Story: Culture and recreation in the city

Page 2. Making their own fun

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Home entertainments

For at least the first century of European settlement in New Zealand, the most common recreation at home was probably reading. This was easier in the city – bookshops were nearby, newspapers were delivered, and from early days there were libraries. Both Auckland and Wellington had a Mechanics’ Institute Library from 1842 and a public library from 1887 and 1893 respectively; Christchurch has had a public library since 1862.

Out of the mouths of babes

Journalist Pat Lawlor recalled the front-room sing-alongs of his Wellington childhood at the start of the 20th century: ‘The older people would be seated on the plush-covered chairs or on the old horsehair sofa; the young folk around the piano.’ Lawlor realised later that he was invariably asked to sing ‘Riding down from Bangor’ merely because of ‘the humorous spectacle of a little chap with a round innocent face singing a song that in those days was regarded as sophisticated’.1

Singing around the piano was another home-based entertainment, at least until radios and gramophones became widespread in the 1920s. Families – both city and rural – also played cards or board games. City and rural people gardened – although for farm families growing vegetables was often essential, while city and suburban families grew flowers in the front garden to impress, or keep up with, the neighbours.

From 1960 people were able to watch television, which often had better reception and a larger choice of channels in the city.

Outdoor fun

While country children could roam far and wide, city youngsters played in more confined areas – the back garden, the footpaths (with hopscotch markings drawn on the pavement), and local parks and playgrounds. In the 19th century all the major cities had green spaces set aside for informal recreation such as flying kites or throwing balls, and in the 20th century parks were required when new suburbs were built.

Since the four major cities were close to the sea, city dwellers enjoyed going to the beach. Aucklanders travelled by ferry for a picnic at Cheltenham or Takapuna beach; Wellingtonians took a ferry to Days Bay; Christchurch families caught a tram and picnicked at Sumner or New Brighton; Dunedin’s families enjoyed St Clair and St Kilda beaches. In Invercargill a bridge over the river provided easy access to Ōreti beach, where there were donkey rides and motor racing. By the 1950s it was known as Invercargill’s playground. City folk also went fishing – in Wellington and Auckland people fished from the wharf; in Christchurch they cast a line in the Avon River, which was also a favourite site for boating.


Yarning in the pub was also enjoyed all over New Zealand, but in the city the pubs were more numerous. Within the first year of Pākehā settlers arriving in Wellington there were seven pubs in Thorndon, and five in Petone. By 1866 Wellington had 26 pubs; Christchurch had 56 for 7,000 inhabitants. In the 19th century whalers and back-country workers would come to town for a time of drunken revelry. When whalers arrived in Wellington in the 1840s ‘[e]very public house had its fiddle and hornpipe going.’2

  1. Pat Lawlor, Old Wellington days: an intimate diary. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1959, p. 112. Back
  2. Louis E. Ward, compiled, Early Wellington. Christchurch: Capper, 1975 (originally published 1929), p. 171. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Culture and recreation in the city - Making their own fun', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 Mar 2010