Story: City images

Page 3. Four main centres

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Until the 1950s New Zealand’s four main centres – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – were of roughly equal size and influence. But they had distinguishing attributes that defined each city to residents and outsiders alike. Some of these representations had their origins in the way the cities were founded; others emerged as cities were reshaped. Some were repeated so often they became stale stereotypes; others revealed deeper insights into a city’s sense of place or identity.

Kipling’s cliché

In 1891 Rudyard Kipling famously called Auckland ‘last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite apart’ – a phrase that filled its residents with pride, but was repeated so often it became hackneyed.1


Auckland’s prize asset has always been its site. Māori were early settlers, some calling it Tāmaki-makau-rau (Tāmaki of a hundred lovers), a reference to the lure of its waterways and lush soils. Arcadian images continued with European settlement, one booster suggesting Auckland’s ‘rich chocolate soil has only to be tickled with a hoe to smile with a harvest of fruit and flowers.’2

Two further images continued to resonate in the early 2000s. The first was that Auckland was driven by the pursuit of (speculative) wealth. During the 1870s observers expressed surprise at the structure of the city’s economy: ‘I can almost count on my fingers the men who confine themselves to steady, commercial work; the rest of the beings … are “spiders” or sharebrokers, who make their living by the feverish rise and fall of the market’.3 The other image of Auckland was that of a collection of villages with no real centre. In the 1890s André Siegfried noted how quiet the city was: life seemed to be lived in the suburbs. This attribute was reflected in Auckland’s local government, with a plethora of suburban-defined boroughs, only reined in by 1989 reforms.


More than other cities, Wellington has been defined by its climate, especially its wind. In the 1860s Charlotte Godley supposed ‘there was never so windy a place as this; it is acknowledged to be the great drawback to the settlement’.4 In the 1940s Oliver Duff declared Wellington ‘gusty and bleak … no other city in the Southern Hemisphere can be quite so dreary’.5 Perversely, Wellingtonians turned the wind into a positive. It was invigorating and cleansing, they claimed. And when it died down and the sun shone, there was no better place: ‘you can’t beat Wellington on a good day’ became the city’s unofficial motto.

Sibling rivalry

Rivalry between Auckland and Wellington goes back to their founding in 1840, when the latter settlement accused the former of stealing its citizens with deceitful promises of wealth. In 2009 Auckland was at it again. In a controversial article in Auckland magazine Metro the city tried to steal Wellington’s coveted cultural-capital mantle by claiming it was culturally richer. This time Wellington was ready and fought off the northern invader with ridicule.

Another representation of Wellington was as a place of transition – people came to the city to work rather than live, before moving on again. The image reflected a period from 1900 to the 1980s when large sectors of the economy were government-controlled and Wellington was New Zealand’s ‘head office’. Many careers necessitated stints in what was widely viewed as a colourless capital, populated by grey civil servants. From the 1980s the city began to shed this lifeless image and forge a more dynamic one as the nation’s cultural capital.

Christchurch and Dunedin

While landscape and climate shaped images of Auckland and Wellington, representations of Christchurch and Dunedin were culturally rooted. The cities were founded by groups of English and Scots colonists respectively, and this framed the way each was represented. Christchurch was quickly declared New Zealand’s most English city, and its neo-Gothic cathedral became its foremost symbol. Visiting in 1895, Mark Twain thought if the city ‘had an established Church and social inequality it would be England all over again with hardly a lack.’6 Dunedin (an old name for Edinburgh) was clearly the colony’s Scottish city, an attribute mirrored in its built environment and the verve of its economy. ‘I have never visited a town with more signs of progress and general comfort,’ wrote Arthur Claydon in 1879.7

Little Melbourne and Sydney

New Zealand cities were often compared to their Australian counterparts. In 1871 one observer wrote: ‘Dunedin is a little Melbourne, and has been brought to what it is mainly by Melbourne men, their money and enterprise. Auckland is a lesser Sydney, partaking in every way of the characteristics of that city and the people of it, with whom it has the most frequent communication.’8 The Dunedin–Melbourne image faded away, but the Auckland–Sydney one remains vivid in 2009.

During the 20th century Dunedin’s images of progress and energy were replaced by those of tradition and staidness – the city hardly grew. Scottish references continued – not least in the name of its rugby team, the Highlanders – but new images centred increasingly on its illustrious university and sometimes unruly students. Christchurch too tried to move past its tired English iconography, embracing a new set of images that emphasised its status as New Zealand’s garden city. To this end, in 2008, it coaxed the Ellerslie Flower Show from Auckland.

  1. Quoted in Mary R. Greig, ‘Aotea-roa: as the poets knew it.’ (last viewed 24 September 2009). Back
  2. Reed & Brett’s Auckland almanac, household guide, and strangers’ vade mecum, 1889. Auckland: Reed & Brett, 1889, p.129–30. Back
  3. John Ernest Tinne, Wonderland of the antipodes: and other sketches of travel in the North Island of New Zealand. London: Sampson Low, 1873, p. 77. Back
  4. Charlotte Godley, Letters from early New Zealand. Christchurch: Kiwi, 2000, p. 29 (originally published 1936). Back
  5. Oliver Duff, New Zealand now. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1941, p. 41. Back
  6. Mark Twain, Following the equator: a journey around the world. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1899, p. 297. Back
  7. Arthur Claydon, The England of the Pacific: or New Zealand as an English middle-class emigration field: a lecture. London: Wyman & Sons, 1879, p. 29. Back
  8. Daily Southern Cross, 23 June 1871, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City images - Four main centres', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2021)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010