Story: Country towns

Page 2. Towns and the farm economy, 1870–1920

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A nation of country towns

In the 1870s the New Zealand government sponsored a major immigration drive. Many newcomers settled on the land, especially in the North Island. Family farmers began to prosper from the late 1890s as refrigerated shipping opened up export markets for frozen meat, butter and cheese. Country villages and towns grew fast throughout New Zealand, and on the eve of the Great War New Zealand was to a large degree a nation of small country towns or villages. The 1916 census claimed: ‘In a country such as New Zealand … villages and townships occupy a comparatively much more important position than is the case in older countries.’ 1

In 1874 there were 19 localities with over 1,000 inhabitants. By 1911 there were 96, but few were large; 73 had populations of less than 5,000. There were also 68 settlements with 200 to 1,000 people. Cambridge’s population had grown from 259 to 1,463, Hāwera’s from 257 to 2,685, and Waipawa’s from 492 to 1,083. Feilding, which was not even settled in 1874, had a population of 3,161, and Ashburton had grown from 1,206 to 2,671. These were prosperous country towns, whose success was marked by grandiose buildings on the main street.

The country store

Growth in country towns was driven by the economic links between farm and town. Most places began with a country store. This supplied farmers with essential goods which they did not produce on the farm, such as sugar, salt, tea and clothing. Many country stores established packhorse delivery rounds to surrounding stations.

Farmers and their families also came to town regularly, especially to pick up the mail. At Woodbury in Canterbury, Francis Bennett recalled that Saturday night at the store was farmers’ night, when the farmhands would ride in to collect the mail and yarn with their mates. The store also usually functioned as the post office, polling place and registrar of births, deaths and marriages. Local storekeepers were often important town promoters who organised the planting of trees in the domain, chaired school committees, or organised sports clubs.

Town pride

When James McIlraith bought a farm in the Ellesmere district in Canterbury in 1863, Southbridge did not exist. Ten years later, he wrote:’[T]his Southbridge is a nice little town, with one English church and one Scotch or Presbyterian … There is a blacksmith’s – that employs 12 men … A carpenter’s shop, a bakery, a saddler’s shop, a shoemaker, three large stores … one hotel, one boarding house, a milliner’s shop, a butcher’s shop … and a large town hall … I feel a certain amount of pride to watch the progress of this once waste spot.’ 2

Post offices

As communities grew, other businesses took over some of the store’s functions. The coming of the post office was always a symbolically important moment in the growth of a township. Over the next half-century the post office would do much more than deal with mail. It would pay out pensions, and later become the registrar of radios and vehicles, and a savings bank.

Stock and station agents

The store’s role in supplying farm goods would usually be taken over by stock and station agents. As well as selling farm clothing like gumboots and parkas, or farm products like seeds and fertilisers, the agency provided farmers with advice and finance. The first agency in Hāwera, Nolan and Tonks, appeared within 10 years of the township being surveyed.


The coming of the bank was another important milestone, and the bank buildings on street corners were often the most imposing structures in country towns. Banks were important in financing farm mortgages and development, so a visit to the bank was often on the farmer’s to-do list when in town.


The saleyards were usually close to the railway station. Sales of lambs or dairy cows were important social occasions attracting carriers and stock and station agents as well as farmers. Sometimes they were just local markets, held weekly or fortnightly; sometimes they were larger annual or bi-annual fairs. Kaponga’s weekly market was held on Friday, when farmers and their livestock came to town, along with a banker and a doctor. It was also the main shopping day. The Farmer noted that many stayed on at the sales ‘until their horses went lame and their saddles became worn.’ 3

Transport services

In the 19th century farmers used horse power, so country towns had to service horse transport. Blacksmiths were among the earliest shops where farmers would meet their mates while waiting for horses to be shod. Saddlers were another outlet which emerged early in country towns, and larger places had wheelwrights and small engineering firms to make carts or ploughs, as well as carriers.


The town provided a place to live for some men who worked on short-term contracts on the farms. Shearers were the most obvious group, while others who went out to the rural districts by day included harvesters and builders.

Dairy factories

Country towns in dairying areas became centres for making butter and cheese. At first they hosted creameries, and then dairy factories developed. Other places spawned other industries serving farmers, such as the manufacture of concrete fence-posts.

  1. New Zealand Census, 1916, p. 20. › Back
  2. Quoted in Garth Cant and Russell Kirkpatrick, eds., Rural Canterbury: celebrating its history. Wellington: Daphne Brasell, 2001, p. 101. › Back
  3. Quoted in Rollo Arnold, Settler Kaponga, 1881–1914: a frontier fragment of the western world. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1997, p. 157. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Country towns - Towns and the farm economy, 1870–1920', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Nov 2008