Story: English

Page 1. Importance and influence

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The English who arrived in New Zealand were the largest group to settle in the country after 1800. Until the 1970s, the English consistently represented more than 40% of foreign-born people in New Zealand. Only in the 1860s did they constitute less than half of all arrivals from Great Britain and Ireland.


The English were therefore the most influential group in New Zealand. Their influence was magnified by other factors. They were often particularly well represented in the 19th century among the élite of the colony, and therefore had power. Among MPs in office between 1854 and 1890, they constituted almost half. English people were also among the earliest arrivals, comprising about 65% of all those from the United Kingdom who came before 1850. As first-comers they were in a position to establish patterns and traditions, particularly in the influential organised settlements of Wellington and Canterbury. So the English had a disproportionate influence in shaping the institutions of the new society.

English culture and the British Empire

It is difficult to isolate the impact of English people from the generic influence of English culture, which was dominant in the institutions and people of the British Empire. It is also difficult to exactly define ‘English culture’, or the characteristics of ‘Englishness’, since there was an extraordinary range of cultures from different regions and classes of English society.

Because the large numbers of Scots and Irish who settled New Zealand had previously been subjects of the British Empire, they had already been influenced strongly by the English, most obviously in their use of the English language. Many of the institutions and habits established in New Zealand were English, more because they were the accepted order of the British Empire than because they were created by individual English people. Through the political and military power of the empire, the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori, were often encouraged to adopt English practices, such as dress and language.

Less English than the UK

Despite the importance of the English, their story in New Zealand needs to be qualified in two respects. First, although many English people came to New Zealand, their representation among all those from Britain and Ireland was less than it was back home. In other words, New Zealand has always been less English than the United Kingdom. And despite, or more likely because of, their large numbers the English, unlike other immigrant groups, did not tend to establish institutions exclusive to their own people. There were a few sporting ‘Albion’ clubs, and a Church of England was established, but the former quickly lost any English associations and the latter attracted other groups, especially Irish from the Church of Ireland. For the most part, the English established institutions which may have been English in origin, but were intended to cater for the whole society. The English assumed that English patterns were the correct way to do things.

How to cite this page:

Terry Hearn, 'English - Importance and influence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Terry Hearn, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015