Established in 1855, it was named after Bishop John William Colenso, first Anglican bishop in Natal, and advocate for the Zulu cause.

Colenso is another of the wayside towns on the road to the north, which originated as a simple collection of business establishments at the fording of a river, in this case the Tugela. Bishop Colenso, after whom the town is named, was a renowned religious leader and the Zulu called him “Sobantu” [father of the people].

During the Anglo-Boer War the British army used Colenso as a base area for their attempts to relieve the siege of Ladysmith. Several major battles of the War were also fought in the vicinity.