Colonial Frontier Settlement: 1840-1900

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A detail (tilted on its side) from the original land deed for the Port Nicholson Agreement showing the Upper Hutt District (including Whitemans/Mangaroa Valley) divided up into 100 acre blocks for sale to new settlers. Note at upper left the gap created by the Taita Gorge between the blocks drawn up for Upper Hutt and those for Stokes Valley and Lower Hutt.

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives. 

Upper Hutt was originally settled by Pākehā as part of the New Zealand Company’s planned colony at Te Whanganui-ā-Tara (renamed Port Nicholson by the Company), which was to develop into the district of Wellington. The Port Nicholson Purchase Deed, signed between the New Zealand Company and sixteen local Māori chiefs in 1839, included the land not just around the harbour but also the valleys of the Heretaunga/Te Awa Kairangi river. The new settlers renamed this river after Sir William Hutt, the chairman of the New Zealand Company (who never actually set foot in the country). The land along its banks was surveyed and divided into 100 acre blocks to be sold by the Company to the colonists who began arriving by ship in late 1839 and early 1840.


The Upper Hutt

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Illustration of the Hutt Road in the vicinity of Taitā Gorge.

The Hutt Road Taken at the Gorge Looking Towards Wellington by S.C. Brees, 1843. 


The land that was to become Upper Hutt was settled more slowly and at a later date than the more immediately accessible land around the harbour and lower river that became Wellington and Hutt City. This gave it a distinctively different history of development from its neighbours. 

The area’s relative remoteness was due not only to its distance from the harbour but also to the steep gorge that existed just above the settlement of Taitā. This was to prove a formidable impediment to early settlers, something not readily apparent to contemporary travellers driving along the re-worked landscape of State Highway 2. A rudimentary but serviceable road had been constructed relatively quickly up the Hutt River, opening up land as far as the gorge that could be developed for farming. Past Taitā, however, those journeying north had to divert inland and follow a narrow bridle path over the steep hills either side of what became Stokes Valley before reaching the river flats again at Silverstream. Eventually a route was to be carved out for the Hutt Road alongside the Taitā Gorge. However, even then access was relatively difficult and subject to periodic closures from floods and slips. 

The Taitā Gorge not only shaped Upper Hutt’s history but also gave it its distinctive name, since it divided the land along the Hutt River into two geographically separate upper and lower river basins. From the earliest days of settlement this area was referred as the Upper Hutt Valley or the Upper Hutt District, or else was simply abbreviated to The Upper Hutt.   

The Bartons

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Richard and Hannah Barton

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives


The first Pākehā settlers to arrive in the valley were Richard and Hannah Barton. Richard Barton had been Superintendent of the Duke of Sutherland’s Trentham Hall estate in Staffordshire and was sponsored by the Duke to lead a party of men from off his lands to the new colony. In Petone, Richard met and married Hannah, the daughter of pioneer missionary John Gare Butler. She had previously lived in New Zealand with her father as a two-year-old back in 1818. 

In 1841 Richard Barton became the first person to purchase land in the Upper Hutt district, although he and Hannah didn’t settle there until 1846. The 100 acres property was named Trentham in honour of the home estate of Richard’s sponsor, which is from where the name of the present day suburb derives. 

Following the tradition of English estates, Barton left a small part of the dense forest on his land largely untouched as a ‘woods’. This has survived to today as Barton’s Bush, the last remnant of the original lowland forest in the entire Hutt Valley. The Bartons built a large seven-room house, known as ‘Barton’s Manor’, and were a prominent and influential farming family in the early decades of settlement. Today much of their former property comprises Trentham Memorial Park and the Royal Wellington Golf Club at Heretaunga.

The Browns

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James and Mary Brown

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives

Following the Bartons, the next family to settle in the Upper Hutt district were the Browns, in 1847. Scotsman James Brown was a former weaver from Paisley who migrated to New Zealand with his Irish wife Mary and four children in 1840. 

After a few years work building roads and carting goods in the lower valley at Alicetown and Belmont, Brown purchased land in the Upper Hutt district, further up the valley from the Bartons in what would eventually become the city centre. He made the difficult journey past the Taitā Gorge and over the Stokes Valley bridle path with a bullock cart, which was dismantled and carried in pieces over the steep hilly route before reassembly at Silverstream. 

In 1849 he built and opened the district’s first hotel by what is now the corner of Main and Russell Streets. Originally called The Halfway House, later The Shepherd’s Inn, and later still The Criterion Hotel, this hotel played an important role in the development of the township since it was the first commercial premises in what was to eventually become Main Street. 

