The triumph of reinvention, Mary Varnham

Wellington – The First Years of European Settlement 1840-1850
Gavin McLean
Penguin Books, $29.95,
ISBN 0140288635

Wellington’s Heritage – plants, gardens, and landscape
Winsome Shepherd
Te Papa Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0909010730

Kirkcaldie & Stains – A Wellington Story
Julia Millen
Bridget Williams Books for Kirkcaldie & Stains Ltd, $69.95,
ISBN 1877242071

Capital Opera – Wellington’s Opera Company 1982-1999
Adrienne Simpson
The National Opera of Wellington, $34.95,
ISBN 0473071398

Wellington city started out inauspiciously. In 1839 Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s New Zealand Company dispatched eight sailing ships from England on to the high seas, bound for Port Nicholson, New Zealand. It was an act both audacious and foolhardy. The company had not purchased a single acre of land or even decided on a site for settlement.

One ship, the Tory, formed the advance party. A second, the Cuba, had the survey party on board. The other six were packed with unsuspecting migrants, mainly poor rural labourers – despite Wakefield’s utopian vision of planned, occupationally integrated colonisation.

By March 1840, as Gavin McLean drolly reports in Wellington – The First Years of European Settlement, “everyone had reached the promissory land, but the Cuba’s surveyors had beaten the Aurora by just eighteen days. Nothing was ready.”

Most unready were the Maori inhabitants of the basin of land that was quickly chosen as the best site for a city. Chiefs Te Wharepouri of Ngauranga and in particular Honiana Te Puni-Kokopu of Pito-one claimed the right to sell all land at Port Nicholson, including the desirable flat swathe ringing the inner harbour. However, whaler and erstwhile interpreter Dicky Barrett warned expedition leader William Wakefield, Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s younger brother, that the occupants of Te Aro were boycotting events and Pipitea Maori had by no means consented.

Such lack of consent, however, was of no matter to Wakefield, who was desperate to get the grumpy settlers settled and out of his hair. Nor did it appear to concern the settlers themselves. By the end of 1840, they thoroughly outnumbered the Maori inhabitants of Port Nicholson and were not of a mind to tolerate the natives’growing protests, or indeed even their presence. By then, only three areas in the town had not been handed over to settlers – Pipitea, Kumutoto and Te Aro pa – and there were some settlers who wanted Maori ousted from these as well. In 1847 they got their way when Maori reserves – the so-called “one-tenths” – were pushed to the outskirts of the town or into rural areas.

Gavin McLean’s account of this and other shabby goings-on in the first decade of Wellington’s history makes for some pretty enthralling reading, especially as McLean has captured the modern taste for history-as-sound-bite, compressing the tale into less than 100 pithy pages.


Hindsight encourages us to take the moral high ground over McLean’s settlers, who, as well as treating Maori as enemy to be expunged, did the same to the natural environment. “Delighted colonists scrambled ashore and blasted the feathers from the startled birdlife,” he wryly observes. This was followed by the wholesale chopping down, grubbing and burning off of bush, creating what botanical historian Winsome Shepherd calls “the first colonial landscape”.

What a landscape it was. Early paintings and, later, photographs reproduced in Shepherd’s new work, Wellington’s Heritage – plants, gardens and landscape, tell the sorry story: bare, eroded hills, many starting to be cloaked in gorse, broom and other plants which, imported for decoration, were rapidly turning into rampant pests in the temperate climate.

Yet Shepherd has considerable affection and admiration for the settlers and their determined, sometimes manic, efforts to create English-style gardens, complete with ponds, fountains and herbaceous borders, in the face of precipitous terrain, dense plant cover and the lashing of Cook Strait winds. Many of these people, through virtue or necessity, became expert plantspeople and as early as 1841 the city could proudly boast of having its own Horticultural Society.

The New Zealand Company can be decried as a shameful example of colonial chicanery. But its surveyor, William Mein Smith, obeying the Company’s instructions to provide open space and finding nowhere to reserve it but on the inner faces of steep hills facing the harbour, gave Wellington one of its greatest and most loved legacies, the Town Belt.

Shepherd, whose 1988 history of Wellington’s Botanic Garden, co-authored with Walter Cook, has become a classic, steadfastly refuses to join the fashionable ranks of horticultural purism. She rejoices as much in the radiata pine as the pohutakawa, in the rose as much as the raupo, in the Chinese elm as much as the Chatham Island forget-me-not. And while she applauds the current city council for its Town Belt Management Plan, she frets that revegetating Tinakori Hill in native trees and shrubs may make the hills “less visually satisfying that they are today with their mantle of conifers”.

Wellington’s Heritage is a work of huge and conscientious research but the abiding impression it leaves is of the impermanence of it all – the hundreds of beautiful gardens long since ploughed under by the subdividers’ bulldozers; the thousands of well-kept lawns and flourishing vegetable gardens disappeared under inner-city asphalt; the lovingly erected houses destroyed by fire and neglect; the streams buried in underground culverts or, in the case of Kaiwharawhara stream, polluted with rubbish and industrial waste; the dreams turned to dust. Shepherd’s sterling detective work reveals a historic tree here, a remnant of bush there, a few early houses still standing. They are lonely survivors, bearing poignant witness to the mindset of generations of Wellingtonians who believed, as all New Zealanders did, that history was something you travelled to Europe to see.

