Wellington as capital city

Next year is the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of Wellington becoming the capital city of New Zealand.

I’m sure, however, we won’t be hearing the term “sesquicentennial” as it has unfortunate connotations here. In 1990 Wellington planned a six-week celebration of the 150 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and indeed, of the organised formation of Wellington by the New Zealand Company in 1840. However, ‘Sesqui 1990’ became a failure and closed after two weeks. I missed all the fuss as I was in Germany for another anniversary – my then penfriend’s 10th wedding anniversary on 1 March – and for a holiday. But this cartoon (and the so-called dictionary definition of ‘sesqui’ below it) sums it up.

sesqui cartoon

Cartoon by Tom Scott, reproduced in David McGill’s book ‘Wellington A Capital Century’, 2003

There is a lot written about anniversaries, commemorations, remembering and I don’t want to add too much to it. We are currently in the midst of commemorations of World War One. I’ll stick to a few remarks about next year being 150 years since the capital of New Zealand moved from Auckland to the more centrally located Wellington – in 1865.

This anniversary hadn’t in fact occurred to me until I saw advertised an evening class with this theme at Victoria University Extension next year. It should have occurred to me, as in my volunteer role at Old St Paul’s I often tell visitors that the historic church was built in 1866 – so it is “nearly 150 years old” and that “Wellington only became the capital city in 1865”. However I hadn’t put the two facts together in my mind. But now I will be mentioning it in the evening class I’m offering at Wellington High School next year on Wellington’s architectural heritage!

Old St Pauls exterior

Old St Paul’s exterior (from OSP website)

Old St Pauls interior (from OSP website)

Becoming the capital gave a much needed impetus to Wellington’s economy.[1] The population was only about 7,000 when the town became the capital but this had risen to 49,344 by the end of the century. Moving the capital created an immediate need for more flat land in the central business district so more was reclaimed from the harbour. In 1876, on part of this new land, Government Buildings was built to house the entire public service and the executive.

The building was designed by New Zealand’s Colonial Architect, William Clayton in the “Italian Renaissance revival style, much in favour for government buildings throughout the British Empire”.[2] Tenders were originally called in both concrete and timber, however, the cost of concrete was such that eventually it was decided to build in timber alone, but to mimic stone construction. It is one of the largest wooden buildings in the southern hemisphere. The newly completed Government Buildings:

Govt Bldgs

James Bragge, Government Buildings, Wellington. Ref: PAColl-1574-14. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

When I began working in the public service, it had grown substantially since the 1870s and the building then housed only the Department of Education – and not all of that department could fit in it either. I worked for them, but didn’t (unfortunately) work in this building with its high ceilings and light streaming in the windows. It now houses Victoria University’s law school.


[1] Te Ara, Encyclopaedia of New Zealand: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/wellington-region/page-8

[2] Heritage New Zealand List: http://www.heritage.org.nz/the-list/details/37


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