Mount Cook School in Wellington

A DigitalNZ Story by DigitalNZ

Mt Cook School in Wellington is on a hill originally named Pukeahu. With the arrival of European settlers, Pukeahu was renamed Mount Cook after Captain Cook.

These resources and text relate to both a Wellington City hill (Pukeahu) and the school (Mt Cook School) built on it.  Resources have been sourced and collated from DigitalNZ and other websites.  

Mount Cook School, Wellington

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Overlooking Wellington from Mount Cook

Alexander Turnbull Library


Mt Cook School, Wellington

In 1875 separate girls’ and boys’ schools in a building on the northern side of Buckle Street, on the Tory Street corner were established.  Two years later, across Tory Street, Mount Cook Infants’ School opened for three to eight-year-olds. It was New Zealand’s first kindergarten school.
Rapidly increasing rolls at both the boys’ and the girls’ schools put pressure on the space. In 1878 Taranaki Street Boys’ School opened on a site opposite Webb Street. Buckle Street Girls’ School remained at the Buckle Street site. In 1906 all three schools came under the leadership of one headmaster. From the late 1880s until the 1920s there were ongoing issues with overcrowding and, later, with the standard of the buildings.
In 1925 plans were made to build a new school to accommodate all three schools. A year later Mount Cook Main School opened on Buckle Street. In the mid-1970s Mount Cook School had moved again, into a wooden building further away from Mount Cook, down Tory Street. The old brick building on Buckle Street was demolished.

Source:, the website of Manatū Taonga – Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Updated on 23rd July 2015 


The hill Mt Cook School is located on has two names: Pukeahu and Mount Cook. Both reflect its rich history. Māori have had a long association with Pukeahu, from pre-historic times until the present day. European settlers, recognising its prominent position, began using and changing the hill from 1840. 

Why Pukeahu?

In the Māori language ‘puke’ means hill, and ‘ahu’ is an altar or stone platform, or the central stone of a marae. So Pukeahu (sometimes spelt ‘Puke Ahu’) suggests the idea of a ‘sacred hill’ – a sacred place to perform rituals. We know the name Pukeahu was given to this hill by the Ngāi Tara iwi (tribe). However, there is no record of why they gave it that name. Since European settlement in the 1840s, Pukeahu has been heavily modified, leaving little of the pre-colonial landscape. The cone-shaped hilltop was flattened off and lowered by some 30 metres, and so any remnants of Māori use and occupation are likely to have long since been removed. 

Why Mount Cook?

With the arrival of European settlers, Pukeahu was renamed Mount Cook, after British explorer Captain James Cook, who first voyaged to New Zealand in 1769–70.


Quick facts 

  • Mt Cook was originally called Pukeahu by Maori. It was variously called Cook’s Mount, Cook’s Hill and Mt Cook by the first settlers in honour of James Cook the famous English navigator.
  • Mt Cook was higher when European settlers first arrived. Over the years it has been levelled by 25 metres through excavation for building foundations and for clay (to supply local brickworks). 
  • The Mt Cook area has been the site of jails, military barracks, brickworks, the National Art Gallery & Dominion Museum, schools (The Buckle Street public school & Mt Cook Boys School), some market gardens, a military HQ, an observatory, police station, a dog pound, soup kitchen, technical college, a University, a World War One exhibition venue and recently Pukeahu National War Memorial Park. 
  • In 1879 the Mount Cook Barracks became home to 77 prisoners from Parihaka, in Taranaki. They had been arrested for ploughing land they owned but had been confiscated by the Government. The prisoners were never tried and most spent 15 months in jail. 
  • There is a memorial to Parihaka prisoners at Pukeahu. The memorials two large stones represent a prisoner with a bowed heading and covered with a blanket.
  • The former Home of Compassion Crèche, at the eastern side of Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, was constructed in 1914. It one of New Zealand’s first dedicated child day-care buildings. It is also the last remnant of the intensive Catholic presence around Buckle and Tory streets which began as early as the 1880s.

Other resources

From Pukeahu to Mount Cook  — with the arrival of European settlers, Pukeahu was renamed Mount Cook.

Hikurangi Primary School  — Hikurangi: Past, present and future.

Hora Hora Primary  — the children at Hora Hora Primary walked in the forest above their school and found the remains of a civilization.

Kilbirnie School  — a past pupil goes to war.

Mt Cook  — the tiny school in the shadow of the mountain.

Mt Cook School gets its first hall Muritai School— the Wahine, 50 years on.

Pukeahu— Ngā kōrero o nehera e pā ana ki Pukeahu

Pukeahu wāhi maumahara — Ko te pae tukutuku o Manatū Taonga. Ko te wāhi maumahara pakanga o Pukeahu. 

Puke Ahu Archaeology — this resource has been designed for teaching and research at Massey University and local high schools.

Te tai — walk outside. Crouch down. Put your hand on the ground. Do you know the history of this piece of earth that lies under your hand?

The History of Mount Cook Pukeahu — the area around Mount Cook/Pukeahu has played an important part in the history of New Zealand / Aotearoa.

Other place-based learning resources

Historical significance and sites of memory how students could use memorials and heritage sites to engage with the concept of significance.

Hutt Central School — who knows who, building curious New Zealanders.

Tapa whenua – naming places — the naming of places by early Polynesian explorers and Māori

Tapa whenua — Ko te tapa whenua te kupu a te Māori mō te hoatu ingoa ki tēnā wāhi, ki tēnā wāhi, ki tēnā wāhi. 

He mahere ingoa wāhi o Aotearoa — He mahere whakataurite i ngā ingoa wāhi.

Māori vs Pākehā ingoa wāhi — Ko ngā ingoa wāhi Māori rite ki ngā ingoa wāhi Pākehā.

Ngā ingoa wāhi o Aotearoa — Kei tēnei pae tukutuku ngā kōrero e pā ana ki ngā ingoa wāhi. Nā Malcolm McKinnon i tuhi.

Place names - Māori and Pākehā names — a distinctive characteristic of Aotearoa New Zealand is the combination of Māori and non-Māori place names.

Toitū te whenua — Ko tēnei pae tukutuku he wahi kimi ingoa wāhi i Aotearoa nei. 

Kaitiaki of the stream by Pataka Moore, Level 2, 2013. Year 4. 

Te Takanga o te Wa Maori History  — guidelines for Year 1 – 8.

Towards a culturally-responsive and place-conscious theory of teaching  — five principles that together help history teachers enact a culturally responsive and place-conscious theory of history teaching. 

Te Whakahirahira o ngā ingoa wāhi— He pūrongo e pā ana ki te whakahirahira o ngā ingoa wāhi. 

Buckle Street, Wellington

Alexander Turnbull Library

Fertile questions

  • Who decides what names places get? 
  • He aha te hiranga o te ingoa? 
  • Nā te aha i mana ai te ingoa?
  • What does the name Mt Cook School tell us about whose story matters?  
  • How is place linked to history? 
  • Whose land is your school on? 
  • What is your fertile question?


  • How do places become significant?
  • Why and how were/are places given names?