The Wellington region takes in Wellington, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt and Porirua cities and the Kāpiti Coast. It includes all of the territory of Greater Wellington (the Wellington regional council) except Wairarapa.
From the summit of Mt Hector (the highest point in the southern Tararua Range) you can see the entire Wellington region. To the north-west, the Ōtaki River cuts across the coastal plain to the sea. To the south are the harbour heads and Wellington city. Beyond lies Cook Strait and the South Island.
Lying between the southern limit at the harbour, and its northern boundary with Horowhenua, the region consists of 212,300 hectares of mostly rugged country. Flat land is limited. Settlements have developed at Wellington, around Porirua’s twin harbours, in the Hutt Valley and on the Kāpiti Coast. Elsewhere there is little housing.
In 2013 the Wellington region had 430,197 inhabitants.
Many of the capital’s workers live in satellite communities. For most of the 20th century a large proportion worked for the government, but in the mid-1980s, the number of public servants was drastically reduced. In the 21st century the public sector has been growing again.
Wellington’s public transport system is well used by commuters, and is said to be the most efficient in the country. Rail links the city with the northern suburbs, the Hutt Valley, Porirua and the Kāpiti Coast.
The region is riven by earthquake faults, most of them still active. Over 75% of residents live within 10 kilometres of the Wellington Fault, which runs through the heart of the city. Roads and rail are vulnerable to natural hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis.
Rūaumoko, the Māori earthquake god, has been active in Wellington. In about 1460 a massive shake lifted the seabed, linking the island of Motukairangi (now Miramar Peninsula) to the mainland. In 1855, a magnitude 8.2 quake lifted land around the harbour by several metres. The harbour surged and ebbed like water sloshing in a bowl. In the Remutaka Range, near the epicentre, entire hillsides collapsed. The scars are still visible today.
Wellingtonians are used to earthquakes. There are many each year, although most are too slight to be felt. Many city buildings have been demolished as unsafe, or strengthened to comply with a stringent building code. This is prudent, as the region is overdue for a big earthquake. It could have a severe impact, especially on downtown Wellington city, which is built on reclaimed land.
If the shaking makes the region’s residents nervous, there are compensations. Opportunities for recreation abound in the hills, on the harbour and around the varied coastline.
Wellington’s vibrant urban culture supports its claim to be the ‘arts capital’ of New Zealand.
Wellington city residents, with incomes above the national average, are well placed to nurture the arts. Elsewhere in the region incomes are lower, especially in the Hutt Valley and Porirua, where local industry and manufacturing are based.
On the Kāpiti Coast, a mixture of young families and retired people live in one of the country’s fastest growing communities. A more equable climate and a relaxed lifestyle make Kāpiti especially attractive to the elderly.
The islands of Kāpiti, Mana and Matiu/Somes (in Wellington Harbour) are important habitats for restoring the region’s diversity of plants and animals. Zealandia (the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary), just 2 kilometres from the city centre, is a predator-free haven for endangered native birds and other wildlife. Ōtari–Wilton’s Bush is the country’s only botanic garden devoted exclusively to native plants, containing more than 1,200 species and cultivars.
Wellington was once ignored by tourists, but it gets many visitors today, thanks to attractions such as the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. More than 120 cruise ship visits were scheduled for the 2019/20 season.
In the early 21st century the entire region was growing strongly, led by Wellington city. Its population increased by 16.6% between 2001 and 2013, compared to 11.6% for the region as a whole. Wellington appeared confident and prosperous. Yet residents are also aware that Rūaumoko (the Māori god of earthquakes) is a fitful sleeper who will one day abruptly awake.
Māori mythology describes how the demigod Māui hooked a huge fish and hauled it out of the sea. His catch, Te-Ika-a-Māui (Māui’s fish), we now know as the North Island. Te Ūpoko-o-te-Ika (the head of the fish) is the Wellington region. The eyes of the fish are Wellington Harbour and Lake Wairarapa.
According to tradition, the harbour was originally a lake. But Ngake, one of two taniwha (water monsters) who lived there, became frustrated at his confinement and used his great strength to carve a route to the open sea – the harbour entrance. His companion, Whātaitai, tried to follow but was washed up exhausted on the southern shore. He is visible today as the hill above Hātaitai (the name is derived from Whātaitai).
Wellington is the only New Zealand city to be built on a bed of greywacke (a hard grey sandstone). This formed beneath the sea about 230 million years ago, and became hardened. Over the last one million years it has been uplifted to form the North Island’s main mountain ranges. Weathering has changed much of the greywacke around Wellington to yellow clay-rich material – the bane of Wellington gardeners.
The region lies on the meeting point of two tectonic plates. Twenty to thirty kilometres beneath Wellington, the Australian Plate rides up over the edge of the Pacific Plate, buckling and folding the earth’s surface. Periodically the sudden release of tension causes earthquakes, which can change the landscape.
Movement occurs along three faults – lines of weakness – that cross the lower North Island. One of these, the Wellington Fault, dissects the region. The land directly west of the fault is rising, whereas that to the east is sinking. This movement has created the Upper and Lower Hutt basins. The southern part of the Lower Hutt basin is flooded and forms Wellington Harbour. The northern part (from the Petone foreshore) and the Upper Hutt basin have been filled by gravel and sand, carried down the Hutt River from the Tararua Range.
The Kapiti Coast is another area of flat land – a series of sand dunes and river fans that have gradually been built out from the mountains to form a plain. Ocean currents have added to the coastline by depositing sediment, as well as eroding it. In some areas, large walls have been built to protect the foreshore.
Plans for dealing with a major earthquake have been made and the public has been warned. Some experts think that hundreds will be killed. Others predict thousands of casualties, especially on a weekday, when downtown Wellington is crowded. There will also be fires fuelled by broken gas pipes. And the likely clean-up cost? $11 billion.
