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Culture and recreation in the city

by Jock Phillips

From the early days of New Zealand’s cities, residents enjoyed yarning in the pub, dressing up for formal balls, attending operas and watching regattas on the harbour. Cricket and rugby games have always drawn large crowds – so do an increasing number of festivals in the early 2000s.

Cities and culture

Cities are often the birthplaces of culture, sites where cultural institutions and recreational facilities first spring up and then flourish. This is due to a number of reasons.


Cities by definition have more inhabitants than villages or rural areas, so there are large numbers of people who can pay for entertainment. A larger population allows specialised groups to emerge, including people interested in playing chess, aspiring singers, and alternative cultures of like-minded intellectuals.

By international standards New Zealand cities have always been small – in 1950 only Auckland had more than a quarter of a million people, and Wellington and Christchurch’s populations were less than 175,000. People who wanted a really rich cultural life often moved to Sydney or even to London. However, because larger metropolitan centres were so far away, New Zealand’s cities had more cultural and sporting facilities than similar-sized centres overseas. By virtue of being the capital, Wellington had many cultural and recreational institutions, such as a national museum, a national library and a national orchestra.


Although New Zealand’s city-dwellers have not always been wealthier than those on farms and in small towns, the economic activity in the city means there is more disposable capital. It is easier to raise funds to build concert chambers or sports stadiums.

Local authorities in cities have a larger tax take, and have been important in promoting culture and recreation. Christchurch built its first town hall in 1857. In the early 20th century Wellington City Council constructed four band rotundas and subsidised six bands to play in them at the weekends. In the later 20th century, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch city councils each built major auditoriums for concerts. Local bodies in Wellington and Dunedin have put money into new sports stadiums since the 1990s. On occasion local councils took over existing cultural ventures. In 1915 Invercargill took responsibility for the Athenaeum Library and a private museum.


More people and wealth meant cities quickly acquired facilities for culture and recreation. By the time of the First World War Wellington had a zoo, a public library, a cricket ground with a grandstand, a skating rink, an opera house, public gardens, several swimming pools, a library and a museum (even if, as author Pat Lawlor remembered, it was ‘as cheerless as the cave of Trophonius’)1. City streets were also places for entertainments whether in the form of jugglers or street musicians.

Rock ’n’ roll

In Wellington, before the town hall was completed in 1905, the great public gathering place was the skating rink in Ingestre Street. It hosted dances, concerts, stalls, maypole dances, and Gilbert and Sullivan light operas. It was also the site for election meetings where aspiring politicians shook the rafters with their rhetoric.

Transport hubs

New Zealand’s first cities were all ports, and became the centre of road, rail and air networks. The cities were the arrival points for overseas artists, and for about a century travelling international artists and sportspeople provided high points of city recreational life. From 1870 to 1930 there was a constant parade of overseas singers, actors, lecturers and circuses coming to the port cities.

As transport links improved, people in surrounding rural areas and small towns could travel into the city for special occasions – whether rugby matches or concerts. It also became easier for people to travel within the city to rehearse plays or play games against other sports clubs.

Educated people

Jobs in cities often require a high level of formal education, and educational institutions like universities are located in cities. An educated population provides ready audiences and support for cultural institutions like theatres, museums and galleries.

  1. Pat Lawlor, Old Wellington days: an intimate diary. Wellington: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1959, p. 85. Back

Making their own fun

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

Organised culture before 1900

Balls and formal dinners

Formal balls were one of the first signs of sophistication in New Zealand towns. In Wellington the first anniversary of the settlers’ arrival in 1841 was celebrated with a ball for the ‘select’ in Barrett’s Hotel and a ‘popular’ ball in a wooden store three days later. In the 1850s during Wellington’s winter ‘season’ (April to August), balls that ran from nightfall to early morning were held almost monthly. There were also celebratory banquets. Referring to the balls, dinners and events in Wellington, the Taunton Journal, a British newspaper, commented that ‘the general appearance of the place resembles Hastings or Brighton [English seaside towns]’.1

Meaty meal

There was an impressive bill of fare at the celebratory dinner for 180 held by Hutt settlers in honour of Sir George Grey in 1851. The meal included three rounds of beef, six large pieces of pressed beef, six boiled legs of mutton, two saddles of mutton, four hams, four tongues, five geese, 12 ducks, three turkeys, three suckling pigs, four chickens, 12 fowls, three pigeon pies, and six beef steaks. Vegetables were not entirely forgotten – there were also 75 kilos of potatoes, 32 kilos of turnips, 23 kilos of carrots, 20 large cabbages and 9 kilos of parsnips.

