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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.




From the 1840s to the early 1870s New Zealand traded mainly with Australia. With the growth of regular direct shipping services in the 1870s Britain became, and has remained, New Zealand's best customer and the main source of imports.


Exports to Britain from the earliest period have been mainly primary products. Wool accounted for 60 per cent of total annual exports in the later 1870s, with gold, Phormium tenax (flax), and grain among the other important items. But it was not until the introduction of refrigeration in the 1880s that the familiar pattern of New Zealand exports of butter, cheese, frozen meat, and wool was established. In 1885 exports of butter and cheese were only 273 cwt and 272 cwt respectively; by 1892 they had risen to 41,509 cwt and 30,000 cwt. Gold and Phormium were beginning to decrease in importance in a growing export trade which reflected an increasingly pastoral character of production within New Zealand. In 1924 butter, cheese, meat, and wool, together, accounted for £38,000,000 out of total shipments of £42,000,000. From 1875 to 1914 the value of New Zealand exports to Britain quickly increased; 80 per cent of the country's total exports went to Britain. Throughout the 1920s, however, the value of exports to Britain fluctuated and the percentage of exports absorbed by the United Kingdom showed a decline. The depression caused a fall in world prices for pastoral products, reflected by a drop in the value of exports to Britain during 1929–32. Britain's share rose to 88 per cent of New Zealand's total exports in 1932.

Immediately after the Ottawa Agreement of 1932 the value of exports to Britain began to rise again; by 1937 it reached £50,000,000, an increase of about £20,000 on the value for 1931. Just before the Second World War butter, frozen meat, wool, cheese, gold, hides and skins, tallow, apples, dried milk, and sausage casings were the main goods exported. The “big four” (butter, cheese, wool, and meat) had reached proportions in terms of quantity closely approximating those of today. During the Second World War the value of exports fluctuated. Trade was then based on bulk purchase of primary produce. Bulk purchase of wool and sheepskins was given up when the war ended; but for dairy produce and meat it continued until 1955.

Since the war the export trade with Britain has increased in value (from £98 million in 1947 to £165 million in 1959), but has decreased as a proportion of New Zealand's total exports, partly because of greater British home agricultural production and partly because of greater competition on the British market. The prospect of Britain's association with an increasingly protectionist Europe has made New Zealand not only explore other markets for its primary produce but also try to sell a more diverse range of goods to Britain. It is apparent, however, that in the absence of alternative markets of equivalent size New Zealand must always regard Britain as its main export market. Britain has also served as an entrepôt to distribute New Zealand goods (mainly wool) to Western Europe and Africa. In some years the value of such re-exported goods has exceeded £5 million.

Imports from Britain

When direct shipping services started in the 1870s Britain replaced Australia as the main source of New Zealand imports. In contrast with exports, the range of imports from Britain has been wide: apparel, textiles, metals, machinery, vehicles, oils, waxes, newsprint, and luxury goods. In the 1880s and the 1890s New Zealand imported from Britain about 60–70 per cent by value of its total imports. But by 1900 other countries, especially Canada and the United States, had begun to increase their share at Britain's expense, with the result that in 1929 Britain's share dropped to 47 per cent (£22 million out of a total value of £48 million). After the First World War the range of products available to importing countries became wider – especially those of the motor, artificial silk, cinema, and radio industries; and the United States in particular competed strongly with Britain to supply these products to New Zealand. During the 1930s the United Kingdom regained its former strong position, as trade with the United States declined after the Ottawa Agreement of 1932, with its system of preferential tariffs. At the same time British manufacturers became more vigorous in meeting foreign competition.

A Declining Market for Britain

In the Second World War the value of imports from Britain declined steadily (as did total imports) until 1942. In 1943, however, the value of imports from all sources rose, especially those from the United States, on account of lend-lease goods. The British share that year dropped to 34 per cent. After the war Britain once again became New Zealand's main source of supply, helped to some extent by post-war dollar restrictions. Thus imports from Britain, which were only £31,061,188 in 1945, rose to £87,583,194 by 1950.

The increase in multilateral trading which was a feature of the development of international trade in the 1950's resulted in a decline in the British share of total New Zealand imports. Whereas in 1954 the British share was 56·63 per cent, it had declined by 1960 to 43·52 per cent and in 1964 had fallen further to 37·8 per cent. Despite Britain's diminishing share of New Zealand's import requirements, the value of goods imported from Britain in 1964 was nearly £120 million, approximately twice the value of imports from the next largest supplier to the New Zealand market.

by John Bernard Prendergast, M.COM., Director, Overseas Trade Division, Department of Industries and Commerce, Wellington.