The warp and woof of Wellington, J M Thomson

The Making of Wellington 1800-1914
David Hamer and Roberta Nicholls (eds)
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1990, $39.95

Colonial Capital, Wellington 1865-1910
Terence Hodgson
Random Century, Auckland, 1990, $34.95

A study of the evolution of a city provides an excellent opportunity to see many forces of colonisation at work, from cupidity to idealism, and this new symposium at its best achieves just that. The most considerable book of its kind yet to appear, it takes to a higher level the writings of its predecessors, such as Louis E Ward’s Early Wellington, (1928) and Alan Mulgan’s orderly City of the Strait (1939), with a more refined use of scholarly method and a more dynamic appreciation of how Wellington grew. It elaborates and develops themes put forward in John Miller’s elegantly written Early Victorian New Zealand (1958) with its telling accounts of the way the Company damaged relationships between the races and in Michael Turnbull’s popular The New Zealand Bubble (1959), which highlighted the Company’s deceptions. Wakefield might have chosen Wellington’s motto Suprema a situ, which has always seemed to me somewhat arrogant, emblazoned as it once was on trams and buses, for in most respects one could not feel proud of what had been made of a given unique site. Wellington today is supreme in another respect, that of its vital cultural life. But a promenade through the city centre will show that in business affairs much of the original sharp dealing highlighted in this book has vigorously survived.

The twelve contributors cover most aspects of early Wellington except specifically cultural matters, although these are sometimes interwoven as in Roberta Nicholls’s excellent essay on élite society. Brad Patterson has no illusions about the chaotic nature of the surveys of the New Zealand Company and the quixotic role played by individuals. Similarly, David Hamer gives a penetrating insight into the dispersal of the Maori. Margaret Alington vividly describes how the Bolton Street cemetery became a memorial park, a postscript to her much praised Unquiet Earth. David Hamer’s statement that there is yet no fully researched history of Wellington explains why the symposium operates at a variety of levels, often a source of dislocation for the reader. This above all is a stimulating source book, which will undoubtedly inspire successors.

Terence Hodgson’s handsome paperback complements it best through generously proportioned illustrations. Late Victorian and Edwardian Wellington had a homogeneity of style that survives today only in isolated portions such as Stewart Dawsons’s corner and the old Bank of New Zealand. The devastation brought about by fire in this earlier period is only equalled by that caused by our present day developers. Suprema a situ? Perhaps one day we might substitute ‘sapientia’. Those who love Wellington for a variety of reasons and wish to see the best of its past preserved can take heart from these two books.


[John M Thomson was the founding editor of New Zealand Books.]



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