Amateur music

In the 19th century a remarkable number of cultural institutions were established, and commercial entertainment began in the cities. Soon after arriving, settlers organised amateur performing groups. At the heart of amateur colonial music in the cities were the choral societies, which involved large numbers of singers. The Auckland Choral Society (set up in 1855) involved 200 singers and a 60-strong orchestra. It was followed by the Canterbury Vocal Union (1860), and choral societies in Wellington (1860) and Dunedin (1863). Later there were liedertafels (men’s singing groups) and operatic societies. Other forms of amateur music appeared in the cities. By the 1880s there were at least four brass bands in Christchurch, while Invercargill and Dunedin had pipe bands.

Professional music

Cities set up musical venues such as the New Musical Hall, also known as ‘the barn’, which opened in Christchurch in 1861. Dunedin’s Music Hall opened the next year. Such places hosted both amateur productions and travelling professional musicians, who visited from the 1860s. They included violinists, pianists and singers from European concert chambers.

Larger companies also visited. In 1864 Lyster’s Royal Italian and English Opera Company played 12 nights in Christchurch, performing such classics as Lucia di Lammermoor and Il trovatore. Between 1876 and 1889 Simonsen’s opera company visited New Zealand cities four times. Lighter opera, and musicals such as those of Gilbert and Sullivan, toured under the auspices of J. C. Williamson from the 1880s. Their major competition was Tom Pollard’s Liliputian Opera Company, with its musical comedies and pantomimes. Also popular were troupes of black American minstrels performing spirituals. Often such companies visited New Zealand cities in the winter, when the northern-hemisphere season was over.


The orchestra pit in colonial theatres was a lively place. While waiting for the show to begin, those in the pit would sing popular songs, or taunt those arriving – especially well-known citizens in the front stalls. As for late-comers, they were received ‘with expressive Uh-Uh-Uhs, - an Uh for every sideward push past the knees of the resentful seat-occupiers: the portlier the Uh-ier’.2

Travelling entertainers

Travelling actors also performed in the cities. At first, plays were performed in saloons attached to pubs, but theatres soon followed. The Theatre Royal was a favourite venue in Christchurch from 1866. It had a door in the dress circle so patrons could pay a visit to the neighbouring Shakespeare Hotel.

Initially much of the drama was amateur. The programmes included short farces with songs and recitations. From the 1880s there were visits from overseas professionals. Australian-based theatre producer Bland Holt toured eight times between 1882 and 1900, presenting 33 melodramas, usually drawn from the London stage.

The cities were also visited by circuses, elocutionists and celebrity lecturers like William Booth of the Salvation Army (1889), the explorer Henry Stanley (1892) and the American writer Mark Twain (1895).

Museums, exhibitions and art

By 1870 there were three city museums – Auckland (1852), the Colonial Museum in Wellington (1865), and Canterbury museum in Christchurch (1870). More lively than the museums were the exhibitions held in colonial cities, which combined displays of industrial and agricultural produce with art and side-shows. Johannes Andersen remembered the 1882 Christchurch exhibition as ‘a place full of allurements and temptations’.3

Societies of artists were set up in Auckland in 1869, Dunedin in 1876 and Christchurch in 1880. Auckland Art Gallery was established in 1888. In Wellington the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts was set up in 1889, and a gallery to show works opened in 1907. However painter James Nairn and his friends had established the Wellington Art Club in 1892.

By 1900 the four main cities had institutional structures for cultural pursuits and recreations. When people in other districts wanted to hear a professional concert or watch the latest London melodrama, they came to the city.

    • Louis E. Ward, compiled, Early Wellington. Christchurch: Capper, 1975 (originally published 1929), p. 113. Back
    • Johannes C. Andersen, Old Christchurch in picture and story. Christchurch: Capper, 1975 (originally published 1949), p. 282. Back
    • Old Christchurch in picture and story, p. 113. Back

Sport in colonial cities

Gala days

In cities, the earliest organised sporting occasions were commemorative days – usually public holidays. On Wellington’s first anniversary in January 1841 there were races involving whaleboats, sailing boats and horses. Christchurch’s second anniversary day saw sack races, hurdles, shooting, and the old English traditions of catching a greasy pig and climbing a soaped pole. The opening of the rail tunnel between Christchurch and Lyttelton in 1867 led to a major increase in participation in the New Year’s regatta at Lyttelton. By 1896 25,000 people were watching.

Sports days were organised on other occasions such as St Patrick’s Day, or Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887, when Wellington held military parades, Highland dancing at the opera house, lectures and concerts. In Christchurch the boating season on the Avon opened with a gala day, with flags flying and crowds on the river bank.


