Story: Communes and communities

Page 1. Early communities

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Intentional communities

An intentional community is a community formed on the basis of shared belief (religious, political, social or environmental) by people from more than one family who come together to live cooperatively.

Some communities strongly challenge established notions of private property and personal privacy – members pool finances and possessions, eat together, and may even sleep communally. In other intentional communities just a few facilities are shared, and dwellings are individually owned by occupants.

Some groups deliberately withdraw from mainstream society and locate themselves far from other settlements. They aim at economic self-sufficiency, perhaps running their own businesses, and members have limited contact with non-members. Other groups are more integrated with the outside world – they are located near (or in) urban areas, and members typically have jobs outside the community.

In some communities all members are celibate, while in others people have non-monogamous relationships. Where there are children, childcare may be shared by everyone. Other communities consist of a number of nuclear families, each living in separate accommodation, but sharing some facilities, and possibly owning land communally. Some communities (mostly religious, but also feminist) are entirely male or female.

Many intentional communities are strongly egalitarian, and all members take part in making decisions. However, abusive practices can occur when a charismatic leader demands unquestioning allegiance from others.

Non-traditional Māori communities

Māori lived communally, in tribally based communities. However, some communities were formed by followers of particular spiritual and resistance leaders, rather than being based purely on traditional kinship ties.


Followers of the Taranaki prophets and resistance leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi were drawn to their settlement at Parihaka in the 1870s. Parihaka was the centre of a campaign of peaceful resistance to land alienation until it was invaded by government troops in 1881.

The City of God

The Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana created a community at Maungapōhatu in the Urewera in 1907. Residents, from the Tūhoe and Whakatōhea tribes, resisted land alienation and called themselves Iharaira (Israelites). The community survived Rua’s imprisonment in 1916, but was abandoned in the early 1930s.


From the 1920s a pan-tribal settlement of followers developed around the farm of the religious leader and healer Tahupōtiki Wīremu Rātana, south-east of Whanganui. In the 21st century it remained the centre of the Rātana movement.

Early Pākehā communities

Share and share alike

Two reporters from the Canterbury Times visited Bickerton’s Federative Home in 1899. Residents told them how the communal lifestyle avoided ‘the manifest folly of a row of a hundred tenement houses, in each of which an overworked, weary wife, assisted by restless babies, are cooking on a hundred separate stoves … [w]here a hundred little pokey parlours have to be dusted and kept in order because of the possible intrusion of the casual visitor; where to each home is the separate favourite dustheap and aesthetic rubbish box awaiting the dust cart.’1


In 1874 followers of the late Brethren preacher Albert Feist set up a community at Halcombe, near Feilding, under Feist’s brother-in-law Joseph Bridgeman Roots. Members had no private property; they farmed, and ran a sawmill and a school. However, Roots was tyrannical, and the community dissolved in the early 1890s.

Bickerton’s Federative Home

In 1896 science professor Alexander Bickerton set up a ‘federative home’ at his Christchurch property, Wainoni. Around 30 people lived there, some working in community businesses. Residents saw social unity as more important than individual success. The community dispersed around 1903 after allegations of sexual misconduct.


Beeville was an anarchist commune established near Morrinsville in 1933 by Ray Hansen and his extended family. The community survived for about 40 years, and involved vegetarianism, eastern religions and anti-war activity decades before the hippie era. Beeville was often in conflict with the government over taxes and military service.

Bloody pacifists

Dave Silvester remembers the reaction of neighbouring farmers to the idea that Riverside residents might help harvest their crop: ‘Their reply was that they did not want any bloody pacifists pulling their beans. Unfortunately they could not get anyone else.’ He spent three days on the job, ending up with an aching back and knees, and infected, painful fingers from gorse and blackberry thorns. ‘I was determined to see it out to the bitter end and to deny them the chance of saying that a bloody pacifist couldn’t take it. After that they always greeted me in the most cordial way.’2


Riverside was founded by Christian pacifists in 1941 at Lower Moutere, west of Nelson. During the Second World War some members were held in detention camps for refusing conscription, and the community faced hostility from neighbours. In the 1970s Riverside moved away from its religious origins. It was still active in the 21st century, running a dairy farm, an orchard, a café and an events centre.

  1. Quoted in Timothy David Baker, Professor Bickerton’s Wainoni. Christchurch: T. D. Baker, 2004, p. 9. Back
  2. Lynn Rain, Community, the story of Riverside, 1941–1991. Lower Moutere: Riverside Community, 1991, p. 43. Back
How to cite this page:

Caren Wilton, 'Communes and communities - Early communities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Caren Wilton, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 4 Apr 2018