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Preface - this is a very brief summary of Karori’s history. We have tried to encapsulate many key events.

Records show the early settlement of Karori began in the 1800s. The NZ Gazette and Wellington Spectator of January 1841, printed a request from the Surveyor General for interested parties to inspect the sections into which Karori had been divided. The area comprised 2,500 acres divided into 100 acre sections.

By 1845 ten of these had been taken up and sub-divided. The same year, 215 residents are recorded, 109 under the age of 14.

The clearing of these sections was an enormous task, almost unimaginable today. There were sawpits on every section. Huge trees, one which produced 2,500 feet of timber, were removed. The timber sold for a guinea per hundred feet!

Timber from Karori was exported to Australia, later to the US. Many of Wellington’s wooden houses were built from the timber and much of the firewood used in Wellington was also brought down from here.

One of the first bigger challenges was the road. This was initially a track probably used by the Maoris for hunting and snaring. By 1843, the first “road” was completed although it was little more than a bullock track and took 20 minutes on horseback to get from town (via Hawkestone Street) to Karori over Baker’s Hill. At this stage there was only a bridle track over the hills to Makara.

Earthquakes and Bush Fires

Earthquakes, it seems were quite common. The earthquakes of 1848 seemed to be treated as relatively everyday occurrences. Henry Chapman (who built the first Homewood homestead) recorded more than 1000 shocks over ten days but it seems they did little damage aside from chimneys! Bushfires were also relatively common and there were several serious ones during this 10 years.

The other most difficult incident in Karori’s first decade was some danger from Maori insurgents during 1845 and 1846, to the degree that women and children were sent to Wellington. A stockade was built (a small fortified post) but although some shots were fired one night, there were no real battles. There is divided opinion as to where this was actually situated, but the most sensible suggestion appears to have been near the Anglican Church on the hill.

By 1866, there were 52 householders in Karori itself, 10 in South Karori and Makara. Karori seems to have grown more quickly than many of the suburbs closer to town, possibly because of the large landowners although we find coachbuilders, schoolmaster, storekeepers, butcher, an engineer etc, named among the occupations detailed.

The first mental hospital in Wellington was built in Karori in 1845 where the Karori Normal School now stands. Until then the patients had been held in jail. It was moved from Karori in 1873 and the buildings used for the school.

The road in/out continued to be a challenge. In the early 1850’s monies were collected to improve the road but little of real value occurred until the Deviation was completed in 1885. The Kaiwharawhara Stream was culveted and an embankment was built over it at what is now the corner of Curtis Street.

By 1878 a horse and coach service had been established following the route over Bakers Hill. The climb was so steep from Glenmore Street that anyone able had to get off the coach and walk up! The grade down was equally steep and it gradually became obvious after much public discussion that the only solution was a tunnel through Bakers Hill. This tunnel (the Karori Tunnel) was commenced many years later.

Well before this however, Karori was affected by the New Zealand Gold Rush beginning in 1869. Alluvial gold was discovered in the Kaiwharawhara Stream near the Karori tunnel (to be) and Wellington residents quickly flocked to the area. A month later, claims to this part of the stream were abandoned and new ones were opened downstream where Old Karori Road crossed the same stream

Numerous companies were formed in the 1870s to exploit the potential gold as well as individuals staking claims. There are many stories about the gold in Karori and there was certainly a great deal of digging in the hills, caves tunneled and so on. At the height of the rush there were around 200 men working the claims and shafts of up to 500 feet were driven into the hills.

Beautiful Karori!

An important phase in Karori’s history came when section 34 was cut up. This was the part of Karori closest to town and was called “Beautiful Karori”. Many advertisements were placed, an open air concert held with free buses and poems written in encouragement!

Soon after this the idea of forming the Karori Borough was raised. There were many diverging opinions about this and it was not till 1891 that the area was declared a borough and the first Mayor, Stephen Lancaster appointed. An emblem (a rose) was selected and the first council meeting held. The Borough Council Minutes are held by the Wellington City Council, available to anyone who wishes to read them.

