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Waikato region

by Nancy Swarbrick

Named after the mighty Waikato River, which winds through the region, Waikato is known for its lush, tranquil pastures, but has a turbulent history. Now it is New Zealand’s foremost dairy-farming region, with other major industries including coal mining, hydroelectricity generation, timber milling and pulp and paper manufacturing. 


The Waikato region lies in the upper North Island, rimmed by ranges and bordered on its wild west coast by the Tasman Sea. Waikato is a much-altered landscape. Its swamps have been drained and vegetation cleared to create pasture and, in south Waikato, exotic forests. Unchanged are the sentinel mountains – Taupiri, Karioi, Pirongia, Kakepuku, Maungatautari, Maungakawa, Te Tāpui and Te Aroha. Another constant is the majestic Waikato River – ‘the river of life’,1 as it has been called in a famous waiata. The Waikato, Waipā, Piako and Waihou rivers and their tributaries flow through some of the most productive land in New Zealand.


The Waikato region encompasses the Waikato, Matamata–Piako, Waipā and South Waikato districts, and Hamilton city. This is smaller than the Waikato regional council area, which extends to the King Country, Taupō, Hauraki and the Coromandel Peninsula, and parts of Rotorua district.

The fourth main centre

Although it has been cold-shouldered as a brash newcomer by the traditional four main centres (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin), Hamilton’s population far surpasses that of Dunedin.

The region covers around 9,325 sq km – 3.5% of New Zealand’s land mass. In 2013 it had 305,265 people – 7% of the national population. The main towns are Tokoroa, Cambridge and Te Awamutu, followed by Huntly, Morrinsville and Matamata, and then Putaruru, Te Aroha, Tūākau and Raglan. All are dwarfed by Hamilton, New Zealand’s largest inland city, which, with a population of 141,612, was home to nearly half the region’s inhabitants in 2013.

A turbulent history

Waikato was the stage on which some of the most significant dramas in New Zealand history were enacted. Settled in the 13th century by Māori from the Tainui waka (canoe), the region was densely populated in the early 19th century. From that time Māori began to adopt European practices – some beneficial, others not. Farming enabled Waikato tribes to grow produce for local and overseas markets. Musket warfare, however, contributed to instability and migrations within and beyond the region.

A desire to protect their lands, culture and mana prompted some tribes to elect a king in 1858. They chose a Waikato chief, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, and since then the Kīngitanga (King movement) has been based in Waikato. The movement was immediately seen by the government as a threat. In 1863 troops invaded Waikato to punish the King’s followers and confiscate their fertile lands. By mid-1864 western and central Waikato was in Pākehā hands and many of its Māori inhabitants were in exile in lands to the south, which became known as the King Country.

Pākehā settlement

Although explorers, traders and missionaries came before, the first permanent Pākehā settlers were soldiers guarding militia townships. The land they were granted turned out to be less ideal for agriculture than first thought. It took extensive swamp drainage schemes, scientific advances in soil and pasture management and herd improvement, and many years of back-breaking labour, before Waikato became New Zealand’s foremost dairying area.

The realisation that exotic forestry was an ideal use for south Waikato pumice lands did not dawn until the 1920s. Along with farming and forestry, major industries such as coal mining and hydroelectricity production developed, turning Waikato into the country’s ‘economic engine room’2.

The return of Waikato-Tainui

Dispossessed Waikato Māori began returning to their ancestral lands in the late 19th century, and in the 1920s built an important marae at Ngāruawāhia, Tūrangawaewae. A long struggle for official recognition of the injustice of the invasion and land confiscations of the 1860s finally resulted in the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 1995, which included an apology from the Crown and financial compensation. In the 21st century, Waikato-Tainui tribes are a major economic force in the region.

    • Quoted in Carmen Kirkwood, Tāwhiao: king or prophet. Huntly: MAI Systems, 2000, p. 76. Back
    • Wiring up the Waikato. Hamilton: WEL Networks, 2005, p. 2. Back

Landscape and climate

Mountains and ranges

The Waikato region consists of valleys and coastal lands separated by ranges. The Thames valley is divided from the Waikato basin by greywacke hills running north through the Hapūakohe and Hūnua ranges. Another greywacke range separates the Waikato basin from the west coast. The Hakarimata and Taupiri ranges create a boundary between the middle and lower reaches of the Waikato River.

Waikato’s eastern boundary is the Kaimai Range, which runs south from Te Aroha, separating the Thames valley from the Bay of Plenty. The northern part is an extension of the volcanic rocks of the Coromandel Peninsula. The southern section consists of ignimbrite, which also forms the plateau at Mamaku in south Waikato. It was created by volcanic eruptions in the Taupō Volcanic Zone 750,000–300,000 years ago.

A number of old eroded volcanoes ring the middle Waikato basin. To the west are Karioi, Pirongia and Kakepuku. To the east are Maungatautari, Maungakawa and Te Tāpui.

Changing course 

The Waikato River has changed course many times over several million years. Until about 20,000 years ago it flowed north through what is called the Hinuera gap at Piarere, down the Hauraki Plains to the Firth of Thames. Gradually, waterborne volcanic debris built up, causing the river path to turn sharply to the west near Maungatautari. 


Rivers in the Waikato region are alluvial, flowing through flood plains they have created by depositing sediment. The largest, the Waikato, begins on Mt Ruapehu before flowing from Lake Taupō across the Volcanic Plateau, into the Waikato basin and out to the Tasman Sea. Its major tributary, the Waipā River, rises in the Rangitoto Range in the King Country. The two rivers converge at Ngāruawāhia.

The Thames valley is drained by the Waihou River, which flows from the Mamaku and Pātetere plateaus; the Piako River, which rises near Maungakawa; and the Waitoa River, which has its source in hill country near Piarere.


Wetlands, peat lakes and peat bogs abound in the Waikato lowlands, particularly in the central Thames valley, north of Taupiri and south of Hamilton. Drainage works to create farmland have destroyed some wetlands and split others into fragments. However, in the early 2000s the Waikato region still contained around 30% of New Zealand’s wetlands, including the Whangamarino Wetland and Kopuatai Peat Dome.

Harbours and coast

On the west coast are two large tidal estuaries: Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa) and Aotea Harbour. The coast’s distinctive ironsands have been mined at various places, including Waikato Heads, for use in steel making.

Geothermal resources

There are small geothermal areas throughout the region. Although secondary to the large geothermal systems of the Taupō Volcanic Zone, some – notably the hot springs at Te Aroha, Ōkoroire and Waingaro – have been developed into tourist attractions.


The now-fertile loam soils of the Waikato basin were originally fine volcanic ash and debris that weathered. The Thames valley has poorly drained gley soils, made of alluvial material. The lower Thames valley and parts of the Waikato basin have peat soils, formed from decomposed wetland plants. Many of these gley and peat soils have been drained for agricultural purposes. The soils of south Waikato are derived from pumice – volcanic rock – and lack some important nutrients.

Fog and fire 

Some say the notorious Waikato fogs were much worse when peat fires were common – as recently as the 1970s. When farmers clearing swampy land burned scrub, the fire would often spread down roots to the peat below. As well as adding smoke to the foggy atmosphere, the long-burning fires had a distinctive smell and made a reddish glow on the horizon at night. 


Waikato summers are long, hot and often humid. There is relatively high rainfall all year round, but in the early 2000s this pattern was disrupted. A severe drought in the summer of 2007–8 transformed the usually vivid green landscape to dusty brown, and further droughts were predicted.

