For over 1400 years the Maori knew “Te Maru” as a place of shelter with Cabbage trees and tussock. They left behind 500 sites of Rock Art, mostly in limestone overhangs where they sheltered.

The dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to 'discover' New Zealand.

Captain James Cook anchored off the coast of New Zealand

When the whalers arrived there was a Māori hut on the stony beach constructed of whale bone and tussock. The Weller brothers established whaling stations, one at Whalers Creek, later named Caroline Bay after a whaling supply ship.

Walter Mantell made a sketch (8 years after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed) of Timaru Coastline when the whaling stations were deserted.

Brothers William and George Rhodes founded the Levels run. They used the site of an abandoned whaling station, to land stores and ship away wool. Timaru’s first building was a cottage on the beach, and the first permanent inhabitant was Sam Williams, the whaler who introduced George Rhodes to South Canterbury.

The sea was colonial New Zealand’s highway which is why Timaru’s architecture and heritage goes hand in hand with our port. The story begins when George Rhodes used our headland to land stores and materials. He built Timaru’s first house in 1851, it only had three walls! This 20 foot hut stood by the beach (centre of these photos) to service his boat landing for his sheep farm at Levels. He employed the Whaler Samuel Williams who came back to Timaru with his wife Ann and daughter Rebecca and just like that Timaru had it’s first permanent immigrant residents.

New Zealand experienced a series of major events during the period 1853-1870, which boosted our population. Firstly, the New Zealand Wars brought military settlers. Secondly, the new self-government structure made the Canterbury province responsible for encouraging immigration. And thirdly, there were new economic opportunities of pastoralism and the discovery of gold. Otago’s first gold rush was in 1861 when Gabriel Read found gold. Only a lucky few found riches, and although Timaru was on the fringes, the collective value of the gold kick-started our young New Zealand’s economy.

George and Elizabeth Rhodes moved to Levels, where their next house had four timber slab walls, a clay floor and a thatched roof. In 1855 some sheep were stolen from the Levels station, by James Mackenzie.

Our first pakeha baby William Williams was born in this house  in 1856 and slept in a gin crate. A small lean-to was added to accommodate two bunks as Timaru’s first hotel. The first Timaru Herald was published in his kitchen. Sam had the first publican’s licence, and he was even the first to have his pub burn down because someone didn’t like the price charged for beer... bad call as the arsonist was sentenced to death!

In marched Lieutenant (later Captain) Belfield Wollcombe in 1857. Often referred to as the grandfather of Timaru, he was the government rep, beach master, health officer, registrar, coroner, returning officer and over seer of public works and magistrate. (That’s a lot of multi-tasking!) He built Timaru’s third house at Ashbury Park.

The first landing service opened at the bottom of Strathallan Street. It was bought by the government in the mid-1860s and used for the first shipment of wool direct to England. Entrepreneurs later set up a private service in competition. The George Street landing service building is one of Timaru’s oldest structures.

On The Strathallan, a lady wrote; if Timaru was a third of the size of London she would be happy. Imagine the look on her face when she arrived in 1859, and saw only 5 houses and about 19 locals! The ship was two weeks early and caught our towns folk off guard, so the new locals had to sleep in the wool shed until their homes were built. They were joined by a further 360 immigrants between 1862 and 1863. By 1866 the town had a population of 1,000, and it became a borough in 1868.

The landing services were restricting the port’s growth. They initiated plans for an artificial harbour to provide wharves and a safe haven for ships. Opponents thought that because Christchurch’s port at Lyttelton was soon to be linked by rail south to Timaru, a local harbour was unnecessary. But the scheme went ahead, as advocates believed that without its own harbour, the town would decline.

A Cobb & Co route between Timaru and Christchurch opened. Their first Christchurch booking office/drop off point was at Triangle Corner (Triangle Centre), at Cashel Street & Sumner Road (High Street). Altogether, a stagecoach could carry 14 passengers at maximum. 6 to 9 persons inside, 5 on exterior seating. This could depend on what model or make. Cobb & Co in New Zealand was started by Charles Cole, arriving at Dunedin in 1861. With him he had 1 coach, 5 wagons and 54 horses.

Timaru started as two towns Government Town and Rhodes Town, which is why the roads are out of line at intersections along North Street. Government town was laid out by Samuel Hewlings, he was our first Mayor 1868-1870.

In the same year Timaru became a Borough, an accidental fire got picked up by a warm and blustery nor west wind in 1868, destroying 39 wooden buildings, two thirds of the business part of town. What had contributed to the advance in trade and prosperity of the port and district was now reduced to brick chimneys and embers. Unfortunately not everyone was insured. There were about 1250 dewellings in the borough. The fire transformed the town to more fire resistant Bluestone, brick and stone. Tenders were won to design and build our significant architectural heritage of our city which you can appreciate on a stroll through town.

