Wellington: the first British settlement
Set up to promote a British colony in New Zealand, the New Zealand Company chose Wellington as its first organised settlement. It was planned to be the new colony’s capital city.
The company hoped to create an orderly centre, but early Wellington was chaotic. Late in 1839 William Wakefield, the company’s New Zealand agent, sailed from Wellington in search of more land, leaving instructions for the settlement to be laid out around Lambton Harbour.
Britannia – a false start
However, the company’s chief surveyor, William Mein Smith, placed the town near the mouth of the Hutt (Heretaunga) River, where there was enough flat land for the town plan to be implemented.
Early in 1840 the first six immigrant ships arrived off Pito-one (now Petone). There had been little preparation for their arrival. With Māori help the first settlers built huts along the foreshore. The young settlement was called Britannia. But within months it was flooded by the Hutt River.
What’s yours is mine
Many of the first Wellington landowners were speculators who remained in Britain, which encouraged squatting. Arriving in Wellington in 1841, settler Thomas Bevan discovered a squatter on land bought by his local vicar in Wales. Bevan reported, ‘He has made himself a small house on it, and fenced for his own use, a little garden. … He has let the remainder of the acre to five others, who have built temporary huts upon it.’ 1
Wellington – a new beginning
On his return from England a few months later, Wakefield moved the town to less flood-prone Lambton Harbour. This land had not been sold by its Māori occupants, but this did not stop the company subdividing it into town acres. One tenth of these were kept for Māori use. A green reserve running around the edge of the settlement was also set aside. This became known as the Town Belt.
When settlers arrived to claim their lots, they found that some lay within Māori pā, or were inaccessible. Some settlers, and displaced Māori, ended up squatting on land that had absentee owners.
A trading town
The first settlers forged strong trading relationships with Māori, exchanging goods and cash for fresh food and labour. Merchants took land along the beach, building warehouses and jetties. The most novel of the jetties was Plimmer’s Ark, a ship’s hulk that merchant John Plimmer beached in 1849 at the southern end of Lambton Quay. The Ark soon became a centre for Wellington trade.
Auckland the capital
Wakefield had hoped to make Wellington the capital of New Zealand, but in 1840 Governor William Hobson chose Auckland instead. Hobson also began looking into the New Zealand Company’s land purchases.
Māori resistance and the Wairau conflict
Wakefield wanted Wellington to be independent. But at the same time he needed British troops to defend it against Māori attack, which seemed a real prospect after a conflict on the Wairau plains in 1843. Some Nelson settlers, led by Arthur Wakefield, had tried to take up land they believed they had purchased from the Ngāti Toa tribe in the Wairau Valley, Marlborough. Ngāti Toa disputed the deal, and resisted the takeover. In a confrontation four Māori and 22 Europeans were killed. Settlers urged Governor Robert FitzRoy (Hobson’s successor) to punish the tribe. But FitzRoy thought Ngāti Toa had been provoked, and refused to do so.
End of resistance
Tension between settlers and Māori grew. Following skirmishes in the Hutt Valley and at Pāuatahanui, Governor George Grey, who replaced FitzRoy, boldly detained Te Rauparaha in July 1846. The following month his troops bombarded Te Rangihaeata’s pa at Battle Hill. After thwarting the attack for several days, Te Rangihaeata retreated north. This ended Ngāti Toa resistance and allowed European settlement to spread.
By the early 1850s the Māori population was dwindling, and some returned to tribal homelands in Taranaki. Others settled on reserve lands, such as Waiwhetū in Lower Hutt.
Decline of the New Zealand Company
Grey was more successful than the New Zealand Company in keeping order in Wellington. Grappling with rising debts, the company collapsed in 1850.
After government forces removed Ngāti Toa-aligned Māori in 1846, the Hutt Valley grew as a farming and horticultural district. Over the next few decades settlers cleared the forest and built townships at Lower Hutt, Petone and Upper Hutt.
The business district grows
Hemmed in by hills and sea, Wellington’s business district lacked room to grow. In 1857 the government reclaimed from the sea a triangle of land next to Plimmer’s Ark. The newly formed Bank of New Zealand bought a block at the southern apex and built its Wellington branch office. At the seaward end, the town’s first deep-water wharf (Queen’s Wharf) was built, as was a new post office and bond store.
This was the beginning of Wellington’s financial district. Like other mercantile cities, it grew beside the main wharves, reflecting the strong links of finance and communications with trade.
The capital – at last
Trade alone was not enough to guarantee the town’s survival. In 1865 the capital was finally moved from Auckland to Wellington. Only then did the city have a certain future.