Today it’s mostly all about a public holiday, but for the first settlers Wellington Anniversary Day was a chance to celebrate overcoming the hardships of making a new life in a new land. Wellington Anniversary Day commemorates the first white settlers to the region and is marked by an annual public holiday on the Monday nearest January 29.
The Aurora was the first of the NZ Company’s emigrant ships to arrive at Pito-one (Petone), anchoring in the harbour on January 22, 1840. It was closely followed by the Oriental, the Duke of Roxburgh, and the Bengal Merchant. The Adelaide arrived in early March 1840, the first settler ship to anchor at Port Nicholson (Wellington).
Representatives of the NZ Company had arrived in the ship Tory in September 1839 to prepare the way and purchase land. About 300 Māori were living at the pa on the west end of Petone Beach when the settlers anchored in the harbour. There were no dwellings for the settlers on arrival, so shacks were hastily erected.
John Alfred Langford, chair maker, was on board the Aurora, one of the ’emigrant labourers who … received a free passage to New Zealand’. He emigrated with his wife Harriet Langford, and John Lodge, a stonemason, was a travelling companion. 58 males and 90 female passengers were on board. The Aurora sailed from Plymouth on 3 Oct 1839, and was 126 days at sea. They met with storms off the Cape of Good Hope and the ship suffered topmast damage.
John Langford, his wife Harriet and John Lodge wrote letters home to Birmingham, dated January, 1840. Their son died on the voyage. Harriet describes the distress of losing a child at sea.
Harriet also describes the country as a ‘complete paradise’.
Land was plentiful and cheap, ‘a wilderness’ according to John Langford’s letter, the [NZ] Company supplying Māori ‘clothing in exchange for the land’.
John Langford lists items needed for the new land for his brother to bring if he also comes out to NZ.
Fellow immigrant John Lodge, writing to his Birmingham mother, regrets not bringing his own gun to shoot birds…
The letters were published in the Bradford Observer, 6 August 1840 (British Newspaper Archive, Hutt City Libraries eResources).
Another view – from the town of Wellington looking across to Hutt, 1842.
The NZ Company surveyed the land, and with no respect for Māori ownership subdivided it into town and country sections. These were sold as land packages of 1 town acre and 100 country acres, with 1100 town acres allotted for the town of Wellington.
Wellington Anniversary Day was celebrated for the first time in January 1841. A fete, ball and sailing were included in the second celebrations of Anniversary Day in 1842.
The 1842 Anniversary Day weather was ‘beautiful’ and the Fete was attended by ‘nearly the entire population of Wellington, with a good many from Petoni’ according to a 26 Jan 1842 report. (NZ Gazette & Wellington Spectator, 26 January 1842, Papers Past)
In 1852 the NZ Constitution Act divided the country into provinces, each with its own government. Despite provincial government being abolished in 1876 official anniversary day holidays and celebrations continued.
Celebrating the first European settler landings at Petone Beach
On January 23 1855, the evening of the 15th anniversary of Wellington’s founding, there was a huge 8.2 earthquake along the Palliser Bay fault which changed the landscape by uplifting land in the region. Access from the Hutt Valley to Wellington was significantly improved – previously the road was impassable at high tide. The swampy land in the lower Hutt Valley was also drained by the uplift. Together with the 1848 earthquake, the floods, fires and difficulty of landing at Petone this was impetus to change the main settlement from Britannia (Petone) to Wellington.
The change of landscape and the first settlers landing on Petone Beach in small boats make the exact place the first settlers stepped onto Petone Beach difficult to pinpoint.
Petone Mayor George London held the first meeting in 1905 to plan building a memorial at Petone to mark the landing of the first settlers. Old settlers and their relatives attended, and the “opinion obtained” put the first landing place about the position of Buick Street, where the Centennial Memorial (Petone Settlers Musuem) was built.
The building opened in January 1940 on the centenary of the first settlers landing, provincial centennial celebrations continuing despite NZ being at war with Germany.
The original building included a bathing pavilion, memorial fountain, and representation of the bows of a settler ship.
An Iona Cross was dedicated at Petone on 23 February 1940, on the beach front near the Centennial Memorial, commemorating the first Presbyterian service held by the Reverend John Macfarlane on board the ship Bengal Merchant. (Petone’s first 100 years)
The Wellington Provincial Centennial Memorial now houses the Petone Settlers Museum. In 2016 the building was refurbished, including new displays, a replica settlers ship’s cabin and a window to the beach front.
Images from the Dowse Art Museum/Petone Settlers Museum and Hutt City Libraries Collection.