The Whanganui region lies between mountains and the sea. Dominating its northern boundary is Mt Ruapehu. To the north-west is the Matemateaonga Range, and to the north-east the Kaimanawa Mountains and the Kaweka and Ruahine ranges. Between the mountains and the Tasman Sea are rolling hill country with many razorback ridges, and lowlands along the coast. There are striking views of Mt Ruapehu from the highlands and from the coast, some 100 kilometres away.
In the north-west of the region, Whanganui National Park contains one of New Zealand’s largest remaining tracts of conifer–broadleaf forest.
Numerous streams and rivers dissect and drain the region. The Rangitīkei River marks the area’s boundary in the south-east, and at its heart is the North Island’s second longest river, the scenic and historic Whanganui. The river and Mt Ruapehu are seen as sacred ancestors by Whanganui Māori.
The Whanganui and Rangitīkei rivers and their tributaries have large catchments; the Waitōtara, Whangaehu and Turakina rivers smaller ones. The rivers are prone to flooding – severe floods wreaked huge damage throughout the region in February 2004. The Waitōtara and Whangaehu catchments suffered again in July 2006.
The Whangaehu River, at Tangiwai, was the scene of New Zealand’s worst train disaster on Christmas Eve 1953, when a lahar (volcanic mud flow) washed away a bridge, leading to the deaths of 151 passengers and crew.
Most of the catchment of the Whanganui River is the rohe (tribal area) of the Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi tribe; Waitōtara–Waverley and part of the Whanganui area are the rohe of Ngā Rauru Kītahi.
Rangitīkei is divided between the tribes of Ngāti Apa and Ngāti Hauiti, the confederated hapū (sub-tribes) of Mōkai Pātea, and the Ngāti Raukawa hapū of Ngāti Parewahawaha.
The region developed from the founding of Whanganui town in 1840. Whanganui’s significance as a town and port was firmly established well before adjacent areas were settled; as European settlement advanced, so did the town’s sphere of influence.
The region comprises Whanganui and Rangitīkei districts, the Waimarino part of Ruapehu district and the Waitōtara–Waverley part of South Taranaki district. All of these areas except Waitōtara–Waverley fall within the territory of Horizons (Manawatū–Whanganui) regional council.
Wanganui has long been a spelling of Whanganui, reflecting the fact that local Māori pronounce ‘wh’ as ‘w’. Both spellings of the name were made official in 2009 but locals, both Māori and Pākehā, still expect it to be pronounced with the ‘h’ silent.
European settlers arrived in Whanganui, one of the country’s first towns, from 1841. Wanganui Collegiate School was established in 1854, and New Zealand’s oldest surviving newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle, in 1856. The district saw conflict between Māori and government forces in 1847, and again in the 1860s.
European settlement advanced from 1870 – north-west towards Hāwera, and north up the Whanganui, Waitōtara, Turakina and Rangitīkei river valleys.
From 1916 to 1936 Whanganui was New Zealand’s fifth-largest city. But its fortunes, like those of the region, faltered during the depression of the 1930s, and for decades afterwards neither the town nor the region grew fast.
Since the 1990s new industries and innovative businesses have been set up and tourism is flourishing, although the population has not increased greatly.
The region is home to many fine Māori meeting houses. Small churches, many designed by Frederick de Jersey Clere, are a distinctive feature of the countryside. There are a number of historic houses and homesteads in Rangitīkei and around Whanganui, and the National Army Museum is in Waiōuru.
Cultural institutions in Whanganui itself include the Sarjeant Gallery, the Royal Whanganui Opera House, Whanganui Regional Museum and the Ward Observatory. Cooks Gardens is a renowned sporting venue.
Geologically, the Whanganui region is part of a basin that has filled over time with marine sediments and volcanic debris. It is sinking in the south and rising in the north.
There are four broad landform zones:
The Waimarino plain and Rangipō Desert both slope gently outwards from the base of Mt Ruapehu at about 900 metres above sea level. The Rangipō Desert is bounded to the east by the Kaimanawa Mountains, and the Waimarino plain merges with the hill country at about 750 metres. These areas comprise the southern end of the Volcanic Plateau. Most of their soils are formed from volcanic ash, and those around Ohakune are particularly fertile.
To the north-east and east the region is bounded by the Kaimanawa, Kaweka and Ruahine ranges, part of the North Island main range. They are mainly greywacke (hard grey sandstone), with a narrow zone of schist forming the core of the Kaimanawa Mountains.
The region is mostly hill country, unlike neighbouring Taranaki and Manawatū, both of which are dominated by plains. The hill country comprises younger sandstones and mudstones, falling gradually from around 750 metres in the higher mountain areas to 150 metres near the coast. Rivers and streams have cut through this soft material, creating deeply entrenched valleys and a maze of sharp-crested ridges with uniform summit levels. Deposits of loess (windblown material) have contributed to the soils.
The terraces of the Rangitīkei River valley and the Whanganui coast provide one of the world’s most complete records of climate and sea-level changes over the last 2.6 million years. The highest and oldest formation is near Mt Curl, north of Marton. The youngest is closest to the coast, separated from the next terrace by a line of former sea cliffs.
The coastal lowland is 12 kilometres wide at Waverley and twice that at Marton. It comprises a series of uplifted marine terraces, river valleys and sand country. The terraces have been planed by erosion and dissected by streams and river valleys. They are overlaid with loess, volcanic ash and sand, and provide the region’s most fertile farmland, a continuation of the Manawatū plain and downlands.
The coastline north-west of Whanganui is dominated by high cliffs composed of layered shell beds and mudstone, known locally as papa. Dunes are found mainly near Waitōtara, and ironsand makes the beaches very black.
