Township at the southern gateway to Wairarapa, 34 km south-west of Masterton at the foot of the Remutaka Range. With a 2013 population of 2,253, Featherston is a rural servicing and distribution centre, and home to many Wellington commuters.
Until recently, it was the ‘ugly duckling’ of south Wairarapa’s towns but, like Greytown and Martinborough, it is presently being gentrified. Antique and collectible stores now line the main street, and new cafés have opened.
The Fell Engine Museum houses the world’s only Fell engine (once used on the steep Remutaka incline, over the Remutaka Range). The Featherston Heritage Museum explores the history of the Featherston Military Camp.
Featherston was first known as Burlings, after Henry Burling, who opened an accommodation house near the Māori settlement of Pae-O-Tu-Mokai in 1847. In 1856 the provincial government surveyed the spot for a town, naming it after its superintendent, Isaac Featherston. The town’s initial development was hindered by high land prices, but after the railway came through in the 1870s it became an important service town. It was made a borough in 1917.
In 2013 Featherston had a higher proportion of people with no educational qualifications (almost 30%) than the national average (21%). Its median income ($23,900) was lower than the national average ($28,500), and the unemployment rate (10.5%) was a third higher than the national rate (7.1%). Featherston was one of Wairarapa’s most economically deprived towns, second only to Eketāhuna.
Featherston Military Camp
Featherston Military Camp was established in 1916 to train soldiers heading to the battlefields of the First World War. Accommodating 8,000 men, the camp was larger than the town and included 16 dining halls, six cookhouses, 17 shops, a picture theatre, hospital, and post office. After training, men marched over the Remutaka Range for embarkation at Wellington.
During the Second World War the Featherston Military Camp held hundreds of Japanese prisoners of war. Prisoners were assigned daily work duties, such as cutting gorse or cleaning.
Not so peaceful
After the Second World War, Featherston Military Camp was demolished and small memorials erected to the Japanese prisoners of war and their guards. In 1995 Nakamato Toshio – head of Masterton’s Juken Nissho timber plant – proposed a peace garden be erected on the site. New Zealand veterans, still angered by Japan’s war aggression, opposed the plan. The South Wairarapa District Council deferred to the veterans and rejected the proposal.
On 25 February 1943, 240 prisoners refused to parade for work and sat down in their compound. A spokesman for the strikers, Toshio Adachi, demanded a conference with the camp’s commander, Donald Donaldson, who refused to meet Adachi until the strikers paraded for work. A stand-off resulted. Guards tried to seize Adachi, but he fell back into the crowd, who began throwing stones. The camp’s adjutant, James Malcolm, fired a warning shot to restore order. After a second shot wounded Adachi, the prisoners rushed the guards, who opened fire. Thirty seconds later 31 Japanese were dead and a further 31 injured. Seventeen later died, and one New Zealander died from a ricochet wound.
A military court of inquiry decided the shooting could not have been avoided. Tension had been building for weeks, partly a result of cultural differences. Some prisoners considered the camp regime slack, and striking was one way to assert their authority. Many also felt great shame for being taken alive and imprisoned; having to work was a further humiliation. After the shooting, there were no more serious incidents at the camp.