The emergence of clubs represented the next institutionalised stage of city sport. Cricket was the most important organised colonial game. By 1842 the Wellington club had been established. It organised games between the Blues and the Reds, with runs marked by cuts on a stick. The Christchurch Cricket Club was formed within six months of the first four ships arriving. In Dunedin, hotel owner Shadrach Jones organised a cricketing festival on ‘The Oval’ in January 1864, with teams from Otago, Southland, Canterbury and England. Touring English cricket teams drew spectators in the cities, with up to 15,000 watching an all-England team in Christchurch play the local 22 in 1877.

City sports grounds were established. Wellington’s Basin Reserve had a grandstand by 1868, and seven years later Canterbury cricket purchased an area which became Lancaster Park. In Auckland the Domain became the great site for cricket.

City game

Although New Zealand’s rugby prowess has long been linked with the country’s rural identity, the first game under rugby rules was played at Nelson on 14 May 1870 between Nelson College and Nelson Rugby Football Club. At the time Nelson, as the seat of a bishop, was legally a city – so New Zealand rugby was officially born in a city.

Football in various forms was played from early days of Pākehā settlement – the first football club was set up in Christchurch in 1863. After 1870, when rugby rules were adopted, the game spread quickly, and clubs were established in all the main centres. By the 1880s there were thriving city rugby and cricket competitions.

Sport and recreation, 1900–1965

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

City culture, 1900–1965

Changes in time use

In the 20th century the central city continued to be the most important site of cultural recreation – but only at certain times. Trams and cars encouraged people to live in the suburbs, where they returned after work. This, and the closing of pubs at six o’clock, reduced the evening buzz. Footpaths were still busy on Friday night when the shops were open and Saturday night when people went to the movies or smoke concerts – but weeknights and Sundays became quiet in the city.

New venues

There was still much amateur performance in New Zealand cities – repertory theatre flourished, and there was choral singing (especially in Christchurch with its two societies, the Harmonic Society and Royal Christchurch Musical Society) and brass-band playing. For professional performers, the cities provided grand new facilities. In Wellington, His Majesty’s Theatre (later the St James) opened in 1912 as the largest vaudeville theatre in Australasia, and two years later the Opera House opened. New town halls were built in Wellington (1904) and Auckland (1911), and Dunedin’s finally opened in 1930. The Theatre Royal remained a key venue in Christchurch.

Touring shows

The international touring shows continued until at least the 1930s economic depression, providing a succession of farces, thrillers, concerts and musicals. Some well-known international performers visited, including Nellie Melba in 1903, Harry Lauder in 1925, Anna Pavlova in 1926 and Yehudi Menuhin in 1935.

There were fewer international acts in the 1950s and 1960s, but local companies began to tour. The National Orchestra was founded in 1946, the New Zealand Players toured briefly in the mid-1950s, and both the New Zealand Ballet and New Zealand Opera Company toured from 1954.

Movies and dances

The popularity of different forms of entertainment changed over time. There was less classical opera, and more light opera and musical comedy. In Christchurch in 1908 the skating rink became the place for the ‘flicks’, and by the 1920s pantomime and vaudeville could no longer compete with the movies on Saturday nights – especially in dazzling ‘picture palaces’ like Auckland’s Civic. Formal balls became less popular – instead, in the 1920s, the arrival of ragtime and jazz led to cabarets in the cities. In 1922 Auckland’s Dixieland cabaret was established, while Wellington had its Majestic cabaret. In Dunedin from 1936 Joe Brown organised Saturday night dances in the town hall.

Not so pleasurable

A cause célèbre occurred in 1948 when five of Frances Hodgkins’s paintings were displayed in Christchurch, and the Canterbury Society of Arts refused to purchase any. The intellectual community was outraged and interpreted the decision as a ‘Victorian’ rejection of modern art. A group of subscribers then bought the artwork ‘Pleasure garden’, but city council officials initially refused to accept it into their collections. The painting was finally accepted into the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1951.

Intellectual sub-culture

During the interwar years New Zealand cities saw the beginning of an alternative subculture of intellectuals. When writer Katherine Mansfield grew up in Wellington, before the First World War, she could find no escape from the polite socialising of her upper-class family. Gradually, separate intellectual circles began to appear. In Wellington a group of writers and librarians met to organise book weeks and publish small magazines. In Christchurch there was ‘The Group’ of artists, including Rita Angus, Bill Sutton, and eventually Colin McCahon. They were interested in modern art and supported each other in experimenting with new forms and holding exhibitions. Also in Christchurch, a number of writers and publishers emerged from left-wing and university circles – people like Kennaway Henderson and Winston Rhodes with Tomorrow magazine, and the young modernist poets Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. Glover sought to provide an outlet for this subculture by founding the Caxton Press.

In Wellington in the 1940s European immigrants and local intellectuals began to meet at places such as the French Maid Coffee House, which showed modernist works of art. In Auckland in the 1950s Frank Sargeson collected a group of younger writers around him, including Janet Frame.

