At the beginning of the 19th century Pipitea/Thorndon, on the western shore of Te Whanganui-a-tara (the future Wellington harbour), was a pristine beach with a fern-covered hinterland fringed by dense forest.
Seafood and birdlife were abundant and fresh water was plentiful. Pipi shellfish beds lined the shore and duck and bittern thrived in the wetlands. The forest contained the birds common today as well as takahē, and huia, now extinct. Weka were also found in the area. Watercress and puha grew along the streams.
The Pipitea Stream flowed across Haukawakawa (Thorndon Flat), down present-day Glenmore Street and the lower section of the Botanic Garden. The steep ridge, Te Ahumairangi/Tinakori Hill, was the source of springs and creeks. A track from Ohariu wound through the hills and down to the shoreline at the northern end of Thorndon.
The Ngāti Ira iwi (tribe) occupied Te Whanganui-a-Tara but had established their kainga and mahinga kai (settlements and food gardens) on the opposite, eastern side of the harbour.
Conflict and dislocation, in part caused by Ngāti Toa moving south from Kāwhia under the leadership of Te Rauparaha, resulted in migrations down the Taranaki coast and into Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Among them in 1824 were the first recorded residents of Pipitea/Thorndon: Ngāti Tama who established kainga at Tiakiwai at the beginning of the Ohariu track, and Ngāti Mutunga who established a line of settlements along the harbour’s western shore including Pipitea.
Two further migrations from Taranaki by Te Āti Awa in 1832 and 1834 brought several thousand people into the harbour and surrounding lands. However, in 1835 a formal agreement between Te Āti Awa and Ngati Mutunga, now under pressure from the new arrivals, established Te Ati Awa as the dominant occupier. Ngāti Mutunga, before leaving for the Chatham Islands, are said to have burnt their kainga and cultivations at Pipitea.
Te Matehou hapū (a sub-tribe or extended family) under Te Ropiha became the next occupants of Pipitea. In 1842 the residents numbered 134: 59 men, 43 women, and 32 children. Surrounding mahinga kai extended from the palisaded kainga on the shore to the lower edge of Te Ahumairangi. Potatoes were grown in clearings on the slopes.
In the early months of 1840, Māori control over the area began to diminish when some 1000 British migrants disembarked at Petone and renamed the harbour and lands in honour of the Duke of Wellington.
These were the first settlers of the New Zealand Company, an enterprise inspired by Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s theory of organised colonisation. The rangatira (chiefs) from Pipitea had not agreed to the sale of their lands during the negotiations between William Wakefield, the company agent, and Te Āti Awa in September 1839.
This caused difficulties when, after a series of destructive storms, the settlement at Petone was abandoned and relocated to Pipitea. The area was renamed Thorndon after the home of William Petre, a director of the New Zealand Company, and surveyed into one-acre sections with one-tenth of the land reserved for Te Matehou. Te Ahumairangi became part of the town belt.
While the settlers believed they had purchased the entire area, this was not the understanding of Te Āti Awa. Government attempts to negotiate a fair outcome for both parties were unsuccessful.
Over time the settlers’ interests prevailed. Māori at first benefited by supplying food, labour, and raw materials to the newcomers. At one point they were said to have control of all the coin in the town.
However, before long Te Ahumairangi was cleared for pasture, Hobson Street was surveyed over the cultivations of Pipitea, and the expanding town had destroyed the resources of the streams and shore.
By 1860 Te Matehou could not sustain themselves at Pipitea and moved to Waiwhetu. The Pākehā population of Wellington in 1864 rose to 4,741. Only nine Māori remained at Pipitea in 1881.
A major earthquake occurred in 1848 and the town site was transformed by another in January 1855 which elevated the foreshore and destroyed many buildings, including the Colonial Hospital at Pipitea. When William and Sarah Randell disembarked from the Belle Creole a few weeks later, Wellington’s citizens were hard at work restoring the damaged town.
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