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Wellington has always been at the heart of this country's history. Here's your introduction to discovering the stories of our past on a visit to Wellington.
This page has come together with thanks to the invaluable expertise and resources of the Wellington Museums Trust.
Here are details of their museum attractions, and other places where you can discover more about Wellington's fascinating history.
Ranked as one of the 50 Best Museums in the World by The Times UK, this popular museum will take you back a thousand years and lead you to a vibrant present day Wellington.
Housed in a significant heritage building on the waterfront, the museum offers a wonderful insight into the rich social and cultural history of Wellington, complementing Te Papa's stories of the nation.
Built in 1858, Nairn Street Cottage is Wellington's oldest original cottage and is home to the story of the Wallis family who lived there for three generations.
The cottage has now been preserved as a museum and reveals a new exhibition experience that has undergone extensive research to present the lives and events of Wellington's history.
Outside the cottage is the heritage garden which features plants, fruits, herbs and three heritage chickens. The garden is open anytime to take a picnic and stroll around.
At the top of Kelburn Hill, within the original Winding House, the Cable Car Museum brings to life the story of Wellington's iconic cable cars. Home to two of the original grip cars restored to their former glory and the historic winding machinery, which has been restored to working order, the museum is a must for engineering buffs, and for those interested in stories of the dynamic days of a city's construction, when fortunes could be made with quick thinking and bold deal-making.
Located in the historic Museum Stand at Wellington's iconic Basin Reserve, the museum shows there's more to cricket than tests and tea breaks with items that show the game's development since its early 1800s introduction to New Zealand summers.
Highlights include one of the world's oldest bats, gear used by NZ legends like Bert Sutcliffe, Sir Richard Hadlee and Stephen Fleming... there's even a tiger skin - but you'll have to visit to see where that fits into cricket's story!
Step back into Victorian New Zealand at the 1888 birthplace of Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp, New Zealand's most famous author and one of the world's best-known short story writers.
Nestled on historic Tinakori Road, the exquisitely restored house and the heritage garden provide an essential background to Mansfield's writing and give a unique opportunity to experience New Zealand society of the time.
The National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, is one of the country's leading cultural and information centres.
The National Library houses the Alexander Turnbull Library, which holds a rich and varied collection of research material (books, manuscripts, photographs, drawings and prints, music, newspapers, maps and oral history tapes) relating to New Zealand, the Pacific and beyond.
Discover the treasures and stories of New Zealand at Te Papa, our bold and innovative national museum.
A recognised world-leader in interactive and visitor focused museum experiences, Te Papa lets you experience the nation's art, culture and science - all in one breathtaking waterfront location. Better still, general admission is free!
From legendary origins, to a crossroads of pre-European culture.
According to Māori tradition, Wellington harbour was originally a lake, and home to two great taniwha (mythic water monsters) named Ngāke and Whataitai.
Frustrated by his confinement, Ngāke breaks through to the open sea, creating the harbour entrance. Whataitai attempts to follow, but washes up, exhausted, on the southern shore. The suburb Hataitai derives its name from this legend.
In traditional Māori stories, the great Polynesian explorer Kupe names the islands in our harbour after his daughters Mātiu (Somes Island, pictured left) and Mākaro (Ward Island). He also carves off the coastal islands of Kāpiti and Mana with his patu (edged club).
Read about day trips to Mātiu-Somes Island.
The rust-coloured stone of the South Coast, known as Red Rocks (Pai-whero), were, according to legend, stained with the blood of one of Kupe's daughters. In despair at her father's long absence on a voyage to the south, she threw herself from the clifftop.
First known settlement in the region is by the people of the great chief Tara, whose wife names the area Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Tara's Bay)
Around the 17th century Tara’s descendants, the Ngāi Tara people, were joined by the Ngāti Ira tribe from Hawke’s Bay. At times, other tribes including Rangitāne, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu also occupied parts of the Wellington region, often before moving on to Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island).
Image credit: Gilfillan, John Alexander, 1793-1863. Norman, Edmund, 1820-1875. Attributed works :Pa, Te Aro, Wellington looking towards the Hutt River [1842 or 1843?]. Ref: A-049-001. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23026225
The introduction of European muskets in the early 19th century created massive upheaval. During 1819-20 the famous chief Te Rauparaha of Ngati Toa was part of a raiding party that swept south from the central North Island. Finding the Cook Strait region ideal for connecting and trading with Europeans, Te Rauparaha convinced his people to move south. Many Taranaki people followed.