1868 fire destroys 39 central Timaru wooden building requiring huge rebuild effort and forever transforming Timaru with a resulting unique architecture. 1868 almost the entire East Coast of South Island flooded including devastation in South Canterbury. February 1945 devastating flooding in South Canterbury similar to that of 1868. March 1986 widespread flooding and damage across Levels Plains, Washdyke and surrounding areas like Pareora, Pleasant Point, Temuka and Geraldine.

Late 1800s through early 1900s multiple quarries in Timaru with the most notable being those in the Scenic Reserve or Centennial Park. Rail lines that carried rock to port from this area finally decommissioned fully by 1959. By 1935 moves to create the Scenic Reserve, shortly renamed Centennial park, began. From 1988 group formed to create the park reserve, lake, bridges and planting we know today.

Landing Service Building (Former) No. 326. C1. 2 George St. First bay built in 1871. Timaru had a landing services building owned by the Government which was run by Captain Cain. Cain went on to build a competitive service with Le Cren out of blue stone with high arches to winch boats through. It become redundant when the first breakwater was built and was then used for nearly a century by  the "Loan and Merc" and then Dalgety Ltd to store goods. It’s the only example in Australasia. Here you will find the statue of Captain Cain, the second Mayor Timaru. The towns population was around 3000 when he was poisoned by his greedy son-in-law.

The railway helped accelerate progress after the first sod for the Temuka to Timaru railway was turned by the Mayoress, Mrs Cain in 1871.

The South Island Main Trunk Line reached Washdyke. From here the Fairlie Branch line was begun, reaching Pleasant Point in December 1875

The street lighting used to be lit by hand. 1876 saw Timaru’s new gas street lights replace the kerosene lamps. Stafford street glowed under 1000 candlepower gas lamps in 1907. Electric light came in 1926. Before the streets were sealed, they would get very slippery and muddy when it rained, they would scoop the mud and put it along the side of the road, if you were not careful you could step knee deep into the mud in the dark.

Work began to construct the 700-metre southern breakwater. In the late 1880s, the north breakwater was built to keep sand shoals out of the harbour. Between 1899 and 1906 the eastern extension of the main breakwater was completed, preventing shingle drifting north into the harbour. During the 20th century the breakwaters were extended, realigned and raised.

Blacketts Light House is constructed on the Terrace above the Port

The first attempt was made on Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain (3,754 metres). It was first climbed by the New Zealanders Tom Fyfe, George Graham and Jack Clarke in 1894. In 1948 a young climber, Edmund Hillary, was on the first ascent of the mountain’s south ridge. Five years later he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to conquer Mt Everest. The face-climbing era that began in the 1950s culminated in the 1970 first ascent of the Caroline Face.

Fairlie flyer steam train has it's first journey

The first freezing works was established at Timaru. Before this a meat preserving works was located at Washdyke.

Peak numbers of 70 million in 1982. 1851 First sheep run setup at Levels by the Rhodes family. In 1853 the second followed, setup by William Hornbrook at Arowhenua. Canterbury Refrigeration Company formed in Timaru in 1883, built the freezing works in 1885. In 1886 first direct wool shipment from nz directly to England (which became the dominant export destination) left Timaru. were rebuilt in the 1890s and opened at Smithfield in 1898.

Bob Fitzsimmons, won his first world title. He is the only New Zealander ever to win the world heavyweight boxing title, was educated and worked as a young man in South Canterbury.

1903 Richard Pearse Flies. A small public airport was developed at Washdyke in 1920, a small commercial airport at Saltwater Creek in 1931. A new airport built at current Levels site in 1953. Regular service between Christchurch, Oamaru and Timaru in 1956. The need for this ended with improvements to SH1 but Timaru to Wellington flights remain today.

From there was relatively high growth, linked to increased farming in the region. 

Cecil Woods of Timaru built the first motor vehicle in New Zealand, laying the foundations in Timaru for a NZ car industry. In 1899 he built New Zealand's first motorbike. Mrs Meikle has the dubious honour of being the first person to be killed in a motor accident in the Timaru district.

Bob Fitsimmons wins the heavyweight boxing title becoming the first in a wide and diverse group of Timaru sporting champions.

Cecil Walkden Wood (28 March 1874 – 1965) was a New Zealand engineer from Timaru who made New Zealand's first motorcycle in 1901 and second known indigenous car in 1902. He also provided an engine to Richard Pearse for his airplane.

Richard Pearse become famous for being one the first people on earth to leave the ground in a powered aircraft. Nine months before the Wright Brothers. Timaru Airport is named after him.