About 1460 CE a massive earthquake, called Haowhenua (the land destroyer) by Māori, raised sections of Wellington’s coastline. The island of Motukairangi was suddenly joined to the mainland – today it is Miramar Peninsula.
The largest earthquake in recent times (magnitude 8.2) was in 1855. It raised the Wairarapa coastline by 3 metres, and land around Wellington by 1–2 metres. The quake brought benefits to the town – it drained Te Aro swamp, yielding new land. The Basin Reserve, intended as an inland dock, became a sports ground. Further afield, a new road was able to be built between Wellington and Petone on a rock platform raised from the sea.
In 1942 two strong quakes damaged city buildings and as a result, architectural ornamentation such as pediments was removed. Two more strong quakes occurred in 2013, and another in 2016 necessitated the demolition of several modern office buildings erected on reclaimed land on Wellington’s waterfront. Because further large earthquakes are likely – even overdue – new buildings are designed to survive. Older buildings must be either strengthened or demolished.
The region’s main river is the Hutt. It rises in the southern Tararua Range, flows south-west along the Wellington Fault, then turns south and flows into the eastern side of Wellington Harbour. The other main river is the Ōtaki. Rising on the western side of the Tararua Range, it travels north-west and flows into the Tasman Sea south of Ōtaki.
New Zealand lies in the path of the roaring forties – the persistent westerly winds that prevail between 40º and 50º South. The central ranges deflect these winds through Cook Strait, the narrow gap between the North and South islands. Funnelled through this passage, they become stronger. Wellington is in the teeth of these winds.
Gusty north-westerlies alternate with southerlies. North-westerly winds predominate in spring and summer, while southerlies are most common in winter. Records show that in one year, northerlies and north-westerlies blew for 61% of the time and southerlies for 28%. Gusts of more than 60 kilometres per hour are recorded nearly every second day – 173 days a year on average – compared to just 30 days for Rotorua and 35 for Nelson.
On rare occasions, tropical cyclones stray south and become severe storms in Wellington. In February 1936 a storm drove ships aground in the harbour and flattened forest in the Tararua Range. In April 1968 a hurricane-force southerly drove the ferry Wahine onto rocks at the harbour’s entrance. Fifty-one lives were lost. The same day, Ōteranga Bay (on the shore of Cook Strait) was hit by a 267 kilometre-per-hour gust – the highest ever recorded in the region.
Wellington’s most brutal winds usually come from the south, dragging cold air up from the Southern Ocean, blasting the region and sometimes leaving snow on the higher hills.
The city’s average daily temperature is 12.8º C (slightly above the national average) and it averages 2,055 hours of sunshine a year – a similar amount to Auckland and Christchurch.
In the past, the climate was more severe. The ice ages (the most recent ending 10,000 years ago) caused the sea level to drop more than 100 metres as water was absorbed by extensive polar ice caps. During the coldest phase (about 25,000–15,000 years ago), the sea retreated and much of Cook Strait became a plain stretching far to the west. In the mountains, glaciers formed, and traces of them can still be seen in the Tararuas. The rise and fall of the sea level is evident in coastal terraces such as Tongue Point, on the south coast.
Wellington city receives an average of 1,207 millimetres of rain each year – the national average is about 1,400 millimetres.
Before European settlement, vegetation in the Wellington region was roughly divided into four zones:
Māori had cleared vegetation around the harbour and Mt Victoria, but the rest of the region remained heavily forested. European settlers then cleared large tracts of forest. Apart from patches in Ōtari–Wilton’s Bush and Wainuiomata, little lowland forest survives. The beech and conifer–broadleaf forests in the hills to the north and east were saved when the Crown purchased the Tararua and Remutaka ranges in 1870.
Wellington’s native bush once reached into the town. Early resident Ebenezer Maxwell recalled ‘a magnificent dense forest – matai, rimu, kahikatea (white pine), miro, totara, maire, kowhai … and a wonderful profusion of creepers, ferns and mosses covering the ground, logs and stumps, and right up the trees and along the limbs, making an entrancing fairy land.’ 1
For much of the 20th century Wellington’s hills were dominated by livestock farming. In the 1930s the first major reforestation project began when government relief workers planted the flanks of Mt Victoria and Tinakori Hill (now called Te Ahumairangi) with exotic trees – pine and macrocarpa.
From the 1950s farmers began to let their poorer lands convert to gorse and scrub, through which native species began to re-emerge. This process continues. In summers past, the hills would turn the colour of straw. Today, many are green with regenerating bush.
The forests once teemed with bird life. This included the huia, North Island takahē and moa (all now extinct), and the still common tūī, fantail and morepork. Ducks and bitterns lived in swamps and waterways. Other wildlife included the lizard-like tuatara, bats, and wētā. Fur seals and sea lions rested on the south coast. The loss of forests and the introduction of exotic birds and mammalian predators led to the decline or local extinction of several native bird species, including weka and saddlebacks.
Wellington is a showcase of conservation projects. An example is Matiu (Somes Island) in Wellington Harbour. Until 1995 it was used as an animal quarantine station. Today it is a sanctuary for endangered species. The ancient native reptile, tuatara, has been released there, along with several bird species including kākāriki (parrots).
Further north, off the west coast, Mana Island is being restored. A range of seabirds and plant species have been successfully reintroduced. Both Matiu and Mana are ‘open’ sanctuaries, which the public are free to visit. They complement the long established ‘closed’ sanctuary on Kāpiti Island (permits are required for a visit), where native birds, including the rare kōkako and takahē, thrive.
In Wellington city Zealandia (formerly Karori Sanctuary) is a ‘mainland island’ protected by a predator-proof fence. The little spotted kiwi has been reintroduced there after more than a century’s absence from the mainland.
