Story: City children and youth

Page 4. Bad behaviour

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Smaller communities kept child and adolescent behaviour in check through constant surveillance. In cities, due to their size and diversity, such close policing was impossible. It was easier for the young to engage in anti-social and delinquent behaviour – widely known as larrikinism. According to one 1880 critic, larrikinism was born in the ‘narrow lanes ... crowded alleys and reeking habitations’ of cities, ‘where ignorance and crime have their headquarters’.1 In other words, it was a product of city life.

Larrikin behaviour

Larrikinism and street life were closely aligned; there were few other immediate places for children to play. Much larrikin behaviour was harmless fun. It included playing street cricket or football, often accompanied by howling and screaming, annoying some adults. Games played on a Sunday (a religious day of rest) further offended the righteous.

Some behaviour was designed to annoy adults: smoking and drinking on streets, insulting girls and women, spitting on footpaths, throwing stones, and knocking on doors then running away. Targets for these latter pursuits – which were more thrilling if the victim gave chase – were often elderly bachelors and spinsters, and drunks.

At the criminal end of the scale was vandalism and assault. In 1877 seats and fencing at Dunedin’s cricket oval were smashed by a horde of youthful hoodlums. In 1908 a Christchurch street speaker was pelted with mud by a ‘mob of larrikins’.2


Closely aligned with larrikinism were youth gangs. Gang initiation ceremonies – such as urinating into caps – were common, and many developed their own secret languages. Territory was staunchly defended against ‘invaders’.

The emphasis on fighting and physicality meant boys dominated gangs. Girls were expected to uphold higher standards and not lark about, but still occasionally fought each other.

Bodgies and widgies

Larrikinism found new expression in the 1950s bodgie (male) and widgie (female) sub-culture. Influenced by Hollywood movies of teenage revolt, they wore unconventional clothing and listened to rock and roll music, often in American-styled milk bars. Many rode noisy motorcycles. Boy and girl racers – adolescents who illegally race cars on streets – are their 21st-century successors.

Milk-bar cowboy

Merv Griffith was a milk-bar cowboy (bodgie with a motorbike), who hung out at Elbe’s Milk Bar in Lower Hutt: ‘You would roar down there on a Friday night and sit round and comb your hair and try and look beautiful on your bikes. Then you would go in and have a milkshake and … try and pick up the birds [girls]. If you managed to pick up a bird, the main aim was to go like hell and the louder the screams from the pillion seat, the more successful the mission.’3

Moral panics

Larrikinism suggested a breakdown of urban family life – seemingly confirmed by occasional panics about juvenile delinquency in cities. When John Clareburt was tried in a Napier court in 1894 for having sex with five girls under the age of 14, public debate focused mostly on lax parenting and the girls’ depravity, rather than Clareburt’s abusive behaviour. Another panic occurred 60 years later when groups of Lower Hutt adolescents were discovered having sex while under the age of consent. A government inquiry (the Mazengarb report) laid the blame on teenage temptresses, working mothers and modern city life.

Supervising play

The solution, authorities agreed, lay in greater adult control and supervision of the activities of children and teenagers. Municipal playgrounds – with swings, roundabouts, and seesaws – became popular from the 1910s as a way of encouraging more structured play.

Policing play

In 1933 a Wellington bylaw was introduced to control children’s play. It declared that anyone who ‘flies any kite, uses any bow or arrow or other projectile, bowls any hoop, casts, throws or projects any stone, or other missile by hand, catapult, shanghai, or otherwise, or plays football, cricket or any other game, to the annoyance, danger, inconvenience or obstruction of any person in or on any streets, private street or public space’ was committing an offence.4 It proved impossible to police.

School cadets, who were given military-style training, and the growth of organised sport was another response. By taking young people off the streets and teaching discipline and new skills, they could be shaped into morally and physically fit young adults. Scouting and Girl Guides, which emphasised outdoor games, camping and survival skills, also proved popular. Sunday schools, Bible classes and youth groups such as the YMCA and YWCA offered morally improving games and activities.

Modern larrikinism

Despite such initiatives, larrikinism remains an aspect of city life. In the 2000s tagging (graffiti) was the latest adolescent pastime to annoy the adult world. In the late 1990s, Los Angeles-styled youth gangs emerged in South Auckland, then spread elsewhere. Gangs are defined by differently coloured bandanas and coded hand signals. Territory is marked through tagging; crossing into a rival gang’s territory can provoke bitter clashes.

  1. West Coast Times, 31 August 1880. Back
  2. Evening Post, 1 June 1908, p. 7. Back
  3. Quoted in Redmer Yska, All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties. Auckland: Penguin, 1993, p. 66. Back
  4. Wellington City Council Consolidated Bylaw, no. 1, 1933. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City children and youth - Bad behaviour', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 July 2022)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010