This information is kindly provided by the Featherston Heritage Museum

Early Māori in Palliser Bay

Archaeologists Foss and Helen Leach undertook a three-year archaeological survey on the remains left by early Māori who lived in Palliser Bay from the late 1300s to 1500 [i]. There is evidence of about 300 people in six separate communities on the eastern side of the bay.  Evidence shows they grew kūmara in walled gardens and took advantage of the plentiful fish, shellfish and crayfish.  Midden sites revealed bones of fur seals, sea lions, elephant seals, pilot whales, dolphins, porpoises and baleen whales.  They used whalebone as well as wood and stone, to make weapons, knives, needles and chisels for tattooing and carving.  A seagoing people these early Wairarapa settlers built waka, fished in Palliser Bay and travelled across Cook Strait to trade obsidian from the far north for nephrite and bowenite from the West Coast.

However, by the 1600s these settlements had gone, and archaeologists cannot agree on the reason for the exodus, perhaps a rising population and falling food supplies – caused by over-hunting, a cooling climate, and lower soil fertility or even a tsunami.

Some communities may have resettled along the fertile Ruamāhanga valley and it is probable Māori continued to use Palliser Bay as a food basket.  Trading in stone with the South Island hapū and iwi endured and included waka made from tōtara trees which were cultivated for that purpose.  Each tree was scored as a sapling and took approximately one hundred years to reach maturity for harvesting [ii].

A meeting between cultures

Gaela Mair [iii] in her work Māori occupation in the Wairarapa during the protohistoric period succinctly summarised the evidence of European contact as follows: “The first direct contact between Māori of the Wairarapa and Europeans occurred on a hazy summer's afternoon on February 9, 1770 when three canoes were paddled up to the ‘Endeavour’ off the East Coast north of Cape Palliser.  The Māori immediately asked for nails which, Cook observed, they had never seen before but evidently knew how to use.  He surmised that they had gained their information from the people of Cape Turnagain whom he had visited the previous yea[iv]. Thus, the protohistoric in the Wairarapa may be reasonably held to begin with Cook's first contact with the Māori further north on October 9, 1769.  The next visitor was Captain Furneaux who in 1773 was forced inshore to Cape Palliser by squally weather and there traded nails and Tahitian cloth for crayfish brought out to the 'Adventure' in canoes.  Several weeks later Cook, searching for the 'Adventure', sailed along the shore of Palliser Bay and noticed some smoke inland but no inhabitants [v].”

In the 1830s the Ngāti Kahungunu leader Nuku-pewapewa attacked the Te Āti Awa people at Tauwharerata (near Featherston).  Their leader Te Wharepōuri escaped, but his daughter Te Kahape was captured.  For her return Nuku-pewapewa insisted that all Ngāti Kahungunu’s lands be restored.  Te Wharepōuri and his allies agreed.

Ngāti Kahungunu returned to Te Kopi about November 1840, moving to Okorewa at the mouth of the Ruamāhanga river, and then further inland to their old haunts.  Their progression up the Ruamāhanga would have been about the same time as Clifford, Fox and other Europeans had begun exploring Wairarapa with a view to settling there [vi].

Whalers, Surveyors, and Settlers

In September 1839 Charles Heaphy (a surveyor and draughtsman for the New Zealand Company), a Māori escort party and Ernst Dieffenbach (a German naturalist searching for the rare huia) reported they had a fine view of Palliser Bay and the Wairarapa Lakes from the top of the Remutaka range.

William Deans is the first known Pākehā to walk the coastal route through the Orongorongo valley and venture past the Mukumuku rocks.  He reported in a letter to family in England on a journey to ‘Widerup' [1] or Palliser Bay on 30 October 1840 with a Māori escort and expressed his (unfulfilled) intention to obtain a licence from Te Puni to squat there and hunt pigs.

The first Pākehā residents in the Wairarapa were the whalers who lived and worked at Te Kopi, 'Wyderop' [2] whaling station in Palliser Bay from about 1841.

In December 1843 Samuel Charles Brees [vii], principal surveyor and civil engineer for the New Zealand Company determined the best inland route was from Pakuratahi and he completed the journey following Otiwera Stream (Abbott’s Creek) down to the floor of the Wairarapa valley in four and a half hours and estimated the track he had marked out to be about forty miles from Wellington [viii].