Farmers and sawmillers

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Cruickshank’s Mill, circa 1876. This important early sawmill was located at the top of where Cruickshank Road is today.

Upper Hutt Libraries Heritage Collections


Others soon followed the Browns and the Bartons. Important early pioneer families, many of whose descendants remain within the district, included the Benges, Geanges, Martins, Cotters, Gorries, Wilkies, Golders, Mabeys, Keys, Swansons and Whitemans. 

The valley that bears the latter’s name had  first been discovered in 1846 by a teenaged George Whiteman while out pig-hunting from his family home at Taitā. Pursuing prey over the hills he stumbled upon a plain created by the Mangaroa River, running parallel to but at a higher elevation from the Upper Hutt basin. He later settled there alongside his brother William. 

These early settlers mainly became farmers but the first task at hand was to clear the land of the dense forest that occupied it, not only to create pastureland but also to supply the timber needed for constructing the new colony. Early sawmillers in the area included David Benge at Te Marua and James Duff Cruickshank, who ran a sophisticated operation near the top of the road that now bears his name. His mill was powered by a water wheel which ran off water brought down via a tunnel from the more highly elevated Mangaroa Valley. Within just a few decades the efforts of these pioneers had dramatically transformed the landscape, almost completely clearing the floor and lower hills of the upper valley of native timber. 

Sawmilling would continue to be an important industry for Upper Hutt until the latter half of the 20th century but it became focused around retrieving timber from more rugged, difficult to access terrain in elevated regions such as the Akatarawas.

1858 flood disaster

One of the earliest hotels in the Upper Hutt region, servicing travellers on the road to the Wairarapa, was the Barley Mow Inn. This was located downriver from the present day Silverstream bridge, somewhere near where the Eastern Hutt Road now intersects with Reynolds Bach Drive. 

In 1858 it was the site of Upper Hutt’s biggest ever tragedy in terms of loss of life when three houses on its surrounding properties were swept away in a sudden flood. Heavy rains on the evening of 18 and 19 January had caused a rapid rise in river levels, leaving occupants with no time to flee. Instead they had sought refuge on the roofs of their dwellings. Desperate attempts to rescue them were in vain and the ferocious flood waters eventually carried all three buildings away. Fourteen people drowned as a consequence, including a five hours old newborn, his mother, and the midwife who had just delivered him.

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Fortune Lane and the Blockhouse

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The Upper Hutt Blockhouse in the 1930s. Note the small loopholes in the walls for firing from.

The Blockhouse, James Chapman Taylor, Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives.  


By the mid-1850s a small town centre had begun to emerge in Upper Hutt. It was not, however, where the present CBD now is, but was located instead further down the valley at Fortune Lane. 

This was a small street off Main Road (now Fergusson Drive), near the intersection that later became popularly known as Quinn’s Post corner (after the hotel that long stood there). This location made sense in terms of being close to the geographic centre of the Upper Hutt valley and adjacent to the route to the settlements in Whitemans and Mangaroa Valleys. Two general stores, a bakery, a butchers, a meeting hall and a hotel in the vicinity all  formed the basis for a nascent commercial district. Within two decades, however, the site had been abandoned after the railway came through on a route which completely bypassed it. 

The only indicator today of the importance this area once had is Upper Hutt’s historic Blockhouse. This was built in 1860 besides the then town centre after violent conflict between Māori and Pākehā elsewhere in the country created misplaced fears that similar disturbances might occur in the Hutt Valley. A decision was made to construct two blockhouses (the other, in Lower Hutt, no longer survives) to serve as fortified refuges in case any trouble arose. The building had double walls filled with river gravel to protect against gunfire and loopholes for firing from. Although briefly occupied by militia, the Upper Hutt Blockhouse was never used for the purpose it was built. Instead it served for a period as the district’s police station. Later, in the 20th century, after restoration work, it functioned as meeting space for Scouts and Guides, as well as the 41 Club service organisation.  

Māori resettlement

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The Māori settlement at Haukaretu, circa 1880, at the bend in the river where Totara Park is today. Note whare and fields, as well as the waka tied up on the bank.

James Bragge, c1880, Upper Hutt Libraries Heritage Collections.


Māori began to resettle the Upper Hutt valley (which they had eventually vacated after the raids of the 1820s) around the same time Pākehā began arriving there, re-establishing themselves on sites previously occupied by Māori at Whirinaki and Haukaretu. 

