1939 - 1972

Wellington's history during a new world war and beyond.

Tower Block and main Reflecting Pool at the Centennial Exhibition, 1939.
Tower block and main reflecting pool at the Centennial Exhibition, 1939

1939 - 1940: Centennial Exhibition

Over six months in 1939 and 1940 Wellington hosted the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, celebrating a century since the Treaty of Waitangi signing.

Despite the outbreak of war, the exhibition was a lavish affair. Held on 55 acres of land at Rongotai it featured three exhibition courts, grand Art Deco-style edifices and a hugely popular three-acre amusement park dubbed Playland.

When the exhibition closed in May 1940 more than 2.5 million people had passed through the gates.

US Marines marching in formation down Lambton Quay, 1942.
US Marines marching in formation down Lambton Quay, 1942

1942: First arrival of US Marines

Four months after the Japanese bombed Darwin in February 1942, 20,000 US Marines arrived in Wellington. They entered the harbour on 14 June 1942 on the battered USS Wakefield. A band was waiting for them on King's Wharf, playing the Marine Corps hymn, 'From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli...', as they were the famous marines of the 1st Corps Division. 

Though most Marines were in transit to or from combat zones in the central Pacific, they would have been available to defend New Zealand.

From the New Zealand perspective the Americans strengthened New Zealand's defences against possible Japanese attack; while the Americans saw New Zealand as a valuable source of supply and a staging post for operations against the Japanese in the Pacific.

The Marines were mainly housed in military camps in Paekakariki, Trentham and the Wairarapa, with smaller camps and hospital facilities in Wellington city.

Though tensions occasionally ran high between local men and the visiting Americans (leading in one case to the infamous 'Battle of Manners Street' riot in 1943), many life-long relationships were forged.

Arrival US Forces in New Zealand - NZ History Online

Source: Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
T Wells addressing waterside workers. 16 May 1951

1951: Waterfront lockout

The Waterfront 'lockout', a bitter dispute between members of the New Zealand Waterside Workers Union and wharf bosses, crippled Wellington docks from February to July 1951, lasting 151 days.

Wellington faced food shortages while the dispute over wages and working conditions raged.

The dispute ended on 12 July when the watersiders voted to end their strike. One estimate put the cost of the dispute to the New Zealand economy at £48 million.

War on the Wharves - 1951 Waterfront Dispute - NZ History Online

Royal visit reception at Town Hall, 1954.
Royal visit reception at Town Hall, 1954

1954: Royal tour

Thousands of people lined Wellington streets in January 1954 to catch a glimpse of the newly-crowned monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Majesty's royal limousine travelled down streets bedecked with a million begonias grown in City Council nurseries especially for the occasion.

Following the royal procession, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were feted by city officials at a civic reception at the Town Hall.

Source: Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Helicopter view of the opening of Wellington Airport, showing crowds inspecting aeroplanes

1959: Airport opening

Wellington's new airport at Rongotai officially opened on 24 October 1959.

Construction began in 1952 and was a feat of civil engineering involving 135 acres of land reclamation, extensive road building and shifting of the sewer outfall. In addition, 180 houses were moved to complete the runway.

The airport cost £5 million to build. The City Council contributed £1.5 million.

New Zealand's last tram in the Newtown tram depot, 1964.
New Zealand's Last Tram to Newtown Tram depot, 1964

1964: The last tram

Wellington's 'last tram' made a slow journey from Thorndon to Wellington City Corporation's Newtown Depot in May 1964, with Mayor Kitts at the wheel.

Trams had been a much-loved fixture in Wellington streets for more than eight decades but the increasing popularity of private motorcars saw successive line closures from 1949.

The trams were replaced by a city-wide network of electric trolley buses imported from Britain.

News - Oriental Bay Tram Route to be Celebrated - 18.09.12

Source: Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
The Beatles on the balcony of the Hotel St George, Wellington. August 1964

1964: Beatles tour

Beatlemania gripped Wellington in June 1964 when British pop quartet The Beatles arrived in the city to play two concerts at the Town Hall.

An estimated 6000 fans greeted The Beatles' arrival at Wellington airport in late June. Thousands more gathered outside the St George Hotel on the corner of Willis and Boulcott Streets, where the band was staying.

The concerts lasted 30 minutes apiece, with John Lennon famously storming off-stage at one point dissatisfied with the sound system.

Source: Alexander Turnbull Library. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
Wahine shipwreck from deck of Aramoana

1968: Wahine sinking

A fierce Southerly storm caused the passenger ferry Wahine to run aground and sink at the entrance to Wellington Harbour on 10 April 1968.

The sinking was one of New Zealand's worst maritime disasters. Of the 733 passengers and crew aboard, 51 people died.

The ship ran aground on Barrett Reef, eventually foundering at Steeple Rock near Seatoun Beach.

Source: Wellington City Archives.
Motorway construction, Bowen Street and Hill Street, 1970

1967 - 1972: Urban motorway construction

In the late 1950s an urban motorway skirting the city's Western foothills was mooted by the City Council.

Following years of backroom politicking, construction began in 1967. The first stage was opened in 1969 amid a chorus of strident opposition. Construction finished in 1972.

A large section of historic Thorndon was demolished to accommodate the new motorway. In addition, the roadworks bisected historic Bolton Street Cemetery with thousands of settler graves having to be exhumed.