Possum eradication has had a marked effect on the city’s bird life. Tūī have made a comeback and are often seen and heard in suburban gardens. Even kākā and saddlebacks sometimes visit gardens close to the Karori sanctuary.
On Wellington’s rugged south coast there is a large marine reserve around Taputeranga Island. There is another marine sanctuary at Kāpiti Island, where it has been shown that these environments can be quickly revitalised.
Kupe, the great Polynesian explorer, named the islands in Wellington Harbour after his daughters, Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island). After travelling down the east coast of Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island), he and his companions rested at the harbour. At Seatoun, a distinctive rock was named Te Aroaro-o-Kupe (‘the presence of Kupe’) in his honour.
Kupe then left to explore the other side of Te Moana-a-Raukawa (Cook Strait), but was away so long that his people became worried. In despair, one of his daughters threw herself from a clifftop on the southern coast onto the rocks below, which were stained with her blood. This area, with its rust-coloured stones, is known as Pari-whero (Red Rocks).
Eventually Kupe rejoined his people and they returned to Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland. According to tradition, as they began their journey along the west coast of Te Ika-a-Māui, Kupe made the islands of Kāpiti and Mana by slicing them from the mainland with mighty blows of his patu (club).
The people of the chief Tara, who was descended from the ancestor Whātonga, settled around the great harbour, which his wife named after him. The Muaūpoko and Rangitāne tribes, who are also descended from Whātonga, settled in Horowhenua and Wairarapa.
Around the 17th century Tara’s descendants, the Ngāi Tara people, were joined by the Ngāti Ira tribe from Hawke’s Bay. Other tribes, including Rangitāne, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu also occupied parts of the Wellington region, often before moving on to Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island).
The introduction of European muskets to New Zealand caused massive unrest. During 1819–20 a war party of more than 1,000, including the chief Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa, swept south through the North Island, besieging villages and killing people of local tribes with muskets. When the raiders reached the shores of Cook Strait they saw several sailing ships – probably those of the Russian explorer Bellingshausen. Te Rauparaha saw the strait as a point of contact with Europeans. On his return to the Waikato, he persuaded his people to migrate to the region.
In 2005, archaeologists working on a site for an apartment project unearthed the remains of three whare (huts). They were believed to be part of Te Aro pā (fortified village), built by the Ngāti Mutunga people in the 1820s and later occupied by other iwi. It was the first such find in Wellington and has been preserved within the Taranaki Street complex.
As the Ngāti Toa tribe journeyed south they were joined by allies from Taranaki. Later, Ngāti Raukawa from the Waikato also came south, and the Manawatū and Horowhenua regions were given to them. The Te Āti Awa people occupied the Kāpiti Coast, while Ngāti Toa kept Kāpiti and Mana islands as well as the Porirua district.
During the mid-1820s, tension between these tribes caused further upheaval. Taranaki tribes (Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga) moved south, and became Wellington’s tangata whenua (people of the land). Today, a large sculpture of Mt Taranaki forms an archway over the entrance to Wellington’s waterfront stadium – a symbol of this link with the tribes of the north.
Cook Strait was named after the British navigator James Cook, who sailed past it during his first visit in 1770. Three years later, on his second voyage, Cook explored the northern side of the strait, completing a chart he had begun three years earlier. Only the coast between Capes Terawhiti and Palliser remained uncharted.
While following the shore, Cook found what looked like a large harbour. On 2 November 1773 he anchored at the entrance to wait for slack water before sailing into the narrow, rocky channel. However, a southerly blew up, and he sailed away.
By the 1820s, more Europeans were arriving at Port Nicholson (as it came to be known, after John Nicholson, the Sydney harbourmaster). Among them were the French, rivals of the British – both were expanding their empires. In 1824 and 1827 the French naval officer Dumont d’Urville visited Cook Strait. Like Cook, he did not enter the harbour.
In 1825 the London-based New Zealand Company was founded to foster immigration from Britain. It sent the barque Rosanna and the cutter Lambton, under the command of Captain James Herd, to find a suitable settlement site. After surveying places in the South Island, Herd entered Wellington Harbour in May 1826. The inner section of the bay was named Lambton Harbour, after one of the company’s promoters.
The visitors found few Māori living there. Most had fled six years earlier after an attack by a party of northern tribes, including the chief Te Rauparaha. With 40 immigrants on board, a settlement could have been started – one passenger observed that the land near the harbour was a perfect site. But because they were unsure of the Māori response, the two ships sailed away with the passengers still aboard. They got off at Sydney, and the New Zealand Company went into abeyance.
During the 1820s and 1830s most European interest in the region centred on Mana and Kāpiti islands. Kāpiti was the hub of the local whaling industry. There was also whaling at Mana, and from the early 1830s Europeans were farming there.
The islands were the heart of Ngāti Toa territory. Te Rauparaha lived on Kāpiti, and another chief, Te Rangihaeata, lived on Mana. Both did much trade with Europeans, exchanging shiploads of flax fibre for muskets, liquor, tobacco and other goods.
In 1838, Lieutenant P. Chetwode arrived at Mana Island on HMS Pelorus. He was immediately asked to look into the murder of a whaling skipper. Then at Kāpiti Island, he found that a whaling captain had drowned himself after his crew deserted. One deserter, an Australian Aborigine, was murdered by local Māori. Chetwode then called into Cloudy Bay, just in time to prevent a gun battle between whaling gangs.
The Cook Strait region was the meeting place of two very different cultures – Māori and Pākehā – whose encounters were without restraint of law or regulation. Violence was common. Before the 1830s, few warships visited, but by the end of the decade British naval vessels came more regularly. Their captains were often drawn into local affairs, and they urged the British authorities to bring order to the region.