Fogs often occur in winter, usually followed by a clear sunny day. They are becoming less frequent as a consequence of wetland drainage. Heavy frosts are also common in calm, clear conditions. Average daily maximum temperatures range from 21 to 26°C in summer and 10 to 14°C in winter.

Plants and animals

Vegetation changes

Before European settlement some lowland forest had been burnt by Māori for cultivation or razed by naturally occurring fires, and these areas were covered in scrub. Higher, wetter and less accessible areas were cloaked in podocarp forest, including rimu, tōtara and kahikatea trees. Kahikatea was also common around rivers and lakes.

As the region was developed for agriculture, the lowlands were transformed into pasture. Forests were felled or burned, and swamps were drained.

Gully restoration

Gullies are a feature of many Hamilton properties, and until recently they were often undervalued and unkempt. In 2000 the Hamilton City Council started a gully restoration plan, involving the Waikato Regional Council and the University of Waikato’s centres for Continuing Education and Biodiversity and Ecology Research. Enthusiastic property owners and volunteers signed up to plant native species, to beautify the gullies and attract native birds. By 2009 there were 750 landowners on the gully database.

Surviving native vegetation


Most of the forests on the lowlands have been cleared, but there are still groves of kahikatea on the river floodplains in the Waikato basin and the Thames valley. Some of these forest fragments are protected in scenic reserves and on private land covered by Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenants.


There are healthy populations of endangered pīngao grass in west-coast dunelands, especially around Aotea Spit. Another unique plant species found on the west coast is Hebe awaroa.

Mountains and ranges

Podocarp forest still mantles the mountains and ranges of the region, particularly in the Pirongia Forest Park, and on the Hākarimata Range and Maungatautari mountain. On Pirongia mountain, wood rose (Dactylanthus taylorii), a rare and endangered plant, can be found.

The kauri, a giant forest tree which grows naturally in the northern half of the North Island, reaches its southern limit in the Waikato and is found in the Hākarimata Range, around Pirongia and in the Kaimai Range, where it co-exists with kāmahi, red beech and silver beech at their northern limit – a unique mix of vegetation.

Curse or blessing?

A valued source of food to Māori, Waikato’s wetlands were regarded as a problem to be solved by the first Pākehā settlers. They drained them to create farmland, removing an important habitat for many plant and animal species. By 1976 attitudes had changed and New Zealand became a party to the Ramsar Convention, which seeks to reverse damage to the world’s wetlands. The Ramsar list of internationally significant sites includes the Whangamarino Wetland and the Kopuatai Peat Dome (both listed in 1989).


The region’s peat bogs, such as the Kopuatai Peat Dome, are low-nutrient wetlands, fed by rainwater alone. They are formed from waterlogged plant material which decays very slowly and forms low domes. Rushes are the most common bog plants, which also include sphagnum moss, orchids, sundews, bladderworts, sedges and umbrella ferns.

In contrast, swamps are more fertile as they are fed by nutrient-rich streams and rainwater, and they often flood. Moderately fertile swamps – like those on the margins of peat lakes and bogs south of Hamilton – have plants such as mānuka and sedges. Highly fertile swamps like the Whangamarino Wetland contain raupō, harakeke (swamp flax) and sedges.

There are a number of rare and threatened plants in Waikato wetlands. The swamp helmet orchid (Anzybas carsei), found only in wetlands around Huntly, is classed as nationally critical because it is at serious risk of becoming extinct.

Birds and animals

Before pasture replaced the original vegetation, the Waikato region had a wide range of native birds, reptiles, frogs, insects and snails. Modification of habitats, predation by introduced animals such as rats, feral cats, stoats, ferrets and weasels, and competition from introduced plant species, have greatly reduced their numbers.


Parts of the region are very rich in native birdlife. Lakes, swamps and bogs, especially around the lower reaches of the Waikato River, and the Kopuatai Peat Dome in the Thames valley, are havens for wetland bird species, including crakes, bitterns and fernbirds.

Harbours and estuaries on the west coast, notably Aotea Harbour, are feeding and breeding grounds for large numbers of shorebirds, including migratory wading birds such as godwits. The 3,400-hectare Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, a forest restoration project, has built 47 km of fencing so bush birds such as hihi (stitchbird), once common, can survive there again free of predation.

Other animals and insects

Waikato wetlands provide a habitat for the endangered endemic black mudfish.

In the Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park there are small populations of the rare Hochstetter’s frog and the threatened Te Aroha stag beetle.

Māori settlement


Waikato is the ancestral region of tribes descended from people who came to New Zealand on the Tainui waka (canoe) in the 13th century. The waka, commanded by Hoturoa, explored both coasts of the central North Island before making its final landfall at Kāwhia Harbour. The Tainui people explored the area around Kāwhia and settled there first, before spreading to the north, east and south, absorbing other tribes already in occupation.

The Aotea waka, commanded by Turi, later arrived north of Kāwhia. Discovering the Tainui people in residence, its crew travelled south overland to settle in Taranaki. The waka was left behind, giving its name to the Aotea Harbour.


In later generations, Tainui ancestors founded tribes which spread throughout and beyond the Waikato region. The Ngāti Maniapoto tribe were descendants of Maniapoto, who with his people settled the area around Kāwhia and to the south. Ngāti Toarangatira (also known as Ngāti Toa), whose ancestor was Tūpāhau, originally lived at Kāwhia. Ngāti Raukawa, descendants of Raukawa, occupied the south Waikato between Maungatautari mountain and Whakamaru, and north to the Kaimai Range. The ancestor Marutūahu migrated to the area north of Te Aroha mountain, founding several tribes now collectively known as the Marutūahu confederation.

In the Waikato basin the Waikato confederation of tribes, including Ngāti Mahuta and many others, settled. Ngāti Hauā, descended from Te Ihingaarangi, the elder brother of Maniapoto, became established east of the Waikato River. Over the centuries alliances and disputes affected relationships between these tribes.

People and places 

One of the most famous sayings of the Waikato tribes shows the close association between people and places:

Ko Waikato te awa
Ko Taupiri te maunga
Ko Te Wherowhero te tangata1

(Waikato is the river, Taupiri is the mountain, Te Wherowhero is the man.)

The river, the mountain and the human ancestor are all vitally important in defining tribal identity.

Landmarks and settlements

For the Tainui tribes, the harbours, rivers and swamps of Waikato provided food and other resources, and its mountains and ranges were strongholds. These places became identified with ancestors, and were celebrated in sayings and songs. Settlements sprang up throughout the region, usually on hilltops or beside lakes. Whāingaroa and Aotea harbours were traditional centres of population, as were mountains such as Maungatautari. As waka traffic increased along the rivers in the 19th century, riverbank settlements multiplied. Major settlements on the Waikato River included Kirikiriroa (now Hamilton), Kaitotehe at Taupiri, and Ngāruawāhia.

Pressure on resources

From the late 18th century Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa began a struggle with Waikato tribes for control of lands around Kāwhia. Ngāti Toa were defeated by Waikato tribes in the battle of Hingakākā, which took place near Lake Ngāroto about 1780, but warfare continued periodically. In the early 1820s a combined Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto force expelled Ngāti Toa from Kāwhia, and they migrated south via Taranaki to the Kāpiti Coast. Once there, they invited their Ngāti Raukawa relatives to join them, and this led to further migrations south.

