Provinces of New Zealand

The provinces of the Colony of New Zealand existed as a form of sub-national government. Established in 1841, each province had its own legislature and was built around the six original planned settlements or "colonies". By 1873 the number of provinces had increased to nine, but they had become less isolated from each other and demands for centralised government arose. In 1875 the national parliament decided to abolish the provincial governments, and they came to an end in 1876. They were superseded by counties, which were later replaced by territorial authorities.

Following abolition, the provinces became known as provincial districts. Their principal legacy is the use of some provincial boundaries to determine the geographical boundaries for anniversary day public holidays.

1841 to 1853

Following the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, New Zealand became a British colony, initially as part of New South Wales. When New Zealand became a separate Crown Colony from New South Wales in 1841, a Royal Charter established three provinces:

In 1846 the British Parliament passed the first New Zealand Constitution Act, which was almost totally suspended on the advice of Governor George Grey. The only operative provisions related to the reform of the provinces. The reformed provinces were:

  • New Ulster (all of the North Island)
  • New Munster (the South Island plus Stewart Island/Rakiura)

In addition, the provinces were separated from the central government for the first time.

New Ulster and New Munster had their own seals.[1]

1853 to 1876


New provinces were formed by the New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 (UK). This Act established a quasi-federal system of government and divided the country into the six provinces of Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury, and Otago.[2] Each province elected its own legislature known as a Provincial Council, and elected a Superintendent who was not a member of the council.[3] The councils elected their speaker at their first meeting after elections.[4]

The Act also created a national General Assembly consisting of the Legislative Council appointed by the Governor and the directly elected House of Representatives. These provinces came into effect on 17 January 1853 and the regulations defining the boundaries of the provinces were gazetted on 28 February. Electoral regulations were gazetted on 5 March.[4]

Elections were open to males 21 years or older who owned freehold property worth £50 a year. Elections were to be held every four years. The New Zealand Constitution Amendment Act 1857 provided for the appointment of a Deputy Superintendent.

The Constitution Act provided for the creation of additional provinces, and when the spread of European settlements between the original centres of provincial government and the outlying settlers grew, the General Assembly passed the New Provinces Act 1858.[5]

This Act allowed any district of between 500 thousand and 3 million acres (2,000–12,000 km2) of land with a European population of no fewer than 1,000 people to petition for separation provided that at least 60% of electors agreed. As a result, Hawke's Bay Province separated from Wellington on 1 November 1858; Marlborough Province from Nelson on 1 November 1859; and Southland Province from Otago on 1 April 1861. New Plymouth also changed its name to Taranaki under the same Act.[4]

Stewart Island/Rakiura, which had since 1853 not been part of any province, was annexed to the Province of Southland on 10 November 1863.[6]

Provinces established under this act elected their superintendents in a different way. Members of the provincial council would elect a suitable person listed on the electoral roll as superintendent by majority. If such a person was an elected member, this would result in a by-election to fill the vacancy.[5]

Province Formed date Formed from Dissolution date Reason
Auckland 17 January 1853 New Ulster 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
New Plymouth [* 1] 17 January 1853 New Ulster 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Hawke's Bay 1 November 1858 Wellington 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Wellington 17 January 1853 New Munster 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Nelson 17 January 1853 New Munster 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Marlborough 1 November 1859 Nelson 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Westland 1 December 1873[* 2] Canterbury 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Canterbury 17 January 1853 New Munster 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Otago 17 January 1853 New Munster 1 November 1876 Provinces abolished
Southland 25 March 1861 Otago 5 October 1870 Reunited with Otago
  1. Renamed 1 January 1859
  2. Independent county 1 January 1868

Abolition of Provinces Act 1875

Almost as soon as they were founded, New Zealand's provinces were the subject of protracted political debate. Two factions emerged in the General Assembly: "Centralists", favouring a strong central government and "Provincialists", favouring strong regional governments. The Centralist members of the General Assembly regarded the provinces as inherently self-interested, and prone to pork-barrel politics. In the construction of railways, for example, three of the provinces had constructed railways (as was the case in Australia) to different track gauges, with Canterbury Provincial Railways being built to "broad" gauge, Southland's railways being built to "standard" gauge. As a result, the Public Works Act of 1870 standardised the gauge to be used, and Otago's first railway, the Port Chalmers railway, was built to the new "standard" narrow gauge. Colonial Treasurer (and later Premier) Julius Vogel launched his famous immigration and public works schemes of the 1870s, borrowing the massive sum of 10 million pounds, to develop significant infrastructure of roads, railways, and communications, all administered by the central government. This diminished the power of the provinces greatly. The provinces were finally abolished by the Abolition of Provinces Act 1875,[4] during the Premiership of Harry Atkinson. For the purposes of the Act, the provinces formally ceased to exist on 1 January 1877.[7]


Upon abolition of the provinces, they took the legal status of provincial districts, which had no administrative functions.[8] Local government was vested in elected borough and county councils. The Counties Bill of 1876 created 63 counties out of the old provinces. The former boundaries of the provinces served as administrative areas for the education boards set up under the Education Act of 1877 and for the offices of several Government Departments, including the Department of Lands and Survey.