Te Rauparaha eventually based himself on the island fortress of Kapiti (pictured), while the connection between the people of Taranaki and Te Whanganui a Tara is commemorated at Westpac Stadium, where the entrance gate is decorated with an image of Mt Taranaki's distinctive profile.
As well as a fearsome legacy as a raiding warrior chief, Te Rauparaha is most widely remembered as the composer of the haka 'Ka mate', frequently performed by the All Blacks ahead of rugby test matches, and performed in victory by the All Black Sevens, at the annual Sevens Wellington tournament every February (pictured).
European colonists began arriving in number and the first settlements arise
In August 1839 the 'Tory' arrived, carrying a representative of the New Zealand Company, Colonel William Wakefield. He set about acquiring large amounts of land from chiefs Te Puni and Wharepōuri.
Te Rauparaha protested that the land was not theirs to sell, but he was ignored. Wakefield knew that the first immigrant ships were already on their way.
The Petone Settlers Museum is located on the foreshore, close to where the first meeting between the eventual founders of Wellington city and local Māori occurred.
The site of the original European settlement, named Britannia, is nearby. A collection of huts built with Māori assistance, on low-lying land alongside the Hutt River, Britannia flooded within it's first few months.
The New Zealand Company decided to shift it's settlement to the inner harbour. Despite the fact this land had not been included in initial land purchases from Māori, the New Zealand Company subdivided and allocated acres to immigrants.
You can discover more about early settler life at Wellington’s oldest original cottage, built by the Wallis family in the 1850s, now restored as the Colonial Cottage Museum
Wellington's central location and busy harbour sees the population grow on the back of commerce and government
Hemmed in by hills and harbour, Wellington struggled to find land to accommodate its growing population.
A programme of land reclamation began where earth from the surrounding hills was used to extend the land out into the harbour, and major wharves were built.
Throughout the city you can no find a series of markers which indicate the location of the original shoreline, often several blocks inland from the present day waterfront. For example, Courtenay Place originally ran along the foreshore.
One of the more well-known early entrepreneurs was John Plimmer. He purchased a stranded ship and converted the hull to one of the first piers in Wellington, seen on the right of this early painting. ‘Plimmer’s Ark’ was used as an auction house, customs house and lighthouse. It sat on the site of the current Old Bank Arcade, which thanks to land reclamation is now several blocks inland. Artefacts from the Ark are on display in the Arcade, and across the road is a bronze statue of John Plimmer and his dog Fritz, posed walking their daily route down from his land.
Image credit: Holmes, William Howard, 1825-1885. [Holmes, William Howard] 1825-1885 :Wellington Beach 1856. Ref: A-032-040. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23065306
St Paul’s Church in Pipitea was built in 1866 for the Anglican Church in the Gothic style. Kauri, rimu and totara were used to emulate the stonework of European cathedrals , and its stained glass windows were among the finest in the young colony.
No longer a parish church but still consecrated, Old St Pauls remains a popular venue for weddings, concerts and as a visitor attraction.
The current Wellington Botanical Garden is part of a section of land designated from the earliest days of the city as Town Belt. Designed to provide a buffer between the city and rural activities beyond, much of the Town Belt remains in public hands to this day. It means Wellingtonians are able to enjoy bush walks or mountain biking on the city’s doorstep, with around 10 square metres of Town Belt per head of population.
The section that was to become the Wellington Botanic Garden was established in 1869. Over the years it has developed into an attractive horticultural park, with a mix of native and exotic flowers and trees, with elements of classic Victorian garden design.
In 1865, Wellington became New Zealand's capital. In the following decades the country developed an international reputation as a progressive democracy. In 1867, Māori men gained the vote, for four separate Māori seats. In 1879, all men could vote because there was no longer a property requirement. In 1893, New Zealand gave women the vote — the first country in the world to do so.
The present Parliament Buildings were built in 1907 to replace the previous wooden buildings lost to fire. The famous Beehive that sits alongside, (built in the 1970's), is the Executive Wing, where Members of Parliament have offices and Cabinet meeting rooms.
The city expands in an era of mechanisation
Settlers in the suburb of Karori found 2,500 acres of land that could be cleared for farms in a wide hilltop basin. The land was good, but access to the city was difficult. A steep track meant even horse and carriage passengers had to get out and walk in places.
Eventually Wellington's first road tunnel was built through Baker's Hill. Taking three years to complete, the tunnel, opened in 1900, helped Karori grow into one of New Zealand's largest suburbs.
Visitors often pass through the Karori Tunnel on the way to Zealandia eco-sanctuary.