Musket warfare

Contact with Europeans from the early 19th century gave some tribes access to firearms, which changed the nature of warfare. The Ngāpuhi confederation of Northland, one of the first tribes to obtain muskets, made raids on Hauraki and Waikato in 1822, overwhelming the Marutūahu tribe of Ngāti Maru at Te Tōtara pā near present-day Thames, and Waikato tribes at Mātakitaki pā, east of Pirongia mountain. Waikato tribes temporarily retreated south into Ngāti Maniapoto territory, while Ngāti Maru moved south to Maungatautari.

War beyond Waikato

These movements, and the diffusion of muskets, created further tensions. Ngāti Hauā, which had expanded its influence under the powerful chief Te Waharoa, ejected Ngāti Maru from Maungatautari in 1830. Ngāti Hauā and their allies from Tauranga Moana tribes in the Bay of Plenty continued to fight Ngāti Maru to the north and Te Arawa to the east in the 1830s and 1840s. Ngāti Maniapoto and Waikato tribes waged war against Taranaki tribes and their Ngāti Toa allies in the 1820s and 1830s. Meanwhile, Ngāpuhi made periodic raids. It was during this period of upheaval that Europeans first began to arrive in the Waikato region.

    • Quoted in Evelyn Stokes and Margaret Begg, eds, Belonging to the land – Te hononga ki te whenua: people and places in the Waikato region. Hamilton: Waikato Branch, NZ Geographical Society, 1997, p. 37. Back

Pākehā impact

The first Europeans to enter Waikato were welcomed by Māori because of the resources they offered.


From the late 1820s traders and adventurers arrived, bringing guns and skills in building, farming and commerce. Some married Māori women, becoming Pākehā-Māori (Europeans who lived within Māori tribes).


Missionaries spread Christianity and taught reading, writing and agricultural techniques. Missions begun by the Anglican Church Missionary Society at Mangapōuri and Matamata in the 1830s failed, but those at Waikato Heads (founded in 1839), Ōtāwhao (1841), Taupiri (1842) and Te Kōhanga (1853–54) flourished. After establishing a mission at Kāwhia in 1835, the Wesleyans started more at Raglan (1839), Aotea Harbour (1840) and Te Kōpua (1841). A Roman Catholic mission, begun at Matamata in 1841, shifted to Rangiaowhia, east of Te Awamutu, in 1844. A church, school, flour mill and roads were built there, and Māori-owned ships took farm produce to markets in Auckland, Sydney and California.

European explorers

European explorers passed through, including Ernst Dieffenbach in 1841 and Ferdinand Hochstetter in 1859. They reported on the region’s rich resources and Māori achievements in learning, agriculture and trade. Land-hungry Auckland speculators looked towards Waikato with envious eyes.

The King movement – Te Kīngitanga

After signing the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, Māori tribes became concerned about pressure to sell their land to the Crown for Pākehā settlement. Their traditional system of collective ownership was often ignored by Pākehā, who made deals with individuals.

Marked by mountains

The Kīngitanga domain extended well beyond Waikato. Mountains named as territory markers included Mt Taranaki, Tararua (between Wairarapa and the Kāpiti Coast), Tītīokura (between Hawke’s Bay and Taupō), Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe, Bay of Plenty) and Ngongotahā (near Rotorua). In Waikato, Karioi and Te Aroha mountains were two of the markers.

Some chiefs realised that Māori would have to unite to keep their land, customs and mana. After discussions, tribes from Waikato, Taupō and the North Island’s east coast proclaimed Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero the first Māori king at Ngāruawāhia in 1858. Following his death in 1860 he was succeeded by his son, Tāwhiao.

Tribal councils were set up to administer Māori laws protecting property and rights. Some of the king’s followers were separatist, but most considered themselves loyal subjects of Queen Victoria, and believed Māori and British laws could co-exist. The government disagreed, and opposed the King movement.

The road to war

When a disputed land sale led to war in Taranaki in 1860–61, and again in early 1863, some of the Māori king’s followers from Waikato supported Taranaki tribes. The government then planned an invasion of the Waikato region to punish the so-called ‘rebels’ and obtain more land for settlement.

From 1861 military posts were constructed in South Auckland and along the lower Waikato River. The Great South Road was extended from Auckland to Pōkeno, where a huge fort, bluntly called Queen’s Redoubt, was built. On 11 July 1863 Governor George Grey announced his intention to send troops into Waikato. He accused Waikato chiefs of disloyalty and planning to invade Auckland.

War in Waikato

Next morning British soldiers, supported by colonial troops, crossed the boundary set by Waikato tribes – the Mangatāwhiri River. Māori raids north of the Mangatāwhiri prevented further movement until late October, when Meremere was bypassed by troops carried up the Waikato River in gunboats. After a fierce battle at Rangiriri in late November, troops marched to Ngāruawāhia, which had been abandoned, and then to Whatawhata, Tuhikaramea and Te Rore on the Waipā River.

Māori ambushed soldiers at Waiari near the Mangapiko Stream in early February 1864, but this failed to stall the British advance. Skirting the massive Pāterangi pā, troops attacked the Māori supply base at Rangiaowhia on 21 February, killing some non-combatants, and the next day overcame resistance at nearby Hairini. In late March and early April about 300 King movement supporters made a final stand at Ōrākau. They were defeated and driven into exile south of the Pūniu River, in territory which became known as the King Country.

Confiscation – raupatu

After the war most Māori-owned land in western and central Waikato was confiscated under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863. Some was later returned, but the rest was sold or given to Pākehā settlers. This injustice has cast a long shadow over the region.

European settlement and population

As the war was being fought, the government planned to confiscate Waikato lands and establish defended townships to deter Māori from reoccupying their territory. The chosen settlers were the Waikato militia – four regiments recruited in Otago and Australia in late 1863 with the promise of land grants.

Struggling to survive

Military settlers were expected to defend Waikato towns in the event of a Māori attack, in return for grants of a town acre (0.4 hectares) and at least 50 country acres (20 hectares). Once the country sections were surveyed, the settlers’ military pay was cut, and food rations continued for only a year. Survival was so difficult that many left before they gained freehold title to their land on completion of three years’ service.

Military settlers

From mid-1864 towns were surveyed at Alexandra (now Pirongia), Cambridge and the former Māori villages of Kihikihi and Kirikiriroa (renamed Hamilton). They were occupied by militiamen and their families, who were allocated sections in the adjacent countryside. Settlers also moved into the former military outposts of Te Awamutu, Ōhaupō, Whatawhata, Rāhui Pōkeka (Huntly) and Ngāruawāhia.

Most British troops were withdrawn in 1865–66, and in 1867 the militia was replaced by a professional Armed Constabulary charged with guarding the confiscation line. Discovering that their land was inaccessible and swampy, many military settlers departed.

Large estates

As they moved on, speculators moved in. Māori owners in the Thames valley whose lands had escaped confiscation were pressured into leasing, then selling them. Huge estates were established by men such as Josiah Clifton Firth and Thomas and Samuel Morrin. Land companies were also formed by Auckland financiers. The main ones were the Waikato Land Association, Auckland Agricultural Company and Thames Valley Land Company, which by 1890 together owned almost 150,000 hectares. However, developing the waterlogged lands was costly. By the 1890s most estates had failed financially, and they were taken over by the government to subdivide into smaller farms.

