, Stratford’s Shakespearean Festival, WOMAD and the Parihaka Peace Festival each add a unique perspective to the region’s cultural programme.


The Taranaki Herald was founded in 1852 and the Taranaki Daily News in 1857. The two companies amalgamated in 1966, though both papers were still published for some time after this. The Daily News was the major regional paper in the 2010s.

Historic sites

The Taranaki Scenery Preservation Society, founded in 1891, was one of the country’s most active. Under president W. H. Skinner and an enthusiastic committee, it organised the protection of more than 15 important sites. Pā at Ōkoki, Urenui, Pukerangiora, Te Awa-te-Take, Koru and Turuturumōkai might otherwise have been destroyed.


Surviving buildings from the first two decades of European settlement include Te Hēnui vicarage (1845), the Frederick Thatcher-designed St Mary’s church (1845), the Gables Colonial Hospital (1847–48), C. W. Richmond’s cottage (1853–54), Harry Atkinson’s farmhouse, Hurworth (1855), and Inglewood railway station (1874) – New Zealand’s oldest station on its original site.

Taranaki was reputedly one of the first regions to make extensive use of concrete. One of its first recorded uses was for the support pillars of the 1859 Waiwhakaiho River bridge. The 1877 Egmont Brewery (now demolished) was an example of early industrial use of concrete, and New Plymouth’s 1924 Devonport Flats are metropolitan-style apartments.

The Hāwera water tower and the King’s Theatre in Stratford are important early 20th-century buildings.

Māori buildings of note include Kumea-mai-te-waka (Ketemarae, Hāwera), Whareroa (Taiporohēnui, Hāwera) and one of Apirana Ngata’s carved houses, Te Ika-roa-a-Māui at Ōwae marae, Waitara.

Sport and recreation

Sport plays a major part in Taranaki life, and the region has a record of success and national representation in many codes. The area is also known for some sports that depend on local conditions, such as surfing and surf lifesaving along the coast, and skiing on Mt Taranaki. Other sports are based on local occupations such as wood-chopping.


Teams of Armed Constabulary (AC) members and locals were almost certainly playing rugby in the early 1870s, only a year or so after New Zealand’s first recorded game in Nelson. The first official clubs – Taranaki (New Plymouth) and Egmont (Hāwera/Waihī) – were formed in 1874. They were soon joined by Pukearuhe AC, Urenui, Tikorangi, Beach School and Pātea.

The Taranaki Rugby Union was founded in 1885. Its colours were chocolate brown and white. Seven years later the union reverted to the earlier, unofficial colours of amber and black, which are still used in the 2010s.

Rugby bull

Ferdinand the bull, Taranaki’s rugby mascot, was created in the early 1950s and named after the Spanish bovine hero in Munroe Leaf’s 1936 book The story of Ferdinand. ‘Ferdie’ was actually the preserved head-skin of a real, massive Hereford bull, whose roar had been recorded by the local radio station. Ferdie’s head – with a series of attached bodies – endured until 2002. Accorded an honourable retirement after leading Taranaki, both at home and away, for 45 years, he is now on display at Puke Ariki museum.

In 1956 a draw with the touring South African Springbok team began a golden era for Taranaki rugby. After taking the Ranfurly Shield from Otago in 1957, Taranaki held it for two seasons and 13 matches. The shield returned to the province for another 15 gripping games between 1963 and 1965. Taranaki won the shield from Auckland in 1996 but it was lost at the second defence. Seventy-five Taranaki locals have played for the All Blacks.


There are world-renowned surfing spots around the entire rugged Taranaki coast, and the coastal road from New Plymouth to Hāwera is known as ‘Surf Highway 45’. Surfers come from around the world to such classic Taranaki breaks as Stent Road, Spot X (Waiwhakaiho) and the Kūmara Patch (Ōkato).

Local tradition states that in 1950 Colin McComb, of New Plymouth’s East End Surf Life Saving Club, made one of New Zealand’s first true modern surfboards from plans in Popular Mechanics magazine.

