At the time of early European colonization in the late 19th century, Alexander Hatrick establish one of New Zealand’s largest commercial concerns and is regarded as New Zealand’s first successful tourism entrepreneur.

In 1875, at the young age of 17, Alexander arrived in New Zealand with four friends. After a short stay on the West Coast, he heard about a great river being used for navigation by Maoris so he moved to the township of Wanganui to search for potential money-making schemes involving the river. He started this new chapter of his life by working at a local foundry, then, in April 1880, he opened a steam chaff-cutting and grain-crushing mill in partnership with his brother-in-law, Lewis Walker. Trading as Walker and Hatrick, the boys were soon dealing in a variety of farm produce and trading between Wanganui, Nelson and the West Coast. By October 1884 they operated vessels that traded with Queensland, and a year later, eager to become rich and famous, they became shipping agents. In 1886 Alexander took full control of the company and quickly began extending the scope of its operations. This included the sale of wine, spirits and farm equipment along with general merchandise. The busy lad also became an agent for various fire and marine insurance companies. On 2nd January 1888 Alexander purchased his first sea going vessel, the St Kilda. The modest 189 tonne ship sailed for Sydney on 19 January 1889 and for 15 years made regular trips across the Tasman Sea. The St Kilda was followed by the Alexa in 1904 and the Wanganui in 1910.


In March 1889 the young businessman renamed his company A. Hatrick and Company, and embarked on a grand enterprise that would earn it a worldwide reputation. With knowledge of local developments, he was now certain the Wanganui River would become a money-making tourist route as well as a communication link with the interior of the North Island. Although others had failed, he believed he would be successful supplying boat services on this long, mostly navigable river. His plans were given a boost when he was awarded the government mail contract for the 55 miles (88.5km) between Wanganui and Pipiriki with the service to begin in 1892. His first river boat, the paddle-steamer Wairere had accommodation for 250 passengers and made its maiden voyage on 18 December 1891.

In April the following year, he signed a contract with Thomas Cook and Son to carry tourists on the river, and on 24 May the Wairere started a regular weekly mail, passenger and cargo service to Pipiriki. It was joined in 1894 by the much larger Manuwai which could carry 400 passengers. Three years later, he added a third smaller vessel, the Ohura, to his fleet of Wanganui River boats.


The young ship owner was now on a roll and decided to develop a tourist industry. To this end, in July 1901 Alexander purchased Pipiriki House, the only accommodation establishment in Wanganui, and quickly went about developing it into a luxury 40 room tourist hotel. At this time, he also extended the river service a further 89 miles (143km) to Taumarunui, which was then the terminus for the railway line from Auckland.

His next tourist enterprise was a large houseboat that he had built in Taumarunui and floated down to the mouth of the Ohura River. The Makere could accommodate 36 guests and was fully equipped with the latest technologies including electric light, hot showers and flush toilets. To add an accent to the luxuries onboard, he even provided waitresses in starched aprons to serve guests the finest foods available in the area. With all this in place, Alexander could provide a three-day service from Wanganui or Taumarunui, with overnight stops at Pipiriki House and the houseboat. Despite the difficulty of getting around the young colony, his tourism venture quickly became a success and by 1905, 12,000 tourists had stayed at Pipiriki House.


Alexander understood the power of promotion. His publicity material detailed the local scenic attractions and billed ‘his’ river destination as the ‘Rhine of Maoriland’. Posters and booklets promoting the Wanganui River area were distributed in Britain and America by Thomas Cook and Son. In June 1910 he assisted the French film makers Pathé Frères to make an 18-minute film of Wanganui, the riverboats and the river. This film featured various scenic highlights including the vine ladders Maoris used to climb the cliffs to their settlements high above. These ladders proved to be of great interest to wealthy overseas tourists who had ‘done’ Europe and Egypt and were searching for the unusual and fantastic in far off lands. Needless to say, the French film had a role to play in increasing tourist numbers to Alexander’s ships and hotel and houseboat. No doubt, the film would also have featured the work needed to keep his ships sailing as navigation on parts of the river was difficult. Channels had to be constantly cleared and cables attached to the ships were used to winch them over the fastest rapids. To add to the excitement, ship crews communicated with the shore by carrier pigeons until telephones were installed in 1914.

Apart from the tourists, Alexander’s boats were also used by local Maori, by the staff manning the mission stations and by settlers moving into the hinterland which was at the time being opened for settlement. The ships were an important means of cargo transport, carrying domestic supplies, stock and mail, wool and other farm produce. They also carried hundreds of workers and large quantities of the material and machinery required for building the viaducts and central section of the main trunk railway line.

A large fire destroyed Pipiriki House on 10 March 1909 but within 11 months the astute businessman had it rebuilt as the most up-to-date tourist hotel in New Zealand. By December 1911 he had a staggering 19 vessels operating on the river. These included steam ships and even motorized canoes. All of them were repaired at the workshops he had built to maintain his fleet of ships.


To say Alexander Hatrick was a busy man was an understatement. By December 1910, he was involved in 40 commercial activities. He was also managing director of a lucrative steel water-pipe company, and an early importer of motor vehicles into New Zealand. By 1918 the company was the largest motor firm in the country with branches in Wellington, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne and London. Apart from his business commitments, he was also prominent in public life. He served on the Wanganui Harbour Board. As mayor from 1897 to 1904, he cranked things up in the town by overseeing the development of the gas works, the town’s water supply and the tramways. The opera house was also built during his mayoralty. Needless to say, his contribution to the economy of the Wanganui region was enormous. He not only provided numerous services and commodities but also employed a large number of people.

Alexander was also a humanitarian. He made efforts to protect historic and natural features on the river. Mother Aubert and her sisters at the catholic mission at Jerusalem on the banks of the upper river always enjoyed free travel on his riverboats and women attending the 1901 National Council of Women convention were given a free day’s outing on the Manuwai.

In Wanganui today, there are reminders of the vision and practical skills this extraordinarily successful business pioneer managed to achieve in the heyday of European settlement. The best known of these is the paddle steamer Waimarie which Alexander added to his riverboat fleet in 1902. It still chugs up and down the river and is now one of the best loved historic attractions in the region.

PS: I used the original spelling of ‘Wanganui” An “h” was added only a few years ago so it would have been spelt as above in the time I have written about in this blog.

Ceidrik Heward

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