The famous Wellington Cable Car opened in 1902, the brainchild of a group of businessmen developing property in the hilltop suburb of Kelburn. By providing a transport connection to the city centre, they increased the value of their investment. The Cable Car company also donated £1000 to ensure the city's new Victoria University would be built on the hillside, ensuring a steady supply of student passengers.
A Risso’s dolphin named Pelorus Jack escorted ships through dangerous passages in the Cook Strait from 1888 to 1912.
In 1904, someone aboard the SS Penguin tried to shoot Pelorus Jack with a rifle. In response, the government passed a special protection order. It is believed Jack is the only individual sea creature ever protected by law. Despite the dangers of the waterway in it's early years of shipping, no ships were wrecked when Jack was present. However, the SS Penguin, which Jack never escorted again, shipwrecked in Cook Strait in 1909.
Since 1989 the Cook Strait ferry service Interislander has used Jack as their symbol and his image can be seen on the livery of their fleet.
Captain Euan Dickson, a decorated veteran of World War One, and two passengers, make the first flight across Cook Strait, from Blenheim to Wellington, on 25 August 1920. When his aircraft unexpectedly arrives over the city from the south, crowds turn out in the streets, and MPs watch from Parliament steps. Captain Dickson performs a number of aerobatic turns over the city before heading north to land at Trentham Racecourse.
It would be another 9 years before a grass runway was established in Rongotai, the current site of Wellington Airport.
Wellington brings the world to New Zealand - and vice versa.
The very first New Zealand representative rugby team leaves Wellington in 1905 for a tour of Great Britain, France and the United States.
They will play 35 matches, including 5 tests, defeating England, Scotland, Ireland and France. A 3-0 loss to Wales is their only defeat of the tour.
They score 976 points, concede only 59, and return as national heroes - with a new name:
The All Blacks.
In 1923, New Zealand's most famous writer, Katherine Mansfield, dies age 34, a victim of tuberculosis.
A gifted short story writer, Mansfield is renowned in the literary world as part of the Modernist movement, as well as for her turbulent and distinctly bohemian personal life.
Her family's Thorndon home is now the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace museum.
The De Luxe Cinema opens in 1924 and immediately solidifies Courtenay Place as the entertainment heart of the city.
Originally seating 1,759 this luxurious picture palace brought Hollywood glamour to the people of Wellington.
Renamed The Embassy in 1945, the grand old lady played a starring role in the world premieres of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2012.
The Embassy Theatre remains a world-famous place to enjoy a movie and a pilgrimage for fans of Peter Jackson's films.
The Hotel St George opened on the corner of Wills and Boulcott streets in 1930. It's art-deco style was the latest in architectural design at the time.
With its ultra-modern looks and capacity, the St George was the first choice Wellington hotel for visiting dignitaries, from royalty to international rugby teams.
Perhaps its most famous guests were The Beatles who stayed in 1964. Crowds filled the streets outside both before and after the concert and young fans tested the hotel security to the limits.
On 5 September 1936 the first Bledisloe Cup rugby test to be played in New Zealand takes place at Wellington's Athletic Park. Around 30,000 people watched the All Blacks win 11-3.
Symbolic of the great sporting rivalry between Australia and New Zealand, the Bledisloe is the largest trophy in world rugby. The cup is very at home at New Zealand Rugby Union headquarters in Wellington, as the All Blacks have won it around 80% of the time.
These days Athletic Park no longer exists and international test match rugby is played at Westpac Stadium.
Commemorating 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1940 Centennial Exhibition spread over a vast 55 acres in Rongotai, near Wellington Airport.
In the midst of wartime, the Exhibition was a huge success. Over 2 million people went through the gates in the Exhibition's 6 months - significantly more than the population of the country at the time.
Many of the visitors came for Playland; the on-site amusement park, advertised in the poster (left). These days you can still find a trace of 1940 in the statue of Kupe and his family (pictured right), which was unveiled and displayed at the exhibition and now stands on the waterfront.
NZ servicemen leave, US servicemen arrive, and refugees follow
20, 000 US servicemen arrived in Wellington 1942 to train and potentially defend NZ from invasion by Japan, making camp at Central park in Brooklyn.
The exotic Americans make a big impact on the city's social life. Seeing the attention they received from local women, (left, at Oriental Bay) some Kiwi soldiers referred to the Yanks as "overpaid, over sexed and over here". Tensions erupted in a large scale street brawl between US personnel and local men in the 'Battle of Manners St' in 1943.
They also brought their own traditions, like as baseball (right), which didn't quite catch on.
