Scoop Review of Books

The Birth of Suburbia

Ring around the city: Wellington’s new suburbs, 1900-1930 by Adrian Humphris and Geoff Mew
Steele Roberts Publishing, 200 pp. $45. Reviewed by SIMON NATHAN

Like most early New Zealand settlements, Wellington was sited on the edge of a good harbour. But there was little flat land around the harbour, and the town was boxed in by steep hills. By 1900 it was overcrowded, land prices were rising, and new suburbs were urgently needed on or beyond the hills. The key to the development of Wellington’s suburbs was a network of electric trams which were able to climb the hills and provide rapid transport to outer suburbs.

This book tells the story of Wellington’s suburbs using Kilbirnie and Kelburn as examples. Trams provided access to Kilbirnie and Hataitai (and later Miramar and Seatoun) while access to Kelburn came from the privately-run Kelburn cable car.

The authors have managed to track down an amazing collection of images and maps from the Wellington City Archives and other sources, and these are beautifully printed in both colour and black-and-white. The near-A4 landscape format of the book has allowed many of the images to be reproduced at full page size which enhances their impact. Peter Sidell’s painting ‘Towards the Bombay Hills’ has been used as a striking cover image. At one level, this is a delightful book to browse through looking at the pictures.

The text provides an intriguing account of the development of suburban Wellington. As a Wellingtonian I was left feeling a little shamefaced that I knew so little about my home town. The opening chapters deal with 19th century Wellington, and the problems that build up as the population increased, including the debates about the relative merits of steam trams, horse trams and horse buses. Places like Lyall Bay and Island Bay were isolated villages because there was no easy way to get into the centre of Wellington. By 1900 it had become clear that private companies were not able to make the investment needed for a modern transport system, leaving the Wellington City Corporation to buy them out and develop an electric tram system. The opening of the Mt Victoria-Kilbirnie tunnel in 1907 led to the rapid development of the eastern suburbs.

Development of Kelburn was a rather different story. The land, originally a large dairy farm, was acquired by the Upland Estate Company. The directors aimed to develop a middle class residential suburb, without the unpleasantness of industry. The use of caveats to control the quality of building meant that working people were also excluded. Rapid access to the business area was essential, and a cable car seemed the easiest solution, especially as there were already working examples in Dunedin. After the steam-driven cable car was opened in 1902 the suburb rapidly expanded as a desirable place for the upwardly mobile to live. The book contains some amazing photographs showing how bleak the Kelburn landscape was in the early 1900s. All the native vegetation had been cleared by the earliest European settlers, and the trees that are there today have all grown in the 20th century.

Because Kelburn was planned as a posh suburb, most of the houses were designed by architects. A chapter deals with the development of Kelburn, identifying the main architects and illustrating a sample of their houses. With 41 houses to his credit (plus six in conjunction with others), Gray Young is the dominant architect of Kelburn, but most of the architects working in Wellington at the time are responsible for some Kelburn houses.

The final chapter takes the story of suburban Wellington up to 1930. By then a ring of new suburbs beyond the town belt almost entirely enclosed the city, and commuting in and out of the city was easy by means of trams, trains and the cable car.

For Wellingtonians this book is an interesting and readable account of the suburban development of their city, but it is also significant nationally when considering urban development in New Zealand. The Wellington City Corporation has traditionally taken an active role in making the city function effectively, rather than relying on the vagaries of the free market. At the beginning of the 21st century we can celebrate the foresight of the city fathers in setting up and maintaining the most effective public transport system in New Zealand. Aucklanders, sitting in their daily traffic gridlock, can read this book and weep.


SIMON NATHAN is a Wellington-based geologist and writer. Recent work includes editing and contributing to The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, 2008) as well as web articles, blog pieces and book reviews.


  1. Mark Derby, 16. December 2009, 18:33

    Why is a painting of Auckland City used on the cover of a book about Wellington?

  2. Adrian Humphris, 18. December 2009, 7:05

    The painting is a stylised view of Wellington CBD and hillside suburbs looking north through Newtown. It was commissioned by Dame Catherine Tizard when she was Governor-General and the artist made a subtle reference to her homesickness for Auckland by calling it “Towards the Bombay Hills.” We were lucky enough to be able to reproduce it as our cover image.

  3. Kerry, 18. December 2009, 19:46

    Love that cover view, instantly recognisable to Welingtonians.

    BTW, does the original reside at Gov House, or did Dame Cath commission it for her personal colection?

    Having lived in both Kelburn and Kilbirnie, I must chase down a copy of hte book to peruse. Possibly after I check my haul of xmas book voucher presents…