Blenheim (Te Waiharakeke)

Last Modified: 13-3-2024 12:49

Blenheim in winter from the Wither Hills
Blenheim in winter from the Wither Hills
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

Blenheim is both the district capital, and the largest settlement in Marlborough, New Zealand, with over half of the district's population at  26,832 at the 2018 Census up from 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 with an average of 711mm per year making Blenheim among the drier towns in NZ. 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. (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 in addition to operating as a working farm.


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, although the Nurses Home has now been demolished.

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 modern construction next to the Taylor River reserve with 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 and Infrstructure

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. Blenheim is relatively unusual in New Zealand in that its water supply is not chorinated, due to being sourced from artesian bores from the Wairau aquifer, although the water is UV treated to protect against any potential contamination. Blenheim's sewage is piped to oxidation ponds near the Wairau Lagoons. Household and industrial waste is buried at Bluegums landfill situated in a valley at the western limit of the Wither Hills.

Health Services

Blenheim has a public hospital, Wairau Hospital, that offers a wide range of services including radiology, surgical, oncology, pediatric, and maternity. A private trust located at the same site provides a range of additional services including an MRI scanner.


Blenheim has a bus service subsidised by the Marlborough District Council that operates Monday to Saturday, taxi, and shuttle services. Blenheim has an airport about 7km west of the town at Woodbourne, and long distance bus services connect to Christchurch and Nelson from the Blenheim railway station. The station itself provides a passenger rail connection to Christchurch targeted at tourists during summer months, however, there is no commuter rail. The national carrier, Air New Zealand operates flights to Wellington and Auckland with turboprop aircraft, while smaller local operator Sounds Air flies to Wellington, Paraparaumu, and Christchurch. Blenheim is mostly flat apart from the suburb of Witherlea in the south of the town, and extends a little bit over 5km from north to south and a bit under 4km from east to west, so cycling is a practical transport option. On foot, an average walker should be able to get just about anywhere in town in under an hour. Shared cycle and walkways connect Blenheim with the Riverlands industrial area to the east of the town, and to the small settlements of Grovetown and Spring Creek to the north.

Business and Economy

Blenheim is principally a service town for the wine, forestry, aquaculture, and tourism industries. Local businesses are represented by the Marlborough Chamber of Commerce, and the Blenheim Business Association, which has a specific focus on businesses in the CBD.

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). The majority of retailers are based in the CBD, however there is a smaller retail centre towards the south of the town at Redwoodtown with a supermarket and a number of smaller shops. To the northwest, the Westwood centre includes several large national retailers. To the southeast, a few kilometres beyond the main town boundary, the Riverlands industrial area includes a number of businesses including transport, engineering, wine, and food processing among others.

Schools and Educational Facilities

Blenheim has a range of public and private educational facilities from early childhood through to tertiary level.

Early Childhood

Early childhood education includes five kindergartens run by Marlborough Kindergaten Association, three preschools run by Blenheim Early Childhood Centres, and a number of other private preschools.

Primary Schools

Blenheim has six state primary schools that cater to years one to six, and one state full primary and one state integrated full primary (Years 1-8) .

Intermediate School

Bohally Intermediate caters for students between years 7 and 8.

Area School

Richmond View School is a coeducational state integrated school that was a full primary until the end of 2018, when it changed status to an area school, with the ability to offer year 1-13 education, with education from year 9 and above rolled out gradually over a period of several years.

Secondary Schools

Blenheim has two single sex secondary schools, Marlborough Boys' College, and Marlborough Girls' College, which were formed in 1963 when the former coeducational Marlborough College was split, with Marlborough Boys' College occupying the site of the original coeducational school.

Tertiary Education

Blenheim has a campus of NMIT with courses specific to viticulture and aviation.


Blenheim is the largest population centre in Marlborough, with a population at the 2018 Census of 26,832 or about 57 percent of Marlborough's population. Over 20 percent of Blenheim's population is over 65 years old, considerably higher than the national value of 15.2 percent, while the number of children under 15 years old is slightly lower than the national value. Due to its mild climate and central location in New Zealand, Blenheim is a popular retirement location, hence its high elderly demographic.

Web Links

Cite this page

Blenheim (Te Waiharakeke). (2024) Retrieved May, 29, 2024, from