Tawa residents get a fresh look into their local history

Wellington Heritage Week was extended to two weeks this year, which provided the opportunity for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga staff and members of the Tawa Historical Society to bring together a presentation on the history of Tawa, followed by a walk to several historical sites in the suburb on a magnificent sunny Saturday.

A tree shaped like a huge bell looms over a fence. A crowd looks on.
A unique historic tree in Tawa. Photo: HNZPTexpand/collapse

Senior Heritage Assessment Adviser, Joanna Barnes-Wylie, doing her last stint for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, before starting work the following week with The New Zealand Geographic Board Ngā Pou Taunaha o Aotearoa, gave a 20 minute presentation on the numerous Māori overland trails, the early transport routes through Tawa, and the settlers of Tawa Flat, as it was known for many years.

The Wellington City suburb of Tawa is located approximately 15 km north of Wellington's CBD and just 5 km south of Porirua. It takes its name from the Tawa hardwood tree, which was once plentiful in the area.

It wasn’t until the late 1840s that the first colonial settlers in Wellington arrived in the valley south of Porirua and began to clear native forest and land was divided up into country sections.  By the late 1850s there was quite a lot of colonial occupancy of the now-named Tawa Flat with many well-known settler families including the Earps, Taylors, Bests, Mexteds, and Mitchells. In 1885 the Tawa Flat Railway Station was opened.

Interesting slides showed developments through the early 1900s, including the opening of Arohata Girls Borstal in 1944, later to become Arohata Prison for Women . A key slide focused on a Parade of Homes in Tawa – a branded showcase of new and remodeled homes that aroused great interest and attracted big crowds at the time. In 1960 Tawa College, now one of Wellington’s largest schools, opened and through the next decade there was rapid growth of housing and development in Tawa, with its population increasing to 12,297 by 1976.

Mervyn Kemp held the role of Mayor of Tawa for 28 years, from 1955 to 1983. The public library, adjacent to the community centre where the talk was held, has been named in honour of this long-standing Mayor. I had the honour of being Tawa’s last Mayor in 1987-1989, before Tawa Borough merged with Wellington City in 1989 in the reorganisation of local government across the whole of New Zealand that year. I had the further honour to serve the Tawa Ward on the Wellington City Council and being Deputy Mayor of Wellington for two terms until 1995.

Following Joanna’s talk, all present went on an enjoyable walk to several significant heritage sites including the Bartlett Homestead in Oxford Street dating from 1862, Tawa Flat School which opened in January 1860, and the historic Bucket Tree outside the Bucket Tree Lodge in Tawa by the Takapu Railway Station. This impressive single macrocarpa tree dates from around 1865.

With much to offer, look for more to see and learn about Tawa in future Wellington Heritage Weeks.

David Watt