Main administrative centre for the South Waikato district, 88 km south-east of Hamilton, with a 2013 population of 12,717. Tokoroa takes its name from the surrounding area, shown as Tokoroa Plains on 19th-century maps. Tokoroa was a chief of Ngāti Kahupungapunga, the first tribe in the area. He was killed at the siege of Pōhuturoa, south of the present town of Tokoroa. This battle was one of many that took place when Ngāti Raukawa spread into south Waikato around 1600.
Farming and forestry
The area around Tokoroa was owned by the Thames Valley Land Company in the 19th century, and by the Matarawa Land Company from 1914. A farming settlement emerged at Tokoroa, but it remained very small. Until ‘bush sickness’ in stock due to cobalt deficiency in the soil was remedied in the 1930s, farming was unprofitable. However, the pumice land was suitable for exotic forestry, and between 1925 and 1935 New Zealand Perpetual Forests planted radiata pine forests close to Tokoroa. When these forests matured in the 1940s, New Zealand Perpetual Forests’ successor company, New Zealand Forest Products (NZFP), began constructing a pulp and paper mill at nearby Kinleith to process the wood.
A company town
From 1947 Tokoroa grew to house workers building the Kinleith mill 8 km to the south, and to provide accommodation for future staff of the mill. Unusually, the town was developed by a company – NZFP – rather than by the state. NZFP built 2,230 workers’ houses between 1947 and 1976, as well as camps for single men. The layout of the town, community facilities and even the appearance of the houses were designed to attract and retain a stable workforce.
Tokoroa was a county town from 1953, and a county borough with a mayor from 1966, but the company continued to have a strong influence on civic affairs.
Workers of different nationalities and ethnicities came to live in Tokoroa, creating a distinctive multi-cultural community. Some were assisted immigrants from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the Pacific Islands – notably the Cook Islands but also Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Niue. Others were Māori and Pākehā who came to Tokoroa from elsewhere in New Zealand.
When Tokoroa was planned, unskilled workers were provided with more modest houses than skilled workers and managers, and were confined to certain suburbs. Single men, regarded as transient and potentially disruptive, were accommodated in camps on the outskirts of town. This created both social and ethnic segregation and strife. Lack of work for school leavers in the 1950s and a shortage of youth facilities led to a crime problem in the 1960s. Despite attempts to create a sense of community, Tokoroa gained a reputation as a rough frontier town, which it found difficult to shake.
Pungent pulp and paper
A sulfurous smell announces the presence of the Kinleith mill to motorists on State Highway 1. Environmental concerns led to the introduction of a new gas stripper system at the mill in the mid-1990s, halving Kinleith’s odour levels.
The site of the Kinleith mill was chosen because it was flat land close to existing transport links and a water supply, as well as being near Tokoroa. The mill began operating during the early 1950s and was officially opened in 1954. It grew considerably in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s NZFP’s decision not to expand overseas, combined with poor trading conditions, reduced demand for forest products and industrial unrest, led to staff cutbacks. Kinleith was bought in 1990 by Carter Holt Harvey. Since then there have been modernisation and environmental initiatives, including introduction of recycling and better waste management methods.
Tokoroa had a mere 242 people in 1948, but by 1951 the population was 1,193, and by 1955, 6,000. Growth at the Kinleith mill in the 1960s and 1970s created demand for more staff, and Tokoroa was expected to become a city of 20,000 people by the mid-1970s. Instead, the population peaked in 1981 at 18,713 people and, thereafter, reductions in the Kinleith workforce caused it to fall. The 2013 population was 12,717, a decline of 11.8% since 2001.