By the late 1950s locals had begun a Taranaki surfing tradition that continued in the 2000s. The region has produced many national-class surfers, several of whom have competed at international level – including Paige Hareb of Ōakura, who was prominent in the early 2000s.

The region produces some of the country’s best-known surfboard designers, including Del (Nigel Dwyer and Robert Walsh), Tom Smithers and Monsta (Jamie Montgomery). Because of the tough surf and rocky coastline, the use of leg ropes was a necessity and these were soon adopted throughout the country.

Chopping champion

John Edward (Ned) Shewry from Kōhuratahi was the ‘gun’ at Eltham’s chopping carnivals before the First World War. He was described as ‘the greatest champion [axeman]’ by sports journalist Wallie Ingram, and his axe-wielding skills are still recounted with awe. One story about Shewry’s large handicap is legendary. He had to start chopping long after other competitors had begun, and one day an elderly lady complained: ‘It’s not fair the way that fellow Shewry chops. … He waits until the others have been chopping for seconds and seconds, and are tired, and then he starts! No wonder he wins, they’re always too tired to keep up with him.’ 1

Wood chopping

The sport of chopping and sawing arose because of the hundreds of professional bushmen and back-country folk who felled the native forests of the region. Between 1904 and 1915 the Eltham Axemen’s Carnival was one of the best-known competitions in the world, attracting competitors from Australia and the United States. Locals who have achieved national fame in the sport include Ben and Joe Newstroski, Ned Shewry, Merv Jensen, Leo Pittams, Jack Stachurski, Mick Herlihy, Whata Green, and Leo and Barry Old.


The Moller Majorettes were one of New Zealand’s top marching teams during the late 1970s and early 1980s. They won the New Zealand Marching Championships in 1981, but disbanded soon after. Taranaki marching teams have regularly achieved national fame, and the Inglewood Vanguards were one of New Zealand’s champion teams for a number of years in the 1960s. Several of the region’s marching officials, including Bernie and Mary Plumb, were nationally acclaimed.

    • Wallie Ingram, Legends in their lifetime. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1962, p. 62. Back

Government, education and health

Local government

From 1846 to 1852 Taranaki was administered from Auckland as part of the province of New Ulster. The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 then established six provinces, including Taranaki, which was called New Plymouth until 1858. From 1853 Taranaki’s provincial government was responsible for administration in the region.

The provinces were abolished in 1876 and were replaced by borough and county councils. By the 1920s there were 16 Taranaki councils. They were reduced to three district councils – New Plymouth, Stratford and South Taranaki – when local government was reorganised in 1989.

Taranaki Regional Council was also formed in 1989. Based in Stratford, it administers water resources, pest plant and animal control, and soil conservation, and provides emergency management during natural disasters. It is also the controlling authority of Port Taranaki.

Tailor-made for politics

Walter Nash, later to be a Labour prime minister, was the part-owner of Modern Tailors, a cooperative venture in New Plymouth, from 1915 to 1920. In 1918 he formed the New Plymouth branch of the Labour Party and was its first secretary. Nash’s tailoring initiative ended in disagreement and court action among its partners, and he left for Wellington in 1920.

Parliamentary electorates

Although the boundaries and names have varied, the Taranaki region has always had either three or four electorates. Two or three were largely rural, and consistently returned National MPs following the creation of the party in 1936. The largely urban New Plymouth electorate has swung between electing National and Labour members in the late 20th century and early 2000s.

In the 2010s there were three electorates: New Plymouth, Whanganui and Taranaki–King Country.

Taranaki was part of the Western Māori electorate from 1867 until 1996. It was included in Te Puku o te Whenua and became part of Te Tai Hauāuru electorate in 2002.

National politicians of note from Taranaki have included Harry Atkinson, Māui Pōmare and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hīroa).