The coastal area south-east of Whanganui city is part of an extensive belt of dunes stretching south to Paekākāriki on the Kāpiti Coast.
In places the dunes have formed chains of small lakes. Sand build-up has advanced the shoreline westwards, especially south of the Turakina River.
The region’s climate patterns are influenced by its topography. The mountain zones in the north and west are the wettest and coldest area, with snow falling in the ranges and in the high country beyond Taihape in winter. The Desert Road, north from Waiōuru, is often closed by snow. Whanganui city, with less than 1,000 millimetres of rain each year, is relatively dry and warm compared with other west-coast areas, partly because of the protective effect of Mt Taranaki and the adjacent uplands.
Before humans settled in New Zealand around 1250–1300 CE, the Whanganui region was covered by forest, except for small areas of red tussock and scrub in the Moawhango River headwaters in the southern Kaimanawa Mountains. The forest was mostly conifers, particularly podocarps such as tōtara, mataī and rimu, and broadleaf trees such as tawa and kāmahi. Beech trees also grow in the Kaimanawa Mountains and the Kaweka and Ruahine ranges.
By 1840, Māori had cleared the forests by fire in much of the high country between Karioi and the Kaweka Range, and along the coastal lowland. The lowland was subsequently covered with bracken, toetoe, flax and mānuka. In the north-east, forest remained on the Kaweka and Ruahine ranges, along with remnants of kaikawaka and beech on abutting plateaus – but large tracts were dominated by tussock.
Outside these two areas, Māori impact on forests was mostly in the larger valleys.
European settlement saw the coastal lowland progressively sown with pasture grasses and various crops. From the mid-20th century pine trees were planted near the coast at Maxwell (Pākaraka) and Nukumaru, and south of Whanganui town. Planting of pines between the Turakina and Rangitīkei rivers began in 1956, in conjunction with marram grass to stabilise adjoining dunes.
From 1867 runholders in inland Pātea, in the upper Rangitīkei district, burnt off native tussock and converted large areas into pasture. By the early 2000s, fire was no longer used, and scrub had taken over many areas.
From the late 1870s, settlers began burning and felling hill-country forest to turn it into grassland for farming. Between 1880 and 1910, dense clouds of smoke were often seen rolling down the Waitōtara, Whanganui, Whangaehu and Turakina valleys.
Erosion has been a constant problem on cleared hills, but since the Second World War land has been rehabilitated through aerial topdressing and better pasture and stock management. Pine forests have been planted in some steeper areas.
Forest was felled from around Rātā to north of Taihape, ahead of the construction of the main trunk railway line between 1885 and 1905. In the 2010s, the land was mostly used for sheep and cattle farming, and some dairying, with extensive pine forests west of Hunterville.
Dense podocarp forest on the Waimarino plain was progressively felled after Raetihi and Ohakune were founded in the 1890s. A major bush fire swept though the district in March 1918, destroying several settlements and killing three people.
Over 50 sawmills operated there in the mid-1920s, with the last closing in 1955. In the 2010s the plain comprised farmland and market gardens, with native forest on its northern boundary.
One of the North Island’s largest remaining tracts of intact conifer–broadleaf forest lies within Whanganui National Park (which was established in 1986). The region’s first pine forest was planted at Karioi in 1927.
The tribes of the Whanganui region each trace their main line of descent from one of three canoes: the Aotea, the Tākitimu and the Kurahaupō.
Ngā Rauru Kītahi take their name from the ancestor Rauru Kītahi, who lived in the Waitōtara area before the arrival of the Aotea canoe. His people, Te Kāhui Rere, intermarried with the descendants of Turi, captain of the Aotea.
The original people of the Whanganui River area, Ngā Paerangi, also intermarried with Turi’s descendants. The descendants of Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, a chief who arrived with Turi, also settled among Ngā Paerangi.
Other significant ancestors of the Whanganui people are Tamakehu and Ruaka, whose three children and their descendants became custodians of stretches of the Whanganui River: Hinengākau of the upper river, Tama Ūpoko of the middle reaches and Tūpoho of the lower river. Hapū (sub-tribes) of the Waimarino district also identify with Tama Ūpoko. The unity of the three groups is conveyed in the saying ‘te taura whiri a Hinengākau’ (the plaited rope of Hinengākau). The Whanganui River people are collectively known as Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi.
Mt Ruapehu and the Whanganui River are seen as sacred ancestors of the Whanganui people, who say, ‘Ko au te awa. Ko te awa ko au' (I am the river. The river is me). Hapū of Ngā Rauru regard various hills and rivers in their respective districts as sacred.
On Tamatea’s inland journey, he is said to have named places and left pets – including a lizard on Aorangi mountain in the Ruahine Range, and a crayfish beneath Tikirere waterfall on the Moawhango River. He staked his firebrands into the riverbank so they would become taniwha (water spirits), and named a waterfall after this act, Te Pounga-a-ngā-Motumotu-o-te-Ahi-a-Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua.
Tribes in northern and central Rangitīkei trace their descent from the Tākitimu canoe through Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua (Tamatea the land explorer). Tamatea travelled from Ahuriri (Napier) across the Ruahine Range into northern Rangitīkei, naming many places and leaving mōkai (pets) at certain locations. The mōkai became guardians of the district that his descendants were to occupy. Tamatea also explored the Whanganui River.
Tamatea’s son, Tamakōpiri, and grandson, Tūwhakaperei, moved from Poverty Bay to the northern Rangitīkei. After about seven generations another descendant, Whitikaupeka, also arrived. Their descendants – Ngāti Tamakōpiri and Ngāti Whitikaupeka – expelled the earlier inhabitants, Ngāti Hotu, from inland Pātea. Ngāti Tamakōpiri occupy the lands west and Ngāti Whitikaupeka the lands east of the Moawhango River. The far north-east became the home of Ngāti Hinemanu and Ngāti Paki. These tribes are descended from Tamatea through Hinemanu, a high-born Ngāti Kahungunu woman, and her husband, Tautahi.
