Kōrero: Waikato region

Whārangi 15. Arts, culture and heritage

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Given its dramatic past, it is understandable that historians have been fascinated by the Waikato region. An early example was James Cowan, who became enthralled by history while growing up on a farm on the Ōrakau battle site. His publications, notably The New Zealand wars (1922–23) drew sympathetically on Māori as well as Pākehā accounts.

Another prolific writer in both English and Māori, Pei Te Hurunui Jones, recorded Tainui traditions, culminating in his master work, Nga iwi o Tainui (eventually published in 1995).

Michael King’s stint as a reporter at the Waikato Times in the late 1960s sparked his interest in Māori–Pākehā relations and led to some ground-breaking histories.

Vincent O’Malley’s comprehensive account of the Waikato War and its aftermath, The great war for New Zealand: Waikato 1800–2000, was published in 2016.


Local history research was boosted when the Te Awamutu Historical Society started in 1935. The society had a journal and museum, and even got involved in movie production, providing financial backing and actors for Rudall Hayward’s 1940 film about Ōrākau, Rewi’s last stand. Other historical societies and museums, including the Waikato Museum, began after 1945. In the 2010s the Waikato Coalfields Museum at Huntly, the Timber Museum of New Zealand at Putaruru, and the Agricultural Heritage Museum at Mystery Creek, Hamilton, give insights into Waikato’s economic history.

Waikato views 

As a teenager, writer Frank Sargeson explored Waikato by bicycle, and often climbed Te Aroha and Pirongia mountains. His favourite climb was Te Aroha: from the top ‘you turned around and looked back over the Hauraki plain, the Waikato plain and valley, with the farms contracted to pocket-handkerchief size, and remembered that from the top of Pirongia you had seen the west coast and the Tasman Sea … your eye followed the line of the Kaimais southwards until they broadened out to form the Mamaku plateau – the first great step as it were up onto the roof of the Island.’1

Writing and publishing

Early establishment of libraries and bookshops supported local interest in books. Paul’s Book Arcade in Hamilton flourished, particularly under Blackwood Paul from 1933. He and his wife Janet began publishing books in 1945. Their Waikato authors included historian Alison Drummond and novelist Mary Scott. They also occasionally published Frank Sargeson. Raised in a Methodist family in Hamilton, Sargeson soon departed, but his autobiography begins with a lyrical evocation of Waikato landscapes.

Visual arts

The first painters of Waikato were outsiders passing through. In 1844 George French Angas produced fine images of people and places. He was followed by artists such as Charles Heaphy and John Barr Hoyte. The Waikato Society of Arts, established in 1934, fostered local artists, including Ida Carey, G. E. Fairburn, Joan Fear, Margot Phillips, Campbell Smith and Ray Starr.

Te Puea Herangi led a revival of Māori arts and crafts from the 1930s. Master carver Piri Poutapu had a school at Ngāruawāhia: one of his star pupils was Īnia Te Wīata, later an internationally-acclaimed opera singer. Poutapu produced carvings for Tūrangawaewae marae, and restored the historic waka Te Winika.

Performing arts

Amateur theatre developed in the 19th century. The 1930s were lively: Hamilton’s Playbox Repertory Society (one of New Zealand’s longest-running dramatic groups) began, and was challenged briefly by the socialist People’s Theatre. Since 1998 the biennial FUEL Festival of New Zealand Theatre has been held in Hamilton, at venues including the Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Waikato. A summer festival featuring plays and opera has been held at Hamilton Gardens since 1997.

Te Puea Hērangi promoted kapa haka – traditional Māori performing arts. These are now taught at schools and the university, and groups compete in the Tainui Waka Kapa Haka Festival.


Bogans – fans of heavy metal music, modified cars, and tight black clothing – are now a recognised subculture in Waikato, to the extent that University of Otago student Dave Snell undertook doctoral research into the phenomenon. Waikato’s contribution to the heavy-metal scene has included Hamilton bands Blackjack and Knightshade, which had huge local followings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 


Amateur orchestral societies, choirs and brass bands formed in the early years of European settlement. Touring professionals were welcomed eagerly and, after the Second World War, chamber music societies in Hamilton, Te Awamutu and Tokoroa organised concerts by national and international artists. Conductor Ossie Cheesman, violinist Vincent Aspey and opera singer Malvina Major had Waikato roots. Budding classical musicians attended the annual Cambridge Music School from 1946 until 1986, and advanced training became available when a university music department started in 1995. From the 1980s to the early 2000s Hirini Melbourne was a leader in Māori music education and the restoration of taonga puoro (Māori instruments). 

Light music and musical theatre had a wider following. The Hamilton Operatic Society, founded in 1913 and revived in the 1920s, still stages performances of operettas and Broadway musicals to large audiences.

Waikato has nurtured well-known popular artists and groups. Country music stars have included the Hamilton County Blue Grass Band and Putaruru’s Patsy Riggir. The Topp Twins hail from Ruawaro, west of Huntly. Tim and Neil Finn of Split Enz and Crowded House grew up in Te Awamutu.

More recent Waikato bands include the Datsuns, Katchafire, Cornerstone Roots, the Deadly Deaths and the Trons.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Frank Sargeson, Once is enough: a memoir. Wellington: Reed, 1973, p. 13. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Waikato region - Arts, culture and heritage', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/waikato-region/page-15 (accessed 22 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 31 May 2010, updated 1 Jul 2015