History of Wellington

Mother Earth Travel > New Zealand > Wellington > History

According to Maori legend, Wellington was first discovered in the 10th century by the great Polynesian explorer Kupe and named Te Whanganui a Tara - the Great Harbour of Tara - after his son. To this day the spectacular natural harbour surrounded by steep hills is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. By the time the explorer Captain Cook visited in 1773 the harbour was lined with Maori settlements. Today a popular viewing point, Mt Victoria, is built on top of an ancient Maori burial ground. However, both Cook and Abel Tasman, a previous visitor who stopped by in 1642, were driven back by the fierce winds, which have earned the city its often ill-deserved reputation of 'windy Wellington'.

It wasn't until 1840 following settlement by British pioneers from the New Zealand Company that the city was named Wellington in honour of the Iron Duke who lent his support to the company. Sir William Wakefield who, along with the other founding fathers of the city now lies at rest in the Bolton St Cemetery, led the first wave of settlers. It is said that Wakefield's deals with the Maori included buying Wellington for 100 muskets, 100 blankets, 60 red nightcaps, a dozen umbrellas and other sundry goods.

Wakefield and his followers originally established a base at Petone, however, flooding from the Hutt River forced them to relocate at Lambton Harbour, a drier location and the present focal point of the city.

Lack of space soon led to a decision by the spirited settlers to reclaim the harbour and following the earthquake of 1845, which conveniently raised the foreshore by four feet, the reclamations got underway in earnest. By the turn of the 20th century the original shoreline was totally replaced by wharves and warehouses. It seems hard to envisage, but most of the commercial heart of Wellington was originally sea, and the Town Hall and Railway Station now stand where ships once berthed.

As the shipping industry modernised, it no longer needed many of the waterfront buildings and over recent years some of the best have been redeveloped for public use. One of these historic icons, the Bond Store, now home to one of Wellington's newest museums, the Museum of Wellington City & Sea, was originally an 1892 storehouse for a variety of goods from corsets to whisky and coffee.

In spite of natural hazards like earthquakes, fires and the ever-present gale force winds, the fledgling colony of the mid-1800s quickly became a thriving import and export centre and in 1865 superseded Auckland as the capital. The original powerhouse of the nation, the Old Government Buildings, was built in the 1870s and is the largest wooden structure in the southern hemisphere. Across the road stands Parliament Buildings, built in 1922. Its square marble angles contrast dramatically with the rounded contours of the Beehive, the capital's distinctive circular Cabinet offices, built in the late 1970s.

Another of Wellington's unique attractions, the Cable Car, was built between 1899 and 1902 and received a major upgrade in 1978. Accessed from Cable Car Lane, off Lambton Quay, it climbs steeply to the inner-city suburb of Kelburn, giving stunning views over the city and harbour.

In spite of a massive reconstruction of the city in the 1980s, which saw the demolition of numerous older earthquake-risk buildings, Wellington still has many old buildings, which provide an insight into its history. Amongst the churches which have survived are gems like Old St Paul's Church in Thorndon, the Anglican Diocese of Wellington from 1866 to 1964, and St Mary of the Angels, which shows the influence of traditional French Gothic architecture.

Also providing a precious glimpse of the past and an insight into the lives of the early settlers are the Colonial Cottage in Nairn Street; Ascot St in Thorndon, Sexton's Cottage and Katherine Mansfield Birthplace, where the world famous writer spent her early childhood.

As well as historic buildings Wellington contains many sites, gardens and walks which have survived from the early days. Amongst these are the Botanic Gardens and the famous Red Rocks Seals colony at Owhiro Bay, a rugged stretch of coastline which is supposedly stained by the blood from Kupe's cut hand.

Wellington continues to grow both in cultural diversity and in terms of the numerous attractions on offer. Recent initiatives such as the building of the new national museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, and the WestpacTrust Stadium draw more and more visitors each year. Despite its growth, however, the city retains the natural charm and beauty which originally attracted the early settlers in their droves.