Story: Culture and recreation in the city

Page 5. Sport and recreation, 1900–1965

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The 20th century brought changes which had major effects on city recreation.

  • The car, which first appeared about 1900 and became popular in the 1920s, allowed people from outlying areas to come into the city for special events, while the tram network made it easier to travel from the suburbs.
  • Radio and movies offered new forms of entertainment.
  • Cities grew fast, so by the mid-1930s Wellington and Christchurch had more than 100,000 people; Auckland had more than 200,000.
  • The Shops and Offices Amendment Act 1905 guaranteed a weekly half-holiday for workers. Saturday afternoons were commonly dedicated to recreation.


Organised sport was the first beneficiary of these changes. Partly in reaction against city larrikinism, youngsters were directed into sports. Rugby, cricket, tennis, yachting and athletics all attracted city residents. There were more club competitions, and more sports grounds. Auckland built more parks – there were three in 1890, and seven in 1915. There were also three more swimming pools built, at Shelly Beach, Point Resolution and Hobson Street. In Christchurch in 1914 the city council owned nine parks. By 1939 it controlled 22 parks covering 310 hectares. There were also another five privately run sporting venues. Many of these parks were in the suburbs.


Even more significant was the growth of spectatorship. When Lord Hawke’s English XI played New Zealand at cricket at Lancaster Park, Christchurch, in 1903, 16,000 people watched the action. In January 1930 more than 5,000 watched Stewie Dempster score New Zealand’s first test century at the Basin Reserve in Wellington.

The rugby god

The Evening Post reported that on the occasion of the first international test at Athletic Park in August 1904 rugby was king. ‘All Wellington, and all those who could find time and money to come to Wellington, flocked to Athletic Park … men hailing from hill, valley, or plain, from provincial township or wayback station – farmers, miners, sawmillers, clerks, bank managers – all sorts and conditions of men, bent on a pilgrimage to the altar of the deity of Rugby’.1

Rugby also took off as a spectator sport. In August 1904, 25,000 people turned up to watch New Zealand play Great Britain in the first full rugby international, at Athletic Park in Wellington. In Auckland, Cabbage Tree Swamp was turned into Eden Park sports ground. There and at other city grounds, large embankments and grandstands were built to cater for the numbers. By the 1920s when radio commentaries began, rugby and cricket had become major spectator sports. Because cities were the sites for international test matches, major games became important to their economy. By the 1950s city grounds were cramming over 50,000 spectators onto their embankments.

Zoos and outdoor recreation

There were also new outdoor interests in the 20th century. Wellington opened a zoo in Newtown in 1906; Auckland city bought the animals from a private zoo in Onehunga and opened a zoo in 1922.

The growing availability of cars opened up access to regional beaches and the mountains. City folk became interested in tramping, climbing and hunting.

  1. Evening Post, 15 August 1904, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Culture and recreation in the city - Sport and recreation, 1900–1965', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 Mar 2010