These groups remained small, but they were a sign that New Zealand cities had grown large and complex enough to support an alternative culture – alternative to middle-class gentility and commercial Hollywood culture.

City culture and recreation since 1965

The early 1960s were a quiet time in the city. The arrival of television in 1960 hit attendances at the movies severely, and city streets were deserted at weekends and in the evenings. But things were about to change.

Eating, drinking and shopping

In 1967 pubs’ closing times were extended from six to 10 p.m., keeping people in the city later. The licensing laws were further relaxed from the late 1980s. Restaurants could also serve alcohol, so people came to town to eat as well as drink. There were increasing numbers of married women in the paid workforce, so they had less time to cook, and eating out became increasingly attractive. By the end of the 20th century the big cities had precincts of eating and drinking establishments – Christchurch had ‘The Strip’, Wellington had Courtenay Place and Cuba Street, and Auckland Parnell and the Viaduct Basin.

The extension of weekend shopping hours after 1980 also brought large numbers of people into the city. However, in some cities – especially Auckland – the suburban mall was as much the scene of weekend browsing as the inner-city street.

New city culture

There were still traditional ‘high-culture’ performances in the second half of the 20th century – people attended the symphony orchestra, ballet and opera in the cities. There was also a new generation of international touring acts – especially popular musicians, from the Beatles to Michael Jackson. The major growth, however, came from the late 1970s in local live music gigs at pubs and music venues.

More challenging and intellectual forms of cultural expression were also provided. This in part derived from the spread of university education and educationally based employment in the cities after the Second World War. Many people had spent time in big cities overseas, and looked to enjoy alternative urban cultures in New Zealand as they had done in other countries. Professional theatres emerged in the place of amateur groups and international touring companies – Wellington’s Downstage (1964) and Circa (1976), Auckland’s Mercury (1968) and Christchurch’s Court Theatre (1971).

Making dinosaurs extinct

Susan Wilson, a founding member of Circa Theatre, explained its aims: ‘Those old British dinosaurs occupying the New Zealand professional theatre landscape [of the time] built large administrations, extravagant sets and costumes, and gave focus, as it were, to the cover rather than the book … Our goal was to dazzle the audience with the sheer excellence of the performance … where economy and ingenuity took the place of money. We aimed to keep costs … to a minimum so that the rewards could be equally shared by artists and practitioners.’1

Film societies showing non-commercial movies had first appeared in the 1940s. Auckland’s film festival began in 1969, and all the main centres had mid-winter festivals by 1977. In 2005 the Auckland event reached an audience of more than 100,000 with 150 films.

In the art world amateur societies were joined by commercial dealers, with small galleries selling works to the urban élite. A lively modernist art community emerged in several cities, especially Auckland. In Dunedin and Christchurch the city galleries moved to smart inner-city locations in 1996 and 2003 respectively. In Wellington a new city gallery was created in 1980, and the national art gallery became part of the new Te Papa national museum on the Wellington waterfront. Auckland Art Gallery received a facelift in 2009.

Other galleries emerged, such as the Govett-Brewster in New Plymouth (1970) and the Dowse in Hutt city. New museums were built in Hamilton (Waikato Museum, 1982) and New Plymouth (Puke Ariki, 2003). Such places catered for urban audiences, but also for international tourists, who increasingly visited New Zealand for its interesting urban culture as well as its mountains and lakes.

Cities also gave birth to new festivals and parades, among them Christchurch’s biennial arts festival (from 1995), and Auckland’s Writers and Readers Festival (from 1999) and gay Hero Parade (1992–2001). Wellington was home to the biennial International Festival of the Arts (from 1986) and yearly Cuba Street Carnival (from 1999). Cultural activities were increasingly crucial to city economies.

In 2008, 75% of arts, culture and heritage activities occurred in the five main centres (including Hamilton), where 52% of the population lived. Theatre, film and music were particularly strongly concentrated in the cities.


City sport became increasingly professional, and new venues were developed. In 1995 rugby followed cricket and athletics and became a professional game. Major Super 12 rugby franchises (known as Super 14 since 2006) were set up in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland.

Wellington and Hamilton built new stadiums, while Dunedin’s was due for completion in 2011. Christchurch and Auckland upgraded their old stadiums. Corporate boxes and big screen replays became the norm. Compared to the 1950s the attendances were not huge, and in Wellington the most popular games were the international sevens rugby tournaments, when the city filled with partying spectators in fancy dress. Participation in competitive sports by urban people slowly declined. Increasingly sport had become a commercial entertainment competing with museums and film festivals.

  1. ‘Circa Theatre history.’ (last accessed 23 October 2009). Back

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Culture and recreation in the city', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 March 2010