The former became a base for the Ngāti Tama chief Te Kaeaea. Originally from North Taranaki, he and his followers had led a peripatectic existence during the inter-tribal conflicts of the 1820s and ‘30s, migrating between Taranaki, the Wellington region and the Wairarapa. By 1839 they had settled at Kaiwharawhara where Te Kaeaea became one the chiefs to receive payment for the Port Nicholson Purchase and also signed the Treaty of Waitangi. However he subsequently came into dispute with settlers whom he believed were intruding on his land and cultivations in the lower Hutt Valley and became a significant figure of resistance during the troubles of the early 1840s. 

In 1857 Te Kaeaea and his Ngāti Tama followers purchased land at Whirinaki where they established a kainga on the site where St Patrick’s College stands today. In 1859 they built a small chapel there at their own expense, the first church in the Upper Hutt valley. They also cultivated grounds at a Native Reserve further up the valley where the Wallaceville Estate housing development is today. Te Kaeaea died in 1871 and his Ngāti Tama followers eventually returned to Taranaki.

In 1853 a group of Māori, linked to Ngāti Tama, also purchased land at Haukaretu, in an arrangement facilitated by Governor Sir George Grey. They had been dispossessed from their land in Taitā and had spent time under Grey’s patronage in Wellington before being resettled in Upper Hutt. They established a small community at the end of the point of land on which the suburb of Totara Park would come to be built, containing several whares along with fields for cultivating potatoes and other vegetables. A well known feature of Upper Hutt life during the second-half of the nineteenth century, this small community is where the suburb of Māoribank (located on the other side of the river) gets its name from. However, in the early 20th century a fractious legal dispute with a local farmer, who claimed this land, eventually led to the Māori still living there being forced out and relocating elsewhere. 

Early churches

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St Joseph’s Catholic Church on Pine Avenue, circa 1910.

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives


Religious worship played an important role in the lives of the early settlers. This made the building of churches crucial to the building of communities.

The very first church in the Upper Hutt district was the small Anglican chapel that Te Kaeaea had constructed at Whirinaki in 1859. A couple of years later work began on what would become St John the Evangelist’s, Trentham. Completed in 1863 and consecrated in 1865, it predates Old St Paul’s in Thorndon as the oldest Anglican church in the Wellington diocese. The Bartons played a major role in the establishment of St John’s, donating both money and land, with Hannah Barton later serving as its patroness.

In parallel fashion, Upper Hutt’s other founding family, the Browns, were the driving force behind the establishment of St Joseph’s Catholic Church on Pine Avenue, mainly thanks to the efforts of Mary Brown, James Brown’s Irish Catholic wife. Opened in 1864, the wooden church with its elegant steeple was an Upper Hutt landmark until 1961 when it was demolished and replaced by a newer building. St Joseph’s was also the original location of Upper Hutt School. In exchange for help from local settlers in building the church it was agreed that St Joseph’s would provide space for a day school serving children of all denominations (within a couple of years the school moved to another site in Trentham).

James Brown’s younger brother George, who had settled in Upper Hutt in the mid-1850s, donated land from his farm for the building of the district’s first Presbyterian church, St David’s. Opened in 1876, it was eventually demolished just under a century later.

The coming of the railway

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Watercolour showing Upper Hutt Railway Station in the 1890s, with the small town that was growing up besides it.

Christopher Aubrey, [Upper Hutt, with railway station], Alexander Turnbull Library, Ref: C-030-030.


Arguably the most significant event in terms of the history of Upper Hutt during the 19th century was the coming of the railway. The construction of a line between Wellington and the Wairarapa had begun in 1872, with the section to Lower Hutt opening in 1874. Work on building the line from there to Kaitoke, under the management of Charles McKirdy, led to an influx of both workers and money into the the Upper Hutt district. 

The railway finally reached Upper Hutt in February 1876, thereby making this small community all of a sudden much more accessible to Wellington and the wider world. As well as this, the siting of the new railway station shaped the future layout of the township itself. In a canny move, James Brown’s family had donated 30 acres of their own land for constructing a station nearby their Criterion Hotel, up until then the only major building in the area. Once the station began operating the shopkeepers at Fortune Lane had little choice but to pack up their belongings and move to what had now become the hub of their community. 

With the completion of the railway to the Wairarapa, Upper Hutt also became a significant railway town. The line between there and Featherston included the famous Remutaka Incline, a novel engineering feat that used specially designed Fell Engines, gripping a third rail, as a means of negotiating a gradient that was otherwise too steep for normal trains. The Incline remained in service until 1955 when it was replaced by the Remutaka Tunnel, another major engineering feat whose construction had a big impact on Upper Hutt, particularly the Maymorn area where a camp for those working on the tunnel was based.