History of Polhill Reserve

Once the site of a Te Ātiawa kainga called Moera, Polhill Gully was established as a reserve in 1989.

Bush and birds

Hundreds of years ago this valley was covered in dense rata forest with tall stands of kahikatea, pukatea and rimu. The forest rang with bird song, and in summer blazed bright red with rata blossom. The creek joined the stream flowing down the main valley and across marshy flats to the sea.

These forests, streams and marshes became important resources for the first inhabitants of this side of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington harbour). The major 19th-century settlement was Te Aro Pā, situated in the vicinity of what is now lower Taranaki Street, near the mouth of the Waimapihi stream. The inhabitants were mostly of Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui iwi. A smaller kainga of Te Ātiawa, called Moera, occupied the hillside where Marama Crescent is today.

These small communities adapted as best they could to the influx of British settlers that began in 1840, but they took a blow in 1855 when an earthquake raised the low-lying land of Te Aro, draining the marshes and cutting off their main source of both food and flax for trading. This misfortune, combined with widespread illness, migration back to Taranaki to settle land disputes, and pressure from settlers for land, gradually saw the Māori population of Te Aro dwindle.

Although much of the upper Aro valley was Māori Reserve, the land was mostly leased out rather than occupied by its owners, and the rapid growth of the new town eventually displaced the iwi villages.

Polhill's Gully

Among the early settlers was Baker Polhill, who arrived in 1841 as a paying passenger on the Oriental, bound for New Plymouth. When the ship stopped off at Port Nicholson, several of the passengers decided to disembark - including Baker Polhill and a large family of assisted migrants.

Polhill promptly married one of this family, Jane Watts, and set about establishing a business in Wordsworth Street (now lower Aro Street). From there he offered “fire-wood, any quantity—from ten to five hundred loads; also spars, poles, rafters and knees for ship-building”.1

There is no evidence that Polhill owned the land from which he harvested all this timber, but even so, the area became known as “Polhill’s Gully” (or Polhill Gully). This name seems to have included the hills and valleys of present-day Epuni Street, Adams Terrace, Norway Street and Holloway Road. Polhill himself moved to Lyttelton with his family in 1849.

At about the same time, colonist Henry Mitchell bought two large blocks of land on the western side of Polhill’s Gully, harvesting the trees and running sheep and cattle on the cleared land. But the timber was running out and in 1860 a huge bush fire that swept across from Rata Valley (between Appleton Park and Wilton) destroyed the last remnants of the original forests.

The Wellington City Corporation acquired some of Mitchell’s land in 1872 to build a “distributing basin” for the first municipal water supply. After unsuccessfully attempting to sell off the rest of his farm, Mitchell subdivided it into small housing sections, and in 1877 named the working-class suburb "Mitchelltown".2

Competing for the Lord Roberts Imperial Trophy: the team of New Zealand Cadets at the Polhill Gully Range, Wellington.
NZ Cadets at the Polhill Gully Range, 1909

Polhill Gully Rifle Range

Once its steep hills were clear of bush in the 1860s, the valley presented a convenient site for a rifle range for the local militia and volunteer corps, and it was leased from its mainly Māori owners for that purpose from at least 1868.

In 1890 the Crown acquired the land for a permanent rifle range but the manner of the purchase raised questions, and a Commission of Enquiry was called. The residents of Mitchelltown, concerned about the danger from stray rifle fire, took the opportunity to petition the Commission for the removal of the “butts”.

The Commission found that the two lawyers brokering the sale had acted without authority and profited personally, to the disadvantage of both the sellers and the Crown. However, in spite of these findings and the residents’ objections—and the building of Mitchelltown School on the adjacent ridge soon afterwards—the rifle range remained.

Detailed plans for a subdivision of “workman’s homes” in Polhill Gully were drawn up in 1905, but were never carried out. The possibility was raised again in 1926, and again failed to fire. Ownership of the land was finally transferred from the Crown to Wellington City Council in 1954.

Left to itself at last, the gully began to regenerate from grassland and gorse into a low mahoe-dominated forest in the most favourable areas.

University interests

In the early 1960s Victoria University began eyeing Polhill Gully and Holloway Road as potential sites for its own expansion. The way they saw it, the gully was just useless “goat country” and the street a slum best cleared: an ideal location for “departments engaged in activities where there might be risk of explosion or radioactivity”. There were also plans for playing fields and other facilities in Polhill Gully, and a road up to Brooklyn.

The area was designated for “university purposes”, and the Ministry of Works began buying up the decrepit old houses in Mitchelltown as they came up for sale on behalf of the Ministry of Education.

However, by the 1970s the university’s plans were being actively challenged by a new generation of Mitchelltown residents who felt the houses and the neighbourhood were worth saving, and by others who envisaged the restoration of Polhill Gully for wildlife habitat and recreational use. Discussion, disagreement and protest went on for years, and the university finally abandoned its plans in the early 1980s. Polhill Gully became a City Council Recreation Reserve in 1989.


Today, the reserve is an attractive amenity used by more than a thousand cyclists, runners and walkers a week. It is also frequented by birds, including—thanks to the proximity of the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary—many tui and kaka, and the occasional bellbird, grey warbler, North Island robin and saddleback.

The gully’s transformation over recent years has been helped immeasurably by several groups of dedicated volunteers, including the Waimapihi Trust, the Polhill Restoration Project, the Aro Valley Restoration Project, and the Brooklyn Trail Builders. These groups, working alongside the Wellington City Council, continue to control pest plants and animals, plant out thousands of native plants, clear rubbish, and build and maintain many kilometres of walking and cycling tracks

This history of the reserve was written by Jill Brassell in June 2014 as part of the Council's work to create a series of interpretation panels at the Reserve.



1 Notice, New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, Volume 08, Issue 148, 8 June 1842, Page 2. Accessed via Papers Past.
2 Change of Name, Evening Post, Volume XV, Issue 258, 2 November 1877, Page 3. Accessed via Papers Past.

Image references

Polhill Gully Rifle Range: 'COMPETING FOR THE LORD ROBERTS IMPERIAL TROPHY: THE TEAM OF NEW ZEALAND CADETS AT THE POLHILL GULLY RANGE, WELLINGTON', Auckland Weekly News, 2 September 1909. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19090902-4-6.

University interests: