The first recorded account of an attempt to settle in Wanganui
(for which and for other facts recorded herein the compilers are grateful to the publisher of the “Early History of Wanganui,”) points to January, 1831, as the time when a boat first entered the river, with four white men and a negro from Kapiti, on a trading trip. When they had landed, and were engaged in cooking, a party of natives drew near and offered hospitality in the shape of cooked food. While this was being discussed, some of the Maoris having seated themselves in the boat, one of the pakehas went to turn them out, a proceeding which was hotly resented, the result being the decapitation of three of the four whites, their bodies being afterwards eaten, while the other two men were taken prisoners. The white man, who was named Andrew Powers, after many experiences with the Maoris in various parts of the North Island, lived to a good old age in Wanganui, leaving at the age of 71, about 1850. Wanganui dates its settlement from the year 1840, when the New Zealand Land Company took up their land in the vicinity; and from this event commenced the early troubles with the natives, who declared they had not sold land to the company, and
Fire Brigade Station and Municipal Chambers.
forthwith drove off the settlers. The first six years passed by without any material progress, owing chiefly to the hostility of the natives, whose war parties harassed the settlers, robbing and pillaging without let or hindrance. In 1843 the whole population of Wanganui was 210, but four years later, owing to the murder of Mrs Gilfillan and several children at Matarawa, very near to the site occupied by a railway station (since closed), and the disturbances that followed, the number was reduced to 110. Four of the Maori murderers were captured, tried by court-martial and executed. The conduct of the natives after this was very troublesome—so much so that Wanganui was practically in a state of siege for several weeks. The culminating point was the so-called Battle of St. John's Bush, on the 19th of July, 1847, when several were killed and wounded on both sides, this being the last occasion on which a hostile shot was heard within the town boundaries. From this time settlement was slowly progressive for a few years, but it soon set in in good earnest, gradually improving year by year, the old buildings which did duty in the early days gradually giving way to more pretentious structures, which in their turn became old-fashioned, being replaced with the buildings of the present time.
The Wanganui of 1897 is a charming spot, desirable alike as a place of residence or as a health resort. The old settlers, who bore the burden and heat of the day during the anxious days when houses were first robbed and then fired, farms wrecked and lives sacrificed, have mostly passed away. Little is known by the present generation of the hardships endured by the pioneers, who braved the dangers and endured the privations which fell to their lot, and thus paved the way for the advantages of these later times.
Situated in latitude 39°57″ south and in longitude 175°5″ east, and being distant from Wellington 151 miles by rail and 102 miles by sea, the borough is on the right (or north) bank of the Wanganui River. It forms the main centre of the Wanganui Electorate, and is surrounded by the Waitotara County. The population of Wanganui, as disclosed by the census of 1896, was 5936. This would, however, be much increased by including the suburbs, not forgetting those on the south bank of the river, with which the borough is connected with a splendid iron bridge, 600 feet long, supported on seven cast-iron cylindrical piers, and constructed at a cost of £32,000. The borough proper contains about 1000 acres of land and 1081 habitations, many of which may fairly be classed as mansions. Wanganui
is about four miles from the Heads, the river being navigable for vessels of light draught for fifty-nine miles, to Pipiriki, with which there is a regular steam-service.
An important station on the Wellington and Napier to New Plymouth railway lines, there is regular communication with all parts of the North Island inland, in addition to the steamer traffic by the West Coast. Well laid out, with clean broad streets, well-watered, and under a most salubrious climate, with fair harbour accommodation, a rich loamy soil inside the town, and sin rounded by wealthy farms and landed estates—the pick of the North Island—having many other natural advantages added to all those social and commercial ones always present in English civilised centres, small wonder then if town and country be livible places. Referring to this sunny spot, a writer in the Otago Witness says:—“Suddenly sweeping round a bend of the hillside road you have been shooting down for the last ten minutes, lovely Wanganui and its stately river, spanned by the cylinder bridge, and all the spires and homes among the plantations, come into view; and after the visitor has admired the natural charms of the place his next impression is a firm conviction that Wanganui has all the elements of a vigorous, prosperous, and contented town. The vigorousness is indicated by the fact that there is not grass enough in the streets to starve a turkey; the folk can't find time to say good-day; and all the pavements are as worn as patriarchal Pompeii; by the roar of the vehicular traffic; the healthy hum of the mills, the breweries, the factories, and all the other industries.” In the matter of religion, politics, education. law and justice, postal and telegraphic conveniences, defence and friendly societies, sport, music and drama, Wanganui affords ample and varied facilities. It is unnecessary to go fully into details, as the various institutions of this prosperous community are separately dealt with in the succeeding pages of this section.
It would, however, be an omission not to refer to the four public parks with which the inhabitants have been so liberally provided. Cook's Gardens, on the west of the Avenue, where there is a firebell located, have been laid off, and on the flat portion a capital bicycle and athletic track was in course of construction at the time of the writer's visit. Eastward of the main artery of Wanganui the visitor will find the splendidly situated Queen's Gardens. Originally a succession of sand dunes, where in
The Old Soldiers' Monument.
Photo by Mr. A. Elliott, Inspector of Customs.
the olden days the old Rutland Stockade—subsequently used as a gaol—was constructed, these gardens are pleasantly planted and laid out, an excellent band rotunda having been put up in commemoration of Her Majesty's Jubilee. Facing Maria Place, near the Avenue, is the Old Soldiers' Monument. surmounted by a sculptured lion—the work of a local patriotic resident. On the summit of St. John's Hill lies the charming Victoria Park, where there is a fine cricket and sports ground, cycling track, and pleasure resort; and, in addition to these, there is the Recreation Ground near the well-appointed racecourse.
The suburbs of Wanganui are Aramoho, a small village some three miles up the Wanganui River to the eastward, St. John's Hill, a lovely rurality, north-east, at the basis of which Victoria Avenue, pride of Wanganui, ends, Moss-town and Springvale, two other pretty suburbs to the north and west, while Durietown and Taylorville lie on the south bank of the river, across the bridge, and at the Heads, about four miles away, is the marine suburb of Castlecliff.