Zeitblick / Das Online-Magazin der HillAc - November/Dezember 2007 - Nr. 26

City, My City

Series 3, Part 3

Winning a City from the Sea
Over 100 years of reclamation in Wellington Harbour

". . . last time I put in here
There weren't no reclamations over there.
Lay off Somes Island meantime, in the lee.
Damme, the land is putting out to the sea."

Old Tramp: Wellington Harbour by New Zealand poet Denis Glover


One of the 40 brass plaques placed around the streets of Wellington which mark out the original shoreline of 1840. Foto: Peter Wells

Embedded in the footpaths of downtown Wellington from Thorndon at its western end to Oriental Parade in the east are a series of 40 brass plaques marking the original coastline of the city. Much like the children's game of "join-the-dots" these plaques, when linked together by an imaginary line, trace the contour of the pre-1840 waterfront. Quite unknowingly today's residents, office workers and visitors stroll through Wellington's Central Business District on streets which once ran along the waterfront or were at one time covered by the sea. Over the years it has often happened that maintenance crews undertaking work beneath the streets of Wellington have unearthed traces of the former seabed. Gravel, sand and artifacts that once made up the original beach and foreshore of the city are frequently unearthed. An example of this was when the ship "Inconstant" was re-discovered beneath the old Bank of New Zealand building during renovations. This vessel had been beached to use as a bonstore and wharf on what was once Wellington's foreshore near Lambton Quay. Today the original gravel that makes up this beach is visible beneath the ships timbers preserved beneath glass in the basement of the bank building. I was lucky enough to see and touch these relics from the past when I met the project manager responsible for the preservation and future display of the "Inconstant". In many cases the names of the various beachfront streets, now quite distant from the water, indicate that they once shaped the shoreline of Port Nicholson. Thorndon Quay, Aotea Quay, Lambton Quay (once known as Beach Road) and Customhouse Quay all felt the wash of the surf and the fresh scent of ocean spray. I like to tell people who view the city for the first time that where they see flat land on the foreshore of Wellington, it is more often land that has been reclaimed from the ocean.


This picture shows a satellite image of Lambton Harbour, Wellington, New Zealand. I have added a red
line to indicate where the coastline was upon the arrival of Wellington's first settlers in 1840.
Note the natural curves of the foreshore, now mirrored in some of Wellington's key downtown streets.
Downloaded from Google Maps © Google Maps.

When drawn by Samuel Cobham, a man with a fertile imagination, the original blueprint for Wellington, or Britannia as it was to be named, showed a city which required a large amount of flat land, was situated on the shores of a harbour and was to be traversed by a navigable river. While Port Nicholson provided an admirable harbour the Hutt River was anything but navigable and the land surrounding it was anything but ideal for such a city. Designed in London from a description but not from first hand knowledge of its intended location, it seems that this plan was intended to reflect an antipodean version of London with a southern hemisphere "River Thames" running through its heart. One fact, however, soon became glaringly obvious. The only available flat land large enough to achieve this was that in the broad flat valley of the Hutt (the Hutt Valley as it is now known), on the northern shores of the Port Nicholson. Shortly after the immigrants arrived it was found that the Hutt River - Samuel Cobham's "River Thames" - flooded its banks regularly and was anything but a stable setting for a major metropolis. Within a short period of time, following some initial survey work at the original site, it was decided to re-locate the new settlement to the southern shores of Port Nicholson around Thorndon and Te Aro where there was a small amount of flat land. In doing this William Mein Smith, the New Zealand Company's chief surveyor, was soon to find out that he could not crowd the 1,100 "town acres" originally planned for into the space available. Each newcomer to this settlement had been promised a "town acre" and several "country acres" based on Cobham's dream plan, but it was not to be and although Mein Smith managed to fit the 1,100 "town acres" into the area around Lambton Harbour it was at the expense of many of the planned amenities such as parks, reserves, ports, libraries and many other public areas identified in the original plan.


Kilbirnie and Evans Bay, Wellington, ca 1900. Reference number: PAColl-7081-56 / Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.


Kilbirnie, Wellington, 1921. Reference number: 1/2-048590-G /  Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

An excellent example of the use reclamation was put to in providing public facilities. These pictures show the original inlet at Kilbirnie (ca 1900), a southern suburb of Wellington, and, once filled in 1921 (picture taken from opposite side of inlet), what was to become "Kilbirnie Reserve", one of Wellington's popular sports locations. More recent reclamation has taken the shoreline further to the left.