Charles Robert Bidwill sailed from Sydney to New Zealand in the schooner Posthumous in March 1843 with some horses and 1600 sheep of which approximately 400 survived.  The lack of suitable pasture in the Wellington area led him to join Sir Charles Clifford, Henry Vavasour, the Hon H.  Petre, and William Swainson on a trip to the Wairarapa to arrange the lease of land from Te Manihera.  Clifford and Vavasour, selected land at Wharekaka, and Bidwill the country to the north at Kopungarara extending into what is now Featherston, for an annual rental of £12, making him the first Pākehā inhabitant of Featherston.

Bidwill drove about 350 sheep around the coastal route in April 1844 and settled at Kopungarara on his new ‘Pihautea’ station situated between the Ruamāhanga river and Lake Wairarapa and extending from north of Waihenga to Kahutara in the south [ix].

By 1844 Edward Jerningham Wakefield recorded three whaling stations operating at Te Kopi.  In May of the same year, three of the early settlers (Weld, Petre, and Vavasour) droving sheep from Wellington to Wairarapa had some of their goods ferried to Te Kopi.  The number of stations in the South Wairarapa had grown to 15 by 1846 when surveyor T H Fitzgerald began cutting a bridle track over the Remutaka Hill.

Henry Burling

Henry and Mary Burling and their family emigrated from England to New Zealand on the London, arriving at Wellington on 1 May 1842.  He worked as a gardener and then carried mail between Wellington and New Plymouth and by 1847 Burling was foreman of a gang employed in cutting the bridle path through the Remutaka range.

Impressed with the land he saw at the foot of the Remutaka range an area known as Pāe-o-Tū-Mokai, stretching from Abbott’s Creek to Tauherenikau and down to Lake Wairarapa, he purchased the land from chiefs Te Manihera Te Rangi-taka-i-waho and Wi Kingi Tu-te-pakihi-rangi to establish a farm.  He cut a track from Morrison’s Bush in order to drive his 60 to 70 head of cattle to his new run.  In 1849 he was granted a licence to establish an accommodation house, Burling's Bush Inn, known as ‘Burlings’.  However, complaints about the low standard of accommodation caused his licence to be revoked in 1852.

After his licence was revoked, Henry Burling then farmed a property adjacent to Charles Matthews at Waiorongomai.  Both families had emigrated to New Zealand on the London in 1842.  Later Burling sold the land to the Hon John Johnston who then leased it to Charles Matthews for five years until his son Alfred Matthews purchased it when the lease expired in 1860 [x].  Burling went on to have holdings at Alfredton and Pongaroa, and died at Waikanae on 17 September 1911 at the age of 103, leaving more than 600 descendants [xi].

The Township of Featherston

The majority of Wairarapa land sales by Māori to the New Zealand Government occurred in 1853, and included the Ōwhanga block.  In 1854 the Wellington Provincial Council set aside land in the location of Burling’s hotel for ‘township and suburban land’.  This was followed by a survey completed in September 1856 by Captain William Mein Smith of the New Zealand Company with the town of Featherston being laid out in a similar style to Adelaide and Christchurch [xii]. Smith’s report and plan of the Township of Featherston was gazetted on 30 October 1856 by William Fitzherbert, Provincial Secretary on the command of Dr Isaac Featherston, Superintendent of the Province of Wellington [3].

Additional surveys were carried out by J Kelleher and R.M. Skelt in October 1856, and R S Anderson in November and December 1856, and the auction of sections in January 1857 in Wellington, was based on a survey by T.D. Triphook [4].  However, according to local historian Mrs Patrica Flynn, a new street ‘Fitzherbert’ had been superimposed diagonally across the town plan following the track from 'Burling's Hotel' to the main road north to Greytown [xiii].

Sections varied in size from a quarter of an acre to an acre, were sold for up to £32 pounds an acre compared with £1 an acre in the Small Farm Settlements of Greytown and Masterton.  The Wellington Provincial Council was responsible for local government of Featherston and district until 1872 when the Featherston Highways Board was established and The Featherston Town Board was constituted in the year 1881, and came into existence in January 1882 with a municipal area of 700 acres.

The town grew slowly until the opening of the Remutaka incline railway in 1878.  One of the world’s steepest railways it used imported Fell engines built in Bristol in 1875, with special brakes and wheels that gripped an extra central rail.  It replaced coastal shipping as the district’s main southern transport route and a small village was constructed at Cross Creek to service the railway.  Featherston businesses benefited from the increased trade and the price of land doubled, as Wellington was now only a few hours away [xiv].

By 1908, Featherston was a prosperous township and town district, situated at the foot of the Wairarapa Valley, forty-six miles north-east by rail from Wellington, and in the county of Featherston.  It was the distributing centre for a rich agricultural and pastoral country, and had butter, cheese, and dairy factories, as well as a sash and door factory, a coach-building and an engineering establishment.  There were four churches, a public school, a town hall, Masonic hall, Oddfellows' hall, a court house, public library, two banks, two hotels, and a motor garage.

