Newtown Park's long history

For 132 years Newtown Park has been at the centre of Wellington's sport and social life, hosting everything from international rugby to royal visits.

The park, bordering Wellington Zoo, has a history that dates back to 1881.

It was the first park built on the Town Belt and initially included a promenade, band rotunda, formal gardens and reservoir, and was part of the zoo.

It was first used for international rugby in 1882, when New South Wales beat Wellington 14-2 on September 16 and returned a fortnight later to score an 8-0 repeat triumph.

That momentous first match drew 5000 spectators (of a total Wellington population of 21,000), including acting Governor, Sir James Prendergast.

Newtown Park was the venue for the first match ever played by the New Zealand rugby team.

New Zealand beat Wellington 9-0 there on June 21, 1884. The match was postponed a day because of "boisterous weather", according to The Evening Post, and even when it was played, the weather was "sloppy".

The New Zealand side, captained by William Millton, then set sail for New South Wales, where they were unbeaten in eight matches - setting a standard the All Black maintain today.

The ground continued to be used for international rugby in Wellington until Athletic Park took over in 1896.

In 1886 Harry Roberts' Wellington side scored two upset victories there over a visiting New South Wales team.

In 1900 Newtown Park was used as a camp for New Zealand troops leaving to serve in the Boer War.

A film, said to the oldest surviving New Zealand film, shows the Second Contingent leaving Newtown Park with their horses before they sailed for South Africa.

Soldiers were also based there before departing for World War I and World War II.

The park was the site of royal visits in 1927 and 1934.

Newtown Park hosted a carnival day for the Duke and Duchess of York during their four- day stay in the capital and seven years later hosted the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of York's younger brother.

In the days when the only other major grounds in Wellington were the Basin Reserve and Athletic Park, Newtown Park hosted an extraordinary variety of events.

Striking wharfies met there in 1912 and 1913, there were military band displays from as early as 1891, Dominion Day celebrations, and sport of all sorts, including hockey, football, representative rugby league, cycling, marching, rugby union, athletics and cricket.

The park's stature in Wellington sport grew in 1971 when it became the capital's main track and field venue, taking over from Evans Bay. At that time the one large field was divided into two smaller fields on split levels.

Since then, many great athletes have competed at Newtown Park - not just New Zealand Olympic medallists John Walker, Dick Quax, Rod Dixon, Lorraine Moller and Valerie Adams, but stars from overseas, such as Maria Mutola and Lasse Viren.

Today Newtown Park is mainly used for football and athletics.

The Phoenix football team practises there, and it is the home base of Wellington United and Team Wellington football clubs. Wellington Olympic has also used it recently.

Newtown Park has hosted four Chatham Cup football finals, in 1925, 1927, 1989 and 2012, and in 2007 the women's national league final was played there.

During the summer, the park is the home of the Kiwi Athletic Club and was recently awarded the 2014 and 2015 national track and field championships.

The annual McEvedy Shield boys' intercollegiate athletics championships are always a big event on the Newtown Park calendar.

The park's extensive history intrigues former athlete and Kiwi club president-chairman Peter Jack.

"I've always had a fascination with Newtown Park," he said. "Every time I go down there I think about all the athletes who have been there and all the interesting things that have happened there."

Mr Jack, also a keen sports memorabilia collector, has some historic postcards of Newtown Park, showing the range of activities the venue has hosted.

"I don't think many people know the history of Newtown Park, but what these postcards tell us is it was more than just a sports park.

"It was a place to visit, an iconic Wellington destination - I hope that hasn't changed."

The Wellingtonian