How the city began on Hutt River's banks

18:34, Jan 20 2013
Warwick Johnston
Historian Warwick Johnston on Petone Beach.

Popular myth has it that the first Europeans to settle in Wellington disembarked on the beach at Petone, spent a few weeks there, then decamped to the site of the current city.

In fact, the New Zealand  Company settlers who arrived aboard the Aurora and the Oriental established a bustling township, on the banks of the Hutt River opposite what is now the Shandon Golf Club, that endured for several months before shifting to Lambton flats and Thorndon.

If today you turn left off the Petone Esplanade, drive up Patrick St and into Tennyson St, you will come to a small croquet club on the western side of a small creek, known locally as the Dead Arm. From that point, walk past Wilford School and past what was once Petone College up to the rail bridge, a walk of three kilometres, and you will have traversed the length of a town called Britannia.

In other parts of the world, important historical sites are marked by monuments, public buildings and plaques.  In Wellington, only a small plaque on a side road in Petone identifies the area as historic.

The Aurora anchored off Petone on January 22 and the passengers  disembarked not as an organised group, but in ones and twos because they were essentially waiting for the leaders of the extended immigration group to arrive. The Oriental, with the Company leadership on board, had left England three days before their ship, but the Aurora arrived first. Confusion reigned.

The Oriental turned up nine days later and, as one of the leadership group, Edward Betts Hopper, pointed out in a letter home: ''Nor was even the site of the town yet fixed upon ... Seeing something must be done I prevailed on Colonel [William] Wakefield [the NZ Company's chief agent] to allot me 40 of the emigrants to cut a foot road, through the bush to the spot where he considered it probable the town would be ... In less than three weeks,'' he continued, ''from our first landing, a line of road nearly a mile in length was cut and huts enough built to shelter 200 persons.''  


This was in the first days of February 1840. Thus, it could be argued that Wellington anniversary day should be be celebrated on January 31, when organised settlement began, not January 22, when the first passengers set foot on shore.

From January to March, some 800 settlers arrived and Britannia by the River, as the first settlement was called, grew quickly to accommodate them. Britannia was the name the NZ Company wanted for its first town and, by June 1840, when conventional history will tell you that the our only settlement was on the shores of Lambton, Britannia by the River boasted more than 1000 residents, two churches, several taverns, major warehouses, an established police force, a jail, several hotels, a wharf, a riverside boulevard, a shipwright, a blacksmith, timber merchants, a bank and its own newspaper.

The presence of the newspaper, the New Zealand Gazette, which later changed its name to the NZ Gazette & Britannia Spectator, is, compelling evidence of the permanence of Britannia.  It was produced on the banks of the Hutt River until September 1840.  It sited itself next to the river because that's where its readers, its contributors and its advertisers were.

Edward Betts Hopper continued to live and work along the banks of the river until his untimely death in September 1840. When the last of the residents, for various reasons, moved across the harbour to Lambton they took the name of Britannia with them.

Hence perhaps, some of the later confusion as to the site of the town of Britannia.

The name of Wellington was not used until November 1840. But let us be particular about one thing: Although history books gloss over it (if they even mention it), the original settlement site at Petone and along the banks of the Hutt River was neither temporary nor insubstantial.

Several things have worked against the recognition that Britannia deserves. Firstly, it did not last very long - eight months (February to September 1840); secondly, settlers focused on their new abode - Lambton; thirdly, historians prefer well documented success stories; fourthly, Lambton quickly became Wellington and just as quickly became the capital city of New Zealand, leaving local people little opportunity or desire to reflect on their beginnings.

It was not till 1928 that a serious attempt was made to put the record straight. In his book Early Wellington, Louis E Ward  brought together some of the earliest accounts of settlement, which showed the development of Britannia alongside the Hutt River.

Warwick Johnston is a local historian and heritage consultant who lives and works in Petone. He is the author of several local histories including two on Britannia.

The Dominion Post