Upon abolition various responsibilities were delegated to boards. For example, Education Act 1877 created the Education Boards for Auckland, Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, Taranaki, Wanganui, Wellington, Nelson, Westland, Southland, Canterbury and Otago districts. In 1989 the counties were replaced by enlarged district councils.

Department of Lands and Survey split the country in the Land Districts of Auckland (North), Auckland (South), Hawkes Bay, Gisborne, Taranaki, Wellington, Canterbury, Marlborough, Nelson, Westland, Otago and Southland.

The New Zealand Rugby Union was formed in 1892 with foundation members principally being provinces: Auckland†, Hawke's Bay†, Taranaki†, Manawatu, Wanganui, Wairarapa, Wellington†, Nelson†, Marlborough† and South Canterbury. At the time, three major South Island Provincial Unions – Canterbury†, Otago† and Southland† – resisted the central authority of the NZRU.

Modern uses of the old names

Some current Provincial Anniversary Days are still public holidays in New Zealand: Auckland†, Taranaki†, Hawkes' Bay†, Wellington†, Marlborough†, Nelson†, Canterbury†, Canterbury (South), Westland†, Otago†, Southland† and Chatham Islands.

† indicates it reflects an original province.

The provincial districts had different boundaries from the present day regions, for example, the Manawatu-Wanganui region is largely in the Wellington provincial district. The districts are represented by teams in rugby union's ITM Cup and Heartland Championship, both of which replaced the National Provincial Championship in 2006, although the term "provincial" is still used in connection with rugby for the present 29 unions whether founded in the 1880s (e.g. Otago) or 2006 (Tasman).[9]

Some of the names persist in other contexts as well, such as health administration districts: Northland, Waitemata, Auckland†, Counties Manukau, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Lakes (Rotorua/Taupo), Hawke's Bay†, MidCentral (Manawatu), Tairawhiti (Gisborne), Taranaki, Whanganui, Wairarapa, Hutt Valley, Capital and Coast (Wellington)†, Nelson (Marlborough)†, West Coast†, Canterbury†, South Canterbury and Southern (Otago)†.

Some of the names of former provinces and current regions have a tendency to be preceded by "the". Thus, for example, we have Auckland, Canterbury, Hawke's Bay, Marlborough and Wellington, but the Waikato, the Manawatu, the Bay of Plenty, and the West Coast.

The current Regions of New Zealand and most of their councils came about in 1989: Northland, Auckland†, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne, Hawke's Bay†, Taranaki†, Manawatu-Whanganui, Wellington†, Tasman, Nelson†, Marlborough†, West Coast†, Canterbury†, Otago† and Southland†.

The Usenet Internet discussion system for New Zealand "Very roughly they correspond to the boundaries of the 14 Regional Councils": Northland, Auckland†, Hamilton, Bay of Plenty†, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay†, Taranaki†, Manawatu, Wellington†, Nelson†, West Coast†, Canterbury†, Southland† and Dunedin(Otago)†. These current day regions are often referred to by many as provinces, and many use the terms region and province freely to talk about the same subject matter.

Another usage of words associated with the former provinces often refers to anything rural, e.g one may refer to a town as provincial rather than rural or use the phrase 'out in the provinces,' in order to refer to the countryside. These terms can often be heard on national television networks, particularly on weather broadcasts.


† indicates an old province.


  1. provincial arms and seals
  2. McLintock, A.H., ed. (1966). "Provinces and provincial districts: Foundation of system". An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  3. Wilson, John (1991). Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings. Christchurch: Canterbury Regional Council. ISBN 1-86937-135-6.
  4. "New Zealand's Nine Provinces (1853–76)" (PDF). Friends of the Hocken Collections. 21 March 2000.
  5. "A Bill to provide for the Establishment of new Provinces in New Zealand". Hawke's Bay Herald. 1 (49). 28 August 1858. p. 2. Retrieved 10 July 2010.
  6. "About the South", Lloyd Esler, p. 9, Southland Times, 4 November 2010
  7. New Zealand Provinces 1848–77
  8. McLintock, A.H., ed. (1966). "Provincial districts". An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 8 February 2016.
  9. "Provincial Unions". Retrieved 9 May 2017.

Further reading

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