733 Polish children, many orphaned by Soviet labour camps, arrive in Wellington in 1944, by invitation of the New Zealand government.
The children, having undergone unimaginable hardship, were taken by train to a camp 160km north of the city at Paihiatua. At every station along the way, the refugees would later remember, local children and their parents lined the tracks waving flags and flowers in welcome. Many remained tin the area for the rest of their lives.
A plaque commemorating the children's arrival can be found on the Wellington waterfront, on the harbour side of Frank Kitts Park.
In 1946 the ship Dominion Monarch arrives in Wellington, returning the soldiers of the 28th (Maori) Battalion to their homeland. After six years on the front lines, this volunteer force had forged a formidable reputation, but at a heavy cost.
The men of the 28th were welcomed with ceremony, song and feasting on Aotea Quay (see video, right). Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James Henare, dismissed his men that day with these words:
"Go back to our mountains, go back to our people, go back to our marae. But this is my last command to you all - stand as Maori, stand as Maori, stand as Maori."
The post-War years say a surge in Greek migration to New Zealand, with the role of New Zealand forces in liberating Crete and mainland Greece undoubtedly influencing the choice of immigrants.
The majority of Greek immigrants made their homes in Wellington. Hania St, location of the Orthodox Church (left) is named after the principal settlement of Crete, a sister city to Wellington.
The Greek community soon became the most concentrated ethnic group living in Wellington, with as many as 10,000 people living here, especially around Mt Victoria.
In 1962, 27-year-old Barrie Davenport becomes the first person to swim Cook Strait, completing the swim in 11 hours and 20 minutes. On his first attempt earlier in the year, Barrie fell asleep with a mile to go.
He could have caught a lift - in the same year the first roll on/roll off ferry service between Wellington and Picton began. Initially the ferries offered just one voyage a day each way (except Sundays). These days, modern boats and multiple services carry passengers along one of the world's most picturesque ferry routes more than a dozen times every day.
Suzy's Coffee Lounge opens in Willis St in 1964.
Owned by Dutch immigrant Suzy van den Kwast, the cafe's hip European feel had an immediate impact on Wellington's social scene.
Wellington's world famous coffee culture began in places like Suzy's. AT a time in New Zealand when bars closed by law at 6pm, cafes, which often remained open till the early hours of the morning, became a haven for people who wanted to socialise downtown in the evening.
Plus, if you knew where to go and the right way to ask...you might even get your coffee cup filled with something stronger.
In 1969 Cuba Street becomes Cuba Mall, New Zealand's first pedestrian shopping street.
When the street was closed to traffic for removal of tram tracks four years earlier, retailers noticed a marked increase in foot traffic. They successfully lobbied the Council to make the street closure permanent.
Cuba Street has since become a legendary Wellington bohemian quarter, home to boutique shopping, buskers and street artists, galleries, bars and cafes - often referred to as 'New Zealand's coolest street'.
Work commences in 1970 on the distinctive new executive wing of Parliament Buildings which will come to be known as 'The Beehive'.
The name comes from the narrowing cylindrical shape, reminiscent of a traditional woven beehive.
The concept was first sketched by Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence, reportedly on a napkin at dinner with then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake.
The striking building eventually won over an initially skeptical public, although those who work in it face the unusual challenge of fitting furniture into offices with curved walls.
Find out more about Tours of Parliament Buildings
In May 1982 the destroyer USS Truxtun made it's third visit to Wellington. It was met by a flotilla of anti-nuclear protest boats.
A month earlier Wellington City Council had declared the city a nuclear weapon-free zone, and the Truxtun, as per US military policy, would 'neither confirm nor deny' the presence of nuclear weapons on board.
Wellington's stance was adopted by other local authorities in the following years, and in 1984 New Zealand was declared a nuclear-free zone by Prime Minister David Lange. The policy made international headlines as it put our small nation in direct opposition to the wishes of the United States whose warships have not visited the country since.
Image via Alexander Turnbull Library
The World War One battle of Gallipoli is a formative moment in New Zealand history. Over 2000 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives in this disastrous landing on Turkish soil.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, commander of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli, and later founder of modern Turkey, erected a memorial to the fallen foreign soldiers at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli in 1934. It became a place of pilgrimage for many young Kiwis.
In 1989 New Zealand built the Ataturk Memorial overlooking Tarakina Bay on Wellington's south coast. It is designed to echo the form and spirit of the Chunuk Bair memorial.
In 1993 the Wellington Wind Turbine is erected at the summit of Brooklyn Hill. It is New Zealand's first viable commercial wind turbine, generating enough electricity each year to power around 80 New Zealand homes.
