For a long time negative images of cities held sway in New Zealand. Anti-urbanism was a strong undercurrent from the beginning of colonial settlement. The country was imagined by its European founders as a largely rural society whose economy would be agriculturally based. The main role of towns and cities was to support this function. No one wanted to replicate the city slums of the old world in the new.
During the 19th century the vision matched the reality. Most people lived in rural areas and worked in agriculture, forestry or mining. But by the 1880s it was evident there was a drift of people to towns and cities – in 1881 nearly 40% of the population was urban. The trend alarmed those who believed city growth and rural depopulation would foster old world ills and threaten New Zealand’s economy.
Critics considered city life sapped people’s strength. In 1879 one thought it ‘suicidal vanity’ to bring up ‘children with a view to them wearing broadcloth and idling away their time behind bank counters or at lawyers’ desks …. The Mrs Brown of a New Zealand city ... is very apt to think her Frederick, dressed like a gentleman and sporting a lot of jewellery, is a much finer sight than the same unique being would be at work behind his father’s bench or guiding his father’s plough.’1
The government agreed, and promoted small farm settlement schemes such as dairying to city workers – with limited success. In 1889 it formally entrenched the country quota, which gave greater parliamentary representation (and therefore power) to rural districts. Anti-city rhetoric was also ratcheted up. The Liberal politician Walter Syme noted that the very existence of cities depended on settlement of the land. His colleague Frederick Baume added the (much-repeated) refrain that farmers could live without lawyers and shopkeepers, but no New Zealander could live without farmers. Such was the hostility to city life that William Pember Reeves spoke of an ‘agrarian cult’ in New Zealand, and commented that to be a townsman ‘has almost been to wear a badge of inferiority’.2
There were other reasons that people worried about city growth. Many believed cities were emasculating, turning rugged rural men into wasp-waisted wimps. Sporting stiff shirt collars, not simple neckbands, and holding a pen, rather than an axe, the city clerk was the derided symbol of this metamorphosis. Commentators constantly worried about the abundance of effeminate clerks and the lack of (manly) farm workers.
Associated with this was the anxiety that city life degraded body and mind. In the cities, ‘the hearing flags, the muscles slacken; the nerves grow weak; and the fever of the over-driven brain saps gradually the strength of the body.’3 It was believed that this had dire implications for national defence. The solution suggested was for city parents to encourage their children to up sticks to the country to engage in strength-inducing manual work.
Weedy and nervous
Birth rates were said to be 33% lower in the city – further confirmation that cities sapped vitality. People feared New Zealand faced ‘race suicide’ unless the urbanising tide was turned. In fact in 1905 birth rates in the main cities were higher than the national average. Nonetheless, the belief that cities robbed children of their health and strength remained strong.
But the city did have its defenders. Boosters and publicists used the growth of cities as evidence of New Zealand’s ‘civilization’ and rapid progress. New city buildings and institutions – museums, hospitals and universities – showed the ‘go-ahead’ spirit of the colonist and were favourably compared to those in European cities. One booster even predicted Wellington would become the London of the South Pacific.
Meanwhile, country folk could appear unsophisticated bumpkins to city dwellers, one commentator declaring the colony’s asylums were filled with country people – sometimes shepherds driven mad by loneliness. Others noted that it was ‘townsfolk who rave most about the delights of ruralising’, but ‘very few would exchange their city life for the most beautiful sylvan dwelling.’4 Towns and cities were becoming better places to live and the better they became the ‘stronger the influence of their magnetism on the rural population.’5
An urban society
Such was the pull that in 1911 New Zealand officially became an urban society – with just over 50% of people living in towns and cities. Fears of catastrophic national decline failed to materialise.
While opening up the land had been labour-intensive, increasing mechanisation had made agriculture much less so. Sending city dwellers to settle on small blocks fulfilled dreams of a rural idyll, but it denied the reality that it was an inefficient way to farm. Many rural workers recognised this and left their country homes for the widening work and leisure opportunities of towns and cities.