Settlement spreads

Two Waikato towns that got off to a good start were the coal-mining settlement of Huntly in the 1870s and the thermal spa of Te Aroha in the 1880s. Other centres began to expand after 1900, and Hamilton emerged as the region’s main town. Completion of railway networks and development of dairying assisted in the first part of the 20th century, and from the 1920s many of the region’s towns grew rapidly. Following the Second World War agricultural research and industries, hydroelectric dam construction and timber milling boosted growth.

Varying growth rates

In post-war years Hamilton remained dominant in the region, and by 1991 it had overtaken Dunedin as New Zealand’s fourth-largest city. The nearby centres of Te Awamutu and Cambridge grew strongly, becoming dormitory towns for workers commuting to Hamilton.

From the early 1950s to the mid-1970s Raglan, Huntly and Ngāruawāhia, which also provided workers for Hamilton, expanded steadily. So did the prosperous farming towns of Matamata and Morrinsville. Te Aroha grew more slowly. Population increases in these places began to level off from 1976.

Timber industry developments in south Waikato caused its population to surge from 1951. By 1976 Tokoroa was the fastest-growing place in the Waikato, and Putaruru’s population had more than doubled. Cutbacks in the industry caused the populations of both towns to decline from the 1980s.


Waikato’s first non-Māori inhabitants were mostly from England, Ireland, Scotland and Australia. Between 1840 and 1890 the proportion of Irish-born settlers was high compared with other New Zealand regions. Italians, Indians and Chinese also had longstanding communities in the region. Immigration in the 20th century brought people from other European, Pacific and Asian countries. A Somali community grew in Hamilton from the 1990s.

In 2013 most Waikato residents (76.3%) were European, with 20.9% identifying as Māori. Asian people accounted for 8.2% of the population, Pacific peoples 4.3% and Middle Eastern, Latin American and African 1.1%. Percentages of Asian, Pacific, Middle Eastern, Latin American and African peoples were lower than for the total New Zealand population, while the proportion of Māori and Europeans was higher.

Population in 2013

In 2013 the population of the Waikato region was 305,265 – 7% of the national total. The Waikato district was most highly populated, with 63,381 people, followed by Waipā with 46,668, Matamata–Piako with 31,536 and South Waikato with 22,074. Nearly half of Waikato’s people lived in Hamilton.


Transport links assisted settlement and helped Waikato agriculture and industry develop.

Coastal and river shipping

In the 19th century people entered and left Waikato through west-coast seaports, including Port Waikato, Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa) and Kāwhia Harbour to the south of the region.

Inland, rivers were the easiest transport routes. The Waikato River was navigable from Port Waikato to Cambridge and the Waipā as far as Alexandra (now Pirongia). Paddle steamers and barges plied both rivers, carrying freight, passengers, livestock and mail. The Waikato River system was used for freight until after the Second World War. However, shifting sandbars at Port Waikato, willow infestation and sediment build-up began to impede navigation. Port Waikato closed in 1955, heralding the end of most river transport.

Let your fingers do the walking

In 1864, for military reasons, Hamilton, Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Alexandra were connected to Auckland by telegraph. The telephone, introduced in Auckland and Christchurch in 1881, took longer to become established – Hamilton was not connected until around 1900.

In the 1870s the Waihou River was cleared to make it navigable to 19 kilometres above Te Aroha, and farm produce, mainly from the Matamata estate of Josiah Clifton Firth, was shipped down the river and across the Firth of Thames to Auckland. Again, willows became a problem and river traffic had ceased by 1947.

There was a busy port at Raglan from the 1850s, but declining coastal trade forced its closure in 1981.


After 1864 some Māori tracks were developed for horse transport, and coaches travelled the Great South Road (later part of State Highway 1) between Auckland and Hamilton by 1869. Roads were constructed from Hamilton to Cambridge, Morrinsville, Te Aroha, Raglan and other settlements during the 1870s and 1880s. Most were not metalled until the 20th century, and they were hard to negotiate in wet weather. The winding road between Hamilton and Raglan was particularly notorious.

In the early 2000s a project to upgrade State Highway 1 between Cambridge and Mercer began. The 94.5-kilometre expressway provided four lanes for traffic, improving safety and reducing travel times.


Until roads were improved, railways provided faster, more reliable transport. By 1875 a line from Auckland connected with riverboats at Mercer. The railway reached Ngāruawāhia in August 1877, Frankton (near Hamilton) in December 1877, Ōhaupō in June 1878 and Te Awamutu in 1880. Once Māori permitted railway construction through the King Country, the line continued south and Auckland and Wellington were finally connected in 1908. Meanwhile, branch lines linked Hamilton with Cambridge (1884), the thermal spas of Te Aroha (1886) and Rotorua (1894), and the gold-mining centres of Thames (1898) and Waihī (1905).

In 1952 a branch line between Kinleith, Tokoroa and Putaruru was completed to support the Waikato timber industry. The 8.85-kilometre Kaimai railway tunnel, connecting the Waikato region with the port of Tauranga, opened in 1978. This led to the closure of the line linking Morrinsville with Te Aroha and the Bay of Plenty via Paeroa and Waihī. The decline of rail in the later 20th century affected passenger services, but in the 2010s trains still transported large quantities of freight to and from the region.

Air transport

From the 1920s airfields were constructed around the region by local aero clubs. Hamilton’s first aerodrome, at Te Rapa, served some commercial air traffic from 1928, but in 1935 another airfield was developed at Rukuhia, south of Hamilton. War intervened, and the airfield was an air-force base from 1942 until 1946, when it became a civilian airport again. In the 1960s Hamilton Airport’s runways were paved to carry modern aircraft, and a new terminal opened in 1966. When entrepreneur Ewan Wilson’s Kiwi International Airlines offered direct flights between Hamilton and Australia in the mid-1990s, an international terminal was built and runways were extended.


Dairy farming

In the 1860s and 1870s most Waikato farmers raised cattle and sheep, and grew root and grain crops. From 1882 refrigerated shipping allowed perishable goods to be sent to Britain, where there was a growing market for butter and cheese. Would-be dairy farmers snapped up Waikato land because it was ideal for cows – flat or rolling – with year-round rainfall, abundant sunshine, and winters that were mild enough for grass to grow nearly year-round.

Powering production

Electricity powered the machines that revolutionised the Waikato dairy industry. From 1921 the Horahora hydro dam on the Waikato River supplied electricity to dairy farms throughout the region. Within four years at least six dairy factories and 1,000 milking machines were run by electricity.

Overcoming obstacles

Many Waikato swamps had been drained by land companies in the 1800s, and drainage schemes continued into the 1900s. Topdressing of peat and alluvial soils with superphosphate and lime slowly improved pasture. The replacement of shorthorn cattle by Ayrshire, Jersey, Holstein and Friesian breeds lifted the quality of dairy herds.

The New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company

Small dairy factories were established in Waikato from the 1880s, but by 1910 there were two main companies – the New Zealand Dairy Association and the Waikato Co-operative Dairy Company, whose owner, William Goodfellow, was an enthusiast for mechanisation. Milking machines saved farmers time, letting them add to their herds and increase milk production. Farm cream separators eliminated the need to take milk to creameries for separation before factory processing. The Department of Agriculture worried that these new machines were unhygienic and that tainted dairy products would undermine New Zealand’s export market. Goodfellow educated his suppliers in the proper use of machinery, and managed to win the department over.

