The Heart of Our City


Windy Point

Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.

I think someone should have had the decency to tell me the luncheon was free.
To make someone run out with potato salad in his hand, pretending he's throwing up, is not what I call hospitality.

Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey

by Con Flinkenberg

The imminent re-opening of the old BNZ complex has focussed our attention once again on the corner that for more than a century has been the heart of Wellington.  I would like to talk about the buildings themselves on another occasion.  For the present, I would like to focus on the site itself.  Why is the junction of Lambton, Customhouse and Willis the heart of our city?

The dissatisfied settlers who drifted from the Petone foreshore to the other side of the harbour during the first half of 1840 did not head for what we call Stewart Dawson's comer.  In 1840, Stewart Dawson's comer was not the flat site it now is.  It was a small bluff that protruded into the bay.  It was called Clay Point by the settlers but soon acquired a new name, "Windy Point".  The reason for this name is not hard to fathom.  To this day, the northwesterlies which are the prevailing winds in Wellington follow the fault line along the face of the hills from Petone until they strike resistance in the city.  The effect is still marked at the strike points - the Railway Station, along Stout St, Featherson St, Taranaki St, and (dare I say it?), Chaffers Park.

For years, I could not make sense of all the early sketches of Wellington in the very earliest days, until it finally dawned upon me that I was not looking at one settlement, but two.  Nearly all the early panoramas of Wellington are sketched from the top of Clay/Windy Point, looking either north or south.  Because there were two halves to the settlement.

The merchants took up their station to the south, on what was called the Te Aro flat, where they found the best beaching and wharfage sites.  The first wharf was roughly at the foot of Cuba St.  From there, back to Willis St, the merchants established themselves, following the shoreline along what is now Bond St.  Photographs exist from the 1860s, showing a series of jetties extending into the water where the coffee drinkers now sit on the pavement outside the Lido Cafe.  When the new library building in the Civic Centre was being built, remains of one of the jetties were found.  As late as the late 1880s, the buildings on Willis St had the sea lapping at their backs.

The government, however, took up its station at the north end of town, on the "Thorndon flat", around the elegant prefabricated residence that Colonel Wakefield had erected on the little knoll above the water, to get the view from where the Beehive now stands.

Traffic between the two halves of the town flowed along the beach front that became Lambton Quay.  At Clay Point, the track was so narrow that, on windy days, when the tide was high, the splash was enough to wet the passers-by and ladies in crinolines found the going very tough.  In consequence, many people preferred to go up the re-entrant past Mr Plimmer's house to the cliff-top and detour down Boulcott St to Manners St.  It was longer, but it was dry.  In this way, Plimmer's Steps came into being.

Around 1850, George Bennet bought the section on the corner and, to the great amusement of the town, with a pickaxe, shovel and wheelbarrow, began digging out the point and tipping the spoil onto the beach.  The first formal reclamation was in 1852. Called "Governor Grey's reclamation", it was the area from Bond St to Chew's Lane.  Its seaward boundary was more or less the line of Victoria St.  In 1857 - 58, another reclamation extended the dry area from Chew's Lane to just north of Clay Point.  By 1862, it had extended north to Panama St.  By 1866, to Waring Taylor St.

Dry land, at the mid-point between the government and the commercial sectors of town, was immediately valuable.  The BNZ moved to its comer in 1861, when, newly-arrived from Auckland, it bought a prime site to make its presence felt.  The ancestors of Westpac and the ANZ soon followed, together with the insurance companies.  The heart of the city had started to beat.

Source: Con Flinkenberg's excellent column in Capital Times 3-9 March 1999

Early Wellington


In a book entitled Seventy Years of Life in the Victorian Era, by a Physician, and published in 1893, the author writes:

Taking a steamer from Lyttelton, and continuing our passage along the east coast for 175 miles further north, we reach Wellington, since 1864 the capital of New Zealand, in which we land on a fine, but dusty and windy day, characteristically windy, hence its nickname, "Windy Wellington."

The large Government buildings, the House of Assembly, and even the Governor's palace, are so many shams. In the distance you exclaim, "what splendid freestone structures," and when you go up to them and tap them with a finger, you find that they are nothing but wooden erections, painted and rough cast with sand to represent stone: but they are very handsome, being ornamented with pillars having Corinthian capitals well carved, and elaborate cornices, and surmounted by towers or high spires.  They are regarded by the citizens with great pride, and a wonder of the world as the largest buildings of wood in the universe.

A Roman Catholic Church perched on a pinnacle of rock high above the town was enough to deceive anyone, but on going up to it, was found to be wood also, but sculptured with figures at great expense.…  The town is confined to the space between the hills and the port, so that the people have been obliged to build their houses up the steep hills, and in the gullies, and on any flat available space, natural or artificial, that they could stick a building on.”

Source: from the book Early Wellington by Louis E. Ward, Part IV: "General Information", page 372

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