From the beginning of organised European settlement in New Zealand, newcomers have brought class expectations. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose ideas influenced the southern settlements, envisaged a society of traditional rural classes, with a land-owning aristocracy, small farmers, and hard-working labourers. The ships that brought the first migrants were divided between the cabin class of upper-class passengers who paid their own way, and the steerage accommodation of working people, who often got assisted passage (all or part of their fares were paid to encourage them to emigrate).
It has often been claimed that colonial New Zealand possessed an aristocratic gentry, especially among the South Island land-owning families of Canterbury and Otago. Certainly there were wealthy families; in Canterbury a surprising number were headed by the younger sons of aristocratic British families. From 1840 to 1929 there were over 1,000 people who left estates in those two provinces worth more than £10,000 (around $1 million in today's money), and about half of these were rural landowners. There were 174 pastoralists (who owned large sheep farms) who left estates with an average value of almost £75,000 (about $7 million). Many of these families had very large houses with landscaped gardens. They had servants and gardeners, followed English fashions in furnishings, and imported antique furniture. Like the English aristocracy, they hosted balls and paid ‘calls’ on their neighbours. They sent their children, especially sons, to private secondary schools, either elite local schools like Christ’s College or even back ‘home’ to England.
House and garden
Many South Island landowners aspired to an English woodland and garden. In 1859 Sir David Monro, a Nelson pastoralist and political leader, ordered 100 ash trees, 100 sycamores, some mulberries and arbutus, 200 oaks, 200 plane trees, and a dozen beech trees.
Sometimes the rural elite exercised leadership as local squires, officers in the local militia and representatives in Wellington. Sir John Hall, who owned about 12,150 hectares at Hororata, funded the local Anglican church, the village hall and the domain. He was a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council for its whole life and eventually became a minister and then premier in the colonial government. Most of Otago’s provincial superintendents and three out of four in Canterbury owned large areas of land.
The rural elite were not the only men with aristocratic pretensions. In Dunedin there was a commercial elite – merchants like John Macfarlane Ritchie, who became President of the elite Dunedin club, or the importers and later clothing manufacturers John Ross and Robert Glendinning. In Auckland there were importers like Sir John Logan Campbell, who eventually gave his One Tree Hill estate to the city, or the lawyer and entrepreneur Frederick Whitaker. Such people lived in very large houses in select parts of the city. In Wellington too a visiting Scot, David Kennedy, claimed in the 1870s that ‘[b]eing the seat of Government, there is a high upper circle of aristocracy, which is more apparent than in any other New Zealand town.’1
No idle rich
Yet compared with the European aristocracy, the colonial elite were a small bourgeois group involved in actively managing farms or running businesses. They were not a hereditary class who enjoyed their privileges in leisure. The vast majority came from middle class, not gentry, backgrounds in Britain; many were sons of artisans, small farmers or traders. Their competitive advantage was less often their birth than that they had arrived and set up business early. They were nearly all working proprietors heavily involved in the running of farms or businesses. They were entrepreneurial in approach, with the classic middle-class values of sobriety and hard work. They usually divided their estates among all their children, including their daughters, rather than following male primogeniture which involved passing on property to the eldest son – the essential device for inherited status. The very rich, with estates of over £40,000, were few, numbering less than 2% of all who left estates.
Undoubtedly there was a bourgeois elite in colonial and early 20th-century New Zealand, but not an English-style aristocracy.