Masterton is situated at the northern part of the Wairarapa Valley and in the upper basin of the Ruamahanga River. The Waipoua River flows south-eastward through the town and joins the Ruamahanga River near the eastern borough boundary. The town occupies mainly flat land. Low hills impinge on the borough in the north. On the west, within about 10 miles, the country rises to the Tararua Range and, on the east, within 6–7 miles, to undulating and hilly country. The Wellington-Woodville section of railway and the main highway pass through the town. By road Masterton is 51 miles south-west of Woodville (49 miles by rail) and 64 miles north-east of Wellington (66 miles by rail); Eketahuna is 25 miles north (22 miles by rail); and Carterton is 9 miles south-west by road or rail.
The chief farming activity of the district is sheep raising. There is a limited amount of dairying. Lime for agricultural purposes is quarried at Gladstone (11 miles south), at Weraiti (3 miles south-east), and at Mauriceville (12 miles northeast). The New Zealand Forest Service manages an exotic plantation of about 4,300 acres at Ngaumu (19 miles south-east). At Waingawa (4 miles south-west) there is a meat-freezing works (established 1909). Coal gas is produced at Waingawa. Masterton is the chief commercial and market centre of the Wairarapa district. Town industrial activities include the manufacture of butter, culinary essences, joinery and furniture, household appliances, knitwear and clothing, plastic garments and buttons, concrete products, and ceramic tile ware; saw-milling; engineering; and fellmongering. There is a large milk-treatment station and wool, grain, and produce stores in the borough.
The first recorded European visitors to the district were Charles H. Kettle and Alfred Wills, whose party, including Maoris, travelled south from the Manawatu Gorge in 1842. On their return to Wellington they reported wide areas of land in the Wairarapa suitable for farming. Large sheep runs were leased from the Maoris in South Wairarapa as early as 1843, but little progress was made with settlement further north until the Wairarapa lands were purchased in 1853. Land around Castlepoint (42 miles east) was occupied as a sheep run in 1848 by Thomas Guthrie. After the earthquake of 1855 had destroyed a small but better anchorage on Palliser Bay, Castlepoint became the best of the landing places and shipping outlets serving the Wairarapa region. Goods were shipped via Castlepoint until the coming of the railway in the 1880s. Joseph Masters, prime mover of the Wairarapa Small Farms Association, founded Masterton. He arranged the finance for the town survey when State funds were inadequate. The first settlers arrived on the site in 1854. Others followed in 1855 and about this time a flourmill was erected. At first progress was slow but, with the expansion of sheep farming, Masterton became a centre for wool scouring, fellmongering, and the production of tallow. The formation of the track over the Rimutaka Range was commenced in 1853 and was opened for wheeled traffic in 1859. A regular coach service between Wellington and Masterton was inaugurated in 1866. The railway line was opened for traffic between Wellington and Masterton on 1 November 1880, but was not extended to Woodville until December 1897. The town became part of Masterton Highway District in 1871. In 1873 Masterton was constituted a local district and municipal affairs passed into the control of a five-man board of commissioners. On 10 July 1877 the town was constituted a borough – the first in the Wairarapa to attain that status. The name commemorates the founder, Joseph Masters.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 11,545; 1956 census, 13,000; 1961 census, 15,121.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.