Story: Family welfare

Page 2. Mothers and children – 1800s to 1917

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Pensions and benefits

Until the 20th century families in financial difficulties depended for assistance on relatives, friends and neighbours, charitable aid, benevolent societies, community groups and churches. The state had little involvement in the provision of welfare.

Undeserving widows

At first only ‘deserving’ women had access to the widow’s pension. Those without children, and women whose children were illegitimate or adopted were not eligible for a state pension. Neither were alien or Asian widows, or unmarried, deserted or divorced mothers. These people had to work, or depend on their families or charity.

Women’s organisations such as the National Council of Women, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Mothers’ Union urged governments to support families, women and children. Public debate led to a means-tested old-age pension in 1898, followed by a targeted widows’ pension in 1911 for poor mothers of ‘good character’. Pensions for war veterans and their widows, and remittance payments for women separated from their soldier husbands, were introduced during the First World War.


While Māori had access to these pensions, they often received lower payments based on assessments of their property ownership and material needs. ‘Asiatics’, which included Chinese, Indian, Syrian, Singhalese and Lebanese, were excluded from the old-age pension whether or not they were naturalised New Zealanders. This continued until the Pensions Amendment Act 1936, which removed restrictions on ‘Asiatic’ residents. While New Zealand was seen by some as an innovative ‘social laboratory’, particular ethnic and cultural groups were defined for many years as less deserving of state support.

Child protection and control

In the late 19th century local governments were lobbied to control children who were not attending school and were defined as ‘out of control’. The Neglected and Criminal Children Act 1867 allowed provincial councils to administer the care and custody of children who were neglected or orphaned. Industrial and reformatory schools were developed for these children, and focused on encouraging work habits and Christian morals. These child protection laws, residential schools and welfare agencies challenged assumptions that parents and families had sole authority over children.

Homeless and neglected children were initially cared for in industrial schools along with delinquent children and adolescents. Between 1899 and 1902 the Education Department began separating children with criminal convictions or defined as ‘uncontrollable’ from others. They were sent to reformatories. Industrial schools were also subjected to closer inspection and control.


Children born outside marriage were considered ‘illegitimate’ because they had no legal father and were not entitled to paternal support or inheritance. Unmarried mothers were often stigmatised and had no statutory right to state income support if they raised their children alone. Some illegitimate children were placed in children’s homes or were adopted by unrelated families.

In 1908 legislation was passed that enabled these children to gain legal rights if their parents later married. It was not until 1969 that the Status of Children Act removed the legal stigma of illegitimacy.

Helping the mothers

Health reformer Frederic Truby King established the Society for the Promotion of the Health of Women and Children (later known as the Plunket Society) in Dunedin in 1907. It provided state-subsidised health and social services for new mothers and their children through branches throughout the country. The rallying cry of this organisation was ‘Help the mothers and save the babies’. It was an example of what has been termed ‘maternalist welfare’ – the control by voluntary women’s organisations of welfare services for women and children.

How to cite this page:

Maureen Baker and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Family welfare - Mothers and children – 1800s to 1917', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Maureen Baker and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 29 Jun 2018