Several challenges were faced and solved (a new road from Aro Street), the collection and disposal of waste, the development of a new cemetery, wandering stock etc) but the key question was that of the road and tunnel through Bakers Hill. Work was commenced on the tunnel in 1897 and completed 1899.

Another development, the Kelburn and Karori Tramway Company which built and planned the cable car, had a great effect on travel to Karori. Cable cars began running in 1902 and the viaduct bridge (initially wooden) was built).

Trams were introduced into Wellington in 1878. By 1904 the electric trams ran to the Gardens, the city boundary. By 1907 this extended to the Karori Cemetery and 1911 the bottom of Makara Hill.

Going back a few years to 1899 we come to a rather unexpected incident in Karori’s history. Britain had accepted New Zealand’s offer of volunteers for the South African war, so a training camp was established in Karori (Ben Burn Park) for 240 volunteers. After rigorous training, these men left for South Africa – the first soldiers from New Zealand to serve overseas!

The Karori Borough had very wide responsibilities – health, rates, poor relief, noxious weeds, trams, transport, roads, drainage, water, waste etc which was tough for the Borough Council to solve alone. Between 1910 and 1920 there was discussion about reamalgamation with the City and, in 1918, a deputation was sent to the Wellington City Council to ask them to consider it. This occurred in 1920.

Water supply had always been a major concern for Karori and Wellington as a whole. The Wellington Waterworks Act of 1871 provided for 228 acres of farmland (in Karori) to be taken over for the purposes of building a reservoir for the city. Construction began in 1872 on an earth dam, the first of its kind in Wellington, and possibly in New Zealand. Incidentally, this resulted in the closure of the Bakers Hill and Morning Star gold mines as their land and ground works were submerged!

The earthworks were completed the following year including a Gothic style water outlet control tower, there to this day. This has an 'A' classification with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

This dam proved insufficient to meet the water needs quite quickly and construction on a second began in 1906. Completed in 1908, it is one of only two or three gravity arch dams in the country. It is also an early example of the use of concrete in New Zealand. In 1991 the upper dam was decommissioned as it was considered an earthquake risk.

Further development during the 1920s in Karori resulted in the formation of new roads, relocation of the golf course, the subdivision of Homewood Estate, the building of the first Roman Catholic Church, the continued development of Karori School and several private schools (including Samuel Marsden) and the digging of a large swimming pool at the top of Parkvale Road!

The population increased slowly. A picture theatre opened in 1929 in what is now the Karori Bridge Club building. The struggle for better access continued and eventually a plan for a tram to come up Bowen and Sydney Streets was approved. In 1940 this opened.

Outbreak of War
By the time war broke out in 1939, there were about 6,500 people living in Karori. The part of Karori directly affected was Wrights Hill where large guns, big enough to attack warships, approaching Wellington were installed in 1944. The guns were not fired until trial shots in 1946, and were never fired again.

During this time the public school became overcrowded several times, and other places had to be used. By 1953 there were 800 students and the development of separate intermediate and secondary schools discussed.

From 1945 onwards there were numerous subdivisions which considerably altered the look of Karori. Several private hospitals were developed, reserves put in place (Wrights Hill, Johnstons Hill, Homewood Crescent etc).

To this day Karori remains a mainly residential area. There are restaurants, cafes, supermarkets, good schools, real estate agents, the library and, of course, it is very well served by dental and medical professionals. The suburb has been fortunate, however, in that despite its size, there is little heavy industry.

It has a very strong community feel and some important institutions such as Samuel Marsden Collegiate School and the Teachers College.

There are many books written on the history of Wellington which incorporate material about Karori and books focusing solely on Karori and parts thereof. Much information can also be obtained from the Wellington Public Library, National Library of New Zealand, the Alexander Turnbull Library or from the Karori Historical Society itself. Archives material can be found at the Wellington City Archives and Archives New Zealand.

Click here for a list of some of the books available.

Definition of Karori
The actual name Karori is derived from the Maori 'Karore' meaning snare ropes and the area was well khown to the Maori as a bird trapping area.
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