Ngāti Hauiti take their name from Hauiti, a descendant of Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua. They moved into the central Rangitīkei valley, where they built several pā and settlements, mostly around Ōhingaiti. Conflict with Ngāti Apa was commonplace, but hostilities ceased in the early 1800s after a marriage was arranged between Rua Kau of Ngāti Hauiti and Kāwana Hunia of Ngāti Apa. In the mid-1800s the main body of Ngāti Hauiti migrated to Te Hou Hou kāinga (settlement) at Rātā, which became their stronghold.
Ngāti Apa trace their descent from Ruatea, captain of the Kurahaupō canoe. They are named after Ruatea’s son, Apa-hāpai-taketake, who lived in the Bay of Plenty. His descendants moved south over many generations, spending time in the Taupō, Rotoaira and Waimarino districts before reaching lower Rangitīkei. During their migrations they intermarried with people from the Whanganui hapū of Ngā Wairiki. In the 19th century Ngāti Apa emerged as a distinct tribe. Their traditional lands lie between the Mangawhero, Whangaehu, Turakina and Rangitīkei rivers.
In the 1820s tribal life in the region was disturbed by raids and migrations from further north, from Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Toarangatira and Taranaki tribes. Most of these groups simply passed along the coast on their way to the Cook Strait area, but in one bloody encounter in about 1829, Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa killed 400 locals at Pūtiki. Groups of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Raukawa remained in the region, in the tribal area of Ngāti Apa.
Missionaries Henry Williams and Octavius Hadfield gathered signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi at Pūtiki in May 1840. In June an Anglican mission station was established at the locality. The first missioner, John Mason, and his successor from 1843, Richard Taylor, both travelled widely. Taylor went as far as inland Pātea, in the northern Rangitīkei valley.
In 1831 Joe Rowe, a dealer in preserved Māori heads, along with three other Europeans and a black man, encountered a small party of Ngāti Tūwharetoa at the mouth of the Whanganui River. It was the first recorded Māori–European contact in the region. Three of the men were killed, and Rowe’s head was dried and preserved. The fourth man was eventually freed. For many years traders stayed away, although John Nicol and his Māori wife traded on the river in 1834.
In May 1840 Edward Jerningham Wakefield bought 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares) for the New Zealand Company from 27 chiefs, in exchange for goods worth £700, including muskets, umbrellas and Jews’ harps. Settlers arrived from February 1841.
Uncertainty marked the first seven years of the Whanganui settlement, with many Māori disputing the terms of the sale. Māori also disagreed with one another about who had mana (traditional authority) over the new town.
In late 1846 fear of attack by upper river Māori led to the garrisoning of Whanganui by soldiers of the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment. The upriver leader Te Mamaku had said he would protect the town, but opposed the presence of soldiers.
Tension mounted in April 1847 when four members of the Gilfillan family were killed by Māori at Matarawa, near Whanganui. After four young men were court-martialled and hanged for the killings, Te Mamaku and his men blockaded the settlement for two and half months. Outlying settlers’ homes were burnt and plundered, and stock raided.
Many women and children were evacuated, and reinforcements, including the 65th (Yorkshire) Regiment, arrived in May and June, by which time nearly 800 soldiers were protecting fewer than 200 settlers. On 19 July 1847 an indecisive skirmish – the battle of St John’s Wood – was fought between the regiments and upriver Māori. Four days later Te Mamaku and his men returned home.
In May 1848, the government effectively repurchased the Whanganui block, paying £1,000 for 34,911 hectares, 2,200 of which were reserved for Māori. The deed was signed by 207 Māori.
Methodist mission stations were established at Waitōtara in 1848 and Westmere in 1853.
The Rangitīkei block – the lowland between the Turakina and Rangitīkei Rivers – was purchased from Ngāti Apa in May 1849. Several large tracts were held by non-resident owners from Wellington and Whanganui, but English, Scottish and German settlers also came.
1848 to 1860 were years of consolidation. New businesses were established, roads were formed and trade through the port increased. One of the country’s oldest schools, Wanganui Collegiate, was founded in 1854, and the Wanganui Chronicle newspaper was founded in 1856. Catholics and Presbyterians established a presence. Between 1848 and 1858 the town’s European population rose from 170 to 1,324.
Through the 1860s many upriver Māori challenged the authority of the colonial government. So did other Māori along the coast north-west of Whanganui. Both groups were part of a wider movement that spread across the central North Island. Whanganui, at the junction of the river and coastal routes, became a military base once again.
The Waitōtara–Ōkehu block, along the coast north-west of Whanganui, was purchased from Ngā Rauru in July 1863, despite efforts to reduce the size of tribal reserves which had turned some against the sale. Some became adherents of the Pai Mārire (Hauhau) faith, while others supported the Māori King movement.
When American writer Mark Twain visited Whanganui in 1895. he saw the monument to lower-river Māori who had defeated upriver Māori advancing on the town at Moutoa Island in 1864. The inscription said they had died ‘in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism’. Twain thought the upriver Māori were also patriots: ‘[T]hey fought for their homes, they fought for their country; they bravely fought and bravely fell.’ 1
In May 1864, upriver Pai Mārire supporters were defeated at Moutoa Island, near Rānana, by lower river Māori led by Hōri Kīngi Te Ānaua, with support from Hoani Wiremu Hīpango and Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi. In anticipation of an attack on Whanganui, a series of redoubts (fortifications) were built along the river and on the town’s north-western outskirts. A provincial councillor, James Hewett, was killed on his farm just 3 kilometres from a redoubt in February 1865.
