Story: Families: a history

Page 2. Colonial families: 1840–1879

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Practical partners

While sexual attraction and affection were the basis for many marriages, settlers looked for partners who would respond well to the practical challenges of everyday life – women hoped for good providers, and men wanted women who could cook, manage a household and mother children.

Marriage and divorce

The Marriage Act was passed in 1854, and after 1856 non-Māori had to give notice of their intention to marry, and obtain a marriage licence before their wedding. In 1867 the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act was passed. Men could obtain a divorce on the grounds of a wife’s adultery while women had to prove ‘aggravated adultery’ – adultery combined with incest or bigamy, rape, sodomy, bestiality or cruelty.

Youthful marriage and high fertility 

The impact of a woman’s age at marriage on the number of children she had is illustrated by the contrasting fertility of Mary McBratney and Elizabeth Campbell, who both married in August 1864. Mary married at 32 and gave birth a year later. Between the ages of 33 and 38 she had four children. Elizabeth married at 19 and gave birth to 10 children before she was 32. She went on to have another six children. 


The rate of births per woman among settlers between 1840 and 1880 was among the highest in the world. Women in Britain had on average of four to five children in the mid- to late 19th century, but female colonists in New Zealand averaged almost seven births each and almost nine births per married woman. This was largely because they married earlier and had their first children at a younger age. Fertility rates dropped sharply after 1880 as women married later or remained single.

Because of factors such as malnutrition and infectious diseases, Māori women had lower levels of fertility than Pākehā women in the late 19th century. Until the 1960s Māori children were more likely to die, and family dynamics were affected by the high childhood death rate.

Family composition

Traditional Māori families consisted of parents, their adult children and their children’s children – extended families. Several whānau resided in a hamlet or kāinga which reinforced the linkages necessary to maintain whanaungatanga – close cooperative relationships between kin.

Male settlers outnumbered women, and many men never married or had children. Most young single women who arrived in New Zealand between 1850 and 1880 married young and had numerous children, the majority of whom became parents themselves.

European couples were expected to form their own households on marriage, and mainly lived in nuclear families consisting of parents and their children. Adult children (especially daughters) usually stayed at home until they married. Siblings and older relatives often came to stay. Some farming households included adolescent children from other families who worked for their keep. Letter writing was used to sustain contact with family members in the ‘home’ country.

Family dynamics

On farms and in small family businesses, settler women and men worked together, often with the assistance of their children. Fathers and husbands exercised power as farm owners or managers and organised the labour of other family members. Children’s education was often fitted around their farm duties and was not always compatible with the Education Act 1877 which introduced compulsory schooling.

Non-farming Pākehā households depended on access to money, and usually it was adult men who were in paid work. A family consumer economy emerged, based on a male breadwinner and a wife and children who were financially dependent on his earnings.

Women settlers in both rural and urban contexts were expected to cook, clean, wash, and care for children, often assisted by older daughters. A very small number of them employed domestic servants, but few women were ‘leisured ladies’.

Women without breadwinners

Some women (widows, single mothers and the wives of men injured in accidents) did not have the support of male breadwinners. They took in laundry, provided accommodation for lodgers and worked as domestic workers, postmistresses or shop assistants. In 1911 a widows’ pension was introduced but this financial support was not available to ‘alien’ or Asian widows, unmarried mothers, or deserted or divorced women.

Caring for relatives

Sometimes a widowed father or mother would move in with their married children or move between their households. Unmarried adult children often stayed at home to care for older parents. This probably suited elderly parents because they retained their independence.

How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history - Colonial families: 1840–1879', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 June 2024)

Story by Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Jul 2017