Back Issues: Why Manawatū celebrates Wellington’s anniversary and whether we should dump it

Toi Warbrick delves into the origins of the Wellington Anniversary holiday and asks whether it holds meaning in Manawatū.

How did you spend your day last Monday? Perhaps it was just another day in a long summer holiday, or yet another long weekend at ‘’this time of year’’.

For workers it made for a short week. But why? We were celebrating the arrival of the Aurora into Te Whanganui a Tara, now known as Wellington Harbour, on January 22, 1840.

But more broadly we were celebrating the deliberate and planned establishment of the township of Wellington by the New Zealand Company, the private venture of Englishman Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

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Illustration of the Aurora, which brought 150 passengers from Britain to New Zealand.


Illustration of the Aurora, which brought 150 passengers from Britain to New Zealand.

The arrival of the Aurora, a 550-ton vessel bringing 150 passengers from Britain to New Zealand, has been celebrated every year since 1841, with at least one exception when the New Zealand War Cabinet cancelled all Anniversary holidays in 1943.

Wellington is not alone in celebrating an anniversary. Holidays are taken across the calendar year by 12 regions: Auckland, Canterbury, South Canterbury, Chatham Islands, Hawke’s Bay, Marlborough, Nelson, Otago, Southland, Taranaki, Wellington and Westland.

In the early 1850s, New Zealand was divided into provinces, each with a provincial capital and its own governance.

The Manawatū region at this time was still held by iwi and formed part of the large Wellington Province, encompassing mostly the lower half of the North Island.

Although provincial holidays were determined by their capitals, when provincial governments were abolished in 1876, the holidays remained.

You can imagine that, in the 19th century, the choice of anniversary date was largely determined by the beginning of localised Pākehā settlement and usually the specific event of the arrival of a ship bringing passengers seeking a new and different life.

Through the late 1850s significant parts of the Manawatū region were surveyed by government. Maps and planned created by government surveyor John Tiffin Stewart and his team led to the outlining of what became known as the Te Ahu a Turanga block.

This was a 250,000 acre area of land which Rangitāne, led by paramount chief Hirawanui Kaimokopuna, agreed to sell to the government, with the knowledge that a township would be designed and developed in a bush clearing away from the river.

The deed was signed on July 23, 1864, by dozens of Rangitāne and is now held at Archives New Zealand in Wellington.

Picnic at Foxton Beach circa 1953.


Picnic at Foxton Beach circa 1953.

Stewart then set about surveying the township of Palmerston, in the grid formation we know today, and sections of land became available to private individual purchasers at auction in Wellington on November 9, 1866.

Within the next 10 years, our town had gained the word “North” and had set about establishing a borough council and electing our first mayor, in 1877.

The abolition of the Wellington Provincial Government had happened the year earlier, but Palmerston North took to celebrating Wellington’s anniversary. The earliest reference to the holiday in the Manawatū Standard was an advertisement on January 21, 1886.

“Tomorrow being the Anniversary of Wellington, there will be no issue of the Standard. The principal attractions for holidaymakers will be the Caledonian Sports at Whanganui, and the Foxton races. Exceptionally cheap railway fares are announced at both ends of the line.’

In January 1918 the Standard was still reporting large crowds at the Foxton races, along with the ‘’more than usual’’ attendance of the Manawatū Motor Cycle event in Levin.

During the early decades of Palmerston North the Standard noted the popularity of organised and private picnics at Tiritea, the Victoria Esplanade and in Pohangina.

Other popular pursuits 100 years ago on Anniversary Day included bowling, cricket and rifle shooting. In more recent decades, the Standard has covered holiday events such as the Himatangi Big Dig, Family Day at Awapuni, stockcars, Folk Dance Summer School, airshows and rodeos. Perhaps you remember attending some of these events.

The Standard in 1912 lamented the purpose of Anniversary Day. “It should be celebrated in a more fitting manner than at present.”

But can Palmerstonians be to blame when the anniversary doesn’t not hold any real meaning for us here in Manawatū?

The Standard ran a street poll in January 2006, asking views about Wellington Anniversary. Of the six people interviewed, five were in favour of Palmerston North having an anniversary holiday holding meaning for our area and a celebration of our own identity. Question is, what date would that be and how would we determine that?

We discovered last year that many Palmerstonians didn’t know the city was celebrating a sesquicentennial in 2021.

What happened in 1871? They would ask. No-one was certain, other than it was 50 years since the city celebrated 100 years since George Snelson came to town and established Snelson’s Store, and later became our first mayor.

For decades Palmerston North calculated its birth from the date of self-governance – the beginning of the borough council in 1877, with celebrations in 1902, 1927, 1937 and 1952. Plaques are scattered around town to prove it.

From a 21st century perspective, we suggest a rethink on celebrating our local identity. Let’s choose an anniversary date which celebrates our bicultural beginnings. Let’s move to a winter holiday and recognise the event on July 23, 1864, the signing of a deed which enabled us to become who we are today, as Palmerston North.

Are you with us?

Toi Warbrick is the arts and cultural practice of Warren and Virginia Warbrick. Toi Warbrick is the 2021 Local Historian of the Year.

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