In response to Māori resistance in Taranaki, the Crown announced the confiscation of land from the Whanganui River to near New Plymouth in 1865. In early 1866, Major-General Trevor Chute carried out a ‘scorched earth’ campaign north of Waitōtara and into Taranaki, destroying seven pā and 20 villages. A military settlement, Wairoa (later called Waverley), was established. By late 1866 an uneasy peace prevailed, and Pākehā settlement began around Wairoa and on the Waitōtara block.
Fighting resumed in 1868, and in November the force led by Ngāti Ruanui leader Riwha Tītokowaru came within 8 kilometres of Whanganui. Settlers took refuge in Wairoa and Whanganui. Amidst rumours that Tītokowaru would cross the Whanganui River, blockhouses and redoubts were built south of Whanganui and in Rangitīkei.
Tītokowaru’s support collapsed in February 1869, and Ngā Rauru villages and cultivations were destroyed as government troops pursued him and his followers. Many Ngā Rauru retreated to the upper Whanganui River, living there under the protection of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui until they were able to return home in 1873.
After hostilities ceased, European settlement recommenced on the plain north-west of Whanganui. It had proceeded in the meantime on the Rangitīkei coastal lowland, where the town of Marton was established in 1866.
European settlement in the north-east (inland Pātea, the upper Rangitīkei valley) began in 1867 with the establishment of a sheep run on land leased from Māori, which was reached from Napier. Gold prospecting – never successful – prompted the first attempt to find a route between Whanganui and inland Pātea. One outcome was that H. C. Field surveyed a route to the unforested part of Waimarino, then known as the Murimotu Plain, in 1869.
That same year Whanganui became linked to Wellington by both a coach service and a telegraph line. In January 1870 the last British regiment – the 18th (Royal Irish) – left Whanganui. After 23 years it was no longer a garrison town.
From 1870 to 1930, European settlement advanced into the Whanganui hinterland on the back of purchases of Māori land, road and railway building, and the felling and burning of forest to create pasture.
Whanganui expanded rapidly, and for two generations it was the lower North Island’s second-most important town and port (after Wellington). The Wanganui Education Board and the Wanganui Hospital Board covered the region, as did the district offices of government departments and the regional offices of stock and station firms. Whanganui was a provincial capital in all but name.
From 1891 meat was frozen at works in Whanganui and shipped from the port. By 1930 other industries included railway workshops, woollen mills and phosphate works. For 60 years the town grew steadily, and its population increased tenfold – from 2,572 in 1874 to 26,388 in 1926. Whanganui became a city in 1924, New Zealand’s fifth-largest, and was noted for its educational and cultural institutions.
It was from Whanganui, not New Plymouth, that South Taranaki was settled. In 1871 coaches began running to Hāwera, and townships were established at Maxwell (now Pākaraka) and Waitōtara. The railway reached Kai Iwi in 1879 and Waverley (formerly Wairoa) in 1881, linking to the inland line from New Plymouth in 1885. Roads and farms also penetrated the inland valleys.
Thoroughbred horses and pedigree cattle and sheep were bred in the district, and dairy factories were set up from the 1890s. At Moumāhaki, near Waverley, the Department of Agriculture ran one of its first experimental farms between 1893 and 1925.
The Whanganui town bridge opened in 1871, and the Aramoho rail bridge in 1877. By 1875 Whangaehu, Turakina, Marton and Bulls were linked to Whanganui by a daily coach service, and in 1878 a railway link with Palmerston North was opened.
The Turakina River valley was progressively opened up from the late 1860s, and the Whangaehu from the 1870s. Settlers were mostly Scottish. A network of tracks criss-crossed the valleys; some became dray tracks and eventually roads. The only township that developed in this hill country was Mangamāhū.
A block was leased from Māori in 1874 at Karioi, on the unforested part of the Waimarino plain. Between 1880 and 1882, H. C. Field supervised the cutting of a bridle track up the Mangawhero valley to Kākātahi, then north-east to Karioi, following the route he had surveyed in 1869. Settlement advanced up the track from the late 1880s.
The Waimarino block itself was purchased by the government in 1887. A track was cut from Pipiriki on the Whanganui River to Karioi on the Waimarino plain in 1886, and widened for dray traffic in 1893, a year after a river steamer service from Whanganui began. Settlements established at Raetihi in 1892 and Ohakune in 1895 were serviced via this route.
The steamer service also made farming along the Whanganui River practicable, and the extension of the service to Taumarunui in 1903 facilitated a tourist trade that lasted through the 1920s.
Europeans settled the upper Rangitīkei between 1885 and 1908 as the main trunk railway line advanced north. The railway ‘fathered’ the towns of Hunterville, Mangaweka and Taihape, and spurred development in Marton, Raetihi and Ohakune. It saw Whanganui replace Napier as the outlet for wool from the sheep stations north and east of Taihape. From 1917 the Parapara road to Raetihi provided another route into the Waimarino area.
From the 1920s, sawmilling of native timber declined in Waimarino. Market gardening by Chinese families started around Ohakune in 1924, and exotic forestry began at Karioi in 1927.
The Whanganui region’s rapid expansion in the half-century before 1920 concealed a vulnerability. Pioneering had created work in the sawmills, and on the railway and roads, but the farms themselves did not employ many people – and when produce prices fell, many were not viable.
