Story of a suburb: Johnsonville

ON THE MOVE: Johnsonville's shopping mall has been earmarked for development. Local businessman Michael Gray says it is a suburb that will continue to grow. "It's a great place to be involved in.''
ANDREW GORRIE/ The Dominion Post
ON THE MOVE: Johnsonville's shopping mall has been earmarked for development. Local businessman Michael Gray says it is a suburb that will continue to grow. "It's a great place to be involved in.''

Johnsonville is always a hub of activity.

Slotted into the valley at the top of the Ngauranga Gorge, cars stream along the main street, and around the triangle that forms the suburb's heart.

The largest of the northern suburbs, it is the stomping ground for people from the surrounding areas, providing the closest shopping area outside Wellington.

That central location is what makes the suburb special, local baker Michael Gray says.

As the general manager of the suburb's award-winning Nada Bakery, he loves being part of the Johnsonville community. "It's one of the hubs of Wellington, connecting a lot of parts of it."

The diversity is one of its most endearing factors, he says. "You get anyone and everyone."

He also praises the suburb's community spirit – leftovers from the bakery each day go to various charities.

That community spirit began from necessity. The suburb started as a collection of rough houses, clustered around one of the tracks leading north from Wellington.

The name Johnsonville comes from early settler Frank Johnson, who built a timber mill in the area to supply wood to Wellington.

The township's progress was marked by the development of the road through the Ngauranga Gorge, and the railway.

By 1842 it was big enough to need its first church, as it became a service centre for the growing rural population that surrounded Wellington. When Cobb and Co began a coach service to Wanganui in 1866, the area was used as a rest stop.

By the 1870s, the township's population was still only about 200, but this grew to 493 by 1896.

Farming was the basis of the town's economy, but it also quickly became popular with city folk who wanted a break from Wellington, with several villas springing up.

The area had become a township in its own right, with businesses sprouting up to serve the farming population, and its position on the main road bringing a steady stream of visitors.

But that position on the main route was also a major downfall for the town, discouraging some people from moving there because the train tracks ran through the middle of town.

The farming industry had a similar impact, as many people were put off by the livestock saleyards smack bang in the centre of town. Once the yards closed, the land was converted into an industrial and commercial area – a forerunner to the shopping facilities that are there today.

By 1908 Johnsonville had become an independent town district, and the area prospered in the booming 1920s, as local amenities such as electricity, piped water and sewerage were developed, so that the population reached 1313 by 1926, and 1813 a decade later.

In the 1930s, state housing came to the area in abundance, bringing more families.

By the 1950s Johnsonville was becoming increasingly urbanised, and in 1953 it amalgamated with Wellington city.

The area continued to grow and today hosts a bustling mall, earmarked for expansion.

The suburb has been marked an "area of change" by Wellington City Council.

For Mr Gray it is a suburb that will continue to grow, and embrace its role as the city's northern hub.

"You're in a dead central location, you have a great range of small businesses that support the community. It's a great place to be involved in."


* An attempt to charge tolls to people travelling through Ngauranga Gorge in 1890 was so unpopular that the tollgate was mysteriously dumped in the harbour one night.

* Newlands was named after Thomas Newland, who, legend has it, jumped ship in Wellington. After hiding from the authorities he found work, before eventually marrying and setting up house in what is now Newlands.

* Johnsonville was a largely agricultural area but it did have some industry, including a mattress maker who adopted the advertising slogan "for the rest of your life a John McRae". They were so popular special premises were built in 1910.

* The Ngauranga overpass was once home to Fort Kelburne. Built in 1886, it was housed eight-inch Armstrong disappearing guns, but no shots were ever fired in anger. It was later used for naval training, and in the 1920s the gun pits were filled in and two railway houses built one with a gun barrel poking out of the foundations.

* Johnsonville had pubs before it had a public school. There were already two pubs when the first school opened in 1867.


Population: 6714

Males/females: 3261/3453


European: 4350

Maori: 624

Asian: 1107

Pacific Island: 327

Middle Eastern/Latin American/African: 66

Other: 720

Unspecified: 150

-Source: 2006 census


Cyclopedia Company Ltd, The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Wellington Provincial District], 1897, The Cyclopedia Company, Wellington, online,

Tim Pankhurst (editor), Your Patch: The Changing Face of Wellington, The Evening Post, Wellington Newspapers Ltd.

David McGill (editor), My Brilliant Suburb, 1985, Platform Publishing, Wellington.

Graham Stewart, Around Wellington by Tram in the 20th century, 1999, Grantham House Publishing, Wellington.

FL Irvine-Smith, The Streets of My City: Wellington New Zealand, 1967, AH Reed and AW Reed, Wellington.

Graham Stewart, Wellington: Portrait of a Region, 2005, Grantham House Publishing, Wellington.

David Pearson, Johnsonville: Continuity and Change in a New Zealand Township, 1980, George Allen and Unwin, Australia.

Julie Bremner (compiled by), Wellington's Northern Suburbs: 1840-1918, 1983, Onslow Historical Society, Wellington.

The Dominion Post