Story: Anniversaries

Page 3. New Zealand’s centennial, 1940

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The celebration of the nation’s centennial in 1940 was by far New Zealand’s largest such anniversary. Four years in the planning, it had extensive government involvement and a host of committees.

The committee centennial

James Rutherford, professor of history at the University of Auckland, wrote in March 1939, ‘we are all tremendously busy with all our centennial projects just now. I find to my horror I am on no less than twenty-six different committees.’1

Centennial fair

The heart of the celebration was the Centennial Exhibition fair at Rongotai, Wellington. It ran for six months from 8 November 1939, and attracted 2.6 million visitors – most of whom made a first stop at Playland, with its Cyclone roller coaster, crazy house, great white shark and Jack and Jill helter-skelter. Next door the striking art deco buildings designed by Edmund Anscombe featured a soaring central tower and masses of electric lighting and neon. There were displays of industry, transport, a large Government Court celebrating the welfare state in its glory, and Māori and women’s courts.

Robotic doctor

A starring attraction of the 9,203–square-metre Government Court was a walking, talking robot doctor, Dr Well-and-strong. Made of papier mâché, with a loudspeaker in his chest, and dressed in a smart suit, the good doctor took visitors on a tour along the ‘Highway to health and happiness’.


Perhaps to avoid the provincial disagreements of 1890, there were a series of national events around the country:

  • 2 January: unveiling of a memorial to the Arawa canoe at Maketū
  • 7 January: Day of National Thanksgiving in churches
  • 22 January: unveiling of memorial to the landing of New Zealand Company settlers at Petone
  • 30 January: re-enactment of Governor William Hobson stepping ashore at Russell
  • 5 and 6 February: a re-enactment of the Treaty of Waitangi being debated and signed, and the opening of Te Whare Rūnanga meeting house at Waitangi
  • 20 April: a re-enactment of the Crown’s assumption of sovereignty over the South Island
  • 16 November: opening of Wāhiao meeting house at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua to commemorate New Zealand’s formal separation from New South Wales.

In addition there were processions of people dressed up in pioneer clothing and parading in bullock drays in cities and townships throughout the nation. Christchurch’s procession was 2 miles long. There were bonfires, picnics and sports days.


More than 250 centennial memorials were erected, ranging from pioneer memorials to Plunket rooms, ladies' rest rooms, trees and parks.

Cultural initiatives

Partly because of the commitment of Joseph Heenan, under-secretary for Internal Affairs, to the nation’s culture, the commemoration featured impressive cultural productions. These included:

  • a Dictionary of New Zealand biography, edited by G. H. Scholefield – although the companion work, the centennial atlas, was never completed
  • 11 book-length historical surveys, which included J. C. Beaglehole’s The discovery of New Zealand, E. H. McCormick’s Letters and art in New Zealand, and Helen Simpson’s The women of New Zealand – which was the bestseller
  • Making New Zealand, a 30-part pictorial magazine survey of New Zealand
  • a 50-minute film, A hundred crowded years
  • two major centennial art exhibitions, one of mainly British works at the National Art Gallery, and the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art curated by A. H. McLintock, which travelled to 15 cities
  • a centennial orchestra, which put on concerts with choral societies in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin
  • a centennial drama festival offering a competition for the performance of one-act plays
  • musical-composition, play-writing, short-story-writing and essay-writing competitions
  • the issue of a set of centennial stamps.

Major themes

The major purpose of the anniversary was to strengthen the national spirit. For this reason the onset of the Second World War led to the cancellation of only a few events, other than the major Auckland celebrations.

This also meant that conflict and memories of conflict were avoided. So, as in 1890, the anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi did not focus on the promises made to Māori, but rather to the centenary of membership of the British Empire. There was some Māori protest – Waikato boycotted the Waitangi event and Ngāpuhi displayed red blankets in protest at the acquisition of ‘surplus’ Māori land in Northland. There were protests at Akaroa and Taranaki. However, the general sentiment was a romantic praise of the ‘Old-time Māori’ and a pride in modern race relations.

Akaroa murmurings

At Akaroa’s re-enactment of the proclamation of British sovereignty in the South Island, as the Union Jack went up the flag pole, some Ngāi Tahu were heard to mutter, ‘Way goes the land. Now the Pākehā’s got the place.’

There was also a focus on the heroic work of New Zealand’s pioneers (with people dressed in colonial costume replacing the old-timers of 1890) and the century of material progress since 1840. There was pride in the transformation of the land from bush to farmland, the growth of cities and the amazing achievements of modern transport and electricity.

Despite the air of self-congratulation, some significant New Zealand intellectuals with a more critical view of the nation received recognition during the centennial. Frank Sargeson was equal winner of the short-story competition, Douglas Lilburn won two composition competitions, E. H. McCormick was secretary of the national Historical Committee and J. C. Beaglehole was an adviser for the centennial publications.

  1. Quoted in W. L. Renwick, ed., Creating a national spirit: celebrating New Zealand’s centennial. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004, p. 131. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Anniversaries - New Zealand’s centennial, 1940', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 October 2019)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 20 Jun 2012