The Vogel era

Page 2 – New Zealand in 1870

Three decades after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s two main islands were like two different countries. The 1860s had been a turbulent decade. Much of the North Island had been ravaged by war. Gold and pastoral farming had made the South Island rich and attracted tens of thousands of settlers. But by 1870 the gold boom was waning, and the wool- and wheat-based pastoralism of the South Island was not yet a major export earner (refrigerated meat exports were still more than a decade away). The New Zealand Wars were nearly at an end, but debt and uncertainty remained. Māori still dominated most of the interior of the North Island.

Slow travel

In 1854 Canterbury politician Henry Sewell travelled to Auckland to attend New Zealand’s first Parliament. The steamer Nelson, the first on the New Zealand coast, at least promised a quicker, safer passage than the tiny schooners and ketches that dominated coastal routes. The politicians’ trip took 12 long days, but that was relatively quick: the Otago MPs who sailed on the government brig, a sailing ship, took two months to reach Auckland.

This was a maritime frontier, especially in the north – a string of coastal enclaves connected by sailing ships, small steamers and waka (canoes); or by rough tracks and roads hacked through dense bush, travellers on which had to cross dangerous fast-flowing rivers. Most people travelling any distance did so by ship. Drowning was a major killer.

Provincial government

In 1870 New Zealand had a central government based in Wellington, but also a parallel system of provincial governments. The provinces borrowed money to build their own infrastructure, with mixed results. New Zealand’s first railways were built in Canterbury in 1863 and Southland in 1864. Both were small-scale ventures but while Canterbury’s was successful, the effort bankrupted Southland province. In 1870 New Zealand had just 46 miles (74 km) of track, confined to the flat eastern and southern plains of the South Island. The North Island had no railways.

Julius Vogel entered politics in Otago. London-born, he had followed gold to Victoria and then New Zealand, arriving in 1861. After helping to establish the Otago Daily Times newspaper, he became a member of the Otago Provincial Council, then won a seat in the House of Representatives. Appalled at the cost of the North Island wars, he was initially a staunch provincialist, even urging the South Island to become a separate colony. By the late 1860s, though, he had changed his mind, believing that New Zealand needed a strong central government to ensure peace and prosperity.

The rail revolution

In the 21st century it’s hard to understand the excitement that surrounded rail travel a century and a half ago. The steam locomotive was the driving force of the industrial revolution, conquering distance, changing the landscape and broadening people’s horizons. The railway was the first of the complex technological systems that have shaped the modern world – the British historian Christian Wolmar has argued that it was the most important invention of the last 1000 years.

Fast track

The steam locomotive was such a great leap forward that in 1830s Britain some people thought humans couldn’t survive travelling at speeds of over 50 km an hour: it was feared they wouldn’t be able to breathe.

By 1870 Britain, France, Germany and many other European states had extensive nationwide networks; the United States, which completed its epic transcontinental railroad in 1869, already had 50,000 km of track. Public demand for railways in colonial New Zealand was strong.

Most Pākehā settlers had come from Britain and many had experienced rail travel before emigrating – the long voyage to New Zealand often began with a train journey to the port of departure.

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'New Zealand in 1870', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Apr-2018