Blenheim (Te Waiharakeke)

Last Modified: 2-12-2019 17:38

Blenheim in winter from the Wither Hills
Blenheim in winter from the Wither Hills

Blenheim is both the district capital, and the largest settlement in Marlborough, New Zealand, with over half of the district's population at 24,657 at the 2013 Census. Blenheim is popular as a holiday destination, and acts as a service centre to the wine, horticulture, forestry and marine farming industries of Marlborough.

In pre-European times, what is now Blenheim was a large flax swamp at the confluence of the Omaka and Ōpaoa rivers, giving rise to the Māori name for Blenheim, Te Waiharakeke, literally "The waters of Flax" .. The area was significant for its rich food resources of eels and ducks, and on drier ground kumara was grown.

Early Colonial History

The first European settlement was made by James Sinclair in 1852, although early Blenheim could hardly be regarded as a 'town' . Generally, James Wynen is regarded as the true founder of the town. He opened a store in 1855 and catered to small ships which travelled up the Opawa River. Originally the settlement was named The Beaver due to frequent problems with flooding, but the name was changed to Blenheim in 1859 by governor Sir Thomas Browne, to commemorate the victory of the Duke of Marlborough over the French in 1704.

Blenheim became the provincial capital of Marlborough in 1865 when Picton relinquished this role. Blenheim was a major port until 1964, with the scow 'Echo' providing regular sailings across Cook Strait. In the early 21st Century, river usage was revived with the River Queen offering cruises on the lower Taylor and Ōpaoa rivers until vandalism and financial issues resulted in the boat relocating to Kaiapoi.

Blenheim became a borough on March 6, 1869, and its first councillors were elected on the 15th of May of that year. Mr. F. J. Litchfield was elected by fellow councillors as the town's first mayor. Early on, sentiment was that the mayor should be elected directly by ratepayers, however no legislation existed to enable this, so council came up with an informal arrangement to poll ratepayers, with elected councillors then electing the mayor based on the results of the poll of ratepayers. A petition to parliament to formalise the right of Blenheim ratepayers to directly elect the mayor was never passed as law, however the principle was later incorporated into the Municipal Corporations Act of 1876 which granted the right for direct election of mayors to the whole of New Zealand.

Geography and Climate

Blenheim has some of the highest sunshine hours in New Zealand, with an average over 2,200 hours per year. Rainfall tends to occur between autumn and spring. Annually, ground frosts occur on average 51.9 days per year, with the majority of these occurring from June to August. Mean temperature ranges from a low of 7 degrees Celcius in July to 18 Degrees in January. Rainfall averages 711mm per year, making Blenheim among the drier towns in NZ. (Source NIWA). 

The Taylor River flows through the town, and the river's flood protection zone has been transformed into a popular recreational reserve with walking and cycling tracks, and a riverside railway. The reserve connects with Brayshaw Park, site of the Marlborough Musuem, and on to the Taylor Dam in the south-western direction.

The southern limits of the town are defined by the Wither Hills, the majority of which comprise a farm park owned by the council, offering walking and mountain bike tracks.


Blenheim town centre has very few old historic buildings due to concerns over earthquake risk which let to many older buildings being demolished. The historic Cleghorn band rotunda in Market Street, and the Blenheim Railway Station are two notable pieces of historic architecture in the CBD. Saint Mary's Catholic Church is a historic wooden church over a hundred years old in Maxwell Road. The former Public Trust Office Building, Riverlands Cob Cottage, and former Nurses Home at Wairau Hospital are among a variety of heritage listed buildings. 

Blenheim has few multi-storey buildings, with the Rangitāne House (former Post Office building,) Barnes building and Youell House being the only significant large constructions.

The Marlborough Convention Centre and Clubs of Marlborough is a recent construction next to the Taylor River reserve with modern convention facilities and combined RSA and Workingmens Clubs.

For many years Marlborough Civic Theatre provided a venue for local and visiting productions with a capacity for 461 in the former Farmers building, as a replacement for His Majesty's Theatre which was demolished due to earthquake concerns, leaving Blenheim without a theatre for many years. Issues with the low seating capacity of the theatre combined with a growing population led to development of the new purpose-built ASB Theatre next to the Marlborough Convention Centre. The new theatre was controversial due to significant cost overruns, leading to the Marlborough District Council having to provide financial assistance to the trust associated with constructing and running the theatre, however the new theatre has considerably higher seating capacity at up to 711, and improved functionality. The ASB Theatre opened in March 2016.

Public Facilities

Blenheim has a number of public facilities including a stadium and aquatic centre, various sports grounds, an art gallery, public library, and a large number of parks and reserves. Pollard Park, Seymour Square, and the Wither Hills Farm Park, are among the most notable of these. The Taylor River is a major feature of the town, and ongoing beautification efforts have centred on enhancing the river, while providing flood protection.

Business and Economy

Blenheim is principally a service town for the wine, forestry, and tourism industries.

Blenheim has a lively café culture with a number of cafés and bars, however there is virtually no night-life with most establishments closing relatively early. Other recreational facilities include a multiplex cinema complex, and a stadium and aquatic centre.

The majority of national retail franchises are present in Blenheim, along with a handful of uniquely local retailers such as Thomas's (established 1912).

Web Links