Once one of our largest towns

A few years ago, in slightly whimsical post-holiday mode, I did a post highlighting a snippet I’d discovered in the Whakatane museum that until about 1950 the Whakatane port handled more shipping tonnage than Tauranga’s did.   These days, of course, Whakatane’s “port” is known only for sports fishing and White Island tours and Tauranga handles the most cargo of any port in the country.  How economies change in just a few decades.

This summer we spent our holiday at Waihi (with my in-laws) and Waihi Beach.  I’ve come to quite like Waihi, and it seems I’m not the only one.  Just a few months ago it was named the “most beautiful small town” in New Zealand, and if that surprised me a little it is certainly a pleasant place, with an air of prosperity about it – and decent French and German bakeries  – one often doesn’t find in small towns these days.     It seems to share in the same sort of insane zoning practices that hold up house prices almost everywhere (if you get on the right side of the council rules there is apparently money to be made subdividing semi-urban sections –  which in any sane world wouldn’t happen for a town set surrounded by large amounts of fairly flat rural land.)    As for the air of prosperity, probably it helps to be on the main road from Auckland to Tauranga, but Waihi has a more prosperous feel than Paeroa, 15 miles nearer Auckland, and I presume that must be down to mining –  represented by the huge open-cast pit perhaps 50 metres from the main shopping street.

What perhaps makes Waihi something of an anomaly is that it is both prosperous and well-kept and yet has fewer people than it had 100+ years ago.

Just prior to World War One, Waihi had an estimated population (31 March 1913) of 6740.  By New Zealand standards, that made it a big place.    Here were the urban area populations at the time.  Of course, then the urban population was mostly in handful of large cities (the old “four main centres”)

waihi 1.png

but Waihi was the 13th largest town/city in the entire country, not much smaller than places like Nelson and Plymouth (and ahead of those other six places I’ve shown, all now substantial cities).  Of those top 13, only Waihi and Palmerston North were not ports.

And why?   That was (gold) mining.   Waihi was by far the largest gold mining operation in New Zealand (and had been the location of the major miners’ strike the previous year –  a confrontation that at its height involved 10 per cent of all New Zealand’s police, and the death of one striker).    And mining in New Zealand wasn’t on a trivial scale.  These were the days of the Gold Standard, when many monetary systems (including our own) were backed by/convertible into gold.  In 1910, New Zealand –  mostly Waihi – accounted from just over 2 per cent of the world’s annual gold production.  Gold production was similar to that from the Australian state of Victoria.  Of the Australian states, only Western Australia produced a lot more (3 to 4 times total New Zealand production).

What about now?   There is still gold (and quite a lot of less-valuable silver) being mined in Waihi.  In fact, just recently Labour ministers overruled one of their Green Party colleagues on a decision that will facilitate mining for some years to come.

But relative to what is going on elsewhere it is a shadow of what it was (and, of course, much less labour intensive).   Total New Zealand gold exports are now about 5 per cent of those of Western Australia.  As a gold producing country, New Zealand now ranks between Ethiopia and Finland, mining about a quarter of one per cent of the world’s new gold production (did you know –  I didn’t –  that China is now, by some margin, the largest producer of gold?).     Most likely, there is a lot of gold elsewhere in the Coromandel Hills, but the political barriers to exploiting it remain formidable.

And as for Waihi, if the mine and its gold and silver production helps keep a town fairly prosperous and well-kept, the latest SNZ population estimate is only 5160, just behind Dannevirke, Carterton, and Dargaville.  Waihi’s population means it is now only our 56th= largest urban area, almost halfway down the SNZ list.  The smallest of the other places on my earlier chart –  Blenheim –  now has six times Waihi’s population.  In fact glancing down the list of 115 urban areas from 1913, Waihi’s drop in the ranking looks more precipitate than any other town in New Zealand, perhaps matched only by a handful of (then much smaller) South Island mining towns.

Natural resources really can make a difference.  Even today, they are the difference between Waihi and numerous down-at-heel rural communities scattered around New Zealand.

