Story: Farm families

Page 1. The colonial family – new conditions

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Māori and intermarriage

The first rural families in New Zealand were Māori. As Māori remained a largely rural people long after the arrival of Europeans, they play a significant part in this story. There was some intermarriage between Europeans who took up farming and Māori women, especially in the early 19th century and later in specific areas such as Northland and the East Coast. Occasionally this led to Europeans acquiring Māori land. Families headed by Māori women tended to retain strong Māori family traditions. In the 20th century as Māori entered the rural workforce their family life was shaped by some of the same forces which affected Pākehā rural families.

Isolated nuclear families

Colonial conditions in rural areas put strains on the family. Many migrants had left behind parents and siblings in the old world. Husband, wife and children were thrown together on the voyage out, and the nuclear family (just father, mother and children) was likely to become even more isolated once they found themselves on a backblocks farm. Louisa Rose wrote to her sister in 1852, ‘It is indeed a miserable thing to be so completely cut off from all relations as we are here.’ 1

In a few cases rural settlers were able to attract siblings or friends from home who would come out in a chain migration. In South Canterbury the extended Brosnahan family came out from County Kerry in southern Ireland and settled on land near Kerrytown. But this was unusual. More often settlers found solace from loneliness in the nuclear family. The family became, as Charles Hursthouse said, a man’s ‘nearest and dearest friends.’ 2 Family pursuits – cards, reading aloud, singing around the piano – were important leisure activities on the farm.

As siblings grew up they often remained close, as a comfort against the loneliness of rural life. Kate Squires of Woodend in Southland actively encouraged visits from her sisters Bella, Emily and Mary after she was married, and they usually stayed for long periods. Often the visits coincided with the pregnancy and confinement of one of the women. Kate’s sisters were her primary leisure companions.

Too many men

There was a gender imbalance in rural areas. There were always more Pākehā men than women in 19th-century New Zealand, but the imbalance was greater in rural areas. In 1874 outside cities and towns there were twice as many non-Māori men as women (68,568 men aged 20 or over; 33,043 women). In some places such as Marlborough and South Canterbury there were even fewer women.

Run, boy, run

When a woman arrived at the new settlement of Āpiti in the Manawatū in the 1880s, a group of bush-fellers were hard at work. One man rushed up to his employer, saying, ‘Boss, I’m finishing, I want my pay.’ The boss asked what was wrong. ‘Look,’ said the man, ‘there’s a woman coming, I’m going further back.’ 3

On the east coast of both islands where there were large sheep-farming runs many single men were employed as shepherds, or in short-term or seasonal jobs as shearers or harvesters. They often lived in ‘men’s quarters’. A few single women may have been found in the larger homesteads as domestic servants, and perhaps there was an occasional married couple. But there were few families and the institutions of male culture such as hotels and drinking places were strong.

The respectable classes became fearful of dissolute habits such as drinking, swearing, gambling and fighting. Women were seen as having a particularly moral role in improving behaviour. Charlotte Godley suggested to two bachelors on a backblocks station that they set up a carefully draped dummy of a lady to restrain them from ‘semi-barbarous’ behaviour. 4

Footnotes:
  1. Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds., My hand will write what my heart dictates. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996, p. 88. › Back
  2. Charles Hursthouse, New Zealand the ‘Britain of the South’. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997, p. 403 (originally published 1861). › Back
  3. A. E. Woodhouse, ed., Tales of pioneer women. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1940, p. 130. › Back
  4. Charlotte Godley, Letters from early New Zealand. Christchurch: Kiwi, 2000, p. 269 (originally published 1936). › Back
How to cite this page:

Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips, 'Farm families - The colonial family – new conditions', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/farm-families/page-1 (accessed 19 November 2017)

Story by Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips, published 24 Nov 2008