Wanganui City

Wanganui is located on the South Taranaki Bight, close to the mouth of the Whanganui River. It is 200 kilometres north of Wellington and 75 kilometres northwest of Palmerston North, at the junction of State Highways 3 and 4. Most of the town lies on the river’s northwestern bank, although some suburbs are located on the opposite side of the river.

It enjoys a temperate climate, with slightly above the national average sunshine (2100 hours per annum), and about 900 mm of annual rainfall. Several frosts are experienced in winter.

The area around the mouth of the Whanganui was a major site of pre-European Māori settlement. In the 1820s coastal tribes in the area assaulted the Kapiti Island of Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha. Te Rauparaha retaliated in 1830 sacking Putiki Pā and slaughtering the inhabitants. The first European traders arrived in 1831, followed in 1840 by missionaries Octavius Hadfield and Henry Williams who collected signatures for the Treaty of Waitangi. After the New Zealand Company had settled in Wellington the company looked for more suitable places for settlers. Edward Wakefield, son of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, negotiated the sale of 40,000 acres in 1840. A town, originally known as Petre was established at the river mouth shortly after. The name was officially changed to Wanganui on 20 January 1854.
The early years of the new town were problematic. Purchase of land from the local tribes had been haphazard and irregular, and as such many Māori were angered with the influx of Pākehā onto land that they still claimed. It was not until the town had been established for eight years that agreements were finally reached between the colonials and local tribes, and some resentment continued (and still filters through to the present day).
Wanganui grew rapidly after this time, with land being cleared for pasture. The town was a major military centre during the Land Wars of the 1860s, although local Māori at Putiki remained friendly to the town’s settlers. In 1871 a town bridge was opened followed six years later by the railway bridge at Aramoho. The town was linked by rail to both New Plymouth and Wellington by 1886.
Wanganui was incorporated as a Borough on 1 February 1872 and declared a city on 1 July 1924.

Perhaps the city’s biggest scandal happened in 1920, when the Mayor, Charles Mackay, shot and wounded a young poet, D’Arcy Cresswell, who had been blackmailing him over his homosexuality. Mackay served seven years in prison and his name was erased from the city’s civic monuments, while Cresswell (himself homosexual) was praised as a „wholesome-minded young man“.

The Whanganui River catchment is seen as a sacred area to Māori, and the Wanganui region is still seen as a focal point for any resentment over land ownership. In 1995, Moutoa Gardens in Wanganui, known to local Māori as Pakaitore, were occupied for 79 days in a mainly peaceful protest by the Whanganui iwi over land claims.

Wanganui was the site of the New Zealand Police Law Enforcement System (LES) from 1976 to 1995. An early Sperry mainframe computer based intelligence and data management system, it was known colloquially as the „Wanganui Computer“. The data centre housing the LES was subject to New Zealand’s highest profile suicide bombing in 1982 when anarchist Neil Roberts detonated a gelignite bomb in the entry foyer. Roberts was the only casualty of the bombing.

The name
Whāngā nui means big bay or big harbour. Europeans called it Petre (pronounced Peter), after Lord Petre, an officer of the New Zealand Company, but the name did not persist.

Wanganui or Whanganui?
In the local accent, Māori say wh as w followed by a glottal stop, and the name as something like „W’anganui“, hard to reproduce by non-locals. Until recently it was generally written as „Wanganui“ and pronounced with a w by non-speakers of Māori and a wh by those Māori speakers from other areas who knew its derivation.

Following an article about the river by David Young in the New Zealand Geographic magazine that used „Whanganui“ throughout, in accord with the wishes of the local iwi, the spelling of the river’s name reverted to Whanganui in 1991. The region’s name is now sometimes also spelt „Whanganui“, but the city has kept the spelling „Wanganui“.

As a result, many people from outside the area now take pains to pronounce the river and the region as „Whanganui“ and the city as „Wanganui“, though the variant spellings do not reflect any difference in the underlying name.
A non-binding referendum was held in 2006, where 82 percent voted for Wanganui without an ‚h‘. Turnout was 55.4 percent.

Source: Wikipedia, Wises New Zealand Guide, 7th Edition, 1979. p. 494., Charles Mackay and D'Arcy Cresswell.