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Invercargill, Its History and Travel Information

Invercargill in the making...January 1856, Governor Thomas Gore Browne, during a visit to Dunedin, discussed with the leaders of the community a proposal by two storekeepers to purchase land at Bluff and open a store there.

John Jones, who was then Chairman of the Dunedin Town Board and who had held vast tracts of land in the south, submitted to the Governor the necessity for a port in the south.

Later, in an after-dinner address in Dunedin, the Governor announced the intended establishment of a town at the Bluff, "to be called Invercargill".

The port itself sprang into almost instant life, a Customs House was set up at Bluff and a few months later a party set out to select a site for the projected "Invercargill".

Led by the Lands Commissioner, Peter Proudfoot, with his surveyor, Alexander Garvie, the party took a boat up the New (Oreti) River to the junction with the Makarewa.

Proudfoot considered the locality "a good site for a town". He then returned to Dunedin, leaving Garvie to carry on the investigation and survey work.

A second party came up the Waihopai River and took up land between the Estuary and Kennington and more came later overland or by boats so that, before the site of Invercargill was selected, the immediate vicinity was a populous farming community.

In this way the Waianiwa settlement was founded before a single resident had settled in Invercargill. The first settler at Invercargill was John Kelly, the boatman who took the settlers up the river.

He built a large whare in the bush on the high ground close to where the Bank of New South Wales now stands at the corner of Dee and Tay Streets.

Other settlers arrived and took up blocks on the perimeter of the future town and Kelly remained the sole householder in the "reserve for a town".

From Title to Town:

This was the position when John Thomson came south to select a site for Invercargill, which for some months had been a name only.

Thomson's plans of the town bear the date November 14 1856, the first date when, on authoritative and official papers, the name was definitely applied to the site.

The town was laid out with exceptional foresight, surrounded by reserves wide enough to serve as sports grounds and intersected by a garden reserve down the course of the Otepuni Creek.

All the streets, which bear the names of rivers in Scotland and northern England, are at right angles, excepting only the Crescent, the commercial heart of Invercargill where the major stock and station agents are concentrated. The main streets are two chains in width.

In 1872, some time after Southland had been separated from Otago, Thomson was asked to explain the nature of the reserves to the Invercargill Town Board which was already perturbed at the action of the Southland provincial government in erecting buildings on the Esplanade.

He strongly urged that the intentions of the Otago government be adhered to and that the reserves be preserved intact. To compensate for the railway's encroachment on the western reserves, Queen's Park was vested in the City Council, and this has proved to be one of the city's finest assets.

An Order-in-Council dated March 25 1861 proclaimed Southland a separate Province as from April 1st, and about two months later Gabriel Read discovered the Tuapeka gold-field that started off the first of the great Otago gold rushes.

Because of the separation of the Provinces, Southland did not share in the bounty from the goldfields, and it also lost at least temporarily the work of many able-bodied men who went off to the diggings.

Southland rejoined the Province of Otago in 1871, returning to the fold like the prodigal son, but bringing more to the parent than ever the scriptural prodigal did - the Invercargill - Bluff railway in full operation and the almost-completed Invercargill-Winton line.

Commerce and Culture:

By 1870 Invercargill was well estab¬lished as a business town. It had three building societies; an A. & P. Associa¬tion; a Volunteer Fire Brigade; the Southland Chamber of Commerce, which had been in existence for seven years; a Medical Association; the Southland Acclimatisation Society, founded in 1863; and the Invercargill (now Southland) Savings Bank established in 1864.

On the cultural side it had a Philharmonic Society, an Amateur Dramatic Society, a Choral Society, a Mechanics' Institute and a Chess Club.

During the gold-rush boom, one Southland paper reported that "In order to throw a little gaiety into the night life of Invercargill it has been determined by the proprietor of a well-known hotel to initiate a series of weekly quadrille assemblies.

A committee of six gentlemen, we understand, to be appointed for the purpose of ensuring such a supervision as shall bring about the success of the festive meetings and obtain a respectability of tone.

A piano and a cornopean will be the music provided". A cornopean was similar to a cornet.

After the collapse of the boom, a sign of the times was the formation of a Benevolent Institution. Some men, who went off to the latest El Dorado on the West Coast, combined gold seeking with wife desertion, and Invercargill had its share of women and children in difficult circumstances.

A visitor from Melbourne in 1869 formed a poor opinion of the town.

He wrote: "The only excitement was caused when a dog rushed out to snap at the heels of the horses. In the streets the footpaths, all nicely made, luxuriated with grass, the houses seemed tenantless with doors swinging in the breeze and windows smashed, altogether a general air of decay hung over the town ....

We were taken to the theatre, a quiet, cosy little place, and to the arcade, a high mass of quartering and weather boarding.

This once, we were told, was the scene of unwonted bustle, now silent, deserted and undone; given up to rats and spiders who crawl about in broad daylight as heedless of the presence of man as if they knew his reign was over and the right of their tenancy would never be more disputed.

....For my part I turned my back on the town with a shudder, and wished I had never left my stateroom on board the Tararua, so melancholy is it to gaze upon."

The visitor had travelled from Bluff to Invercargill by train which, he said, "leaped away at two miles per hour, gathering a little more speed as the journey progressed".

But this bleak picture of the Invercargill of the early 1870s was probably greatly exaggerated, even though the Province was in the grip of a depression.

