Marlborough’s rich history runs wide and deep, from the earliest Polynesian settlers on Te Pokohiwi-o-Kupe/Wairau, Bar to the European pioneers who built towns and planted our first grapevines.
These people, the way they lived, and how they dealt with history’s major events has shaped Marlborough into what it is today.
Those stories are all here, waiting to be discovered all over again in the places where they happened or in our galleries, museums, art and theatre productions.
Marlborough has been at the centre of important historical aviation events on many occasions, on both a national and international scale. That legacy continues strongly today, with the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre at its heart.
Much of Marlborough’s history has been preserved, or restored, exactly where events happened. From Meretoto/Ship Cove, the site of Captain James Cook’s frequent Marlborough visits and first encounters between Māori and Europeans, to the remains of the Perano Whaling Station, the wooden immigrant ship Edwin Fox and the ancient fortified pā of Te Rae o Karaka/Karaka Point, you can learn more about, and visit, these historic sites.
With almost 4,000km² of coastline in the Marlborough Sounds alone, our region has played an integral role in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s maritime history. From the earliest known Māori settlers to arrive on our shores to a thriving whaling industry, and the many ships that wrecked along our rugged coastline, there are countless tales from the sea.
Long before Marlborough’s world famous wine industry took hold, the land provided for its people in many ways. Read how early Māori thrived around the plentiful riches of the Wairau Lagoons, how flax was turned into money and how Te Waiharakeke/Blenheim received its first nickname, Beavertown.
Did you know the man who split the nuclear atom was schooled in Motuweka/Havelock? Woven throughout our history are many intriguing stories of those who lived in times gone by and created Marlborough as we know it today.
Underpinning our nation’s early beginnings are the ancient stories, legends and myths passed down through generations of Māori. Here is a selection of the legends that describe how Marlborough came to be.
From Rai Valley to Ward, each Marlborough settlement had its own fascinating and unique beginnings. Learn about the heritage of our villages and towns.
Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku, New Zealand's largest peak outside the Southern Alps, is the sacred mountain of local Marlborough Maori iwi and a visible symbol of the rich tapestry of Marlborough's culture. The annual Marlborough Book Festival forms one of these vibrant threads.
Discover Marlborough's culture
Marlborough is home to a host of artisans, public art, galleries, musicians and theatre performances. Join the Marlborough Arts and Crafts Trail, check out the Artisan Market on Saturdays, and watch local performances.
Marlborough's Arts guide
- Classic Fighters Airshow
- Marlborough Airport Heritage
- Omaka Aerodrome Heritage
- Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
- Picton Airport Heritage
- Arapaoa Island
- Te Aumiti/French Pass Heritage
- Te Pākeka/Maud Island Heritage
- Te Pokohiwi/Wairau Bar Heritage
- Te Rae o Karaka/Karaka Point Heritage
- Kākāpō Bay Cemetery Heritage
- Horahora Kākahu Island Heritage
- Molesworth Station Heritage
- Te Hoiere/Pelorus Heritage
- Mt Taupae-o-Uenuku
- Perano Whaling Station
- Meretoto/Ship Cove Heritage
- Wairau Affray Heritage
- Wairau and Waikārapi/Vernon Lagoons Heritage
- The Edwin Fox
- Te Karaka/Cape Campbell Heritage
- Te Taonui-o-Kupe/Cape Jackson Heritage
- Raukawa/Cook Strait Ferries Heritage
- Mikhail Lermentov Heritage
- Ōpaoa River Heritage
- Pelorus Jack Heritage
- Wine Heritage
- Antimony Mining Heritage
- Farming Heritage
- Gold Mining Heritage
- Arthur Clouston
- Sir Edward Chaytor
- Captain Cook
- Sir Edmund Hillary
- Elizabeth Lissaman
- Lord Ernest Rutherford
- James Sinclair
- Awarua/Spring Creek Heritage
- Te Waiharakeke/Blenheim Heritage
- Motuweka/Havelock Heritage
- Waitohi/Picton Heritage
- Rai Valley Heritage
- Renwick Heritage
- Seddon Heritage
- Ward Heritage
Beryl Bowers Events Coordinator
"I am so lucky to live here with the mountains and the bush clad hills reaching the sea. The beauty of this region is amazing and nowhere else in the world have I seen such stunning scenery."My insider guide to Marlborough
Marlborough’s largest centre, Blenheim, was established as the town we know today in the 1850s.
The lower Wairau was known as Te Waiharakeke by Māori, which means the waters of flax, in reference to the waterlogged land and plentiful flax. For the same reason, it was dubbed The Beaver and Beavertown by many of its European settlers.
When a massive earthquake in 1855 deepened the Ōpaoa River, allowing sea-going vessels to reach newly established Blenheim, the town’s population increased and it became Marlborough’s capital in 1865, then made a borough in March 1869.
Ōpaoa, according to local iwi, refers to ‘smoke’ or ‘smoking river’, as the fog or mist rises off the river. The waterway was once an important food source and part of daily life for Māori, who landed downstream at Te Pokohiwi/Wairau Bar as the first settlers to arrive in Aotearoa some 800 years ago.
According to local iwi Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Rārua and Rangitāne o Wairau, the Ōpaoa River has been a landmark on a major travel and trading route for centuries.
One of Blenheim’s most notable European settlers includes nationally renowned surgeon Dr George Cleghorn, who performed New Zealand’s first successful appendectomy. He was appointed medical officer to the new Wairau Hospital in July 1878, where he stayed for more than 20 years. Dr Cleghorn was also a philanthropist who offered free medical services to the poor. He helped establish Blenheim’s gymnasium, swimming pool, the Marlborough Cricket Association and football club. Dr Cleghorn’s memory was honoured by the construction of a band rotunda that remains today in Market Place.
Another piece of history that remains today is Thomas’s department store. This was first opened on Market St South in 1912 by John Emlyn Thomas and his wife Kathleen.
John and Kathleen’s son, Terence, entered the family business in the 1930s and persuaded his brother-in-law Austin Andrews to also join.
Subsequent generations of the Thomas and Andrews families have kept the business running despite many and varied challenges including The Depression, World War 2, strict import controls followed by deregulation, competition within the local market.
Today, the local store remains a vibrant cornerstone in Blenheim’s central business district.
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