Catlins History

First inhabited by the Maori people in the period 900-1700 AD, the Catlins is an area with a rich history. Captain James Cook sighted the area in 1770, but it was not until the period 1810-1830 that whalers and sealers arrived in the Catlins. The Catlins takes its name from Edward Cattlin, a ship's captain who made a land claim in the district in 1840. The first settlement of land by Europeans took place in the mid 1850's. Settlers arrived primarily to mill trees, the first mill being in operation around 1865. Nine timber mills were operating near the Catlins and Owaka Rivers by the 1880's. In 1877, 107 ships sailed from the Catlins area loaded with timber bound for house building in Dunedin and Christchurch. During the 1870's and 1880's many settlers took up land for farming. The farms were only 20-80 hectares and bought with state assistance. In the early 1900's, farms became larger and freehold. Since the end of the sawmilling era, the Catlins district has relied on farming as its mainstay.

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Farm cottage. A feature of the Catlins farmland is the many examples of picturesque pioneer cottages and houses still to be seen. Where: Along the Scenic Route at Ratanui and in the Owaka and Glenomaru valleys.

Honey factory. Native forest honey has been a speciality of the Catlins from the early days of European settlement.

Pioneer farm. Typical pioneer farm family, dressed up in their best clothes for a photo taken outside their cottage.

Early timber workers. Logging and timber milling were once the main source of employment in the Catlins. Two handed cross cut saws (pictured) and axes were the tools of the "bushmen". The work in the forest and in the short-lived, roughly built sawmills was often dangerous.  

Sawmilling. The main industry in the Catlins from 1870 to 1970 was sawmilling. The giant podocarp trees (rimu, totara, matai, kahikatea and miro) were sawn up and shipped or railed out to provide building materials for the cities of Dunedin and Invercargill.  

Derelict machine. Abandoned machinery from the days of the timber milling is still to be seen in parts of the Catlins. 

The "Surat". This famous shipwreck gave its name to one of the beaches in the Catlins. Fortunately all the crew and passengers were saved; many were immigrants for whom this was a rude first experience of New Zealand!

Whaling boat. In the 1830's and 40's there was a feverish and destructive era of whaling on the Catlins coast. Within 10 years, the Right whales were eliminated by shore and ship based whalers. Some of these whalers married local Maori and their descendants live in the Catlins today. Captain Cattlin was a whaler and trader.

Locomotive. The Catlins railway line was the main transport link in the area for the first half of the 19th century. Many interesting tales can be told of the line and the people who used it.

Railway construction. The Catlins River branch railway, constructed from Balclutha to Tahakopa between 1879 and 1914, opened up the forested "frontier" for timber milling and farming. The railway closed in 1971 but its former path is to be seen in many places, as are some of the original railway stations, such as those at Maclennan and Tahakopa.



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