A pamphlet issued at the time to attract new settlers to Southland gave the following wage rates: ploughman 25s. to 30s. a week, with board and lodging; labourers, ditchers and fencers 8s. to lOs a day, shepherds £60 to £80 a year with board and lodgings; domestic female servants £25 to £40 a year; married couples £70 to £80 a- year with board and lodging.

This footnote was added: "Men on day wages work eight hours a day and find themselves.

Ploughmen and labourers are scarce at present, and the rate of wages quoted, though current, is above the average which is 20s. to 25s. a week for ploughmen and 8s. a day for labourers.

No class is in greater demand or more highly paid in pro¬portion, than female domestic servants .... the rate quoted is not above the average."

The bursting of the gold boom had one good effect. It brought about a realisation that the real wealth of the town and Province lay in the land and not in gold.

A number of immigrant ships came direct to Bluff, and Invercargill benefited along with other parts of the country.

The need for organised civic control became imperative and in 1871 Invercargill was made a borough and the first town council elected.

Civic Amenities:

The borough of Invercargill was only four years old when the council's Gas Works Department was founded.

A loan of £10,000 was raised and in April 1876 the first gas lamp in Invercargill was lighted - a notable achievement on the part of the young borough.

In the same year, 1876, the railway between Invercargill and Dunedin was completed, and the arrival of the first through train was the occasion for a great celebration.

All the townspeople took part, the band turned out and the Volunteers fired a salute.

Those who promoted the demonstration realised that the establishment of railway communications ended the comparative isolation of the town, but they saw no reason for wavering in their confidence that the trade of the town and district should come in and go through its own harbour.

Traffic into the New River Harbour was very considerable.

The immigrant ships brought their passengers direct to Invercargill. Finding anchorages in the lower reaches of the Estuary, they discharged passengers and cargo into lighters and boats which transported them to the town near the mouth of the Puni (Otepuni) Creek.

In some cases the boats came up the creek as far as the present Clyde Street bridge, just below where the Bank of New Zealand stands.

The port of Bluff had I already begun to assume importance, but the hopes of Invercargill still centred on the New River Harbour.

The jetty had been constructed in the 1860s and schemes were always under consideration for the improvement of the channel to enable what were then considered big ships to come right up to the wharf.

But the vision that the pioneers saw of a great harbour with ships lying at the back door of the town has never materialised.

One of the earliest distinguished visitors to Invercargill was Anthony Trollope, the famous English novelist, who landed at Bluff on August 3 1872, to begin a tour of New Zealand.

He described Invercargill as "a thriving little Scotch town without any special attractions, but which boasts a single cab and a brewer, who was very anxious that I should take a barrel of his beer home to England in order that people there might know what New Zealand could do in the way of brewing".

There did appear to be some justification for Trollope's description of the town as thriving. The value of real estate had improved tremendously and 22 sections in one of the main streets, Tay Street, were sold at prices varying from £360 to £205. Notwithstanding this, a visitor about the middle of the 1870s described it as "a strange, old-fashioned and yet new town".

Depression and Development:

For the greater part of the last 20 years of the 19th century economic conditions in New Zealand were difficult.

Unemployment was rife, men tramped the country in a fruit¬less search for work and soup kitchens were set up in the towns. In some years more people left the country than arrived.

Nevertheless progress was made.

Of great importance for the whole of New Zealand was the sailing from Port Chalmers of the ship Dunedin with the first consignment of frozen meat to Britain in 1882.

Southland contributed to the shipment and soon after, the Southland Frozen Meat Company was established, one of the oldest in New Zealand.

Refrigeration stimulated the dairy industry. The Dunedin later took a quantity of butter, which almost certainly came from the Edendale dairy factory established in 1882, the first in New Zealand except for a small factory on the Otago peninsula.

These developments took time to have a marked effect on the economy of the country, but the ultimate result was a much more prosperous farming industry and therefore a much more prosperous community as a whole.

Invercargill, as chief town of one of the best farming districts in New Zealand, made progress in step with the rising farm production of the province.

Timber and coal also made a great contribution to the prosperity of Invercargill. When the first Council was elected in 1871, the population of Invercargill was below 2,000.

When, at the end of 1929, application was made to have the town proclaimed a city, the population had passed the minimum figure of 20,000.

The Invercargill of today has little about it to remind its people of the primitive days of the pioneering period.

New suburbs have sprung up around the outer perimeters of the city - Rosedale and Newfield in particular-and luxury homes have given colour and beauty to a city noted for its gardens and its splendid parks and reserves.

An 18-hole golf course is provided within the 200 acres of Queen's Park in the heart of the city, and the other golf course at Otatara, the Invercargill Golf Club's property, is one of the finest in New Zealand.

Inside Queen's Park too is the group of statuary, a bequest to the children of Invercargill by the late J. B. Thomson, in the form of heraldic lions and eagles, seals and smaller animals, fashioned in bronze by Sir Charles Wheeler.

Industrially as well as residentially, the city has made spectacular pro¬gress with the establishment of many new industries on reclaimed estuary land on the western boundary of the city.

But the industry which has attracted world-wide interest has been the aluminium smelter established by an Australian-Japanese consortium at Tiwai Point in Bluff Harbour.

This complex is one of the biggest aluminium smelters in the world and together with the Manapouri hydro has had considerable impact on the life of Invercargill.

Invercargill Travel Information

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