Speciality cheese pleases

In 2009 nearly half of the winners in the Cuisine NZ Champions of Cheese Awards came from the Waikato region. In contrast to the large dairy factories, artisan cheesemakers use traditional labour-intensive methods to make gourmet cheeses. They include Over the Moon Dairy Company at Putaruru, Kaimai Cheese Company at Waharoa, Aroha Organic Goat Cheese near Te Aroha, Cloudy Mountain at Pirongia, Meyer Gouda Cheese in Hamilton and Albert Alferink’s Mercer Cheese Shop.

Goodfellow also advocated amalgamation of dairy companies, and in 1919 his Waikato Co-operative Dairy Company joined the New Zealand Dairy Association to form the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company – the largest in New Zealand.

Large dairy factories

From the 1920s lorries began collecting cream from farms, and in the 1950s tanker collection of whole milk started. Many small dairy factories closed, and large plants such as the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company factory at Te Rapa, Hamilton, opened.

Dairying in the 21st century

In the 1990s the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company was rebranded as New Zealand Dairy Group, which joined the New Zealand Dairy Board and Kiwi Co-operative Dairies to form Fonterra Co-operative Group in 2001. In the 2010s Fonterra dominated the dairy industry in Waikato and throughout New Zealand. Two Waikato-based dairy companies were Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company at Tatuanui, and Open Country Dairy at Waharoa. In 2012 Waikato had more than 1.8 million dairy cattle, over a quarter of the national herd, and was New Zealand’s main dairying region.

Pollution problems

Intensive farming in Waikato has led to serious environmental damage. Nutrients from fertilisers and animal waste have seeped into waterways, encouraging the growth of weeds and toxic algae. Stock have compacted soil, causing contaminated water to pond and run off into streams and lakes. Reducing pollution while maintaining farm profitability is a major challenge for the 21st century.

Animal farming

On hill country and in districts distant from dairy factories, sheep and cattle farming was more profitable. In 2012 there were approximately 245,000 beef cattle and over 570,000 sheep, 6.5% and just under 2% of the national totals respectively. Deer, goat and pig farming were also significant.

Horse studs

From the 1950s Waikato thoroughbred horse studs, particularly those located between Hamilton and Cambridge, established a reputation for breeding champions. The notable staying power of these horses was attributed to high-quality Waikato pastures. Famous stud stallion Sir Tristram and double Olympic equestrian event winner Charisma both came from Waikato studs.


Waikato has been a wine-growing region since 1901, when vineyards were established near Te Kauwhata. In the 2010s Vilagrad Wines at Ōhaupō, started in 1906, was the oldest surviving winery, despite a devastating fire in 2015 which destroyed some of its buildings. Other wineries included Rongopai Wines and TK Vintners and Bottlers’ contract winery at Te Kauwhata, and Mystery Creek Wines at Ōhaupō.

Horticulture and crops

Asparagus, onions, blueberries, potatoes and melons were the main horticultural crops in the 2010s. Stone fruit, notably nectarines and peaches, and pipfruit, especially apples and pears, were also important crops.

The region also became known for growing maize to provide stock food. In the year to 30 June 2012, about 50,000 tonnes of maize were harvested – over a quarter of the total New Zealand crop.

Farm services

Ruakura Research Centre

In 1901 a state experimental farm was established at Ruakura, and from 1912 this incorporated a farmer training school. Research was carried out first on poultry, bees, fruits and crops, and then on dairying.

After the farm’s closure, the Department of Agriculture opened a research station in 1939. This gained an international reputation for work on animal nutrition and genetics, dairying and milking methods, cattle breeding and pasture research. Ruakura ran farmer education programmes and an annual Farmers’ Week, influencing the expansion of dairying between the 1940s and 1960s. Since 1992 Ruakura has been part of AgResearch, a Crown research institute.

Rukuhia and Whatawhata research stations

A government soil-fertility research station was set up at Rukuhia in 1946, and a hill-country research station at Whatawhata in 1949. Operating until 1967, the Rukuhia station developed drainage systems and fertilisers for Waikato peat lands. Whatawhata carried out animal breeding, soil fertility and agriforestry research to increase the productivity of North Island hill-country farming. It is now owned by Waikato–Tainui and leased by AgResearch.

Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station

In 1892 the state Waerenga Experimental Station was established at Te Kauwhata. After trialling exotic and fruit trees it carried out horticultural research, then from 1901 focused on viticulture. In 1965, as Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station, it came under the control of Ruakura. It closed in 1992.

Livestock Improvement Corporation

The Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) traces its origins to 1909, when farmers’ groups began systematic herd testing. In 1951 the New Zealand Dairy Board opened a commercial artificial insemination centre at Newstead, east of Hamilton. This grew to include dairy improvement and national data management centres. In 1988 it became the Livestock Improvement Corporation. A user-owned cooperative since 2001, LIC provides services to the dairy, beef and deer industries.

Waikato Innovation Park

Waikato’s reputation for scientific research inspired the establishment of Waikato Innovation Park by the Waikato Institute of Technology, the University of Waikato and AgResearch in 2004. The park, strategically located adjacent to Ruakura, brings together around 50 agritech and biotech businesses.

Shows and field days

Local agricultural and pastoral (A & P) associations were formed around the region, and the first Waikato A & P show took place at Cambridge in 1877. Shows alternated between Hamilton and Cambridge until 1892, when Hamilton’s Claudelands showgrounds became the venue. The shows promoted Waikato agriculture and business, and featured fairground entertainment.

In 1907 the Winter Show Association initiated a winter show, which shifted from central Hamilton to Claudelands in the 1960s.

From 1969 the New Zealand National Fieldays Association aimed to showcase the best of local and international agricultural innovations. By the 21st century Fieldays, held annually in June at Mystery Creek, near Hamilton airport, was the largest such event in the southern hemisphere. In 2019 Fieldays attracted nearly 130,000 visitors, many from overseas.

Cow towns

Hamilton’s enduring reputation as a ‘cow town’ was based on the services it provided to farmers from the surrounding district. The long main thoroughfare, Victoria St, was lined with banks and shops, including stock and station agents and farm-machinery outlets. It was a magnet for farmers with money in their pockets. Morrinsville and Te Awamutu also developed as ‘cow towns’.

Farming service industries

Manufacturing businesses connected with farming developed. A. M. Bisley and Company made agricultural machinery from the 1930s. Truscotts (NZ), an Australian company operating in Hamilton from 1953, designed a stainless-steel milk tanker. Gallagher Engineering, which started in the late 1940s and became a company in 1963, pioneered the electric fence. Later, as Gallagher Group, it set up companies producing animal-management and business-security systems, fuel pumps and plastics.


After the Second World War Ossie James founded James Aviation at Rukuhia. A subsidiary, Aero Engine Services, began building aeroplanes – the Airtourer and the Airtrainer – in the 1960s. Meanwhile, another offshoot, Air Parts (NZ), gained world rights to manufacture Fletcher topdressing aircraft. The two firms merged in 1972 as New Zealand Aerospace Industries. In 1982 the company was taken over by Pacific Aerospace Corporation, which developed the Cresco topdressing aircraft, later modified for skydiving. In 2016 it was estimated that more than 1000 aircraft had been built or assembled in the region.