British missionary groups also pressured their government to intervene, especially to protect Māori from European land speculators. In London a revamped New Zealand Company, for example, aimed to start a settlement in the region.
By early 1839 it seemed likely the British would annex New Zealand. This would mean that only the British government (the Crown) could buy Māori land. Aware that this would reduce the profitability of the planned colony, the New Zealand Company sent an advance party on the Tory to buy as much land as possible before the Crown banned sales.
In August the Tory arrived in Port Nicholson. On board, the leader of the group, Colonel William Wakefield, and his interpreter, Dicky Barrett, cheaply acquired vast tracts of land around the harbour from chiefs Te Puni and Wharepōuri. When Te Rauparaha protested that the land was not theirs to sell, Wakefield ignored his complaints. With shiploads of immigrants already on their way, he was determined to gain as much land as possible.
After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Māori and the British Crown on 6 February 1840, the New Zealand Company was barred from negotiating further land sales. Still, the transfer of land from Māori to European had begun. While Māori recognised Europeans’ desire for land, few understood the scale of settlement planned by the New Zealand Company.
Set up to promote a British colony in New Zealand, the New Zealand Company chose Wellington as its first organised settlement. It was planned to be the new colony’s capital city.
The company hoped to create an orderly centre, but early Wellington was chaotic. Late in 1839 William Wakefield, the company’s New Zealand agent, sailed from Wellington in search of more land, leaving instructions for the settlement to be laid out around Lambton Harbour.
However, the company’s chief surveyor, William Mein Smith, placed the town near the mouth of the Hutt (Heretaunga) River, where there was enough flat land for the town plan to be implemented.
Early in 1840 the first six immigrant ships arrived off Pito-one (now Petone). There had been little preparation for their arrival. With Māori help the first settlers built huts along the foreshore. The young settlement was called Britannia. But within months it was flooded by the Hutt River.
Many of the first Wellington landowners were speculators who remained in Britain, which encouraged squatting. Arriving in Wellington in 1841, settler Thomas Bevan discovered a squatter on land bought by his local vicar in Wales. Bevan reported, ‘He has made himself a small house on it, and fenced for his own use, a little garden. … He has let the remainder of the acre to five others, who have built temporary huts upon it.’ 1
On his return from England a few months later, Wakefield moved the town to less flood-prone Lambton Harbour. This land had not been sold by its Māori occupants, but this did not stop the company subdividing it into town acres. One tenth of these were kept for Māori use. A green reserve running around the edge of the settlement was also set aside. This became known as the Town Belt.
When settlers arrived to claim their lots, they found that some lay within Māori pā, or were inaccessible. Some settlers, and displaced Māori, ended up squatting on land that had absentee owners.
The first settlers forged strong trading relationships with Māori, exchanging goods and cash for fresh food and labour. Merchants took land along the beach, building warehouses and jetties. The most novel of the jetties was Plimmer’s Ark, a ship’s hulk that merchant John Plimmer beached in 1849 at the southern end of Lambton Quay. The Ark soon became a centre for Wellington trade.
Wakefield had hoped to make Wellington the capital of New Zealand, but in 1840 Governor William Hobson chose Auckland instead. Hobson also began looking into the New Zealand Company’s land purchases.
Wakefield wanted Wellington to be independent. But at the same time he needed British troops to defend it against Māori attack, which seemed a real prospect after a conflict on the Wairau plains in 1843. Some Nelson settlers, led by Arthur Wakefield, had tried to take up land they believed they had purchased from the Ngāti Toa tribe in the Wairau Valley, Marlborough. Ngāti Toa disputed the deal, and resisted the takeover. In a confrontation four Māori and 22 Europeans were killed. Settlers urged Governor Robert FitzRoy (Hobson’s successor) to punish the tribe. But FitzRoy thought Ngāti Toa had been provoked, and refused to do so.
Tension between settlers and Māori grew. Following skirmishes in the Hutt Valley and at Pāuatahanui, Governor George Grey, who replaced FitzRoy, boldly detained Te Rauparaha in July 1846. The following month his troops bombarded Te Rangihaeata’s pa at Battle Hill. After thwarting the attack for several days, Te Rangihaeata retreated north. This ended Ngāti Toa resistance and allowed European settlement to spread.
By the early 1850s the Māori population was dwindling, and some returned to tribal homelands in Taranaki. Others settled on reserve lands, such as Waiwhetū in Lower Hutt.
Grey was more successful than the New Zealand Company in keeping order in Wellington. Grappling with rising debts, the company collapsed in 1850.
After government forces removed Ngāti Toa-aligned Māori in 1846, the Hutt Valley grew as a farming and horticultural district. Over the next few decades settlers cleared the forest and built townships at Lower Hutt, Petone and Upper Hutt.
Hemmed in by hills and sea, Wellington’s business district lacked room to grow. In 1857 the government reclaimed from the sea a triangle of land next to Plimmer’s Ark. The newly formed Bank of New Zealand bought a block at the southern apex and built its Wellington branch office. At the seaward end, the town’s first deep-water wharf (Queen’s Wharf) was built, as was a new post office and bond store.
This was the beginning of Wellington’s financial district. Like other mercantile cities, it grew beside the main wharves, reflecting the strong links of finance and communications with trade.
Trade alone was not enough to guarantee the town’s survival. In 1865 the capital was finally moved from Auckland to Wellington. Only then did the city have a certain future.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
At the beginning of the 20th century Wellington was known as ‘the Empire City’, reflecting its strong links with Britain, and an ambitious outlook. Times were prosperous, and department stores, banks, and specialist shops sprang up along the city’s main streets.
This growth coincided with a wave of technological innovation. In 1898 New Zealand’s first cars appeared on Wellington’s streets. Within a decade, they were common. In 1902 a new cable car ran from Lambton Quay up to Kelburn. Two years later electric trams began to replace horse-drawn ones, and isolated villages became city suburbs.
