For many New Zealanders, the beach is a place for fun and relaxation. In pre-European times, Māori children learnt to swim from an early age. They would jump from rocks, compete in races and play in small canoes (waka or kōpapa). In areas with large surf, especially the east coast of the North Island, there appears to have been a strong tradition of surfing (whakahekeheke), using wooden planks, small canoes or simply bodysurfing.
The British seaside
Britain had a sense of the seaside as a site of leisure. From the 18th century the wealthy began to visit resorts like Brighton, on England’s south coast. When the railway made beaches more accessible, the seaside became an attraction for all classes.
It was a highly commercial place with pleasure palaces, music halls, slot machines and plenty of fun on the sand for the children – donkey rides, merry-go-rounds, and Punch and Judy puppet shows. There was food such as fish and chips, ice cream in cones and candyfloss. The atmosphere was of a carnival, an escape from the daily grind.
Not many people went swimming, although children did paddle in the shallows. However, from the 1870s people believed that sea water was good for health, and adults took to the sea. Men and women were segregated, and they were expected to hire horse-drawn wooden bathing machines, which were pulled into the water to protect people’s modesty as they went in and out of the sea.
The New Zealand seaside
This commercialisation emerged in parts of New Zealand at the start of the 20th century. At New Brighton, on Christchurch’s coast, a pier was built, in the hope that the town would imitate its English namesake. In Wellington, the ferry, Cobar, took day trippers across the harbour to Days Bay, where they could slide down a water chute, explore a castle or visit a zoo with monkeys and exotic birds. Later, Caroline Bay in Timaru, a totally artificial beach, was developed as a commercial seaside with aviaries, a sound shell, a skating rink and pony rides.
But most New Zealanders came to the beach to picnic or to promenade in a relaxed fashion, not to spend money or swim. Photographs suggest that it was only young children, with their trousers rolled up, who paddled in the sea. Adults’ clothes were formal. Bathing machines were rarely used, and the prohibition against mixed bathing remained strong.
The opening of public baths from the 1880s encouraged a growing interest in swimming, and men began to swim in the sea, sometimes in the nude – to considerable public outrage. In 1901, the New Zealand Graphic argued for mixed bathing, and by the end of the decade local councils were abandoning their previous prohibitions and passing by-laws requiring clothing from neck to knee.
By the 1920s, the beach had become established as a place for swimming. Trams took people to the beaches close to cities, such as Sumner in Christchurch or Titahi Bay in Wellington. The spread of cars opened up wider horizons, such as Piha in West Auckland, and Castlepoint on the Wairarapa coast.
For the first time, New Zealand began to promote its beaches and mountains to tourists. Like other parts of the Western world, it discovered the attraction of the sun. Sunbathing and swimming became part of the New Zealand dream.