10 thoughts on “Once one of our largest towns

  1. Michael
    Isnt there some irony in your liking being in Waihi for a beach holiday and decrying its lack of (extractive) industries ?
    I had my holiday on Great Barrier Island. The permanent population is about 900, which is fewer than it was in the early 1980s and no doubt far fewer than back in its heyday of extraction (Kauri logs), but its much more prosperous now than it was when I first visited it in about 1980. In those days it was a haven for beneficiaries, and when the welfare rules changed people had to get a job or head back to the mainland. Population numbers do not tell a whole story.
    More materially than cutting the beneficiary population, had GBI had less extraction (ie. cut down less of its forest and better job was being done managing fish quota) then Im sure it would be a lot more prosperous now.
    Forests and fish can be worth a lot more as recreational assets than as a plank or in a pan.


    • Tim

      Entirely agree with your final sentence, altho with an emphasis on the “can”. Re Waihi, if anything I was saying I liked it with the extractive industry right in the heart of the town.

      My underlying NZ story tends to be one of too many people for the wealth/income our natural resources (or the way we let ourselves use them) can generate. Sadly, conditions here haven’t been such that lots of non-natural resource outward-oriented industries have developed and remained here.


  2. I quite like Waihi and Waihi Beach (although the properties there are even more expensive). The biggest problem though with Waihi is the ghastly local council. We lived elsewhere in their area and found the Hauraki District Council to be one of the most restrictive and unhelpful councils there is in this country. As well as the fact that we paid quite high rates for no services unless you count one poorly maintained gravel road that they told us openly they never intended to seal it was made even worse when we decided to subdivide two sections off the back of our hilly property. Class 7 land it was of no economic use at all and after two years of process they allowed that on condition we paid towards the sealing of the road-although they told us openly they had no intention of ever sealing it. Several hearings later we had reduced the amount from $32,000 down to $7,000 and even that they eventually had to refund to us. No refuse collection, no water no sewage and a crappy road and for that you pay rates…BUT the mayor told -for that you get democracy Mr Strong!


  3. Waihi is pleasant. Most of NZ is pleasant. We are lucky to live in NZ. However if you were given the task of making a film about the Garden of Eden you should choose Manus where the sea is bluer, the beaches whiter, the vegetation greener, the fish taste better and the fruit tastes sweeter than anywhere else on earth (that description is from a Papuan which is like a South African praising the All Blacks). Manus and specifically its capital Lorengau has had a bad (ill-informed) press since it was used as a dumping ground for foreigners attempting illegal entry to Australia. Manus Islanders have been living there happily for over 50,000 years. Until now. According to my Manus contact all her relatives and friends now have mobile phones and the means to charge them. So after 50,000 years they have discovered FOMO. Now Islanders are desperate to take trips to comparatively exciting places such as Port Moresby.
    The same social forces are moving people from rural areas and small towns to cities throughout the world; it has been happening quietly for a century in NZ but with the sudden arrival of a ubiquitous internet that trickle is now a flood. Every country will end up with its population distributed into a handful of massive cities, with a few small towns where there are resources to be exploited and an empty countryside with disproportionately high numbers of lonely suicides.


    • I was always a bit sorry I never got to Manus, but yes much of coastal PNG is very attractive – I was quite taken by Rabaul for example.

      Meant to add that I’m a bit more sceptical than you on the extremes of the city story. As I’ve noted previously, NZers have (net) been leaving Akld for a couple of decades and (a bit more surprisingly to me) the same is true of Brits from London.


  4. Your story of Waihi stirred my curiosity about my family history. Don’t know how, but somehow, my grandparents settled in Glen Afton. My grandfather was an underground coal-miner. He was injured mid 1930’s and migrated north to Auckland with my grandmother and 3 children. 6 years ago, knowing at least where they came from, showing my partner around, went looking for Glen Afton. Travelling by car we didn’t have access to the internet. No mobile phone. Stopped at several service stations on SH1 to seek directions. Not one service station attendant had heard of it. We had a map. It wasn’t on it. Knew it was related to Rotowaro and Pukemiro. Got onto the main road out to Raglan. Finally came to a signpost that said Glen Afton. Turned in and saw a little run down hamlet with about 20 houses. According to this article below there are now 75 resident in the village that time has passed. What I didn’t know was that in 1939 there had been a mine explosion. Luckily my family left in 1936. Otherwise I might not be here today

    Glen Afton a small coal mining village 80 years after the disaster


    • Forgot. The particular point in the article that caught my attention was that Aucklanders are now migrating south to Glen Afton, moving in and buying the old houses and commuting to Auckland from Glen Afton


      • Not too sure why anyone would stay in Glen Afton when it is closer to stay in Huntly smack on the Southern motorway 1 and houses still are available in the $250k price range?


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