The first aeroplane flight from Wellington was in 1911, when Arthur Schaef coaxed his home-made aircraft aloft at Lyall Bay. He flew only a short distance, yet just nine years later, planes began to cross Cook Strait.
At the same time, ‘motion pictures’ arrived in Wellington, triggering a boom in theatre building.
In 1909 a crematorium was built at the Karori cemetery, allowing Wellingtonians, for the first time, a choice of burial or cremation.
The amalgamation of outlying boroughs with the city improved services such as drainage, sewerage and water supply, as well as greatly increasing the size of Wellington. In 1921 the last such borough, Miramar, became part of the city. Wellington had grown five-fold in 20 years.
From the 1920s, excursion trains began taking city holidaymakers to boarding houses and hotels on the Kāpiti Coast. Developers sold land for baches (holiday cottages) at Ōtaki, Paraparaumu and Raumati beaches.
Of the 99,500 New Zealanders who went to the First World War, 16,697 did not return. To mark their sacrifice the government built a bell tower with a carillon (a set of bells) in Wellington – its music to be broadcast on radio. On Anzac Day in 1932, a huge crowd gathered for the opening of the National War Memorial.
During the First World War (1914–18), the region’s men fought on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East. Thousands were killed or maimed. For some people, this sacrifice illustrated the city’s loyalty to the empire.
In the 1920s the Hutt Valley became the focus of New Zealand’s motor-vehicle assembly industry. The region was chosen because it was central to national markets. General Motors, Ford, Austin, and Todd Motors all built plants in the valley, providing hundreds of jobs.
The tobacco factory of W. D. & H. O. Wills was another newcomer. It employed over 700 people, many of them women.
Economic depression ended the 1920s boom. But Wellington city was spared its worst effects by mayor George Troup’s visionary leadership. Using government subsidies for relief workers, he promoted projects such as Wellington’s first airport, the National War Memorial, the National Art Gallery, a new milk depot and a new railway station.
From 1935 rising export prices allowed the first Labour government to kick-start the economy. Work began on large state rental housing schemes in Wellington and the Hutt Valley, and on a suburban train network. By the end of the decade there was renewed growth and confidence.
The New Zealand Centennial Exhibition held at Rongotai (an eastern suburb) in 1939–40 was a triumph for both Wellington and the nation. Open for six months, it attracted more than 2.5 million visitors at a time when the country’s population was 1.6 million – many people made repeat visits. It was a celebration of nationhood in the most spectacular amusement park in the southern hemisphere.
In 1942, a Japanese invasion of New Zealand seemed imminent, and American soldiers arrived in Wellington in large numbers. Camps were built at Paekākāriki, on the shores of Pāuatahanui Inlet, in the Hutt Valley and in Wellington.
Training for the war in the Pacific, the 20,000 Americans were an invasion themselves. Wellington women welcomed them, but local men were less impressed.
One Saturday night in 1943, simmering tension between New Zealand and US servicemen erupted into an all-night brawl on Manners Street. The underlying cause was resentment of the Americans’ popularity. Better paid than Kiwi troops, they were often given preference in shops, restaurants and taxis. Local women liked their courtesy and sophistication, as well as the chocolates, cigarettes and nylon stockings they provided. Five hundred Wellington women married Americans.
Nazism and war also brought European refugees to Wellington, where many contributed to cultural life. After the war, hundreds of Greek and Dutch immigrants settled in the city.
Increased immigration, which included growing numbers of rural Māori, raised the demand for housing. With Wellington city running out of room for new accommodation, the government looked to the Hutt Valley. In the 1940s it built three state housing suburbs – Epuni, Naenae, and Taitā – for 20,000 people. A new suburban rail line connected people to workplaces further down the valley and in Wellington.
In the 1950s the government began to build a city at Porirua – New Zealand’s largest state settlement ever. Linked to Wellington by a motorway, Porirua was the confident vision of planners and engineers who hoped to create a new society.
To provide local jobs, the state encouraged industries to set up in Porirua, or to move there. In 1975, Todd Motors moved from Petone to a new plant above the Porirua town centre. Nicknamed ‘Todd University’, it employed around 1,000 people, and was Porirua’s largest factory.
Joining the housing boom, the Wellington City Council built high-rise apartment blocks for single people and couples. And in 1959 Wellington’s new airport opened at Rongotai.
In 1966 a massive cyclone struck the Tokelau Islands, and many Tokelauans left their wrecked homes for a new life in New Zealand. Almost 1,000 settled in Wellington, mostly in the Hutt Valley and Porirua. They were part of a major influx of Pacific peoples in the 1960s. By 2006 the region had nearly 34,000 Pacific people – 8.5% of the region’s total population. These groups have enlivened Wellington, and areas such as Newtown and Porirua have a distinctive Pacific flavour.
In an era of full employment, strong demand for workers caused a labour shortage. Pacific Islanders were encouraged to migrate to New Zealand, and many settled in Wellington, adding to the city’s diversity.
The baby-boomer generation of post-war children grew up without knowing economic depression or war. Taking prosperity for granted, they challenged social conventions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, was often the focus of demonstrations. Influenced by protest movements overseas, the city’s youth rallied against the Vietnam War, and attended gatherings such as the 1968 ‘Peace, Power and Politics in Asia’ conference.
The United Women’s Convention held in 1975 was one of a series of feminist events that challenged stereotypes and male dominance.
Also in 1975, thousands of Māori walked the length of the North Island to Parliament on a march (hīkoi) to protest against the ongoing loss of their land. A number of protesters stayed on, camping in Parliament grounds. Such scenes were evidence of a mood for change.