The first Post Office was opened on 8 February 1859 and its business was transferred to the railway office when it opened in 1878 and remained there until a new two storey building was opened in 1909 on Fitzherbert Street near the Court House, unfortunately that building was destroyed by the 1942 earthquake.

The capital value of property in 1908 was £64,556, there were 182 ratepayers, 162 dwellings, and the population at the census of 1906 was 670.  A high pressure water supply was inaugurated in 1906, at a cost of £4,500, it enabled the establishment of a Volunteer Fire Brigade, and the town was lit by acetylene gas [xvi].  In 1917 Featherston was proclaimed a borough and the population continued to increase.  In the 1960s the population of the town mushroomed, and the one-acre sections were carved up to create new housing subdivisions to provide housing for Hutt Valley and Wellington commuters and immigrants from various countries [xvii].

Featherston Military Training Camp WWI

In January 1916, New Zealand’s largest military training camp was established near Featherston.  Housing up to 8000 men, the 252 buildings were constructed and finished in only five months.  Over the four year period over 60,000 soldiers were trained and about 35,000 marched from the camp over the Remutaka hill to Trentham Camp, being fed at the summit by the ladies of the Featherston Patriotic Committee.  The Camp had its own Post Office, railway link, hospital, bakery, butchery, kitchen messes, shops, clubs and places of worship [xviii].

The Featherston community rallied to provide facilities for the men training in their neighbourhood.  A committee met in March 1916 with a plan to build a soldiers’ club in Featherston township, to be funded by the district’s old-established settlers.  The ‘Anzac Club’ opened in October 1916 [xix].  The club hosted dances, dinners and other social occasions, and the men could play billiards or the piano.  It was used as military hospital during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

By the end of November 3220 cases of influenza had been reported, and 177 died as a result, most of whom are buried in the Featherston Cemetery [xx].

A significant event in Featherston’s history was the twinning of the town with Messines Belgium in 1975.  For many New Zealand soldiers in WWI from 1916 onward their last memory of New Zealand was the time spent in the Featherston Military Training Camp before they left to serve in overseas.  Many died in Belgium and were never to return.  The twinning of Featherston and Messines keeps alive their memory and acknowledges the ultimate price they paid for freedom.

On the Centenary of WWI Armistice, Saturday 10 November 2018, the beautiful Paul Dibble sculpture the Featherston Stand – He Tino Mamao was dedicated by Associate Minister for Arts and Culture Hon Grant Robertson and gifted to Featherston in honour of the town’s role in supporting and servicing the Featherston Military Training Camp.

Japanese Prisoner of War Camp WWII

In 1942, the WWII Japanese Prisoner of War Camp was located on the same site as the WWI Camp.  It was there on the morning of 25 February 1943 that the unfortunate ‘Featherston Incident’ occurred when 111 of the 800 prisoners and ten guards were shot resulting in the death of 48 Japanese POWs and Private Walter Pelvin.  He remains the only New Zealand soldier killed on active duty within New Zealand since the New Zealand Wars.  It is not known what became of cremated remains of the Japanese soldiers and for many of their families the Sakura Peace Garden on Messines Way, State Highway 2 close to the site of the Camp is their memorial.  Each year on the anniversary of the shooting a public commemorative service is held at the gardens.

Remutaka Tunnel

After the war, due to the slow and labour-intensive operation of the Fell engines on the Remutaka incline, plans were finally put in place to drive a tunnel through the hill.  In 1951 the site of the Camps became home for the men building the tunnel.  The tunnel was officially opened at Speedy’s Crossing on the 3 November 1955 by the Minister of Railways, Hon.  J.K. McAlpine, and Featherston was presented with Fell Engine No 199 to commemorate all those who had worked to keep the incline route running over the previous 77 years [xxi].

Fell Engine No 199, the last remaining one in the world, sat in the local playground until 1980 when a society was formed to restore, house and preserve the engine.  This project was achieved by voluntary labour and skill, culminating in April 1984 with the opening of the Fell Locomotive Museum.  The museum is a must visit for locals and travellers alike, it documents the town’s railway history and houses both the Engine and one of the specialist Brake vans.  The more adventurous can cycle or walk the celebrated Remutaka Incline Cycle Trail, a section of Ngā Haeranga: The New Zealand Cycle Trail.