Ironically, the city’s most powerful and profound legacy has turned out to be its original landscape. The harbour that first drew Wakefield’s ships is now Wellington’s playground, and a lure for cruise ships which increasingly boost the city’s economy. Millions of dollars are being spent cleaning up the stormwater that flows into it. The original shoreline is honoured with bronze plaques. The beaches where Maori pulled up their canoes to sell produce to the settlers are long gone under successive reclamations, but the fast-growing sport in the city is waka-ama, racing in traditional Maori outrigger canoes.

Indigenous plants grace the carefully landscaped gardens of the well-heeled and the city’s grand public buildings, and the nikau palm, albeit redesigned by an architect and wrought in metal, has become the city’s unofficial symbol. The city’s few remaining patches of original vegetation, most notably Otari Native Botanic Garden and Wilton Bush, are revered as outdoor museums. Regenerating bush around the old Karori water reservoir has been turned into a unique inland sanctuary for birds such as the little spotted kiwi, not seen on the mainland for 150 years.

And on the south coast, where for a century the city’s sewerage poured unchecked into the sea, one of the world’s most expensive treatment plants has now restored the water to near-pristine condition. Application has been made to establish a marine reserve. Property values are going quietly ballistic.


For all this, the reinvention of the natural environment has been nothing compared with the revolution in the city’s downtown areas. Wellington famously has the best-educated population in the country. For most of its history, the great bulk of these alleged brainboxes, eggheads and bookworms got their degrees and fled into government departments on Molesworth Street or The Terrace, re-emerging 40 years later with a silver tray and a superannuation cheque.

Wellington, civil service land, was grey, restrained and sedate. Julia Millen, in her history of Wellington department store Kirkcaldie & Stains, quotes Monte Holcroft, editor of the Listener, recalling in 1949 his first impressions:

The inner city had good shops but in the streets an underlying drabness which came partly from the weather. If I look back to the older Wellington I see newspaper blowing in the wind or trams grinding through narrow streets with men in gabardine raincoats clinging like limpets and women with pinched faces huddled in cabins at each end.


Two notable institutions, the Midland Hotel and Kirkcaldie & Stains, provided memorable light relief for the middle-class salary worker. “Kirks”, as it was always known, had staked its claim to retail pre-eminence from Wellington’s early days. Its founders, John Kirkcaldie and Robert Stains, arrived in Wellington in 1863, just two years before Wellingtonians achieved their cherished goal of their city becoming the capital and thereby ensuring a measure of economic prosperity.

Both men were drapers with a dream of opening their own shop. Stains came from Kent and Kirkcaldie from London; they had met in Sydney and decided to join forces. They set up shop in Lambton Quay, in a partnership that lasted 23 years, after which Stains and his family returned to England. The shop they founded has flourished, apart from the occasional hiccup, ever since.

Commissioned histories are a notoriously difficult genre and the history of a 130-year-old department store has got to be one of the tougher assignments. Millen has worked hard to bring the story to life through the use of copious first-person reminiscences from a wide cast of characters, and the book is handsomely produced, but in the end, like any official version of events, one suspects its chief interest lies in the stories it doesn’t tell rather than the ones it does.

And what of the store’s future? Is it “alive and well, ready for the new century”, as Millen blithely asserts in her closing sentence? Or will it be left behind by the café society and its brash new entrepreneurs – the filmmakers, IT experts, fashion designers, special effects people, website designers, events organisers, consultants on anything and everything; the whole latte-drinking, cellphone-addicted, office-allergic, Armani-sunglass-wearing set – who some time in the 1990s began to eclipse and extinguish for all time Wellington’s century-and-a-quarter-old civil service culture and replace it with an entirely new way of making a living?


Side by side with Wellington’s new “ideas” culture, the city has come to enjoy a reputation as the country’s arts capital, largely a result of establishing the country’s first International Arts Festival, combined with a city council spending serious money to promote the city and its attractions.

Every arts capital must, it seems, have an opera company and Adrienne Simpson has chronicled Wellington’s, recently renamed National Opera of Wellington, in her book Capital Opera. The book is a worthy effort but its heavy reliance on reprinted newspaper reviews and lack of sizzling human interest stories mean only true opera aficionados will probably have the fortitude to make it to the end. The author, writing of the company’s 1989 production of Bizet’s Carmen, quotes Dominion Sunday Times critic Roger Flury as saying it had been “a valiant stab at the work, but the end result had about as much smouldering passion and underlying menace as Saturday night in Eketahuna”. In the end, I felt much the same about her book.


Mary Varnham is a Wellington city councillor.


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Posted in History, Memoir, Natural History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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