Reaching for the stars

Astrophysicist Beatrice Tinsley was born in the United Kingdom in 1941, but came to New Plymouth with her family in 1950. Her father, Edward Hill, was an Anglican minister, and her mother, Jean, a writer. Hill was mayor of New Plymouth from 1953 to 1956, and Beatrice was educated at New Plymouth Girls’ High School. She was dux in 1957 before going to Canterbury University College for an MSc and then to the University of Texas to undertake PhD on the origin of galaxies. She eventually became a professor of astronomy at Yale.


In the early 2000s the number of primary schools fell markedly as the rural population decreased. The closures were particularly noticeable in eastern and southern Taranaki, where the abandoned buildings attracted vandalism.

New Plymouth secondary schools included New Plymouth Boys’ High, New Plymouth Girls High, Spotswood College, Sacred Heart Girls’ College and Francis Douglas Memorial College. Other secondary schools were Coastal Taranaki (Ōkato), St Mary’s Diocesan (Stratford), and Ōpunake, Pātea, Hāwera, Stratford, Waitara and Inglewood high schools.

Intermediate schools were located in New Plymouth (Devon and Highlands schools), Waitara (Manukorihi) and Hāwera.

Health services

In the 2010s Taranaki District Health Board administered two hospitals. The Taranaki Base Hospital in New Plymouth was a 210-bed facility. Hāwera Hospital had 26 beds, and there were health centres in Mōkau, Waitara, Stratford, Ōpunake and Pātea.

Transport and communications


Taranaki is isolated from the north and east by rugged hill country. In the south, gentler topographies allow easier land access. In the 2010s the tenuous nature of road and rail links to the north and east continued to concern business groups and local politicians.

Māori trails

Māori trails were foot-tracks along beaches or through the dense forests, or traversed the few canoe-navigable rivers. The best-known trail in the region was Whakaahurangi, the well-trodden highway between North and South Taranaki. It is followed closely by State Highway 3 and 3A from Hāwera to Waitara.

Tracks like Tihi-mānuka linked the area north of Taranaki with the Whanganui River. The Taumata-māhoe track leading inland from the coast at Urenui crossed the Ngāti Maru country of the upper Waitara to reach the Whanganui River. It was used by a number of early Pākehā travellers. The Kaharoa track from Pātea went north-east to join Tihi-mānuka near Tāngarākau.

Few rivers in the region were navigable. Only the Tongapōrutu, Waitara and Pātea rivers enabled boat access to the interior.

Treacherous coast

In 1903 the SS Gairloch, one of the vessels of the Northern Steamship Company, ran ashore after leaving New Plymouth port. The company operated a coastal shipping service between Onehunga, New Plymouth, Whanganui and Nelson during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The decaying remains of the Gairloch’s bow may still be seen on the beach at Timaru Road, Ōakura, where she ran ashore.


The sea was the most important form of transport until the arrival of rail in the late 19th century. The exposed western coast had no sheltered harbours, and the mouths of all the bigger rivers had treacherous bars and tidal flows. Small ports did, however, develop at Waitara, Ōpunake and Pātea. In New Plymouth, cargo was transported by small vessels to ships waiting out at sea until the port was opened in 1881.

The man-made Port Taranaki is the only major commercial port on the western coast of New Zealand.


European settlers quickly established pack trails and then paved roads to accommodate draft animals and wheeled vehicles. Some of the earliest roads were built during the military operations of the 1860s and to enable the occupation of Parihaka in 1881. These roads facilitated the foundation of new towns, and settlement and clearance of the land for farms. Māori often viewed surveying and associated roads with great suspicion, especially during the tense confrontations over land in the 1880s.

The road north

Over the years, the hill country that reaches the coast at North Taranaki’s Mt Messenger has caused concern to travellers. In 1921 the highway was described as ‘only a summer road, long stretches of it being still un-metalled’.1 The last link in the route north was the Mōkau River bridge, which opened in 1927. Until then vehicles crossed the river on a ferry. In the 2000s, after decades of upgrading, Taranaki’s lifeline to the north was still threatened during adverse weather.

In the late 19th century networks of gravelled roads were quickly established to link dairy farms and factories. By 1900 the Taranaki ring plain had some of the best-maintained roads in the country, and many were transformed by asphalting over the next 50 years. Some roads had toll gates which helped pay for their maintenance.