From the late 1960s, New Zealand’s highly regulated economy began to falter. With exchange and interest rates and much else fixed by the government, Wellington became a byword for red tape. In the 1984 election the regulatory National government was swept from power by a Labour Party landslide. A period of rapid reform followed.
Pledging to make New Zealand more efficient and competitive, the government deregulated the economy, reduced trade barriers and cut its own workforce. These measures weakened Wellington’s economy. Companies had less need to be close to central government, and many moved their head offices to Auckland – now New Zealand’s commercial and financial capital.
Reduced import tariffs made the car assembly industry in the Hutt Valley and Porirua uneconomic, and the plants closed. Some inefficient factories – such as Petone’s extensive Gear meatworks – also closed. There were large-scale redundancies in the public sector, and unemployment in Wellington soared.
During the 1990s Wellington overcame its setbacks, branching into service-based, ‘creative’ industries such as film, information technology, biotechnology and design.
Today the region’s economy is driven by the service sector. Part of this change is due to renewed growth in the public sector. In 2013 the government employed 31,800 people (14% of the region’s total workforce). This has driven growth in the city’s commercial property market, which is among New Zealand’s strongest.
With numerous cultural venues and events, including the successful biennial International Festival of the Arts (established in 1984), the city promoted itself as New Zealand’s cultural capital. Its reputation was boosted by the 1998 opening of the state-funded Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on a revitalised waterfront. This and other facilities, including a sports stadium on the waterfront which opened in 2000, attract a growing number of visitors.
During the 1990s many new apartments were built in the heart of the city, and the liquor laws were liberalised. Once virtually deserted at night and at weekends, by the early 2000s Courtenay Place – the city’s entertainment district – was teeming with life.
In 1990, the upbeat slogan ‘Absolutely Positively Wellington’ reflected the city’s new confidence as the ‘capital of the arts’. Two years later the phrase was made official. The success of film-maker Peter Jackson’s Lord of the rings trilogy led to a modified version –‘Absolutely Creatively Wellington’.
The people on the street also changed. For a long time, most Wellingtonians were of British descent, but by the 21st century the population was more diverse. As well as significant Māori and Pacific Island communities, there was a growing Asian presence. Boosting the existing community were migrants from China, India, South Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam. Groups of Somali refugees arrived in the city from the 1990s.
In the 21st century the region had recovered from the doldrums of the 1980s. Even so, Wellington remains vulnerable to cuts in government employment, and the departure of businesses and workers. Growth strategies focus on the region’s communications network and its intellectual and creative potential.
When the New Zealand Company acquired Wellington from the chiefs Te Puni and Te Wharepōuri in 1839, Māori outnumbered Europeans. But within a year there were 1,200 Europeans living alongside 800 Māori around Port Nicholson (Wellington Harbour).
By 1857 only 63 Māori remained in the town of Wellington. Many had left for remote land reserves, granted in partial compensation for the loss of their Wellington land. Others returned to tribal homelands in Taranaki and elsewhere. In that year, 396 Māori lived in the lower Hutt Valley and 124 in Upper Hutt.
From the 1860s onwards Wellington grew rapidly, mainly because of immigration from Britain and the growth policies of central government. In 1864 it had 4,741 European residents; by 1901 Wellington had become a city of 49,344 people, half of them New Zealand-born.
Attracted by jobs and city life, Māori migrated to the Wellington area after the Second World War – at an average of 100 per year between 1945 and 1956. Between 1961 and 1965 this rose to an average of 457 per year.
Immigration from Britain also increased after the war. Many migrants settled in state housing in the Hutt Valley and Porirua. These centres grew strongly until the 1980s, when economic restructuring reduced job opportunities.
Wellington city’s population more than doubled between 1901 and 1936 (to 115,705). After that it grew quite slowly.
In the 1990s further growth was fuelled by economic deregulation and a desire by some to be close to city amenities and culture. In 1991 there were 136,911 residents; by 2013 the city’s population had reached 190,959. The larger Wellington region’s population grew more slowly during this period, from 343,054 to 430,197. Much of this growth occurred on the Kāpiti Coast.
A notable trend in Wellington has been the increase in people living in inner-city apartments. Between 2001 and 2013 the number of inner-city residents (between Willis Street and Cambridge Terrace) jumped from 2,994 to 7,329 – an increase of 145%.
In the 2000s many new Wellingtonians came from overseas, especially Asia, reflecting New Zealand’s more flexible immigration policy. In 2013, 76% of the region’s residents described their ethnicity as European. The next largest group were Māori (12.7%), followed by Asian (11.3%), Pacific peoples (8.6%) and then Middle Eastern, Latin American and African (1.6%). (Multiple ethnicities were permitted.)
While ethnic minorities reside across the region, there are also clusters. Nearly a third (30.5%) of the region’s Māori live in Lower Hutt, making up 20.8% of its population. Almost two-thirds of the region’s Asians (61.5%) live in Wellington city (15.7% of the city’s population) and over a third (36.4%) of Pacific peoples live in Porirua city (26.2% of the city’s population).
The least ethnically diverse area is the Kāpiti district. While 13.2% of its residents are Māori, only 6.4% of the population identified as Pacific, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American or African.
In 2013 the Wellington region consisted of four cities and one district:
The region is the third most populous in the country, after Auckland and Canterbury.
In 1840 New Zealand became British territory, under the governorship of Captain William Hobson. He based his government in Auckland.
This did not please the New Zealand Company, which had been set up in England to promote British immigration to the colony. Wellington was its first organised settlement, and had been administered through a Wellington Council of Colonists, led by William Wakefield. In 1842 Hobson allowed the town's residents a degree of local government. George Hunter became Wellington’s first mayor, the head of an elected local council.
From 1853 a system of provincial government divided New Zealand into six autonomous areas. Dr Isaac Featherston became the first superintendent of Wellington Province, a post he held until 1870.