Whanganui and the region suffered severely in the 1930s depression, and grew very slowly in the following decade. Farmers in the interior were already struggling on properties deteriorating through erosion and reverting to bush. In Waimarino, after the forests were cleared, fewer trees meant less sawmilling. Many farms were abandoned, trade through the port decreased, unemployment rose, and people left in search of work. Between 1926 and 1945, Whanganui was the only New Zealand region to record a continuous decline in population. Whanganui city’s population also fell, before returning to its 1926 level by 1945. By contrast, the populations of Palmerston North and New Plymouth, whose hinterlands saw more growth, increased through those years.
Over 50 sawmills operated within a 12-kilometre radius of Raetihi and Ohakune between 1920 and 1925. By 1945, there were just six in Waimarino county. The last mill closed in 1955.
Buoyant international demand for commodities saw growth resume after the Second World War, but this did not translate into a demand for more farm labour. Output increased more slowly in the hill country, with its difficult topography and roads, than on the plains. In many isolated districts, schools and stores closed.
From the 1960s rural settlements were affected by the closure of railway stations, and by the amalgamation and closure of dairy factories as processing was centralised outside the region. Whanganui had the slowest rate of employment growth of all regions except the West Coast.
Māori also left country districts, but the Māori proportion of the region’s population increased, in part because so many Pākehā were leaving.
Whanganui’s port lost business to the railways, and to other ports. Its coastal trade with the South Island declined with the advent of the railways-operated ‘roll-on, roll-off’ Cook Strait ferries in 1962. Hopes of a coal-fired power station at Castlecliff were dashed when the government decided to site it at New Plymouth.
Whanganui city did grow; its population increased from 26,462 in 1945 to 38,174 in 1966. But this rate of increase was slower than in other centres. In 1945 Palmerston North had just a few hundred more people than Whanganui; by 1966 it had 10,000 more. Locals left the region both for jobs and for higher education. Palmerston North acquired a teachers’ training college in 1956 and a university in 1963; Whanganui got neither. In 1966 the regional population was 72,309.
Since the 1970s, neither Whanganui region nor the city has grown fast, but a series of initiatives has helped both to hold their own.
New economic activities took off in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in resources such as timber, fish and ironsands, or through government projects.
Exotic pine forests planted at Santoft from 1956 and Lismore from 1963 led to a sawmilling industry from 1987 at Santoft and 1991 at Lismore. From 1975 more forests were planted, and in 1978 a pulp mill was built at Karioi.
Wanganui Trawlers, established in 1965, became a multi-million dollar enterprise. It operated inshore vessels and a processing plant, and had a joint fishing venture with a Korean company.
In 1971 a contract was signed for mining and processing ironsands at Waipipi, near Waverley, for shipment to Japan. The contract finished in 1988, and the affected dunes were turned into pasture.
From late 1974 the New Zealand Philatelic Bureau (now called Collectables and Solutions) was based in Whanganui, and from 1975 the Wanganui Computer Centre provided a national computerised system for law enforcement.
In 1984 Suzuki New Zealand’s head office was established in Whanganui, and the city opened its first tertiary educational institution, the Wanganui Regional Community College.
Newer Whanganui firms include AXIAM Group, which has made precision metal and plastic components for high-tech products since the early 1990s. Q-West Boat Builders, set up in 1994, makes steel and aluminium craft, and provides marine engineering services.
Much state assistance for farming ended in 1985. This hit hill-country farming particularly hard, and many families relied on off-farm jobs to survive. Hill-country districts, however, benefited from growth in recreational activity – for instance on the Whanganui and Rangitīkei rivers, and at the Tūroa skifield, which had opened in 1979.
As government operations were restructured in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the region saw much downsizing and some closures. For Marton, Taihape, Ohakune and Whanganui the downsizing of the railways meant job losses. In Whanganui over 1,000 jobs were lost in total, across a range of industries.
In 1992, Auckland fishing company Sanford bought Wanganui Seafoods (formerly Wanganui Trawlers) to obtain the firm’s fishing quota allocation. The plant closed in 1998 with the loss of 103 jobs. The Whanganui computer centre was sold and its operations shifted to Auckland in 1995; 120 jobs were lost.
Further job losses came with the closure or downsizing of various other Whanganui manufacturers.
Pacific Helmets was founded in 1980 to make motorcycle helmets for the Australasian market. Eventually it came to specialise in safety helmets for emergency services – fire, ambulance, rescue and police.
Imlay freezing works in Whanganui survived the downsizing of the meat-freezing industry, and a meat processing plant was built near Waitōtara in 1988. A state-of-the-art meat-processing plant, CMP Rangitikei, is located at Greatford.
A large shopping complex was built in Whanganui city by the Australian firm K Mart in 1989. From the 1990s several innovative manufacturing operations were set up, notably Axiam Group, Q-West, Masterfoods and Havoc Coffee. Some existing ones, for example Pacific Helmets, expanded.
In 1992, the city’s central business district was revitalised in a scheme to preserve and promote architecture from the city’s heyday (the 1870s to 1920s). Two Whanganui riverboats were restored and returned to the river – the Waimarie in 2000, and the Wairua in 2006.
Despite these efforts, the region’s 2013 population of 61,791 was over 10,000 less than in 1966. The rural population fell from nearly 20,000 in 1966 to 12,600 in 2013, a decline echoed in other parts of the country. Whanganui city’s population in 2013 (38,088) was almost unchanged from 40 years earlier.
The city and the region survive on their inherited strengths and the energy and commitment of their citizens, rather than a strong economic basis.
Before the settlement of Whanganui was founded in 1840, the population was entirely Māori. The European population grew rapidly after nearby fighting ended in 1869, and as other parts of the region were settled. By 1886 the region had 15,000 non-Māori. There were about 1,770 Māori, half the number 15 years earlier.
By 1926 the regional population was just over 57,000, while the Māori population had doubled to nearly 4,000.