The rugged terrain of the inland hills proved a challenge for road builders, settlers and travellers alike.


Taranaki’s first railway opened in 1875 with a line from New Plymouth to Waitara. The railway south was built quickly, reaching Stratford in 1879 and Hāwera two years later. The line north from Wellington reached Waverley in 1881, and the two lines met in 1886. The railway linked the two major areas of settlement in Taranaki, around New Plymouth and around Hāwera.

Last train from Stratford

Writer Elizabeth Smither rode on the last passenger train on the Stratford–Taumarunui line, in January 1983: ‘The names of the little towns make a lament: Toko, Douglas, grave siding of old carriages, some burnt out like Phar Lap’s ribs; Huiroa; Te Wera; Whangamomona; old rails that click and the new ones that don’t; Kohuratahi, where you could cross a field and buy ice creams thereby boosting the local trade; Tahora, Tangarakau, where a passenger sighted a wild deer; Haeo … the falling into oblivion of a town is like the falling of language.’2

A railway to connect the back country with New Plymouth and with the main trunk line was started at Stratford in 1901. Progress was slow, and the line wasn’t completed until 1932.

Falling patronage saw passenger services to Wellington end in 1977, and those to Auckland six years later.


The first aircraft arrived in Taranaki in 1920. This visit turned to tragedy when New Plymouth mayor James Clarke and 25-year-old chemist’s assistant Kathleen Warnock were killed, along with pilot Richard Russell. The plane – an Avro 504K biplane of Walsh Brothers’ New Zealand Flying School – crashed while providing public flights from the New Plymouth racecourse on Armistice Day.

Civilian aero clubs were established in both New Plymouth and Hāwera by 1929. In January 1933 Charles Kingsford Smith made the fifth aerial crossing of the Tasman Sea and landed at Bell Block airfield near New Plymouth. Australian aviator Charles Ulm made three flights to the airfield over the next two years and Kingsford Smith returned in January 1934. A trans-Tasman air terminal was proposed at Bell Block, but never eventuated. One of New Zealand’s first air pageants was held for the opening of New Plymouth airport, on the airfield site, in 1936.

The Lockheed Electra Kuaka made the first commercial passenger flight to New Plymouth in 1937, beginning a regular service by Union Air Services.

During the Second World War an RNZAF training station operated from the airport. In 1966 a new airport was opened at another site in Bell Block to enable the use of faster turbo-prop planes.

    • E. Bradbury, ed., The settlement and development of Taranaki, New Zealand: early history, industrial resources, scenic attractions. Auckland: E. Bradbury & Co., 1921, p. 31. Back
    • New Zealand Listener, 19 February 1983, p. 35. Back

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Taranaki: 7,213 sq km1
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km


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

New Plymouth

  • Mean temperature, January: 17.8°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 9.5°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 1,386 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,197 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Taranaki: 104,127 (2006); 109,608 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013


  • Taranaki: 86.2%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Taranaki: 17.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Islander

  • Taranaki: 1.6%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%


  • Taranaki: 3.4%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Taranaki: 0.4%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes and sub-tribes

Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Maru, Taranaki, Ngā Ruahine, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru

Population of major urban areas, 2013

  • New Plymouth: 51,303
  • Hāwera: 8,517
  • Stratford: 5,463

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Taranaki: 21.1%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Taranaki: 62.7%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Taranaki: 16.2%
  • 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)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • Taranaki: 7.5%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%


  • Taranaki: 17.5%
  • New Zealand: 10.9%

Professional, scientific and technical services

  • Taranaki: 5.0%
  • New Zealand: 7.6%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Taranaki: 5.6%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012


  • Taranaki: 434,402
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Taranaki: 604,383
  • New Zealand:  6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Taranaki: 103,546
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ron Lambert, 'Taranaki region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Ron Lambert, i tāngia i te 11 o Tīhema 2009, updated 1 o Ākuhata 2015