Wellington’s self-government was short-lived. While Wellingtonians were delighted when Governor Hobson granted them some autonomy, the British government was not impressed. London overruled Hobson. After less than a year, Wellington’s local council disbanded.
The transfer of the capital to Wellington in 1865 helped guarantee its survival. After the provinces were abolished in 1876, government became more centralised in Wellington, boosting the city’s growth.
Since 1871 Wellington has been run by a city council. The Hutt County Council, which governed the rest of the region, for many years extended from Wellington’s south coast up to Waikanae.
As the region grew, urban parts of Hutt and Makara counties became autonomous boroughs: Petone in 1888, Lower Hutt in 1891, Eastbourne in 1906, Johnsonville in 1908 and Upper Hutt in 1926. Meanwhile, boroughs close to Wellington – Melrose, Onslow, Karori and Miramar – gradually joined the city. The last areas to become self-governing were Porirua in 1962 and Kāpiti in 1974. Ōtaki has since joined the Kāpiti Coast. Lower Hutt adopted the name Hutt City in 1989 after taking over Petone, Eastbourne and Wainuiomata.
The Hutt County Council was abolished in 1988. The following year the Wellington Regional Council was established. Now known as the Greater Wellington Regional Council – it includes most of Wairarapa – its responsibilities include biosecurity, environmental management, flood protection, pest control, transport and water supply.
The Wellington region is represented by 10 members of Parliament: there are seven general electorates, and three Māori electorates include parts of the region.
At Ōtaki, the Ngāti Raukawa tribe’s wharenui (meeting house), built in 1936, is an example of traditional carving and decoration in modern materials. Nearby, the rebuilt Rangiātea Church symbolises a synthesis of Māori and European spirituality.
Rangiātea Church was the shared vision of Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha and early missionaries, especially Octavius Hadfield and Samuel Williams. Completed in 1851, with carving and tukutuku (woven panels), it was one of New Zealand’s finest Māori churches. In 1995 it was burnt down by an arsonist. The local people raised funds to build a replica, which opened in 2003.
In Waikanae, the Whakarongotai meeting house blends colonial architecture and traditional Māori design. Nearby at St Luke’s Church, a stained-glass triptych shows St Luke flanked by Waikanae’s 19th-century chief, Wī Parata, and the missionary Octavius Hadfield.
There are marae at Ōrongomai (Upper Hutt) and Waiwhetū (Lower Hutt). The meeting house at Waiwhetū, known as Arohanui Ki Te Tangata (‘goodwill to all people’), was opened in 1960 on Te Āti Awa tribal land. It was the fulfilment of the leader Īhaia Puketapu’s vision that a meeting house be built there to symbolise reconciliation between the races. The building held ornate carvings from the meeting house at the 1940 Centennial Exhibition at Rongotai.
Takapūwāhia marae in Porirua is on the Ngāti Toa tribe’s land in Elsdon. It features the ornately carved meeting house Toa Rangatira. There is also an intertribal marae, Maraeroa, in eastern Porirua.
Opened in 1974, Tapu Te Ranga marae in Island Bay was Wellington’s first urban marae. It was founded by Bruce Stewart to cater for homeless and unemployed young Māori. Here they learned work skills and Māori customs. Up to 10,000 people visited the centre each year until its main building was destroyed by fire in June 2019. Many were schoolchildren experiencing their first contact with Māori culture.
By the end of the 19th century there were no traditional marae left in Wellington city. A group called Ngāti Pōneke (Pōneke is a transliteration of ‘Port Nicholson’, the early name for Wellington) was the first to build a centre that was akin to a marae. This multi-tribal group was formed in 1929 to provide for the welfare of local Māori. In 1937 the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club was formed to promote Māori culture in the city. It acquired a hall in Thorndon, where it held dances and taught tikanga (Māori cultural traditions). In the early 1970s a replacement for the hall was planned. Called Pipitea marae, it was built in Thorndon in the 1980s, below the site of the original Pipitea marae.
New Zealand’s first university marae was Te Herenga Waka, opened at Victoria University of Wellington in 1986.
These complexes reflect the determination of local Māori to keep their culture alive. A contemporary marae at Te Papa, the national museum, extends Māori design with new materials and colours.
As the capital, Wellington is the home of many artistic and cultural organisations, including the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Royal New Zealand Ballet. It has a lively urban culture, with many cafés, restaurants and performance venues.
Established in 1986, the biennial International Festival of the Arts attracts thousands of visitors to its performances, concerts and exhibitions. The Fringe Festival, a showcase for local talent, runs concurrently. These festivals are largely responsible for Wellington’s reputation as the ‘capital of the arts’. Live theatres include Circa and Bats.
Since 1971, the Wellington Film Festival has been held each July – an antidote to the rigours of midwinter. Commercial cinema is also popular, and suburban movie theatres were revived in the 2000s.
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a distinctive harbourfront building, houses the national museum and art collection. It is a top tourist attraction, drawing 1.5 million visitors a year in the mid-2010s. Wellington’s City Gallery holds major international and national touring exhibitions and shows the work of aspiring artists.
Other museums and galleries include the Museum of Wellington, Victoria University of Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery, the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, Petone Settlers’ Museum, and Pataka Museum and Gallery in Porirua. There are also many dealer galleries.
Music has been part of Wellington life since the first days of European settlement. The Wellington Orchestra Society, founded in 1879, was the first of many ensembles. Among refugees from Hitler’s Europe were a number of talented musicians who enlivened music in Wellington. The Wellington Chamber Music Society, set up in 1945, was soon followed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir. The New Zealand School of Music was formed by the combined music departments of Victoria and Massey universities.
