Kōrero: Wellington region

Whārangi 8. From town to city: 1865–1899

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

During the last half of the 19th century Wellington grew rapidly. In 1867 there were 7,460 residents. By the end of the century Wellington was a city with a population of 49,344.

Vogel’s vision

The country also grew rapidly. One reason was the vision of Julius Vogel, the leading politician of New Zealand from 1870 to 1876. He borrowed to fund public works, especially new roads and railways, and encouraged immigration.

Wellington benefitted from this. In 1876 a huge wooden building, designed to house the entire civil service, was completed near Parliament. Law courts and other government buildings followed.

The value of saving

The Bank of New Zealand made Wellington the financial capital, but in the 1890s it was near collapse. In 1894, the bank was saved – by the government’s sense of national pride. The head office was moved to Wellington, and housed in a grand building opened in 1901. As the 20th century dawned, the BNZ was the country’s largest and most influential bank.

New Zealand’s ‘head office’

Under Vogel, financial institutions saw the value of being close to Wellington – the colony’s centre of power and influence. Some, such as the Australian Mutual Provident Society (AMP), sited their head offices in the city. The North Island’s growing population helped to make Wellington the hub of national trade, and by the 1890s the port was New Zealand’s busiest. Wellington had replaced Dunedin as the colony’s financial capital. For the next 80 years the city was New Zealand’s ‘head office’.

Road and rail links

Improved roads and new railways linked the capital with its hinterland. In 1858 a road was built over the Remutaka Range to the Wairarapa (part of Wellington province). In 1878 it was complemented by a railway. Improved access encouraged farming in the Wairarapa. Between 1864 and 1868 the province’s cattle population increased from 49,000 to 186,000.

Access to Horowhenua developed more slowly. The government began building a railway to the Manawatū in 1879, but soon abandoned it because of the cost. This frustrated Wellington’s business community. The Wellington and Manawatū Railway Company, led by John Plimmer and James Wallace, took over and completed the project in 1886. The new railway gave access to Horowhenua at a time when Māori land was about to be divided into individual titles, paving the way for land sales to settlers.

Kāpiti Coast

Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa people had moved onto Muaūpoko tribal lands on the Kapiti Coast in the 1820s. Missionaries became active at the settlements of Waikanae and Ōtaki in the 1840s – particularly at Octavius Hadfield’s station in Waikanae.

From the 1850s sheep farms developed, and Ōtaki and Paekākāriki became small service and railway towns. Dairying dominated from the 1890s, with factories at Ōtaki, Te Horo and Paraparaumu. Ōtaki was also a focus for horticulture.


In the 1870s Petone, with its flat land, became an industrial offshoot of Wellington. The Railway Department moved its workshops there from Wellington city in 1878. In 1882, taking advantage of the opportunity of exporting frozen meat, James Gear built a freezing works on the Petone foreshore which soon became the settlement’s largest employer. Related industries followed – including wool milling and soap making.

The flourishing city

By the 1890s the flimsy wooden buildings of the early days had been replaced by substantial brick and mortar buildings that were less vulnerable to fire. On the hills behind the town the grand houses of merchants and politicians gave an air of affluence.

The water supply, originally a public health concern, became safer as the remote and unpolluted Wainuiomata catchment, south-east of Lower Hutt, was tapped. In June 1889 electricity began to replace gas lighting on city streets.

The Liberals, elected in 1890, bolstered the capital with new labour and social security policies, expanding the role of government.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Chris Maclean, 'Wellington region - From town to city: 1865–1899', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/wellington-region/page-8 (accessed 27 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Chris Maclean, i tāngia i te 9 Jul 2007, updated 1 Aug 2015