Energy and forestry


Mining of the extensive Waikato coalfields began at Huntly in 1876. Production increased steadily until the 1960s, followed by fluctuations depending on economic conditions. Waikato coal is sub-bituminous ‘brown’ coal, less prized than the bituminous coal found on the South Island’s West Coast. It was used for domestic and commercial heating for most of the 20th century. Production leapt after 2000, mainly to provide fuel for the Glenbrook steel mill at Waiuku and the thermal power station at Huntly.

Workers unite

There have always been pockets of radical political activity in Waikato, because of the presence of large industries employing immigrant workers from countries with strong union traditions such as Britain. In September 1942 a strike by Huntly coal miners created a rift in the wartime coalition cabinet and led to the nationalisation of the mines. Strikes at the Kinleith pulp and paper mill, notably one lasting three months in 1980, also stirred up controversy.

Most coal was mined underground at Huntly until 1915, when mines opened on the west side of the Waikato River. During and after the Second World War, to boost production, opencast mining began near Huntly and Maramarua.

In the 2010s an estimated 2 billion tonnes of coal remained, mostly more than 300 metres below the surface. The main mining companies were Glencoal Energy and the state-owned enterprise Solid Energy New Zealand, which went into liquidation in 2018.

Electricity generation

In 1913 the Waihi Gold Mining Company built a dam at Horahora on the Waikato River, which the government bought in 1919 as part of a plan to manage electricity supply. Another dam was completed at Arapuni in 1929. These power stations also supplied Auckland, the Bay of Plenty and Rotorua.

Growing demand for electricity in the late 1930s created shortages, inspiring a state hydro dam construction programme. The Waikato River was ideal for development because it had a steep fall, narrow gorges, the highest and most stable flow of any North Island river, and massive storage capacity in the form of Lake Taupō. From the 1940s a chain of hydro dams was built on the river. By the mid-1960s they produced nearly half of New Zealand’s power. In the 2010s Waikato hydro dams belonged to Mighty River Power and, along with the company's geothermal and gas power stations, generated 15–17% of New Zealand’s electricity.

Once hydro development peaked, thermal generation, using river water for cooling, was investigated. The first major thermal station was opened in 1958 at Meremere, using local coal. Because soft Waikato coal created too much ash, the station closed in 1991. Another thermal station designed to use coal and gas opened at Huntly in 1983. To reduce emissions and improve efficiency, owner Genesis Energy installed a combined-cycle gas turbine generator in 2007. New Zealand’s largest power station, Huntly generated about 20% of the country’s electricity in the 2010s.

Forestry and wood processing

In 1905 timber company Ellis and Burnand, which had cutting rights over areas of King Country native forest, established its headquarters in Hamilton. It became one of New Zealand’s largest timber-milling enterprises before being sold to Fletchers in the 1960s. The Taupo Totara Timber Company, which logged native forests west of Lake Taupō in the early 20th century, built a light railway line to its Putaruru mill and a mill at Kopakorahi (near present-day Kinleith).

As native forests dwindled, the focus shifted to exotic forestry. South Waikato pumice lands were unsuitable for farming, because cobalt deficiency in the soil caused a stock illness called bush sickness. Exotic trees were planted there and on hill country at Maramarua, north Waikato from 1925 to 1935.

These plantations began maturing in the 1940s, and in 1954 New Zealand Forest Products opened the Kinleith pulp and paper mill. More timber mills were built in south Waikato, and later wood-processing and treatment plants opened in or near Hamilton, and south-east of Te Aroha.

More exotic forests were planted in south Waikato from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s and in north Waikato in the 1960s. In 2010 approximately half of the South Waikato district was forested, but the logging industry was declining. In 2001 it employed 627 people in south Waikato; by 2013 the number had dropped to 330.

The same was true of wood processing. The Kinleith mill expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, but when government market-protection policies ended in the 1980s it became less profitable. Despite modernisation programmes, there were redundancies from the 1980s to the 2000s. The Carter Holt Harvey mill at Putaruru closed in 2008.

Education and health

Whare wānanga

Before the arrival of Europeans, there were several important whare wānanga (schools of learning) in Waikato, including one at Whatawhata and another at Kuranui, south-east of Matamata.


From the 1830s missionary schools taught Māori reading, writing and manual skills. These schools closed during the 1863–64 war, following which schools for the children of military settlers opened. Private and religious schools also emerged from the 1860s.

Public schools were set up by the Auckland Education Board in the bigger towns from 1877. However, apart from failed attempts to establish district high schools at Hamilton and Cambridge in the 1880s, there were no public secondary schools in Waikato until Hamilton High School opened in 1911.

Schools spread from the 1920s, and the post-1945 baby boom necessitated more state primary, intermediate and secondary schools, especially in Hamilton. From the mid-1980s kura kaupapa (Māori-language immersion schools) were set up – in the 2010s there were around 10 in the region.

Technical and tertiary education

Hopes that the Ruakura farm school would become a major training centre were dashed when Massey Agricultural College opened in Palmerston North in 1926. However, Hamilton Technical College, a combined secondary, night and trade-training school, flourished from 1924.

In 1968 the Waikato Technical Institute opened on the central-city site of the technical college, which, renamed Fraser High School, moved to the suburb of Nawton. After several name changes and the introduction of degree courses, the technical institute became Waikato Institute of Technology. In 2009 Wintec had 27,367 students, three campuses in Hamilton, and others around the region.

Sweet as 

Research into mānuka honey has been a sweet success story for the University of Waikato’s chemistry department. In 2009 researchers discovered how the honey’s antibacterial ingredient, methylglyoxal or MGO, develops. They have patented a test to predict whether a batch of mānuka honey will develop antibacterial properties, available to industry through the university’s commercial arm, Waikato Link. 

A branch of the University of Auckland opened in Hamilton in 1960, becoming the University of Waikato in 1964. In 2014 this had around 12,000 students and a separate campus at Tauranga. It had strengths in sciences, education and management studies, and a strong Māori focus. Hamilton Teachers’ College was founded in 1960 and later shared the university campus. It is now part of the university’s School of Education.

The Waikato-Tainui Endowed College at Hopuhopu opened in 2000, focusing on administration programmes and research on Waikato-Tainui history.

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, a Māori-run tertiary education institution, has campuses in Te Awamutu, Hamilton, Huntly and Tokoroa, as well as in other regions.

Waikato Hospital

Hamilton had a hospital in 1864 but, like other military facilities, this closed a few years later. For several decades there was no Waikato hospital. When government hospital districts were defined in 1885, Waikato was divided between Auckland and Thames. After local activism, a Waikato Hospital Board was established in 1886, and the following year a hospital opened in Hamilton. Capacity increased steadily, with a major building programme in the 1960s. Nurse training expanded, and health became one of Hamilton’s biggest industries. In the 2010s Waikato Hospital was a 600-bed regional base hospital offering specialist services to Waikato, Coromandel Peninsula, King Country and Rotorua.

Other health services

Small cottage and maternity hospitals opened in other Waikato towns. In the 2010s the Waikato District Health Board operated a 21-bed hospital at Tokoroa, geriatric hospitals at Te Awamutu and Morrinsville, and community bases in other towns. Raukura Hauora o Tainui provided community health services to Māori in north Waikato, Hamilton and South Auckland.

Te Waikato Sanatorium

In 1903 the government bought a large residence on a hilltop near Cambridge, and converted it into a tuberculosis sanatorium. After the First World War convalescing servicemen were cared for at Te Waikato Sanatorium, but high running costs forced its closure in 1922.

