Gisborne is situated on the shores of Poverty Bay where the Taruheru and Waimata Rivers join to form the Turanganui River. To the north-east of the city runs a narrow coastal plain, while to the north-west stretch the Poverty Bay Flats. In the south the land rises to the hilly country inland from the Mahia Peninsula. Kaiti, Mangapapa, Te Hapara, and Elgin are the suburbs. The east coast railway line from Wellington through Napier ends at Gisborne. By road the city is 145 miles north-east of Napier (132 miles by rail), 64 miles north-east of Wairoa by road and rail, and 94½ miles south-east of Opotiki via Waioeka. Inner harbour facilities for small coastal vessels are in the Turanganui River. Larger vessels use the roadstead. Shipping tonnage handled in 1963 was 92,786 tons, the major exports being wool, meat, and dairy produce. The airport is at Darton Field, 3 miles west. Gisborne is the chief port and town of the Poverty Bay district. Secondary industries include a freezing works (on the Kaiti River bank), dairy factories, ham and bacon processing, brewing, canning and food processing, a hosiery factory, fertiliser, tallow and wool-scouring works, and general engineering. Commercial fishing is a growing industry for internal and export markets. Catches of tarakihi are exported to Australia, and crayfish tails and meat to the United States. Experimental work is also being carried out in tuna fishing. The city also attracts summer holiday visitors with its beaches and places of historical interest nearby.
Rural activities of the district include market gardening, dairying, and sheep and cattle farming. Kumaras, pumpkins, and maize are cultivated around Maori settlements and, on the Poverty Bay Flats, dairy farmers grow maize and pumpkins as cattle or pig food or for sale. Sixty-five per cent of New Zealand's maize comes from this area. For many years the flats were subject to severe flooding, but the completion of a flood-control scheme has removed this threat. The inland hill country poses some of the most difficult problems of soil erosion. The “cover” rocks are weak and slip easily on the steep slopes, generally during heavy rain. Waste from the hillsides slips into the streams and causes them to fill them to fill their valleys with shingle.
Gisborne was the first spot in New Zealand on which Captain Cook set foot, the date being 8 October 1769. His reception was so unpromising that he called the place Poverty Bay. The first permanent trader at the site of what is now Gisborne was Captain J. W. Harris, who arrived in May 1831. He established several posts in the district and commenced to graze cattle, horses, and sheep on the Poverty Bay Flats. Christianity was introduced in 1834 by two Maori converts who arrived from the Bay of Islands. Three local Maori catechists, also trained at the Bay of Islands, returned to the district in 1838. When the Rev. W. Williams came in 1841 to found a mission station at Kaupapa, he found that the Maori evangelists had built several places of worship and that there was an aggregate Christian congregation of about 1,500 people, some of whom could read the Maori New Testament and also write. Credit for the foundation of Gisborne is accorded to Captain G. E. Read, who settled there in 1852. The first impact of the Hauhau troubles was felt in the district in 1865 following the dissention created among the Ngati Porou people by the apostles of the cult. In November loyalist Maoris and Government forces besieged the rebels at Waerengaohika and ultimately compelled them to surrender. It was decided to deport 300 of the prisoners to the Chatham Islands. Among them was a local Maori called Te Kooti, who had fought on the side of the Government but who was suspected of being in league with the rebels. Te Kooti assumed leadership of the prisoners, captured the schooner Rifleman, and landed his band at Whareongaonga Bay, about 8 miles south of Young Nicks Head, in July 1868. Eluding the forces sent in pursuit, he gathered reinforcements and made plans for a surprise attack on the Poverty Bay settlements. Shortly before midnight on 9 November the Hauhaus descended on Matawhero and there was a terrible slaughter, 33 Europeans and 37 friendly Maoris being murdered.
The township was surveyed and laid out in 1870. It was named in honour of William Gisborne, Colonial Secretary. Originally it was known as Turanga-nui-Kiwa, “the great abiding place of Kiwa”, “who was one of the chiefs of the Takitimu canoe, which made its landfall at the Mahia Peninsula.
The frozen-meat industry was established early in Gisborne. In 1886 the first freezing works was completed. Transport for many years was chiefly by sea, and lighters and barges served cargo and passenger vessels in the roadstead. Gisborne was constituted a borough in 1877 and became a city in 1955.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 19,774; 1956 census, 22,622; 1961 census, 25,065
by Susan Bailey, B.A., Research Officer, Department of Industries and Commerce, Wellington.