Following on from the post on the environmental history of Lower Hutt/Petone – the valley of disappointment, this post focuses on the Upper Hutt area, and in particular, the history of the river. This post is in response to a special request by one of envirohistory NZ‘s readers; one of a group of Upper Hutt Valley residents who are concerned about the effects of an application to lower the minimum flow of the Hutt River. This reader and other residents are keen to know more about the history of the river, and especially get a sense of how it once was before the effects of human activity and modification became evident.

Upper Hutt is situated within the northern basin of the Hutt Valley, through which the Hutt River flows from its source in the Tararua Ranges south to Wellington Harbour. While named “Hutt River” after a director of the New Zealand Company, which was responsible for the organised settlement of Lower Hutt and Wellington, the river was of course not nameless when Europeans arrived. It was highly valued by Maori and was known by a number of names. Early residents such as the Ngāi Tara people called the Hutt River Te Awakairangi, “the watercourse of greatest value”. It was navigable by canoe far inland, giving access to plentiful food. Later tribes knew it as Te Wai o Orutu, “the waters of Orutu”, a Ngāti Māmoe ancestor. When European settlers arrived it was known as the Heretaunga River, after the district in Hawke’s Bay.

The upper Hutt Valley was explored as early as 1839 by the New Zealand Company scientist Ernst Dieffenbach. However, unlike the Lower Hutt/Petone area, which underwent organised settlement in the following year, it was not until the 1860s that Europeans began to settle there. More than any other district in the Wellington region, Upper Hutt represented a place of great struggle between people and nature: in order to make a living from the land, dense forests had to be cleared, bridges built over the many capricious rivers flowing from the Tararua Ranges, and road and railways built to ease the area’s isolation.

Upper Hutt remained a farming community until after the Second World War when extensive housing spread over arable land, from Pinehaven and Silverstream in the south-east to Totara Park and Te Marua in the north-west. In 1965 it became a city.

Photo top: Hutt River, Upper Hutt, looking north from the Fern Ground, Wellington and Masterton Road, ca 1875. Forest clearance is already underway on the flats, with a farm situated on the elbow of the river in the centre of the photograph. Photo by James Bragge (1833 – 1908). Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. PAColl-1574-06. Picture above: Akatawara River, near Upper Hutt, 1890s. View upriver, with cows grazing on the bank to the left, bush-clad banks on both sides, and hills in the background. By William George Baker (1864 – 1929). Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. PAColl-1574-06

See also: The valley of disappointment

Source/further reading: Upper Hutt, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.