The single turbine was part of a research project to test the viability of wind-produced electricity in New Zealand conditions. Wellington's famous wind proved highly conducive to wind production, and in 2007 construction began on a 62 turbine wind farm in nearby Makara, which opened in 2009.
The Wellington Wind Turbine can be reached by road and is a spectacular lookout spot. Wellington Rover Tours operate a tour that includes the Makara Wind Farm.
In 1995 the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is launched. The ambitious project sees the former Wellington reservoir surrounded by a sophisticated predator-proof fence to create a 225-hectare 'island' in which to preserve native flora and fauna.
The sanctuary's 800-year plan is to return the reservoir valley to a pre-human, natural state.
Now operating as Zealandia, the sanctuary is a world-class eco-attraction, with thousands of visitors every year. Meanwhile, locals have enjoyed a resurgence in native birdsong, not only in the sanctuary valley, but in the surrounding suburbs as well.
On 14 February 1998 the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa was officially opened.
Te Papa's distinctive architecture and interactive exhibits signalled that it was intended as a museum for the 21st century. A million people visited within the first five months of operation, and visitor numbers have remained strong: Te Papa is the most visited museum in Australasia.
The long-term exhibits at Te Papa focus on local history, Maori culture and New Zealand's natural world. The museum is also home to research and archival facilities, a major collection of New Zealand art, and hosts touring exhibitions from around the world.
On 1 Decemeber 2003 an estimated 100,00 people lined the streets of Wellington for the world premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The film was the culmination of an epic journey, both on-screen and for Wellington filmmaker Peter Jackson, the mastermind behind the movie trilogy. From days making short films on his parents Super 8 camera in the coastal suburb of Pukerua Bay, Jackson had successfully completed one of the most ambitious movie projects in history. The Lord of the Rings films would go on to win a total of 17 Academy Awards and gross around $3 billion worldwide.
Wellington became a magnet for international film fans - and filmmakers - and became known as 'Wellywood'.
100 years since the Original All Blacks had stunned the rugby world with their rampant Northern Hemisphere tour, the combined might of the British and Irish Lions arrived for a three Test tour.
The second test at Westpac Stadium in Wellington has gone down as one of the great All Black performances, and cemented the reputation of all-star player Daniel Carter. With thousands of Lions fans having made the journey, there was plenty of support for the visitors, who scored a try in the opening minutes. On the back of a record breaking 33-point performance from Carter, the All Blacks came back to inflict on the Lions their heaviest defeat in history against a New Zealand side, and clinch the series. Final score: 48-18
In 2005 the World of WearableArt Awards Show moved across the Cook Strait from Nelson to Welllington. From it's beginnings in a tiny provincial gallery, this unique theatrical event, which aims to bring art 'off the walls and on to the body', had grown to international stature. In order to fulfil it's potential the move to a city like Wellington was necessary.
Wellington has embraced WOW and helped it grow. Fantastical design entries now come in from all over the planet, and the stage show itself is on a scale with the largest international productions. The World of WearableArt Awards Show brings thousands of people from around New Zealand and beyond to Wellington every September, and will soon have touring exhibitions in museums around the world.
After decades of lobbying, and a number of legislative steps towards, the Marriage Amendment Act (Definition of Marriage) became law on 19 August 2013, giving same sex couples equal rights to heterosexual couples in terms of marriage.
Wellington, as the home of New Zealand lawmaking, had been the centre of debate and protest around this issue for many years. The law change was seen by many as continuing New Zealand's socially progressive tradition, dating back at least as far as 1893 when it became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote.
Many historic marriages were enacted on the first day of Marriage Equality. In Wellington we hosted the first Australian same-sex wedding in the country, at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
On 17 February 2014 New Zealand cricket captain Brendon McCullum, after a marathon 13 hours of batting, was finally dismissed for a record score of 302 - the highest ever in test cricket by a New Zealander. Playing against India, McCullum's innings took place at the Basin Reserve, the spiritual home of cricket in New Zealand.
Once known as Basin Lake, an 1855 earthquake uplifted the area, turning it into a swamp. By 1866 it had been fully drained and turned into Wellington's official cricket ground. The Basin is a village-style venue with a grass embankment and traditional stands, yet has played hosts to the greats of the game from around the world. It's also, in its time, seen games of baseball, rugby league, athletics and competitive woodchopping, as well as concerts and festival events.
The only cricket ground in New Zealand with Historic Place status, the Basin is home to the New Zealand Cricket Museum.