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How did New Zealand Europeans name places?

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New Zealand’s non-Māori place names tell the story of the country’s European habitation. As Europeans surveyed, acquired, and changed New Zealand’s landscape they replaced older Māori names. They named places such as towns after historical events and famous people or places they had come from. Since most Pākehā New Zealanders came from the United Kingdom, they used place names to create a sense of home and proclaim their membership of the British Empire. These people also gave names to features in the landscape and to districts, towns, and streets.

During colonisation, New Zealand was divided into provinces. This image shows a Map of the Province of Canterbury from the 1860s. Image: https://christchurchcitylibraries.com/heritage/maps/220035.asp.

Colonial naming

Most European names came during the colonising era from the 1840s to the 1910s. This was a period when people from Europe came to New Zealand to work and live and to purchase land and profit from it. It was also a time when the newly arrived European culture made its mark on a changing landscape by place naming.

During this time, people involved in the business of colonisation often gave names. Surveyors in particular, the people who worked for colonising associations, were responsible for many European placenames as they went about establishing and mapping suitable places for European immigrants to settle. Some of these names acknowledged the colonising association sponsors for example Hutt Valley, Wakefield, Port Chalmers, and Ashburton.

Map of the colony of New Zealand from 1844. Image: https://christchurchcitylibraries.com/heritage/maps/446942.asp.

United Kingdom places

Settlers from the United Kingdom used only some names from places they came from, for example New Plymouth, for Plymouth in England. Dunedin is named after the Scottish Gaelic for Edinburgh. Birkenhead, Devonport, Westport, Belfast, New Brighton, and Roxburgh are other names taken directly from United Kingdom placenames. Canterbury was applied to a province not a town, while Christchurch takes its name from a college at Oxford University, not from the southern English town. Oxford itself and Cambridge (another university in England) were also used.

Dannevirke and Norsewood honour the homelands of the early Scandinavian immigrants.

Immigrant ships

Some early immigrant ships gave their names to streets and settlements. The area of Bombay takes its name from the ship Bombay. The Cuba, Oriental and Tory became Wellington and Petone street names and the Cressy, Randolph, Charlotte Jane, and George Seymour gave their names to streets in Lyttleton.

Personal names

Christian names of early Europeans name many inland locations, including Helensville, Dargaville, Morrinsville, Bulls, Masterton, and Levin.

The Mackenzie Country takes its name from James Mackenzie, a sheep stealer who took flocks into that area. Image: LEARNZ.

Government, military, royalty, and church

There are names after government officials (Featherston, Rolleston, Invercargill), politicians (Foxton, Fox Glacier, Gisborne) and church leaders (Selwyn). Military heroes and famous battles were popular place names, with Auckland, Napier, Hastings, Havelock, Wellington, Picton, Marlborough, Nelson, and Blenheim.

British politicians and royalty lent their names to Russell, Palmerston, Cromwell, Queenstown, and Alexandra, while Franz Josef is named after the Austrian emperor. Royal names are more popular for streets than towns or geographical features, although both Auckland and Wellington have Mount Victoria. Gore is named after Governor Thomas Gore Browne and George Grey's name is used for Greytown, Greymouth, Grey Lynn, and many natural features.

King Country tells of the region where the Māori king defied colonial government for many years.

What historical European figures are these places named after? Image: LEARNZ.

Descriptive names

Physical features had descriptive names such as Stony River, Two Thumb Range, Rock and Pillar Range, Old Man Range, Raggedy Range, and the Remarkables.

They also identify several settlements, for example Riverhead, Gumtown (later Coroglen, after a racehorse), Woodville, Island Bay, Redcliffs, Windwhistle, Riverton, and Bluff.

Some region names are descriptive – Northland, Southland, and Fiordland for example. Westland is more often called the West Coast, and locals are Westcoasters, not Westlanders. The name Eastland is only used in tourist information – New Zealanders call it the East Coast.

Bluff is a descriptive name of a physical feature. Image: LEARNZ.

Cultural heroes

Britain’s literary heritage is represented by Spenser (mountains), Tennyson (a lake and inlet) and Chaucer and Milton bays. Napier named its streets after literary figures and Shakespeare was an early name for the Avon River in Christchurch. Waverley was the name of Sir Walter Scott’s first historical novel.

Mountain names

Mountains, passes, and rivers were often named after European discoverers, including Buller, Lewis, Haast and Heaphy. James Cook often named places after scientists. Julius von Haast in particular followed suit, as in Davy, Hooker, Humboldt, Lyell and Newton, all mountains in the Southern Alps.


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  • Most European place naming occurred before the First World War (1914–18). New place names since then have mostly been for streets and suburbs. There are some place names that relate to stories from World War One. Find out more the New Zealand Geographic Board’s project WW1 through place names.

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