In 1906, Rodolph Wigley founded the Mt Cook Motor Service, which leased the Hermitage hotel from the government between 1922 and 1945, and became a major tourist company. In 1955 his son, Harry Wigley, landed a ski-equipped plane on the Tasman Glacier, starting a new era in tourism at Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Alpine Energy began in March 1906 when the Timaru Borough Council entered into a contract with Scott Brothers of Christchurch to light the town with electricity. The price for this contract was £750 per year for four hours of light per night – except when the moon shone. In 1915 the council purchased the Scott Brothers’ electricity generator and a year later another generator was installed and about 580 customers had been signed up.

All electricity developments were in town until 1921 when a meeting of country delegates decided to form a South Canterbury Electric Power Board. The board set about forming a viable electricity supply enterprise across the province. The South Canterbury Electric Power Board and the Timaru Borough Council agreed for the power board to purchase the town supply. However, the town’s residents voted against the proposal. From that day, February 29, 1924, the Timaru Electricity Department and the power board continued on their separate paths. The Timaru Borough Council purchased all of its electricity from the SC Electric Power Board. This was from the Lake Coleridge power station supply which was made available at Temuka for distribution throughout Timaru and South Canterbury.


First summer carnival is held at Caroline Bay. 

First formed after creation of port breakwaters, the area was decided to be created into a “European style beach resort” from 1902. From 1911 the annual Christmas carnivals began. 1937 sound shell replaced the initial band rotunda. 

South Canterbury’s first public airport was formed at Washdyke

Farmer and engineer Bill Hamilton bought the Irishman Creek station and pioneered a jet-boat for use on the shallow rivers of the area. He also built earth-moving machinery at Irishman Creek. In 1942 the firm moved to Christchurch to become a major New Zealand firm, Hamilton Jet.

36 m high and built 1928 to 1934. The last dam in New Zealand to be built with pick and shovel and not heavy machinery and the first of the upper Waitaki hydro system. This was deliberate as government wanted men in employment and at its peak 1200 workers were involved.

1930 - 1932, Phar Lap won 32 of his 35 races. The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861. Martini Henry was the first New Zealand-bred horse to win the race, in 1883. As of 2014, 41 New Zealand-bred horses have claimed victory in the great race.

Jack Lovelock, wins the 1,500-metre race (in world-record time) at the Berlin Olympics, was schooled at Temuka, Fairlie and Timaru. He received an oak sapling with his medal, and the mature tree still stands at Timaru Boys’ High School.

Levels Plains Irrigation scheme began in 1937. Opuha Dam completed in November 1998.

The South Canterbury Museum is established by the South Canterbury Historical Society on a site bequeathed by T.D.Burnett in 1941.

Earth dam built on Lake Pukaki as part of the Waitaki hydroelectric power scheme. Construction began in 1946 and was completed in 1951. It was the first earth dam of the type built by the Public Works Department. The Mackenzie District has New Zealand’s highest mountains, and its waters have become one of the country’s most important sources of energy.

Timaru became a city

The Aigantighe Art Gallery was established

An all-weather meat loader was built at the Timaru Port to service the export demand of the South Canterbury and MacKenzie community. A second northern breakwater allowed land to be reclaimed for cargo storage and a fish processing factory

The possibility of using the rivers and lakes of the Mackenzie Country to generate electricity was recognised in 1904. Construction of the Upper Waitaki power scheme began after the Benmore and Aviemore stations on the lower Waitaki had been built. A construction town was built at Twizel, and a canal took Lake Tekapo water to a new powerhouse on the shore of Lake Pūkaki. Beyond Pūkaki, the flows from Lakes Tekapo, Pūkaki and Ōhau were combined to flow through three more power stations. Lake Pūkaki has been raised by a total of 37 metres (trebling its volume) and a new lake, Ruataniwha, was formed by a dam on the Ōhau River.

The four new stations had a combined capacity of 848,000 kilowatts, and came online through the 1970s and early 1980s. The scheme is important to New Zealand as a whole: more than 50% of the country’s hydroelectric storage is in Lakes Tekapo and Pūkaki.

Port loop road opened 1972 a uniquely engineered solution to trucking goods out of Timaru port which eased heavy traffic off of Strathallan Street and the town centre.

1872 Rangitata bridged at Arundel, and this bridge remained the only crossing until 1930s when bridges at Rangitata Island (now SH1) were put in. Waitaki was bridged in 1877 Timaru linked to Dunedin and Christchurch with completion of rail link in 1878. The line was opened to Pleasant Point by 1875 and to Fairlie by 1884

The first brew was produced by Mainland Brewery (now DB Brewery) and famous for it's DB Draught beer is one of the largest employers in the Timaru District contributing significantly to the local economy.

The source of Timaru’s basalt flowed from Mt Horrible to the sea creating rolling hills, a reef and the source of our buildings bluestone. When the glaciers were in full swing 250,000 years ago, a fine silt called loess blew over South Canterbury and formed our clay cliffs. Old seashells formed into hard and smooth calcium rock called Limestone. The Basalt, Limestone and Clay are the foundations of Timaru geology and architecture.