Tokanui Hospital

Tokanui psychiatric hospital opened in 1912 with a few patients transferred from Porirua Hospital (near Wellington), and grew rapidly. In the 1960s Tokanui was one of the largest such institutions in New Zealand, with more than 1,200 patients and hundreds of staff. Praised for its innovative therapy programmes but criticised for its overcrowding, Tokanui closed in 1997 as part of a government policy to abolish large psychiatric institutions. That year the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre, a mental health unit at Waikato Hospital, opened.

Politics and social change

Local politics

Several themes have dominated Waikato local politics. One, common to other regions, was promotion of economic development by chambers of commerce and local councils. Another was rivalry between Hamilton and Cambridge, evident in debates over the best site for the A & P (agricultural and pastoral) show, the hospital and the university. A third was the ambivalent relationship with Auckland. Auckland capitalists financed the development of Waikato lands in the 19th century, and Auckland was the main port for Waikato produce exports. Many 20th-century retail and industrial developments originated in Auckland. However, Auckland control of health and education increasingly irritated Waikato residents and there were determined campaigns to establish local administration of both.

The McGillicuddy Serious Party 

One of the Waikato’s best-known contributions to national politics was the McGillicuddy Serious Party, which flourished between 1984 and 1999. It grew out of a university student group known as Clan McGillicuddy, presided over by self-proclaimed ‘laird’ Graeme Cairns. The party used satire to highlight the absurdity of other parties’ policies, advocating a ‘great leap backwards’ to a medieval way of life to solve the nation’s problems. 

National politics

From the 1860s until 1902 Waikato’s Pākehā electors were often represented in central government by Aucklanders with local financial interests. From the 1890s the Auckland influence waned and local candidates were elected. Generally, conservative candidates were successful. There were two electorates until 1902, when the number increased to reflect population growth.

In the 2010s most of the region fell into three general electorates: Waikato, Hamilton West and Hamilton East. Small areas were included in the Coromandel, Taranaki–King Country and Taupō electorates.

Māori seats

Before 1954, most of Waikato was in the Western Māori electorate, but since then it has been split between two Māori seats. In the 2010s the main Māori electorate was Hauraki–Waikato. South Waikato was part of Te Tai Hauāuru.

From 1935 the Māori seats were usually won by Labour candidates. In 2017 Hauraki–Waikato was retained by Nanaia Mahuta, while Adrian Rurawhe held Te Tai Hauāuru.


After 1945 Hamilton’s voting patterns diverged from neighbouring rural electorates. Labour politicians regularly held the city seats, but lost them to National when the country swung to the right. Hamilton’s votes were counted early on election night, and the results often indicated which party had won the election.

Members of Parliament

Notable National Party members of Parliament have included former diplomat Sir Leslie Munro (1963–72) and Dame Hilda Ross (1945–59), New Zealand’s second woman cabinet minister. Koro Wetere, a Labour MP for Western Māori, was minister of Māori affairs from 1984 to 1990. Raglan (later Waipā) MP Marilyn Waring and Hamilton West MP Mike Minogue, members of the 1975–84 National government, are remembered for standing up to forceful prime minister Robert Muldoon. The Labour prime minister from 1999 until 2008, Helen Clark, was brought up at Te Pahu, a farming area south-west of Hamilton. Labour's Jacinda Ardern, who became prime minister in 2017, was born in Hamilton and grew up in Morrinsville and Murupara.


Local opinion was influenced by and reflected in the media, particularly newspapers. While Auckland papers were available, Waikato newspapers provided detailed local news and commentary. The most important, the long-running Waikato Times, began at Ngāruawāhia in 1872, later shifting to Hamilton. The rival Waikato Argus was set up in 1896 but merged with the Times in 1915.

A region divided 

One event that highlighted the extent of social change in Waikato was the invasion of Hamilton’s Rugby Park by protesters which helped prevent the playing of a match between the South African Springboks rugby team and Waikato on 25 July 1981. Waikato people were strongly represented among both the anti-apartheid protesters and the rugby fans. Clashes between the two groups after the game was called off were indicative of a region divided against itself. 


After 1945 people from other places came to work in Waikato industries, bringing fresh perspectives and enriching the region’s social fabric. The hydro schemes on the Waikato River and the timber mills of south Waikato attracted workers from around New Zealand as well as Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Pacific Islands and other countries. New schools and agricultural and other research institutions attracted professional staff from outside Waikato.

From the late 1940s Māori began to move to urban centres, especially Hamilton. They established hostels, marae and welfare organisations, which gave them greater visibility in civic affairs.

More Asian and African immigrants arrived in the late 20th century. These people brought different religious and cultural practices, which sometimes met with racist outbursts – including an arson attack on a Hamilton mosque in 1998.


There are clear social and economic differences within the region, illustrated by comparing some key statistics for Matamata and Tokoroa. In 2013, 14.3% of Matamata’s population identified as Māori. Tokoroa was 39.2% Māori, nearly three times this. Tokoroa’s unemployment rate was 9.6%, compared with just 3.3% for Matamata. The national rate was 7.1%.

Te Kīngitanga, 1880 onwards

The long struggle of the Kīngitanga (King movement) for recognition has been vital to Waikato Māori. King Tāwhiao declared peace to government representatives at Alexandra (Pirongia) in July 1881, and returned with his people to Waikato in 1889. They and subsequent generations never ceased to demand acknowledgement that the land confiscations were unjust. Kīngitanga deputations visited England in 1884 and 1914 to seek the support of the British Crown, without success.

The Kauhanganui

A Kīngitanga parliament, the Kauhanganui, was established at Maungakawa about 1890. Its location near Cambridge – where the Native Land Court had for the previous decade been converting collective Māori title to eastern Waikato land into individual titles, so it could be more easily divided and sold to Pākehā – was symbolic. The Kauhanganui was a rallying point for the Kīngitanga tribes. It had a council of 12 tribal representatives (called the Tekau-mā-rua), and its 1894 constitution set up courts and police to replace Pākehā institutions. A printing press was used to produce the newspaper Te Paki o Te Matariki. The Kauhanganui shifted around the region in the following years.

Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri


To raise money for the establishment of Tūrangawaewae marae, Te Puea Hērangi formed a group called Te Pou o Mangatāwhiri, which travelled around the North Island in the 1920s giving performances of waiata and haka. Its name referred to the northern Waikato boundary, the Mangatāwhiri River, which British troops had crossed to begin the invasion of the region. In the 2000s another Tainui kapa haka (traditional Māori performing arts) group kept this meaningful name alive.



Tāwhiao’s successors, Kings Mahuta and Te Rata, lived at Waahi , near Huntly, from the 1890s. In the early 1920s Te Rata’s cousin, Te Puea Hērangi, began her efforts to re-establish Ngāruawāhia as the centre of the Kīngitanga. She and her supporters moved there in 1921 and founded a community around Tūrangawaewae marae. She worked with politicians such as Apirana Ngata to develop remaining Māori-owned land and rebuild the Kīngitanga’s economic power. She became well-known to Pākehā as ‘Princess’ Te Puea.

Limited settlement

A 1927 government inquiry, the Sim Commission, declared the confiscation of Waikato lands unjust. Negotiations from the 1930s brought limited compensation in 1946. This was administered by the Tainui Maori Trust Board. Kīngitanga leaders were not satisfied, believing that the government’s payment of a token annual sum was an admission of their guilt. As land had been taken, land should be returned.

