Jim Eagles heads to Wellington to see what it has planned to mark its 150th year as New Zealand's seat of government.

So this little bundle of handwritten documents, neatly tied with a white ribbon, is what made it all happen. It is why windy old Wellington is now the capital of New Zealand instead of good old humid Auckland.

What I'm holding is the report of the three Australian commissioners - yes, Australians - who in 1864 decided where our capital should be.

The report now resides in Archives New Zealand and it's one of many hidden treasures that will be put on display this month to mark the 150th anniversary of the seat of government shifting from Auckland, where it arrived from the Bay of Islands in 1841, to Wellington. It's a document that tells a fascinating story. But more about that later.

As a fifth-generation Jafa I've always had mixed views about the capital being in Wellington. On the one hand, having lived in both cities, I remain perplexed as to how anyone could possibly opt for Wellington. But on the other, I'm grateful that my city isn't full of politicians and bureaucrats and I have the fond hope that Wellington's bracing weather might be good for them.


Wellington, however, is extremely pleased to be the seat of government. So pleased that on and around July 26 it will stage a lavish celebration of its arrival.

It's going to be a grand affair with a Big Birthday Party in the grounds of Parliament featuring music from Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir, and a 3D light show depicting the history of Wellington. Several national organisations will give free performances, including the Symphony Orchestra, Ballet and Opera, and more than 30 national institutions, from the Supreme Court and the Reserve Bank to Katherine Mansfield House and Premier House, will open their most significant collections to the public.

Given that two magnificent World War I exhibitions have also just opened in Wellington it sounded to me like a good time to brave the wind and visit the capital to get a taste of what the party will be like.

Since the justification for this celebration is provided by history, Archives NZ seems like the best place to start. And it's deep in their cellars that senior archivist Donal Raethel unveils the documents he's unearthed to illustrate the tale of our capital, including the report of the Australian commissioners.

At first glance, it seems bizarre that we asked foreigners - especially Australians - to decide on such an important national question. But the fact is that after 20 years of parochial squabbling it was pretty much agreed - except by Aucklanders - that the capital should move to a more central location. However, there was no consensus on where that should be. So, to get an independent view, we looked across the Tasman.

The bundle of papers in my hands starts with the official letter, signed and sealed by Governor Sir George Grey, appointing Francis Murphy of Victoria, Joseph Docker of New South Wales, and Ronald C. Gunn of Tasmania to take up the task.

This trio were paid five guineas a day (about $550 in today's terms) to visit potential sites like Nelson, Picton, Blenheim and Wellington and assess their suitability.

Their report, when it came, was short if not sweet and concluded brusquely: "Having thus made themselves acquainted, as far as was practicable, with the character and capabilities of both shores of Cook's Strait, the Commissioners have arrived at the unanimous conclusion that Wellington, in Port Nicholson, is the site upon the shores of Cook's Straits which presents the greatest advantages for the administration of the Government of the Colony."

And that was that. The commissioners took their money - the equivalent of nearly $500,000 - and ran. Auckland erupted in rage and threatened to break away. And on July 26, the 1865 Parliament met in Wellington and has remained there ever since.

Documents pertaining to the choice of Wellington as New Zealand's capital. Photo / Jim Eagles
Documents pertaining to the choice of Wellington as New Zealand's capital. Photo / Jim Eagles

There's a bit more about this intriguing episode just down the road in the National Library. Senior curator John Sullivan has found letters written by commissioner Joseph Docker to his son, describing in fairly racy terms their work in New Zealand, which seems to have consisted of an endless array of luncheons, dinners and balls designed to win them over. As Sullivan puts it, "It sounds rather similar to the process used to select venues for Fifa World Cups."

In one letter, Docker comments, "You will doubtless have heard ... how our time is taken up with eating and drinking ... It is almost beyond the powers of natural man ... It is doubtless very pleasant to be paid five guineas a day to eat and drink but the absolute deprivation of almost a single hour of privacy is underpaid at that amount."

The focal point of the party to celebrate the Aussies' decision will, of course, be Parliament, which is planning its own festival. There is already a display of sketches, paintings and photos, assembled by parliamentary historian Dr John Martin, tracing the history of the various premises in which MPs have met over the years.

This includes a photo of the unprepossessing building in Auckland, where the country's first Parliament assembled on May 24, 1854, which was so lacking in facilities that MPs nicknamed it the "Shedifice".

In sharp contrast to the Shedifice was the opulent structure the Wellington Provincial Assembly built in 1858 to tempt MPs to move south. A contemporary watercolour of this building dug out by the National Library leaves little doubt where MPs would be most comfortable.

