Story: Wairarapa places
Page 9 – Martinborough
Township 18 km south-east of Featherston, with a 2006 population of 1,326. Since the 1980s Martinborough has been transformed from a quiet backwater into the capital of the region’s wine industry. It remains an important rural servicing centre for southern Wairarapa, and is the seat of the South Wairarapa District Council.
Roads of empire
Wanting to imprint a strong symbol of empire on the landscape, runholder John Martin designed Martinborough in the shape of a Union Jack. Radiating from the central square, the streets were named after prominent people or places Martin had visited on his 1875 grand tour. Names include Bismarck, Cologne, Dublin and Kansas. Due to patriotic fervour in the First World War, Bismarck Street was renamed French Street after the British general John French.
Martinborough began in 1870 as the township of Wharekaka, close to the Māori settlement of Waihenga. In its first decade churches, a school, hotel, general store and post office opened. In 1879 John Martin, a wealthy local runholder, purchased neighbouring land and founded a new town, naming it after himself.
The 1880s depression meant Martinborough grew slowly. The town provided a stopover for workers heading to the coast, so transport and accommodation became key industries.
Unlike in other towns, Māori retained a significant presence. Residents included Niniwa Heremaia, the eldest daughter of Ngāti Kahungunu tribal leader Heremaia Tamaihotua; and Maata Mahupuku, great-niece of Pāpāwai marae leader Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku and a childhood friend of Katherine Mansfield.
Martinborough grew steadily in the early 20th century and became a borough in 1928. From the 1960s it declined as businesses were centralised elsewhere. Wanting to revitalise the town, some looked to dairying, others suggested stone fruit, and a few considered grapes.
A wine village
Grapes for wine production were planted near Martinborough in the late 1970s. Since then, the wine industry has had a dramatic impact on the town, providing work and economic stimulus. Cellar door sales and new restaurants encouraged visitors. Hotels and homestays were set up, and property prices leapt as Wellingtonians bought holiday homes. Historic buildings were moved from other places and placed in the main street to create a ‘wine village’. An annual wine and food festival, Toast Martinborough, was first held in 1992. Along with the twice-yearly Martinborough Fair, it attracts thousands.
Martinborough’s transformation has not been welcomed by all. Increased house prices mean that some locals can no longer afford property. As holiday homes proliferate, some residents no longer have permanent neighbours. Others resent the influx of outsiders, nicknamed ‘faw-faws’ for ‘the sound of their braying laughter’. 1
Hau Ariki marae
Hau Ariki marae in Regent Street was founded in the early 1980s as an amenity for the people of south Wairarapa, both Māori and Pākehā. It is used for weddings, hui (meetings) and tangi (funerals) and is the site of the town’s kōhanga reo (Māori language preschool). The meeting house is named after the Ngāti Kahungunu priest Tūpai, who travelled from Polynesia on the ancestral canoe Takitimu.
In 2001, Martinborough was unusual among Wairarapa towns in having a high proportion of working-age people. It also had a relatively high median income, and the highest proportion of Māori (22%) in any Wairarapa town.
Ruakōkoputuna glow-worm caves
Limestone caves on Dyerville Road, 18 km from Martinborough. Glow-worms can be seen in the caves, which can be visited with permission from the landowner.