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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Wellington's Port Nicholson, 1885

Wellington's Port Nicholson, 1885

To get directly into the heart of our topic we cannot do better than quote further from the Wanganui Chronicle's ‘Touchstone’ articles, introduced at the end of our last chapter. Touchstone described coming into Wellington by sea:

It is not the soft, sensuous beauty of Auckland, but still the glorious sweep of the harbour up to the Hutt, with the grim Rimutaka away in the distance, is a grand sight. Right ahead is the wharf, with the big ocean steamers laying safely alongside, and the fine facade of the new Post Office all bright in the midday sun. On the left is pretty Oriental Bay, with snug suburban residences nestling in the gullies and under the cliffs. Te Aro flat, smoky and uninviting, is somewhat a blot on the view … Away to the right a puff of smoke shows the 19th century civiliser, the breaker down of barbarism, the locomotive, winding its sinuous course around the shores of Kaiwarra to the pleasant country of the Hutt…. When we get to the wharf one notices at once the peculiarities of Wellington's commercial standing. In Auckland the scores of small schooners and cutters are evidences of her South Sea trade and of the great timber industry…. Dunedin and Port Chalmers show signs of the vast wool trade by the number of Home-going barques and ships; whilst page 200 at Wellington the specialty would seem to be steamers. Yes, steamers; steamers of all kinds, of all tonnages, from the 30-ton Mohaka—a queer little ‘hooker’ which miraculously gets safely over to Blenheim twice or thrice a week—to the gigantic Royal mail steamer Kaikoura, a stately steamship of 5000 tons. Like unto the Flying Dutchman are those dark green painted, red funnelled boats of the Union Company. In and out all day through. One day there is the Wairarapa on her way [from] Auckland by Napier to the South, and thence across to pretty, sleepy Tasmania and bustling wealthy Melbourne. Vice versa we have the Manapouri or the Te Anau, calling here on their way from the cold bleak South en route for Sunny Auckland and Sydney. A host of small yet profitable little boats of the ‘fast and favourite Huia’ stamp maintain communications with Wanganui, Patea, Napier, Kaikoura, and the West Coast ports. Strong looking, wide beamed steam colliers once the property of ‘Bully’ Williams of colliery renown, and now gulped up into the voracious maw of the Union Company, trade out of Wellington to Westport and Greymouth, whilst the minor interprovincial service of the Union Company is maintained by their tried veterans, such as the Rotorua, Hawea, Penguin, and others which have been deposed from their high estate by the luxuriously fitted up Rotomahana, Manapouri, and Te Anau. A direct service, too, flourishes between Wellington and Sydney, the favourite old Wakatipu being always well filled whilst the Hauroto is well up in popular esteem. Half an hour on the wharf gives one the clue to Wellington's existence. Not manufactures nor local industries, nor great agricultural wealth, none of these are there to afford a satisfactory raison de etre. Wellington flourishes on her position, the great central point of the two islands, a handy entrepot for the distribution of the imports which arrive by the English ships and by the direct steamers, and for the collection and shipment of the exports of the West Coast, Nelson, and Marlborough, a portion of the East Coast (most of the wool from the East Coast stations goes through Castlepoint to Wellington) and from the Wairarapa and our district.4

‘Touchstone’ is right to give such prominence to steamers in explaining Wellington's growth. He proceeds to discuss her lack of ‘back country’, ‘With the exception of the Wairarapa absolutely none.’ In fact she served a hinterland population roughly the same as Wanganui's. This should only have required a population of about 5,000. Her role as the capital city could only have accounted for another thousand or two, for, arising from the provincial past, much government administration was devolved to regional offices. Perhaps two thirds of her 26,000 population are to be accounted for by her magnificent, strategically placed harbour. In all his articles on Wellington ‘Touchstone’ makes only the one reference to the railway that we have quoted. His perspective is right. Wellington's railway brought 45,400 tons of goods page 201 into town in the year to 31 March 1886. Coastal shipping will have brought in many times this amount—though how many times will probably never be firmly established. With 1,219,068 tons of coastal shipping movements in 1885, Wellington was the leading coastal port of the colony, well ahead of Lyttelton with just over a million tons and Auckland with three quarters of a million. An analysis of Wellington's coastal trade will take us a fair way towards an understanding of the sinews that were knitting the colony together as a functioning whole. But since official statistics took no account of coastal cargoes it will not be an easy task.