Featherston Booktown

Featherston has New Zealand’s only Booktown and was launched on 16 October 2015.  Featherston Booktown holds an annual weekend event on the second weekend of May, and various events with authors and publishers throughout the year.


South Wairarapa District Council (SWDC)

The SWDC was inaugurated on 1 November 1989 and was an amalgamation of the Featherston, Martinborough, Greytown Borough Councils and the Featherston County Council.

The town of Featherston, with a population of 2253 (2017 Census), is situated in the Featherston Ward of the SWDC.  The Ward’s resident population was 3,180 in June 2017 and stretches from the summit of the Remutuka and Tararua Ranges on the northwest, the Tauherenikau River and State Highway 53 on the northeast, Ruamāhanga River and the east side of Lake Ōnoke on the southeast, and the coastline of Palliser Bay on the south [xxii].


Originally called "Burlings" after the earliest European settler Henry Burling, who established an accommodation house in 1846.  The town area was surveyed 10 years later by Captain William Mein Smith, of the New Zealand Company.  The town was named "Featherston" after Dr Isaac Featherston, Superintendent of the Wellington Province.

The town's initial slow growth was spurred on by the arrival of the Railway in 1878.  The Fell locomotive engines used on the line over the Remutaka Ranges are a unique part of Featherston's history.

During World War I a large Military Camp was set up north of the town, and in World War II the Camp became a P.O.W. Camp for Japanese servicemen.  A riot in 1943 saw a number of prisoners and one Guard killed.

The opening of the Remutaka tunnel in 1955 saw the town's population mushroom with many residents travelling to work in the Hutt Valley and Wellington.

Featherston stands on the junction of SH53 and SH2 and is the first town after the Remutaka Ranges coming from Wellington and is a great place to stop, rest and catch your breath.  The town with its surrounds is a beautiful picturesque spot with many parks, Museums, cafes, bookshops, and other small businesses, so taking a stroll along the main street is a must.

Lake Wairarapa to the south, is an area of wetlands and a great place to stop and picnic, bird watch, hunt fish and game (in season), and camp.

Close by is the Remutaka Rail Trail, an internationally recognised cycle way, with a multi-purpose track linking it with Featherston.

And just up the road on SH2 is the beautiful Tauherenikau Racecourse.

Enjoy your time in our "little piece of paradise".


[1] Misspelling of Wairarapa>

[2] As above.>

[3] Politician, surgeon and one-time duellist.>

[4] Lands and Survey Department records./.

[i] Leach, Foss and Helen, Prehistoric Man in Palliser Bay

[ii] Scadden, Ken,  Rugged Coast Rough Seas, Wairarapa’s Maritime History

[iii] Mair, G. 1979. Maori occupation in the Wairarapa during the protohistoric period. pp 11-28 In: Leach, B.F. and H.M. Leach (eds.) Prehistoric Man in Palliser Bay

[iv] Cook, J. 1955. The Journals of Captain James Cook. Volume 1. The Voyage of the Endeavour. 1768-1771. Edited by J. C. Beaglehole. Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society. Cambridge.

[v] Cook, J. 1961. The Journals of Captain James Cook. Volume 2, The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure. 1771-1775. Edited by J. C. Beaglehole. Cambridge University Press for the Hakluyt Society. Cambridge.

[vi] Bagnall, Austin Graham. 1976 Wairarapa an historical excursion. Hedley’s Bookshop for Masterton Trust Lands Trust

[vii] Bagnall, A. G., et al 'S. C. Brees: artist and surveyor'. Turnbull Library Record n.s. 1, No 4 (Nov. 1968): 36--53 >

[viii] Carle. C. J. Gateway to the Wairarapa Featherston Borough Council through the Centennial Book Committee: 1957

[ix] Ibid

[x] Thornton, Linda. Waiorongomai: The Land and the People, Fraser Books, 2011


[xii] Yerex, David, Featherston the first 150 years: 1857-2007 

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Featherston Promotional Group Featherston County New Zealand Visitor Guide 2nd ed. Colourcraft Ltd. Hong Kong 2007

[xv] Carle. C. J. Gateway to the Wairarapa Featherston Borough Council through the Centennial Book Committee: 1957

[xvi] The Cyclopedia Company, Limited, 1908, Christchurch New Zealand Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (CC BY-SA)




[xx] Frances, Neil. Safe Haven The Untold Story of New Zealand’s Largest Ever Military Camp Featjerston 1916-1919 Wairarapa Archive/Fraser Books 2012

[xxi] Archives New Zealand from New Zealand - Rimutaka Tunnel Opening Ceremony, 3 November 1955


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