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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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In pre-European days and until 1860, the larger part of the population of New Zealand was in the North Island. The South Island was the more densely populated from 1860 until 1900, largely because of the discovery of gold in the sixties, the relatively easy availability of land, and the South Island's freedom from Maori troubles. After 1900, when the populations of the two islands were roughly equal, the North Island went ahead rapidly. This was largely due to the Government's opening up of new lands suitable for dairy farming and available in small lots, which in turn led to improvements in communications culminating in the completion of the Main Trunk railway line from Wellington to Auckland in 1908. The South Island suffered both from the exhaustion of its goldfields and from the development of industry in the North Island centres with larger populations and easier access to world shipping routes, following the opening of the Panama Canal.

The following table shows the populations of the two islands over the past 35 years.

The great bulk of the Maoris has always lived in the North Island. Of the 167,086 Maoris enumerated at the 1961 census, 159,946 were in the North Island, and 7,140 in the South Island. The proportions these figures represent – almost 96 per cent of the Maori population shown as living in the North Island and only 4 per cent in the South Island – have varied relatively little since the first Maori census of 1857–58.

During the two periods, 1926–36 and 1936–45, the total net gain in population to the South Island was, in fact, lower than its gain through natural increase. The movement away from the South Island between 1936 and 1945 was largely due to wartime population disturbances, including the absence of troops overseas, together with the movement of workers to the clothing and munitions factories of the North Island, either voluntarily or under manpower regulations.

Since 1945 the tendency for the North Island to gain population more rapidly than the South has continued, although at a slightly diminished pace.

Population in North and South Island, 1926–61
Census Year Population (Including Maoris)
North Island South Island Total
No. No. No.
1926 892,679 515,460 1,408,139
1936 1,018,036 555,774 1,573,810
1945 1,146,292 556,006 1,702,298
1951 1,313,869 625,603 1,939,472
1956 1,497,364 676,698 2,174,062
1961 1,684,785 730,199 2,414,984
Per Cent Per Cent Per Cent
1926 63·39 36·61 100·00
1936 64·69 35·31 100·00
1945 67·34 32·66 100·00
1951 67·74 32·26 100·00
1956 68·87 31·13 100·00
1961 69·76 30·24 100·00

The population figures for counties are considerably affected by urban drift – the gradual movement of population from rural areas to the towns. This population trend is neither new nor peculiar to New Zealand. It is common to many countries and seems to mark a stage in economic development. Losses in population during the intercensal period 1956–61 were recorded by about half the counties – 61 out of a total of 121. Of these, 38 were among the 69 counties in the North Island, and 23 among the South Island's total of 52 counties.

Urban drift has taken place over a considerable period – with, however, a marked check between 1926 and 1936. Very severe depression conditions in the latter half of the decade probably constituted the main factor in this trend. Lack of employment in the towns acted as a deterrent to the urban flow, while many unemployed either returned to their homes in country districts or were sent through the Unemployment Board to rural areas to take part in relief works, gold prospecting, and small-farm schemes. Between 1936 and 1945 the marked acceleration in the movement from country to town was a direct result of wartime conditions. In the postwar period the urban drift has continued, though not at the same pace.

The following table shows urban and rural populations at the 1961 census, with the urban population subdivided according to the size of towns. All boroughs and town districts with less than 1,000 population have been classed with county population as rural, as have extra-county islands, while migratory (shipboard) population is excluded.

The table is subject to the disadvantage that a slight increase in the population of towns near the group maxima may throw their whole population into the next group, or a merger of local bodies may produce the same result.

Urban and Rural Population: Census, 1961
Boroughs and Town Districts with Population of Number of Towns Number Per Cent of Total
1,000– 2,499 33 56,117 2·33
2,500– 4,999 39 136,605 5·67
5,000– 9,999 29 197,180 8·18
10,000–24,999 21 361,023 14·98
25,000 or over 12 782,955 32·50
Totals, urban 134 1,533,880 63·66
Totals, rural .. 875,539 36·34
Grand totals (excluding migratory) .. 2,409,419 100·00

Urban and rural communities are not evenly distributed. The South Island, for example, contains proportionately a greater rural population than does the North Island.

At the 1961 census a total of 1,439,802 people, amounting to 59·62 per cent of the total New Zealand population, was enumerated in the 18 urban areas. These urban areas are statistical conceptions and not administrative units. Their purpose is to provide definite, stable, and comparable boundaries for the larger centres of population. In addition to the central city or borough, they include neighbouring boroughs and parts of counties which are regarded as suburban to the centre of population. Moving from north to south, the 18 urban areas are Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Gisborne, Napier, Hastings, New Plymouth, Wanganui, Palmerston North, Hutt, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin, and Invercargill.

The percentage of the population living in the urban areas has risen since 1956, when a total of 1,253,280 people, amounting to 57·65 per cent of the total population, was enumerated in these areas. This rise of 2 per cent between 1956 and 1961 is the most considerable intercensal rise since 1945. In 1936 the percentage of the population living in the 18 urban areas was 52·70 per cent. As there was a gap of almost 10 years – a period that included the Second World War – between the 1936 census and that of 1945, it is hardly surprising that the population living in urban areas was found to have risen by over 4 per cent, to a total of 56·92 per cent in 1945. Between 1945 and 1956, increases in the percentage of urban area dwellers in the total population were relatively slight. The figure was 57·44 per cent in 1951, and 57·65 per cent in 1956. It should be noted, however, that the dwellers in urban areas do not constitute the entire urban population of New Zealand. A large number of boroughs and county towns of considerable size are outside any urban area. This includes some boroughs with populations of over 10,000 such as Masterton, Blenheim, Ashburton, and Oamaru.

For many years past, over 70 per cent of the urban area population has been concentrated in five main centres – the urban areas of Auckland, Hutt, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. In recent censuses the percentage has tended to fall slightly from the peak of 73·64 per cent recorded in 1945, which was partly attributable no doubt to wartime conditions. The lower proportion of the total urban area population in these five centres (71·08 per cent in 1961) may indicate a tendency for urban area growth to be more evenly spread.

The urban areas as a whole are growing in population more quickly than the country as a whole. Between 1956 and 1961 urban area population increased by 14·9 per cent, whereas the total New Zealand population increased by only 11·08 per cent. The rate of growth varied considerably between different urban areas, ranging from 31·70 per cent in the urban area of Tauranga to 5·67 per cent in the urban area of Dunedin.

As cities become larger, a movement of population from the central areas to the perimeter or outer areas is commonly experienced. Among the main reasons for this is the demand for central sites for commercial and industrial purposes, with a consequent rise in values, and increases in local taxation. In New Zealand, as a result of this trend, the larger cities such as Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin are tending to develop “hollow centres” from the point of view of population. Paradoxically, while the taking-over of central building sites for shops, offices, banks, and places of entertainment etc., is resulting in a relative depopulation of the inner areas of the main cities, the very facilities and employment opportunities offered as a result of this development are largely responsible, along with the growth of suburban secondary industries, for attracting further population to the same cities, with a consequent urban spread.