Wellington has been the home of composers Alfred Hill, Douglas Lilburn, Gareth Farr, Jonathan Besser and John Psathas, among others. A lively and creative popular music scene has produced nationally and internationally successful performers such as the Fourmyula, Jon Stevens, Shihad, Upper Hutt Posse, Brooke Fraser, Hollie Smith, Fat Freddy’s Drop, the Phoenix Foundation and the Black Seeds. Film maker and performer Taika Waititi and comedians the Flight of the Conchords are recent Wellington sensations in the performing arts.
Live music is also played at clubs and pubs, and outdoor concerts and films are part of regional summer festival programmes.
Wellington was the birthplace of New Zealand’s most famous writer, Katherine Mansfield. Other prominent writers, past and present, include Robin Hyde, Lauris Edmond, Maurice Gee, Elizabeth Knox, Vincent O’Sullivan, Jenny Bornholdt, Patricia Grace, Bill Manhire, Lloyd Jones and Ian Wedde. Nationally important Wellington painters have included Rita Angus, Evelyn Page, Jeanne Macaskill and Melvin Day.
The role of religion in Wellington life has waned. However, the city has many important ecclesiastical buildings. These include Old St Paul’s – a wooden, Gothic-revival structure built in 1865 – and Futuna Chapel, designed by Māori architect John Scott in a modernist style. There are also several synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious buildings.
Wellington’s best-known research institution is the Alexander Turnbull Library. Born into a wealthy Wellington family in 1868, Turnbull began collecting books when he was 17. He later inherited a fortune and used it to build a world-class library, which he left to the nation in 1918. Now part of the National Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library holds over 270,000 books, 1.8 million photographs and negatives, and seven kilometres of archives and manuscripts.
Victoria College (later Victoria University of Wellington) opened in 1899 with about 200 students. In 2013 it had nearly 17,000 students and nine faculties. Scholars of international standing who have taught at Victoria include historian J. C. Beaglehole and physicist Paul Callaghan. Massey University has had a Wellington campus since 1998.
Historical and contemporary films are kept at Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. Other research institutes and libraries include the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Archives New Zealand and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Most government departments and crown research institutes – such as the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences – have specialist libraries.
Since film director Peter Jackson’s film studios were built in Miramar in the 1990s, Wellington has become an important film-making centre – nicknamed ‘Wellywood’. New Zealand’s public radio network (Radio New Zealand) is based in Wellington, as are a number of television production companies. The region’s only daily newspaper is the Dominion Post.
The hills, harbours and coastline of the Wellington region provide many opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Wellington’s famous winds often create ideal conditions for sailing and windsurfing, especially on Porirua and Wellington harbours.
The rugged coastline provides excellent fishing and diving. The waters around Kāpiti Island form a marine reserve, established in 1991. Another reserve, Taputeranga, was established off Wellington’s south coast in 2008. Between Island Bay and Houghton Bay lies a ‘dive wreck’, the former frigate Wellington, deliberately sunk there in 2005. Diving and fishing are also popular at Makara and around Mana Island.
Historically, the region’s rivers have provided good trout fishing, especially the Hutt, Wainuiomata and Waikanae. But as bush was cleared from the river margins, catches declined everywhere.
Wellington athlete Melissa Moon won the World Mountain Running Championship twice. In 2005, when the event was held on Mt Victoria, Wellingtonians Kate McIlroy and Jonathan Wyatt won the two senior races. Wyatt won the title six times in total.
The Remutaka and Tararua ranges are popular. The Tararua Tramping Club (established in 1919) pioneered organised outdoor recreation. The Tararua Range, which includes more than 3,000 square kilometres of rugged country, is visited by up to 150,000 people each year.
Wellington’s steep, narrow streets make cycling difficult. An exception is the scenic road round the Miramar Peninsula, an extremely popular ride. But the rugged terrain does make Wellington ideal for mountain biking.
Wellington’s first cricket club was formed in 1841, and games were played at Thorndon Flat. From 1870 first-class and international games were held at the Basin Reserve, one of New Zealand’s finest cricket grounds. Since 2000 most one-day internationals have been played at the waterfront stadium.
Famous Wellington cricketers include the magical spinner Clarrie Grimmett, who played for Australia in the 1920s, and John Reid, a highly successful batsman and bowler.
Since the early 1980s, football’s popularity has surged in Wellington, as elsewhere. On Saturdays, many more youngsters play football than the more traditional rugby. The region is represented in the national football competition by Team Wellington. The Wellington Phoenix play in the Australian A-league.
Wellington’s golf courses range from modest municipal links at Berhampore and Makara to Heretaunga and Paraparaumu, which rank among New Zealand’s best. In 2005 Māori golfer Michael Campbell, from Tītahi Bay in Porirua, won the US Open – the first New Zealander to do so.
Brooklyn’s Renouf Tennis Centre is the region’s top venue. Its tournaments attract top local players and promising international competitors.
In 1841, New Zealand’s first horse racing event was held on flat land near Te Aro pā. Since 1906 Trentham racecourse, in Upper Hutt, has been the main racecourse. Today it is among the country’s finest tracks. The Wellington Cup, raced in January, is the Wellington Racing Club’s best-known trophy.
(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) data, 1981–2010)
(Multiple responses allowed)
Te Āti Awa ki Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāi Tara
(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)
(Agricultural Production Survey, Statistics New Zealand)
Hamer, David, and Roberta Nicholls, eds. The making of Wellington, 1800–1914. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1990.
Johnson, David. Wellington Harbour. Wellington: Wellington Maritime Museum Trust, 1996.
Shepherd, Winsome. Wellington’s heritage: plants, gardens and landscape. Wellington: Te Papa, 2000.
Stevens, Graeme. Rugged landscape: the geology of central New Zealand. Wellington: DSIR, 1974.
Yska, Redmer. Wellington: biography of a city. Auckland: Reed, 2006.