The Making of a Modern Town: 1900-1945

UH HISTORY The Making of a Modern Town.jpg

Postcard circa 1912 showing Upper Hutt’s Main Street, looking down the valley. Significant buildings shown include Hazlewoods general store at right, followed, moving down the street, by Benge & Pratt’s general store and then the Provincial Hotel. The two-storey building at left in the middle of the photograph is the Post Office.

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives


Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Upper Hutt remained a small rural service town, largely dependent on farming and sawmilling.

There were, however, several developments within this period that marked a significant shift away from Upper Hutt’s 19th century origins as a rudimentary frontier settlement and towards the creation of a modern town district that also served as Wellington’s country retreat.


The Upper Hutt Town Board

UH HISTORY The Upper Hutt Town Board.jpg

The modest beginnings of local government in Upper Hutt. These are the original Upper Hutt Town Board offices on the corner of Russell and Main Street, around 1911. This building was replaced in 1912 by a more substantial Town Board Chambers on the corner opposite. 

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives

One of the first important steps made in the early 20th century towards Upper Hutt becoming a modern township was the establishment, in 1908, of the Upper Hutt Town Board. Comprised of seven elected Commissioners, one of whom served as Chairman, this was Upper Hutt’s first self-governing local authority. Previously the town had been managed as just one tiny part of the sprawling Hutt County. This original town district was much, much smaller than today’s city boundaries. Indeed, many areas, such as Silverstream, Heretaunga and Birchville, would remain governed by Hutt County until the late 20th century. 

It was the Upper Hutt Town Board that began the process of putting in place the basic amenities and infrastructure required for a modern town. One important example was Upper Hutt’s first water supply system, created through the construction of Birchville Weir (later Birchville Dam) and opened in 1914.

The Benge & Pratt’s Store disaster

UH HISTORY The Benge & Pratt’s Store disaster.jpg

Onlookers amongst the remains of Benge & Pratt’s store, the morning after the explosion. The damaged Provincial Hotel is in the background.

Joesph ‘Zak’ Zachariah, 1914, Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives 


One of the worst disasters in Upper Hutt’s history occurred on the night of 28 March 1914 when a fire broke out in Benge and Pratt’s, a general store on Main Street. Townsfolk quickly gathered and, under the direction of local constable ‘Dinny’ Mahoney, attempted to douse flames and retrieve stock from the burning building. They were soon joined by railway staff and passengers who rushed to assist after the last train for the evening arrived at the nearby station. 

However, a few minutes after midnight, just as Constable Mahoney was giving orders to evacuate the building, it suddenly blew up in an violent explosion visible for miles around. Eight locals were killed, including Mahoney and Upper Hutt’s Postmaster, James Comeskey. The tragedy was major news throughout the country. Large numbers from across the Wellington region attended the funerals for those who died. 

An inquest eventually found that the explosion had been caused by illegally stored dynamite. A few months later, the disaster finally led to the creation of a  long proposed Upper Hutt Volunteer Fire Brigade. 

Upper Hutt Borough Council and Angus McCurdy

UH HISTORY Upper Hutt Borough Council and Angus McCurdy.jpg

Mayor Angus McCurdy (the short bearded gentleman in a bowler hat on the right) with Borough Council officials, a couple of trucks, and the Council’s first road grader. 

Upper Hutt City Libraries Community Archives


In 1926 Upper Hutt took another step up the ladder of civic status when the Town Board was dissolved and replaced by a Borough Council, with Angus McCurdy being elected as the Borough’s first Mayor. 

McCurdy had previously been Upper Hutt’s first Town Clerk and had also served on the Town Board as a Commissioner. Truculent, hugely energetic, and a man of many talents, McCurdy was Upper Hutt’s most dominant and controversial personality throughout the early 20th century. As well as his political activities, McCurdy edited Upper Hutt's first local newspaper (the Hutt Valley Independent), ran its first picture theatre, worked as a farmer and electrical engineer, and was a passionate advocate for modernising Upper Hutt.