Wellington City, having soon occupied all available flat land around the harbour, had no other alternative than to expand into the surrounding hills. Anyone familiar with Wellington will know that, like California's San Francisco, it is a city built on a hill and to allow for  expansion in future years there was little left for the citizens and town governors to do but to recover what land they could from the sea. The first example of reclamation in Wellington, although believed by some to be a tale from Wellington folklore, was undertaken by  Mr George Bennett who arrived in Wellington by the ship "Bernicia" in 1848. The location known as "Windy Point" or "Clay Point" (now "Stewart Dawson's Corner") appealed to very few as a location on which to build, besieged as it was by winds from all directions. Mr Bennett, however, seeing possibilities in the property, purchased it and began excavation using pickaxe, shovel and wheelbarrow, much to the bewildered amusement of local townsfolk. At that time the point was skirted by a very narrow track sometimes made impassable by prevailing winds and high tides. It was onto this track and into the harbour that Mr Bennett threw the "spoil" he dug from above, thus widening and improving access between Te Aro and Lambton Harbour. The first reclamation for the improvement of the city.


George Bennett, early settler and Wellington Harbour reclamation pioneer.
Scanned from the book "Early Wellington" by Louis Ward. Copyright unknown.

No effort by the then General Government situated in Auckland seemed to be forthcoming to contribute to the development of Wellington. The importance of "Beach Road" (today's Lambton Quay) as a thoroughfare led to the issuing of a tender in August 1847 calling for the "...construction of a timber breastwork along part of Lambton Quay", responses to which were to be endorsed "Tenders for repairing Beach Road". This was an indication that the protection of this part of the city foreshore from high tides and stormy seas was seen of paramount importance. The reclamation of land from Wellington Harbour was to continue with official sanction and, along with the earlier efforts of George Bennett, this was the beginning of a long and spirited effort extending over 100 years to recover more land from the sea. The map below, drawn in the early 1850's by Thomas Shearman Ralph, was prepared in response to an invitation by the Wellington Provincial Government to submit plans for the construction of sea-walls and the reclamation of land in stages around the Lambton Harbour waterfront and shows the ambitious nature of efforts to increase the amount of usable land around Wellington. Starting from the left of the map the then shoreline streets of "Courtney Place", "Manners Street", "Willis Street" and "Lambton Quay" correspond with the red line marked on the picture near the beginning of this story. The first of Wellington's major land recoveries took place between 1852 and 1879 adding a vast pieces of usable land to the Lambton Harbour coastline and, perhaps more significantly, providing immediate access to the deep water beyond the shoreline enabling the building of the first deep-water wharf for the city. Until this time wharves had been built enormously long, stretching out into the sea to reach deep water. Reclamation was thus to realise many benefits.


Ralph, Thomas Shearman, 1813-1891: Plan of part of the town of Wellington showing the proposed
harbour improvements. Edw. Roberts, Acting Colonial Engineer [1815?] Lithographed by T.S. Ralph. Reference number: E-455-f-029. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Ralph Thomas Shearman's plan for Harbour improvements. The pale tan area, above centre, is the proposed reclamation. No reclamation is shown on the shoreline at Te Aro Flat, left side of map, as this was still privately owned down to the waters edge.

With some assistance from the huge magnitude 8.2 earthquake of January 1855 which significantly raised parts of the foreshore, reclamation continued and over the best part of a century formed a patchwork pattern of new land around the shores of Wellington Harbour. Each block of reclaimed land took the foreshore further and further out into the harbour with previous work providing a solid foundation for the next section to be built. As an example a small portion originally reclaimed near Pipitea Point in 1847 was enclosed in 1876 by a much larger reclamation. This was then progressively pushed outwards in the years 1882, 1893 and 1904 and was finally extended even further with the construction in the 1960's and 1970's of the Wellington Harbour Board Container Terminal. Little in the way of significant reclamation has occurred since about 1980 unless one includes the extension of the beach at Oriental Bay using sand shipped up from the South Island. Perhaps today's more environmentally aware guardians have been responsible for this quiet phase, however one must say that without the reclamation work undertaken by the cities forefathers and well-meaning citizens the city of Wellington would have a very different profile from that which it enjoys today.

Let's have a look at two examples of Wellington then and now. As is often appropriately quoted "One picture is worth a thousand words."


Land reclamation, Thorndon, Wellington (ca 1925). Reference number: EP-0114-1/2-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.


A picture taken from almost the same spot in September 2007 / Foto: Peter Wells

The picture above shows reclamation under way at Thorndon, Wellington. The picture below shows the same view taken in 2007. These pictures show how useful reclaimed land has become to the city.


Creator unknown: Hutt Road, Kaiwharawhara, Wellington (ca 1932). Reference number: 1/2-091142-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.


A picture taken from almost the same spot in September 2007 / Foto: Peter Wells

The picture above shows reclamation to extend the access way into and out of the city. The picture below shows the same view taken in September 2007. These pictures show the main north-south motorway on the seaward side running parallel with the main trunk railway and on the inner the original Hutt Road.

© Peter Wells, Wellington, New Zealand