Between 1926 and 1945 the region’s population fell, unlike other areas of New Zealand. The number of Māori rose slightly, to nearly 4,500.
After 1945 the population grew again, especially in Whanganui city. Many Māori moved into the city, and 52% lived in an urban area by 1966, compared with virtually none in 1900. In the 2013 census, 24.8% of people in the region claimed Māori identity – much higher than the national average of 14.9%.
In the 2013 census, 82% of Māori in the region lived in an urban area. Over half (56.8%) were in Whanganui city – a similar proportion to Pākehā.
The Rātana movement began after its founder, Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana, had visions in 1918 which led him to become a spiritual leader and healer. Through the 1920s many Māori and some Pākehā flocked to Rātana’s home on a farm outside Whanganui, and a settlement had been established there by the end of the decade. In the 2000s, the Rātana Church still had strong support among Māori, and remained a political force.
The Whanganui River Māori Trust Board was set up in 1988, as part of a long history of litigation and struggle for recognition of rights and interests to the Whanganui River. It lodged a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal in 1993, asking that the riverbed be returned to the Whanganui people. Part of the claim focused on the diversion of waters of the Whanganui River and its tributaries to the Tongariro power scheme from the 1970s. The board also challenged the management of Whanganui National Park, which had been established in 1986.
For 79 days between February and May 1995, Whanganui Māori and supporters occupied Pākaitore (also known as Moutoa Gardens), beside the river in Whanganui city, to show their frustration over the lack of progress towards a settlement of Whanganui River claim issues. This occupation was resolved peaceably, and a tripartite agreement with government and local government was subsequently signed.
The Waitangi Tribunal released its report on the Whanganui River claim in 1999. It found that under Article Two of the Treaty the river was a taonga (treasure) possessed by the tribes; ownership in legal terms was not needed to express the nature of Māori interests in the river. Negotiations to settle the claim began at the end of 2002, and the Pākaitore Trust was set up to own and manage the courthouse in Moutoa Gardens.
In 2017, the Whanganui River was recognised in New Zealand law as a living being with legal personhood.
When Wellington province was established in 1853, the Whanganui region was part of it. Separation from Wellington was discussed but rejected at meetings in Whanganui in 1859 and 1860. Unsuccessful petitions for separation were presented to Parliament in 1865, 1868 and 1873. The 1873 petition was signed by 1,108 people throughout the region.
Whanganui became a borough in 1872. When the provinces were abolished in 1876, Wanganui, Rangitīkei and Pātea counties were established. Waitōtara county was established in 1884 and Waimarino in 1902. Other boroughs appeared – briefly in the suburbs of Whanganui, longer-lasting at Marton (1879), Taihape (1906), Ohakune (1911) and Raetihi (1921). In 1989, counties and boroughs were replaced by district councils: Ruapehu, Rangitīkei, Wanganui and South Taranaki.
Charles Mackay was mayor of Wanganui for 12 years, until 1920, when he was imprisoned for attempted murder. He had argued with and then shot the writer D’Arcy Cresswell, who claimed that Mackay had made sexual advances towards him. Cresswell was homosexual, so he may not have been an entirely innocent party. After Mackay was jailed, the street named after him had its name changed, his portrait was taken from the council chambers and destroyed, and he was not mentioned in local histories for the next 50 years.
Whanganui has had 27 mayors, mostly from commerce or the professions. Prominent mayors have included businessmen Alexander Hatrick and Hopeful Gibbons, and lawyer Charles Mackay. Two long-serving mayors, Bill Rogers (1927–31, 1935–53) and Reg Andrews (1962–74), had backgrounds in the labour movement. Michael Laws (2004–10) was a former member of Parliament, first for the National Party and then for New Zealand First. Annette Main (2010–16) was the first woman to hold the office.
Governors-general Sir Arthur Porritt (1967–72) and Sir Jerry Mateparae (2011–16) were both born and educated in Whanganui.
There was one electorate for the region until 1860, Wanganui–Rangitīkei. Since then the number of electorates has varied between two and four. William Fox and John Ballance, both of whom served as premiers of the colony in the 19th century, represented electorates in the region.
Rangitīkei was held by the Reform Party from 1911 and later by National, with two notable exceptions: it went to Labour from 1935 to 1938, and to Social Credit leader Bruce Beetham from 1978 to 1984. National has held the reconfigured seat since 1996.
Waimarino, with its rail and timber workers, was usually a Labour electorate from the 1920s until the 1950s.
Wanganui was mainly a Liberal stronghold until 1911, when it was won by independent Labour candidate W. A. Veitch, an engine driver, trade unionist and political maverick. From 1935 until 2005 Labour held Wanganui (renamed Whanganui in 1996) for all but two terms. The seat has since been held by National. In 2017 Harete Hipango became the first Māori MP for Whanganui.
The region was in the Western Māori electorate from 1867 to 1996, and has been in Te Tai Hauāuru since 2002. The first member for Western Māori was Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi from Pūtiki. The seat was won in 1935 by H. T. Rātana, eldest son of Rātana Church founder T. W. Rātana.
In 1996 Tariana Turia from Whangaehu entered Parliament as a Labour list MP, and she won Te Tai Hauāuru in 2002. She resigned in 2004 and was re-elected in a by-election as an independent. Turia held the seat in the 2005 election, by which time she was co-leader of the Māori Party (Te Pāti Māori). A minister in John Key's National-led government from 2008, she retired from Parliament in 2014.
Whanganui city has five secondary schools: the fee-paying private school Wanganui Collegiate, by far the oldest; Wanganui Girls’ College; Wanganui High School; Wanganui City College; and Cullinane College, the product of a 2003 merger of St Augustine’s College and Sacred Heart College. Two other private secondary schools – Turakina Maori Girls' College, and Nga Tawa, an Anglican school – are in Marton.
