Story: Families: a history

Page 3. Late 19th and early 20th century families

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Māori whānau

Māori family life was disrupted by the New Zealand wars, land confiscation and exposure to communicable diseases. Family members were also separated when men had to travel away from home for casual and seasonal work essential for their families’ survival. Infant and child mortality increased and the population dropped alarmingly. In the 1890s, half of all Māori baby girls died before seven years of age and only 42% reached adulthood. However, better health services contributed to improvements in child and infant mortality in the early 20th century.

Assimilation strategies

Māori had a well-defined system of marriage and family relationships, typically involving marriage for women at a young age. However over time they became subject to colonial laws. From 1911 it became compulsory for Māori to formally register their marriages. Attempts were also made through schools to impose European models of family life and domestic management on Māori.

Rates of marriage

The proportion of Pākehā men marrying increased as girls born in New Zealand reached marriageable age. Women married later and the number of single women between 15 and 25 rose rapidly. The small number of single women who became pregnant outside marriage usually married before the birth.

Fertility rates

By the early 20th century the birth rate for Pākehā women had dropped to 3.5 per woman because women married later and were more likely to remain single. Single women found work as dairy maids, domestic workers, clerks, shop assistants, teachers, nurses, textile and clothing workers and in food processing. Women in urban areas had fewer children, while families were larger in more remote areas, particularly in Māori communities.

A declining birth rate

Dr Morton Anderson voiced his concerns about a declining birth rate in ‘the Britain of the South Seas’ to the New Zealand branch of the British Medical Association in 1906. He compared birth rates in the British Empire and Germany and argued that patriotism demanded that ‘natural increase should be high.’1

Limiting family size

Attempts to limit the number of children within marriage became more common from about 1900, but the available barrier methods of contraception were often ineffective. A number of groups were concerned about contraceptive use, including some women’s rights activists who were concerned about their use by men having extramarital sex.

Family composition

While the number of births per woman dropped in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most children still grew up in large families. In the 1911 census, two-thirds of Pākehā children with mothers in their 40s belonged to families with over six children, but 14% of married women of that age were childless. Among all menopausal women, including the never-married, 36% were childless. Most Pākehā households consisted of a married couple and their children, but sometimes included their parents, an adult sister or brother, or unmarried friends.

The cult of domesticity

In rural areas the labour of men, women and children was essential to economic farm operation, although men were most likely to own land and supervise the labour of other family members. Compulsory schooling to standard six (year eight), introduced under the Education Act 1877, was sometimes inconsistent with the use of children’s labour on family farms, especially dairy farms. Married women in towns were expected to specialise in childcare and domestic work and contribute less directly to household income.

Mothers were increasingly defined as men’s ‘helpmeet’ – the moral guardians of their households and the nation – and their domesticity idealised. This cult of domesticity gave many women a strong sense of purpose, but also limited the scope of their activities.

Being the eldest

Responsibilities didn’t always lie where you might expect. Mrs Pavlich remembered her mother taking charge after her grandfather died: ‘My mother being the eldest, they always seemed to turn to her for aid when they needed it. For a loan, money – she would always give it, always. But she was the first in the family and when her father died she took over. She was more like the head of the family than the mother was.’2

Men, women and work

Men were increasingly expected to be breadwinners and home was seen as a retreat from the world of paid work. While men exercised formal authority in the household, women supervised children and coordinated their work. Older children were often responsible for the care of other children. Young women often worked as milkmaids until milking machines made many redundant. Single women increasingly turned to work as domestic servants.

Challenging conventions

While many settlers embraced conventional family life, some prominent New Zealanders did not. Professor Alexander Bickerton of Canterbury College criticised marriage as an institution, advocated ‘free love’ and set up a ‘federative home’ (a communal living arrangement) on his estate at Wainoni in Christchurch.

  1. Morton Anderson, ‘Declining Birth-rate in “the Britain of the South Seas”.’ New Zealand Medical Journal, (last accessed 6 October 2010). Back
  2. Claire Toynbee, Her work and his: family, kin and community, 1900–1930. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995, p. 131. Back
How to cite this page:

Ian Pool and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Families: a history - Late 19th and early 20th century families', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 February 2024)

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