Trentham Army Camp

UH HISTORY Trentham Army Camp.jpg

The newly built barracks of Trentham Army Camp in 1915. This view is taken looking up the valley towards Upper Hutt township, with Trentham Racecourse in the middle ground.

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives


One event of obviously huge importance at this time was the outbreak of the First World War. This led to the establishment of Trentham Army Camp, inaugurating a relationship between the district and the military that endures to the present. 

As the site of the main training base for troops heading overseas, Upper Hutt was a hive of activity related to the war effort. Over 85,000 troops would pass through Trentham Camp during the course of the war, making the district well known throughout New Zealand. Other military facilities located in Upper Hutt during this time included a Remount Depot in Gibbons Street, which processed over 10,000 horses for military service abroad. 

Wellington’s rural playground

UH HISTORY Wellington’s rural playground.jpg

A family picnic on the banks of Te Awa Kairangi/Hutt River looking towards the Moonshine Bridge, circa 1920s. 

Photograph by F.G. Barker, Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives


Another distinctive aspect of Upper Hutt during the first half of the 20th century was the way it increasingly came to serve as Wellington’s recreational countryside. 

What had once been a bleak landscape of tree stumps and barren hillsides created by the wholesale destruction of Upper Hutt’s lowland forests in the mid-19th century, had by now matured into attractive pastureland, studded with pleasant orchards and regenerated bush. As improvements in transport made Upper Hutt more accessible to the capital, many Wellingtonians began to appreciate the pleasures that this rural area on their doorstep had to offer as a temporary respite from urban life.

Pumpkin Cottage and James Chapman Taylor

UH HISTORY Pumpkin Cottage and James Chapman Taylor.jpg

Pumpkin Cottage, circa 1905, at centre, with the road to where the Silverstream road bridge now is at right. 

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives 


Such were its bucolic qualities, for instance, that around the turn of the twentieth century members of the Wellington Art Society used to regularly travel out by train to Upper Hutt to paint its picturesque scenery. These artists would become famous as the Pumpkin Cottage school, taking their name from the small Silverstream residence at which they stayed. 

Many wealthy Wellingtonians also built large country homes out here for use as occasional residences, some of which were designed by renowned architects like James Chapman Taylor. Other less well-off city dwellers constructed more modest summer retreats in the area, with neighbourhoods like Pinehaven and Birchville first coming into being in the 1920s as communities of weekend baches.

Maidstone Park and the Brown Owl Tearooms

UH HISTORY Maidstone Park and the Brown Owl Tearooms.jpg

Girls in fancy dress with decorated bikes, part of the crowd at Maidstone Park celebrating King George V’s Jubilee in 1935.

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives


Maidstone Park was created in 1908 as a commercial picnic ground aimed at Wellingtonians who, for a small fee, could take the train to Upper Hutt Station and enjoy the nearby park’s attractive spaces and amenities. It became very popular as a destination for the capital’s workplace and Christmas functions. 

The advent of the motor car also led to an influx of day-trippers coming out to Upper Hutt for weekend picnics. Two of the most frequented sites were the picturesque Moonshine and Māoribank Bridges, both blessed with excellent swimming holes. 

Another popular attraction was the Brown Owl Cabaret and Tearooms (from which the suburb of Brown Owl takes its name). During the 1930s it became a go-to location for city dwellers wanting to enjoy dinner and an entertaining night out in the countryside. 

Trentham Racecourse and the Royal Wellington Golf Club

UH HISTORY Trentham Racecourse and the Royal Wellington Golf Club.jpg

Crowds in the Trentham Racecourse Grandstand, 1929.

Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives


Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Upper Hutt’s emergent role during this era as Wellington’s recreational hinterland was the fact that both the Wellington Racing Club and the Royal Wellington Golf Club chose to locate their headquarters here. The establishment of Trentham Racecourse in 1906 and the Royal Wellington course at Heretaunga in 1908 both attest to how Upper Hutt had come to be seen as offering an appealing and accessible setting for outdoor amenities serving the wider Wellington region.