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Hamilton’s history; from militia settlement to city

The history of Hamilton and the surrounding area is dominated by the Waikato River, the city and region’s defining geographical feature. Over thousands of years its altering course has resulted in the creation of numerous lakes, such as Hamilton Lake, and deposits of silt have built up the rich alluvial soils of the Waikato basin.

Waikato’s fertile soils have supported human occupation since at least the 16th Century. Kirikiriroa was one of several Ngati wairere settlements along the Waikato River. Other pa sites included Te Rapa and Miropiko.

The first permanent European settlers arrived by river in 1864. The 4th Waikato Militia Regiment landed at Kirikiriroa on 24 August and built redoubts on opposite sides of the river at what are now the sites of St Peters Cathedral and the Hamilton East end of Bridge Street. William Moule, the commanding officer of the 4th Waikato, named the new settlement after Captain John Charles Fane Hamilton, a naval officer who had been killed at the Battle of Gate Pa.

Initial growth of the settlement was slow and by 1868 the population consisted of only 250 people. For many years contact between the two communities was by punt and each had their own town board. But conditions slowly began to improve. A railway station was opened at Frankton Junction in 1877 and the need to pool resources for a traffic bridge linking Hamilton West and Hamilton East led to the amalgamation of the town boards in the same year. I. R. Vialou was elected as the first mayor of Hamilton Borough in 1878 and the following year the appropriately named Union Bridge was opened.

Other elements of infrastructure steadily followed. In 1886 the Waikato Hospital Board was formed. The streets of Hamilton were lit by gas in 1895 and the water works were completed in 1903. The next year the telephone exchange opened with 39 subscribers.

By 1906 the population of Hamilton was more than 2100 with a further 800 people living outside the boundary in Claudelands and Frankton. The borough of Hamilton continued to expand, taking in Claudelands in 1912 and in 1917 amalgamating with that of Frankton – in fact, the period around World War I became a boom time for Hamilton, with its population swelling through its place as an important transport hub.

The 1945 census revealed Hamilton’s population to have reached 22,000, enabling the borough to formally call itself a city. This coincided with an expansion of the city’s boundaries and the development of suburbs including Beerescourt, Melville, Enderley and Hillcrest. At the city’s limits, the Ruakura Research Centre was being developed and building a reputation as a leader in agricultural and farming research and experimentation.

Domestic air services commenced from Hamilton Airport in the 1950s.

Through the 1950s and 1960s the city’s population continued to grow, through the arrival of new tertiary educated residents to meet the labour demands of Waikato Hospital and branches of government, the development of the Temple View suburb by the Mormon community – and, in 1964 the foundation of Waikato University, followed two years later by Waikato Institute of Technology.

With a blossoming city straddling the country’s longest river, bridges became an integral asset for the city. In 1963 the Cobham Dr bridge – part of the nation’s state highway network was opened – becoming the fourth bridge across the river following the Claudelands Bridge (1884 and refitted in 1964), the Victoria Bridge (1910), the Fairfield Bridge (1937, famous for its curved concrete pillars).

By 1966, 63,000 people were living in the city, with a growing percentage identifying as Maori – the area’s original inhabitants.

Growth continued through the 1970s, and included the closure of the Frankton Junction rail station and opening of a new train station further south – the country’s Main Trunk Line still runs through Hamilton to this day, and a separate line connects Hamilton to Tauranga on the East Coast.

The line to the east coast comes within a few metres of Seddon Park, the city’s cricket ground. It joined the international circuit in February 1981, hosting its first One Day International between New Zealand and India. Ten years later it would become a Test match venue, and is now established as one of the world’s premier boutique cricket venues, with grassed banks for crowds of up to 10,000 fans.

Rugby has long been a passion for the region’s residents, with representative matches played at Rugby Park – redeveloped and rebranded as Waikato Stadium (now FMG Stadium Waikato) in 2002. The city made international headlines in July 1981, during the final apartheid-era tour by the South African Springboks: anti-tour protestors marched on the ground, and onto the pitch, forcing the abandonment of the tourists’ match against Waikato. The venue was also used for a match during the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987.

By the mid-1980s the city’s population had grown to more than 100,000 residents, and it is projected to reach 200,000 by 2033 – continuing to cement its place as the country’s fourth-largest city.

Back on the river, the MV Waipa Delta – a replica paddle steamer – plied its trade from 1985, during the era of the initial development of Hamilton Gardens (now the city’s leading tourist attraction, and undergoing continued expansion through a series of elaborate themed gardens). In the same decade, Waikato Museum opened in the central city, overlooking the Waikato River.

By the 1990s the city was well-established as a capital of the dairy sector, with much of the surrounding districts producing some of the world’s best milk products. That continues to this day, with dairy conglomerate Fonterra having a significant presence in Hamilton.

The city enjoys a large influx of visitors from the agriculture and farming sector every year in June, when the annual Fieldays are held at Mystery Creek, just a few kilometres south – in fact, 2018 marked the 50th year of this important industry event.

In 1995, following a long period of negotiation over recompense for land losses in the 1800s, Waikato-Tainui signed a deed of settlement with the Crown, giving the tribe an estimated $170m in land and cash. This settlement made the iwi one of the most significant economic players in the region.

Through the 1990s and the turn of the century Hamilton was identified as a student city, with tens of thousands attending the university and Wintec.  Students added to the fabric and culture of the city through Orientation Week events and their support of Hamilton’s central city hospitality district.

In 2011, the Council invested significantly in the refurbishment and expansion of Claudelands – fundamentally an exhibition centre on a large park – into a major multi-purpose venue capable of hosting a myriad of entertainment, business, community and sporting events.

Since 2008, Hamilton’s venues have been a host city for numerous international sporting events: FIFA U1-17 Women’s World Cup 2008, Rugby World Cup 2011, Investec Super Rugby finals in 2013 and 2014 (both won by the Hamilton-based Chiefs), in 2015 the ICC Cricket World Cup and FIFA U-20 World Cup, and in 2017 a New Zealand Lions tour match and Rugby League World Cup games. These events have solidified Hamilton’s reputation as a “can do” city capable of hosting major international sporting fixtures.