District high schools (primary schools with secondary departments) were set up early in most towns. The secondary departments later split off and became separate co-educational secondary schools: Wanganui Technical College (now Whanganui City College), Ruapehu College, Rangitīkei College, Taihape College and Waverley High School (which closed in 2007). In 2005 Taihape College and Taihape primary school were amalgamated to form Taihape Area School.
Wanganui Regional Community College has been Whanganui UCOL since 2002.
Until the abolition of district health boards in 2022, the Whanganui District Health Board funded and provided health care throughout the region, except in Waitōtara and Waverley. A range of services for Māori is provided by Te Oranganui, an iwi health authority.
Horse racing began early in the Whanganui region. In the 2010s, the Wanganui Jockey Club was one of the country’s oldest, and there was also a club in Waverley. Clubs formerly based in Marton and Bulls now hold their meetings at Awapuni in Palmerston North.
The region is home to two long-established hunt clubs: Rangitīkei, founded in 1881, and Egmont–Wanganui, which dates from 1894 and is based in Waverley. Polo has been played in Rangitīkei since 1891, and there are several pony clubs in the region.
Two horses trained in the region have won the Melbourne Cup – Wotan from Mangaweka in 1936, and Kiwi from Waverley in 1983.
Hatrick Raceway in Whanganui is the main venue for greyhound racing in the southern North Island.
The Wanganui Rugby Football Union was formed in 1888, and by 1889 included clubs from lower Rangitīkei, Hunterville and Waverley. The Taihape sub-union was formed in 1903, and Ruapehu in 1908. Ruapehu transferred to King Country in 1922 but rejoined the Wanganui union in 1970. Wanganui has dominated the Heartland Championship contested by minor unions since 2006. By 2019 it had won the Meads Cup six times and been the losing finalist on four occasions.
Seventeen All Blacks have been selected from the Wanganui Rugby Football Union, including Moke Belliss, Peter Henderson and Bill Osborne.
When William Webb successfully defended his world title on the Whanganui River in 1908, thousands of spectators lined the banks, and the race was followed by a flotilla of steamers.
The Whanganui River is a major centre of New Zealand rowing. The area’s clubs have been at the forefront of national competitions and have provided rowers and coaches for New Zealand teams competing overseas. William Webb won the world sculling championship in Sydney in 1907. Prominent later rowers and national coaches have included Clarrie Healey, Peter Irvine, Harry Mahon and Richard Tonks. Simon Dickie and Trevor Coker won Olympic gold medals.
Whanganui’s rowing tradition is evident at local secondary schools. At Wanganui Collegiate it stretches back to 1886. In 2019, ‘Collegiate’ had won the under-18 boys’ national eight-oar race for the Maadi Cup 17 times – five more than the next-best school, Christ’s College.
In 1934 the Wanganui Aero Club’s four women members flew down the coast in their de Havilland Gypsy Moths to meet intercontinental aviator Jean Batten and escort her to Whanganui, then on to New Plymouth and Hāwera. Two of them – Trevor Hunter and Jane Winstone – were among five New Zealand women to serve in the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain in the Second World War. Winstone was killed when her Spitfire crashed in 1944.
One afternoon in late 1911 thousands lined the riverbank at Whanganui as Arthur Schaef from Wellington made three attempts to take off from the river in a three-cylinder seaplane. An aerodrome was developed at Landguard Bluff in 1930, and over 10,000 people watched the North Island air pageant there in 1932. Notable airmen from Whanganui have included Sergeant-Pilot James Ward, the first New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the Second World War, and Air Commodore Alan Deere, renowned as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain.
Cooks Gardens in Whanganui was developed from 1896 as a ground for cricket, athletics, cycling and rugby. Regarded as one of New Zealand’s finest outdoor sporting venues, it made international headlines on 27 January 1962 when Peter Snell set a new world record for the mile – 3 minutes, 54.4 seconds. Extensive upgrading in 1996 included a new state-of-the-art athletics track and an innovative wooden velodrome. Local cyclist Gary Anderson won three gold medals at the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990 and a bronze at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Access to remote tracks and hunting grounds improved considerably after jet boats were invented in the late 1950s. Improved maintenance of tracks, walkways and huts has also encouraged greater interest in tramping and walking in Tongariro National Park, Kaweka, Kaimanawa and Ruahine forest parks, and Whanganui National Park. Canoeing is popular on the rivers, especially the Whanganui, and the Rangitīkei is ideal for white-water rafting. For the less active, the homestead and 100 hectares of native forest at Bushy Park are a drawcard.
Development of skiing facilities at Tūroa, above Ohakune on Mt Ruapehu, began in 1962, and a major skifield opened there in 1979.
The earliest tangible records of Māori culture in the region are mysterious rock carvings of lizard and bird-like shapes at Kōhī, near Waverley.
Particularly noteworthy meeting houses along the Whanganui River include:
Other important meeting houses include:
Noted carver Hōri Pukehika worked on houses at Koriniti and Pūtiki. Two books on marae in the region have been written by Morvin Simon of Kaiwhaiki.
A number of Māori churches are culturally significant, notably:
The Whanganui Regional Museum houses the historic 21-metre canoe Te Mata o Hoturoa, which was made around 1810 and gifted to the museum by Ema Hīpango of Pūtiki in 1924.
Many in the region have encouraged Māori culture – prominent among them was the late Ruka Broughton of Ngā Rauru. An important cultural group, Te Matapihi, is organised from Kaiwhaiki. Consisting of people of all ages from the Whanganui River hapū (sub-tribes), it has produced several compact discs and records. In 1991 the radio station Te Reo Irirangi o Whanganui (AWA FM) began broadcasting.