That building is long gone though its location is marked by a plaque on a corner of Parliament House. Dr Martin explains that it was enlarged over the years by a series of extensions, annexes and new buildings, but in 1907 a huge fire destroyed all bar the lovely gothic Parliamentary Library building, and even that had to be substantially rebuilt.

The ruins were replaced by the present Parliament House, but financial constraints caused by war and depression meant only half the original design was built and decades later the missing wing was replaced by the Beehive. In Archives NZ, I saw the original drawings showing what parliament might have looked like if it had been finished and, well, personally I prefer it to what we have now.

To me, the most attractive part of the present complex is the old library with its magnificent entrance, ornate plasterwork, tiles, chandeliers and grand staircase.

There you can peek into the office of the parliamentary librarian, dating to 1898 and for many years occupied by the legendary "King" Dick Seddon, our longest serving premier (whose statue now stands outside the entrance to Parliament House), or explore the old parliament's beautifully reconstructed lobby, now the library reading room, where MPs once drank and dozed in between debating the laws that shaped this land.

But when I asked Dr Martin what was the oldest surviving piece of parliament he took me out the back to the impressive toilets built in 1883. As I took a photo of the historic porcelain I inquired whether it could be assumed that Seddon relieved himself there.

"Yes," he said, "I think you could safely assume that."

When Wellington became the seat of Parliament it also acquired a lot of the other trappings that go with being a capital.

For instance, as the MPs arrived in 1865, the foundation stone was laid for a cathedral, the wonderful wooden church now used as a community venue and called Old St Paul's.

To mark the anniversary the Friends of Old St Paul's has organised an intriguing programme embracing peanut rolling, jazz concerts and a sound and light show illustrating the history of the parish.

Meanwhile, efforts are being made to track down the foundation stone. Manager Silke Bieda has found a report indicating that it was converted into a base for the christening font. "We tried lifting the font but couldn't see any writing and it was so heavy we feared if we moved it further there would be damage," she says. "We also sent a builder to crawl up under the church to see if there was anything like a foundation stone and he couldn't see anything there either. But we're still looking."

Also opened in 1865 was the Colonial Museum, now Te Papa. The original museum, explains colonial curator Michael Fitzgerald, was seen as a repository of scientific information that would encourage economic development, and its displays tended to focus on the likes of gold, timber and fish, a far cry from today. However, some of the original exhibits are still on show, including an impressive collection of gold nuggets in the Passports exhibition.

The big exhibition in the museum right now is the marvellous Gallipoli: The Story of Our War for which Sir Richard Taylor, of Weta Workshops fame, was the creative director. It's had a lot of publicity, particularly for the giant figures of eight veterans whose experiences it explores, and they certainly have a huge impact.

Sir Peter Jackson at The Great War Exhibition in the Dominion Museum in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sir Peter Jackson at The Great War Exhibition in the Dominion Museum in Wellington. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But probably even more moving are the extracts from their diaries and letters which paint a poignant picture of what Gallipoli was really like for those involved. After more than an hour my wife emerged with tears in her eyes and she wants to go back to see it again.

There has been less publicity for The Great War Exhibition, in the old Dominion Museum building situated in Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, but it is equally compelling. Created by our other movie maestro, Sir Peter Jackson, it falls into two parts.

First comes a journey through the wider war, starting with life in a tranquil Belgian village shortly before the German army swept across the border, then continuing through what the brutal reality of war meant in Europe, the Middle East and on the Home Front. It's superbly illustrated by, among other things, items from Sir Peter's personal collection of historic planes, trucks, tanks and heavy weapons.

The second part focuses on the New Zealand experience at Gallipoli. The key here - what director Jeanette Richardson calls "our secret weapon" - are hundreds of battlefield photos which have been brilliantly converted into colour by a new digital technique developed by Sir Peter's team.

The exhibition traces the various stages of the battle, each accompanied by a list of the Kiwis who died there and an array of smiling photos of the young men involved in the fighting, producing a steadily accumulating impression of the true enormity of it all.

By the end I felt thoroughly drained and in need of a coffee in the cafe which, appropriately, is modelled on one of the ships that carried the survivors home.

It's an impressive birthday programme. After getting a taste of what is on offer I began to feel that perhaps Aucklanders should start pressing to bring the capital and its accoutrements back to where it belongs. Or, failing that, we should all go down and see what Wellington has achieved with what it took from us 150 years ago.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Wellington up to 23 times daily.

Details: The events in the Capital 150th Birthday Party focus on July 26 but will be spread over several days.

The programme for Old St Pauls is at heritage.org.nz.