Hard work and progress
The majority of 19th-century English immigrants were respectable working people who brought with them the distinctive set of values they had acquired in the Old World. This included notions of progress, rationality and order, a desire to re-name, domesticate and organise the wilderness and convert the indigenous people, and an emphasis on the importance of hard work and independence. The marked presence of those affiliated to the nonconformist churches was reflected in the importance attached to thrift, sobriety, mutual assistance, voluntary service, and care for the disadvantaged.
A ‘better Britain’
Many English brought with them painful memories of life at home. They were often determined to prevent the reappearance of the least desirable elements of English life and society, such as poverty, the rigid class system and privileged groups. English-born reforming politicians like Richard Seddon, and later Walter Nash, were clearly imbued with a vision that New Zealand could avoid England’s mistakes while maintaining its virtues.
The loyalty to English traditions and to family back home helped reinforce New Zealanders’ determination to stand with Britain in two world wars. Those from an Anglican and English background were more likely than others to volunteer for service during the First World War.
The English valued collective voluntary effort and community improvement. Immigrants established many associations and organisations, including benevolent, debating and literary societies, libraries, mechanics’ institutes, fire brigades and local militias. Building societies which originated in England in the later 18th century appeared in New Zealand in the 1860s. English immigrants have always played a significant role in unions and were long prominent in the early years of the Labour Party. Friendly societies, which provided sickness and funeral benefits to their members, arrived in New Zealand with the first English settlers, and grew steadily until the passing of the Social Security Act 1938.
The rituals and manners of polite society – from table etiquette to social observances such as weddings – largely derived from English precedents. The view that emotional excesses should be repressed also, arguably, has its roots in the English adage to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’.
A diverse heritage
The English-born immigrants who arrived in New Zealand from the early 1800s did not represent a cross-section of their society. Moreover, England experienced profound change throughout the 19th century so that the migrants who arrived in New Zealand in the 1840s were very different from those arriving in the 1920s or the 1950s. The former were still largely rural peasants used to pre-industrial ways of working; the latter were usually refugees from modern urban life. Therefore, the contribution made by the English to the development of New Zealand was complex. It comprised elements of an emerging ‘national’ English society and culture, distinctive aspects of some regional cultures, and features of the new urban–industrial class society that emerged during the course of the 19th century.
Nor is it easy to separate out the influence of the English from that of the British Empire, or from the contribution of Scots and Irish. But by their social power and numerical dominance, successive waves of English immigrants have played a huge part in the shaping of modern New Zealand.