Turakina Maori Girls' College was set up in Turakina in 1905, but has been based in nearby Marton since 1928.
Scottish influence has been strong in the lowland regions, especially around Turakina. In Whanganui, a Friends (Quaker) school ran from 1920 to 1970, and a Quaker settlement, ‘Quaker Acres’, was established near the school's site in 1974. There are three well-known Anglican schools: Wanganui Collegiate (1854), with which St George’s primary school (1928) amalgamated in 2010, in Whanganui, and Nga Tawa (1891) and Huntley (1896) in Marton. Germans were among those who settled Marton, and the town has had a Lutheran church since 1876.
British regimental bands gave public recitals and played at balls, and in 1857 the 65th Regiment set up a theatre. Whanganui subsequently became known for its brass bands – Wanganui Garrison and Queen Alexandra’s Own were winners of many national contests. The bands merged in the 1970s, and in the 2010s the band was known as Brass Whanganui.
Whanganui UCOL has major fine arts, craft and design programmes. The Whanganui branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, later Heritage New Zealand, ensured the survival of many notable buildings and historic sites. Specialist museums include the National Army Museum in Waiōuru and the Whanganui Riverboat Centre.
Whanganui’s cultural buildings and institutions include the Royal Whanganui Opera House (built in 1899), the Ward Observatory (1903), the Sarjeant Gallery (1919) and the Whanganui War Memorial Hall (1960).
One noted colonial artist was J. A. Gilfillan. His paintings and sketches, made between 1841 and 1847, give a faithful record of early Whanganui and some of its Māori and European inhabitants. Chromolithography was introduced to New Zealand in 1883 by Whanganui printer A. D. Willis, who published several important New Zealand pictorial books. Over 500 sketches, oils and watercolours by Whanganui-born Edith Collier are held by the Sarjeant Gallery. Glass engraver John Hutton is known for his work in Coventry Cathedral in England and St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington.
In the 2010s Whanganui was home to a number of artists and craftspeople.
Born in Raetihi, New Zealand’s first rock and roll idol, Johnny Devlin, was the son of a railway ganger. The family lived briefly in Ohakune, then Marton, before settling in Whanganui, where Johnny spent his formative years.
Noted musicians with connections to the Whanganui region include organist Gillian Weir, pianist Dorothy Davies and composer Douglas Lilburn. Notable amongst the region’s professional photographers have been William Harding, Frank Denton, W. H. Partington and Mark Lampe. Contemporary photographer Anne Noble is from Whanganui.
The region’s buildings owe much to several notable architects, including Frederick de Jersey Clere. George Allen’s work includes the 1867 Oneida homestead, near Fordell, and St Stephen’s Church in Marton.
Alfred Atkins designed the Ward Observatory and the old Wanganui Museum (now the Savage Club building), and with others designed the distinctive early buildings on Wanganui Collegiate’s campus. C. R. Ford lived in Whanganui from 1914 to 1923, and designed many domestic and commercial buildings in partnership with Robert Talboys. More recently, Bruce Dickson has designed several fine buildings at Wanganui Collegiate and was joint architect for the new Whanganui UCOL campus, opened in 2008.
A rich source of Whanganui history from the 1840s to 1870s is found in the Reverend Richard Taylor’s journals. T. W. Downes’s Old Whanganui (1915) is a valuable resource on Māori history and on European settlement until 1847. Downes also wrote History of and guide to the Wanganui River (1921). Other books on the river have also been produced, the latest by David Young in 1998.
Whanganui has been well served by two general histories: Wanganui (1939) by L. J. B. Chapple and H. C. Veitch, and The Wanganui story (1972) by M. J. G. Smart and A. P. Bates. There are two fine histories of counties: Rex Voelkerling and Kevin Stewart’s on Whanganui, and Stan Laurenson’s on Rangitīkei.
The Wanganui Chronicle, the country’s oldest surviving newspaper, was first printed on 18 September 1856. The Wanganui Herald was published between 1867 and 1986.
Ian Cross, author of The God boy (1957), was born and grew up in Whanganui. A number of well-known authors have lived in the region. Rewi Alley farmed at Moeawatea behind Waverley from 1920 to 1926. Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde) was a reporter on the Wanganui Chronicle in 1929 when she published her first collection of poetry, The desolate star. Sylvia Ashton-Warner taught at Pipiriki from 1941 to 1944. James K. Baxter briefly attended the Friends School in Whanganui; he later founded a commune at Jerusalem, where he lived between 1969 and 1972, and was buried. Janet Frame lived in Whanganui from 1979 to 1983.
(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)
(Multiple responses allowed)
Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngā Rauru, Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Tamakōpiri, Ngāti Whitikaupeka, Ngāti Hinemanu, Ngāti Paki, Ngāti Hauiti
(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)
Belich, James. The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict. Auckland: Penguin, 1988.
Chapple, L. J. B., and H. C. Veitch. Wanganui. Hāwera: Hawera Star, 1939.
Downes, T. W. Old Whanganui. Christchurch: Kiwi Publishers, 1998 (originally published 1915).
Maclean, Susan. Architect of the angels: the churches of Frederick de Jersey Clere. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2002.
National resources survey, part 7; Wanganui region / compiled by the Town and Country Planning Division, Ministry of Works. Wellington: Govt. Printer, 1971.
Simon, Morvin T. Taku whare e–: he mauri tu = My home my heart: the spirit dwells still. Whanganui: Wanganui Regional Community College, 1986.
Smart, Maxwell J. G., and Arthur P. Bates. The Wanganui story. Wanganui: Wanganui Newspapers, 1972.