British settlers on Petone Beach 181 years ago

By Roger Childs

The enterprising Englishman Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his sons were instrumental in the settlement of Wellington in 1840. The Wakefield New Zealand Company would also set up other communities in Nelson, Wanganui and New Plymouth. Questionable land purchases were done with local Maori a year or two before and some of these were called into question by the new colonial government which was established in Russell following the Treaty of Waitangi. 

The setting up of the New Zealand British colony in early February 1840 was hastened partly by concerns about what the Wakefields were up to further south.

An uncomfortable start for the migrants

Local Te Ati Awa Maori helped the first British settlers from the Aurora land on Petone Beach on 22 January 1840, but to the new arrivals’ dismay there were no wooden houses awaiting them. So it was life under canvass for a few weeks in a settlement which was patriotically called Britannia. (There are excellent displays about this first community at the Petone Museum.)

It was soon apparent that the swampy, flood-prone land of the Lower Hutt Valley was utterly unsuitable for building and within a few months the settlers decamped for Te Aro on the other side of the harbour. The new town was soon named after the “Iron Duke” who with a bit of help from the Prussians has eventually prevailed over the French at the Battle of Waterloo 25 years earlier.

Growth and celebration

By the end of 1840 about 2300 migrants had arrived in more than 100 ships, and houses had been built and streets laid out in Wellington. On the first anniversary in January 1841 the community had developed enough to be able to host two formal balls, church services and a feast, as well as horse and canoe races, rifle shooting and games.

So 25 January 2021 is the 181st anniversary of British people coming to “Wellington”, but why do the citizens of the Kapiti Coast, Hutt Valley, the Porirua Basin, Wairarapa, Horowhenua, Wanganui, Manawatu and Rangitikei, as well as Wellington, get a holiday on Monday? Basically all those regions were once part of the Wellington Province.

The New Zealand provinces 

In the mid 19th century there were few roads and no railways. Most travel between the scattered communities of the fledgling British colony was by sea. So in 1852 six provinces were set up under the constitution to provide for the efficient administration of the country’s scattered settlements. Four more provinces were added later.

However by 1876 land transport was rapidly expanding, railways were being built and many provincial administrations were in dire financial straits. The central government in Wellington, led by Julius Vogel, decided the time had come to abolish the provinces.

The provinces have broken down because of their coming into conflict with the colonial government on many points, and especially on points of finance. Their doom was only a question of time … –Colonial Treasurer, Julius Vogel 1874

However, each province had set up an anniversary day and 145 years after the abolition of provincial government, these public holidays remain.

Provincial pride

There was an attempt to set up a national holiday to replace provincial anniversaries, but this failed. The anniversaries remain and people continue to identify with their “province” even though there have been many changes over the last hundred years in how districts/regions/boroughs/cities are administered. 

For many, there is pride is being from Taranaki or the Waikato; identifying as a West Coaster or a Southlander. Many sports teams continue to have a provincial basis, and cultural, professional and employment groups still associate themselves with a province or region.

It’s a long way back to the demise of the provinces, however, anniversary days are here to stay! New regions and identities have emerged over the last 145 years, but it is the original provincial boundaries from the mid 19th century that determine which day you get your holiday.

So whatever your origins and date of arrival in the place where you live today, enjoy your provincial holiday!