News | 3 August 2023
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Cuba Street has time on its side

We all know - and mostly love - Cuba Street, but not many of us are familiar with the street name's origin. Despite having popular local haunts like Havana Bar and Fidel’s Café related to the country of Cuba, it’s actually named after an early settler ship called Cuba, which arrived on our fair shores in 1840.

Cuba Street in the 1870s with a horse and carriage on the side of the road.
Looking up Cuba Street with Ghuznee Street crossing. Circa 1870. Wellington City Libraries, 50002-5-119.

In 1842, the Tonks were one of the first families to settle around what was to become Cuba Street. They bought up a lot of the property in the area and established successful brickyards. Eventually, local streets including Tonks Grove, Arthur Street, and Frederick Street were named after members of the family. 

Even in the early days of the mid-1800s, Cuba Street was a busy neck of the woods with a local market for country folk to sell their produce, a violin maker, two grocers, a butcher, a bell hanger and locksmith, a painter and glazier, a boot shop, a draper, and of course a pub – the Nag’s Head Inn. 

A dressmakers shop on cuba street.
Dressmakers shop on the corner of Cuba Street and Arthur Street. The main building was moved to the other side of Cuba Street in 2005 to make way for the inner-city bypass and was relocated to 270 - 272 Cuba Street. Circa 1929. Photographer F.G. Barker. Wellington City Archives, 00127-51.

Many of the stores that first opened on Cuba Street are still recognisable today, with James Smith opening the Te Aro House in 1868 and Nees (now known as J.J Murphy's) opening circa 1874. Hope Bros (now known as Eva Beva) was a menswear clothing store before the brand moniker was adopted by the bar of the same name, and Kirkcaldie & Stains temporarily opened a branch in the neighbourhood in 1871. 

The history of the street is reflected in the over 40 heritage buildings on the street, many of which have either been earthquake strengthened or are in the process of it.

Photo from 1975 of people walking down Cuba Street.
Corner of Cuba and Dixon streets in the mid-1970's. Wellington City Libraries, 50011-06.

Following the phasing out of trams and removal of tracks in 1967, Cuba Street became temporarily pedestrianised. This proved to be a revenue winner for local businesses, who went on to petition Council for the layout to become a permanent fixture. Cuba Mall was launched in 1969, based on similar malls around the world, which were designed to encourage shopping as a pleasurable experience, rather than a chore – and the famous Bucket Fountain followed shortly after.

For more nostalgia, visit our #ThrowbackThursday webpage.