Raglan golf course protest

Continuing encroachment on Māori land rankled. The hīkoi (land march) of 1975 brought this to the notice of all New Zealanders, as did a dramatic sit-in protest at Raglan in 1978. Māori land there had been taken for a military airfield in 1941 but was later used for a golf course. When there were plans to extend the golf course into tapu areas in the mid-1970s, Eva Rickard led opposition. The land was finally returned to Māori in 1987.

Settlement act

The land protests of the 1970s and the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 created a political climate in which the Waikato Raupatu Claims Settlement Act 1995 could eventually be passed. Signed into law by Queen Elizabeth II in the presence of the Māori queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the settlement included some land, $170 million in compensation, and a formal apology for the devastation caused by the war and confiscations.

The 21st century

In the 2000s the Kīngitanga includes traditional practices and a modern corporate structure. The poukai, an annual series of visits by the king to Kīngitanga marae in and beyond the Waikato region, dates back to the time of Tāwhiao. So does the Tariao faith, combining Pai Mārire karakia and Kīngitanga ritual, which is used in many ceremonies.

The annual Koroneihana (coronation) hui, another long-standing tradition, brings together tribes from around the country for several days of celebrations and sporting events at Tūrangawaewae.

Assets from the 1995 settlement are managed by a company, Waikato-Tainui Te Kauhanganui Incorporated. The Kauhanganui is sole trustee; its 193 members represent 65 marae.

Economic recovery

The 1995 settlement increased Māori commercial and political influence in Waikato. In Hamilton, for example, Tainui Group Holdings became owner of some central-city sites, the major shareholder in two hotels – the Novotel Hamilton Tainui and the Ibis Hamilton Tainui – and co-developer of The Base, a huge retail centre at Te Rapa.

Sport and tourism

Waikato has produced champion sportspeople such as Don and Ian Clarke (rugby), Linda Jones (horse racing), Lorraine Moller (distance running), Tawera Nikau (rugby league), Mark Todd (equestrian sports), Daniel Vettori (cricket), Rob Waddell (rowing) and Elsie Wilkie (bowls). 

Horse sports

Horse racing was one of the first sports enjoyed by both Māori and Pākehā. There was a racecourse at the Māori village of Rangiaowhia in the 1840s and 1850s, and Māori organised races on remote Ruapuke Beach in the 1870s. After military townships were founded, racing, hunt and later trotting clubs were formed. The Alexandra Racing Club at Pirongia, established in 1866, is one of New Zealand’s oldest, and its annual Boxing Day races are a Waikato institution. The Waikato Racing Club has its course at Te Rapa, Hamilton, and there are also regular racing and trotting events at Te Awamutu, Cambridge, Matamata and Te Aroha. Other equestrian events, such as polo, are also popular.


Waikato’s rivers and lakes provide opportunities for a range of aquatic sports. There were rowing and sailing events on Lake Rotoroa (also known as Hamilton Lake) from the 19th century, and in the later 20th century there were power-boat races on the Waikato River. Boating events took place on Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa) in the early 1900s. An annual regatta has been held at Ngāruawāhia since the 1890s. With its mix of sports, including waka events and Māori cultural activities, this draws large crowds.

From the late 1940s Lake Karāpiro, a hydro lake on the Waikato River, became an international rowing and canoeing venue. The world rowing championships were held there in 1978 and 2010. From 2002 the Gallagher Great Race, an annual rowing contest between the University of Waikato and a team from Cambridge, Harvard or another overseas university, was held on a stretch of the Waikato River through Hamilton.


The symbol of Waikato rugby, Mooloo, was the creation of local radio station 1XH. In 1951 announcer Alan Burcher played the lowing of an anonymous cow during his breakfast session. In a children’s competition, she was named Mooloo, and soon the provincial rugby team made her its mascot. Her effigy was paraded through the streets before games, and her bellow greeted every try scored by the home team.

Rugby union

Waikato rugby began in 1874 when the ‘Hamilton Bounders’ played ‘Cussen’s Elephants’, a team of surveyors. In the 1920s the Waikato Rugby Football Union, based at Rugby Park in Hamilton, grew in strength, rising to glory in the 1950s, when they began winning most of their games. In 1951 they won the Ranfurly Shield (symbol of provincial rugby supremacy) for the first time. Support from around the region was wildly enthusiastic: the Mooloo mascot was paraded down Victoria Street before each match and cowbells were rung by supporters. Waikato’s finest moment came when it beat the South African Springboks at Rugby Park in the first match of their 1956 tour. The cheering could be heard across the city.

Rugby Park was replaced by Waikato Stadium in 2002. Used for a range of sporting events, it is still the home of Waikato rugby, including Super Rugby team the Chiefs.

Rugby league

Rugby league was introduced to Waikato in the early 20th century and soon caught on with Huntly miners and in nearby Māori communities. North of Hamilton, there are three main clubs: Taniwharau, Ngāruawāhia and Tūrangawaewae.

Motor sports

Car and motorcycle clubs were formed from the 1920s, and Waikato roads provided ample scope for rallies. Drag-car racing took place at Meremere from 1973, and in the early 2000s the Maramarua Forest, with its steep logging tracks, proved ideal for trail-bike riding. In 2008 the annual Hamilton 400 event for V8 Supercars began. Central city streets were closed off as a track for races over several days. However, after controversy over the funding of the event, it moved to Pukekohe from 2013. In 2009 Hampton Downs, a motor-racing venue, opened north of Te Kauwhata. The biennial New Zealand round of the World Rally Championship often included several heart-stopping stages in the Raglan area.

Adventure tourism

Outdoor sports grew in popularity after the Second World War. Raglan’s left-hand breaks and The Reef at Port Waikato attracted surfers. Rock climbing started at Wharepapa. The annual Balloons over Waikato festival drew visitors to the region. Kayaking, canoeing and jet-boat tours began on the Waikato River. Once seen as a place you passed through to get to holiday spots elsewhere, by the 2000s Waikato had become a destination for adventure tourism.

Arts, culture and heritage

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.

    • Frank Sargeson, Once is enough: a memoir. Wellington: Reed, 1973, p. 13. Back

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Waikato: 9,325 sq km1
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km


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


  • Mean temperature, January: 18.4°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 8.9°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 1,342 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,020 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Waikato: 282,807 (2006); 305,265 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013


  • Waikato: 76.3%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Waikato: 20.9%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Islander

  • Waikato: 4.3%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%


  • Waikato: 8.2%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Waikato: 1.1%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes and sub-tribes

Waikato confederation, including Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Māhanga and others; Ngāti Hauā; Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Maniapoto

Population of major urban area, 2013

  • Hamilton: 141,612

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Waikato: 22.1%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Waikato: 64.7%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Waikato: 13.2%
  • 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

  • Waikato: 8.9%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%

Information, media and telecommunication

  • Waikato: 1.0%
  • New Zealand: 1.9%

Financial and insurance

  • Waikato: 1.4%
  • New Zealand: 2.8%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Waikato: 5.4%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012


  • Waikato: 568,226
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Waikato: 1,137,459
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Waikato: 243,898
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412
    • Including an approximation for the area transferred to Waikato District in 2010. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Waikato region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 31 o Mei 2010, updated 1 o Hūrae 2015