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 because of the lack of jobs. Between 1926 and 1945, Whanganui was the only New Zealand region to record a continuous decline in population. In that period, Whanganui city’s population fell, then returned 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.
After the war
Buoyant international demand for commodities saw growth resume after the Second World War, but did not translate into a demand for more farm labour. Farm 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 when processing was centralised away from 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 of the high numbers of Pākehā leaving.
Whanganui economy and population
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 the early 1960s. 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 to look not just for jobs but 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.