3 April 2016

Putting Wellington on the map

Barnett’s 1826 marine survey of Port Nicholson
Wellington has a rich history of maps for a young city, although our location – tucked away at the back of the harbour – meant early explorers left the bottom of the North Island as a blank. The oldest Maori geographical record on paper, a 1769 map by Tuki Te Terenui Whare Pirau’s had little detail south of Taranaki; James Cook’s famous chart of New Zealand (drafted just months later) showed Wellington’s south coast but nothing beyond the harbour entrance.

Maps are first and foremost tools; so logically enough the first paper representations of Wellington were nautical charts. Captain Thomas Barnett’s 1826 marine survey of Port Nicholson showed invaluable details for early settlers: not just latitude and longitude, suitable anchorages and water depth, but also information like the pa sites (at what’s now called Palmer Head), the Maori village (Worser Bay), and locations of fresh water (Miramar, Evan’s Bay, Petone and Ngauranga) – crucial information for survival after months at sea.

New Zealand’s hinterland was uncharted until the late 1830s, when the arrival of Wellington’s first European settlers resulted in an explosion of mapping, driven by the pressing need to divvy up the land. The weather was challenging, with the New Zealand Company’s Surveyor-General William Mein Smith complaining “I have not the means of protecting either my instruments or plans from the wet”. It was tough work, with Māori employed as survey hands to help determine the size of the parcels of land being sold.

Cobham's 1839 plan for 'Britannia'
An alternative approach was to draw up plans for the settlement in the comfort of distant London, away from Wellington’s testing climate. Which explains why Samuel Cobham’s beautiful 1839 plan for ‘Britannia’ (now Petone) straddling the Hutt River looks so ludicrous: the carefully drawn locations of government offices, public baths, museum, barracks and a college of surgeons had missed one important detail: the extent of the river’s flooding. 

So in 1840 the settlers decamped to Te Aro, keeping the grid layout of streets, although plans to use familiar London names like Covent Garden and Billingsgate Fish Market didn’t survive the move. 

Surveyor-general Mein Smith drafted the settlement’s first maps, which the New Zealand Company quickly turned into advertising tools for driving interest in colonial life back in the ‘Mother Country’. Its ‘Plan of the Town of Wellington’ – printed in London in 1840 – was deceptively elaborate: most streets were still covered in bush, and the legal title of the land hadn’t been secured from the locals – when surveyors marked out the new town at Te Aro the local Māori pulled up survey pegs, protesting they hadn’t actually sold the land.

The New Zealand Company's 1840 map of Wellington
Prospective settlers were led to believe otherwise, bewitched by the combination of bold colours, clear street layout and the company’s crest – along with the assurance settlers would be moving to the “first and principal settlement of the New Zealand Company”. It was a moderately successful tactic, but sowed the seeds of the company’s downfall: London speculators bought parcels of Wellington land, without any intention of migrating. Fortunately 15,000 (mainly labourers) did make the voyage from London, before the company went bust in 1858.

Wellington’s maps are easy to date because of the slow creep of land reclamation into Port Nicholson harbour. The city’s growth soon demanded larger wharves, and land reclamation became a priority, made all the more pressing by the 1855 earthquake that left the jetties unusable. Queen’s Wharf was the first to be built (1864), and it was long; around three times today’s length, stretching over to Customhouse Quay. 

Seidelin's 1877 proposed redesign of Wellington's waterfront
The incorporation of Wellington City Council in 1870 heralded a huge increase in land reclamations, but the most dramatic planned alteration never materialised. In 1877 Danish architect Conrad Seidelin – working under the pseudonym of ‘Mr Darnoc’ – drew up plans to transform the waterfront. Seidelin’s credentials had been established in the redesign of Copenhagen, where his proposal to demolish the city’s walls won Denmark’s Medal of Merit two decades earlier. 

Alas Wellington’s city councillors considered Seidelin’s suggestions impractical and expensive: curved docks and enormous land reclamation were luxuries the capital could ill-afford. Seidelin died in Dunedin a year later; long forgotten in New Zealand, although his impact on Copenhagen’s design can still be seen today.