Story: Farm families

Page 2. The colonial family and the household economy

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The British family

In the years 1840 to 1915, when the mass European settlement of New Zealand occurred, the family in Britain and to some extent Ireland was undergoing major change. Most immigrants came from rural areas where the household had long been the major productive unit. Men, women and children had distinct roles, but were all expected to contribute economically.

As cities grew work became separated from home, and paid work became identified with men. The ideal middle-class home was seen as a private and sentimental sanctuary which was the realm of women. Such ideas began to affect rural areas as well. For example there was a growing resistance to employing women outside in the fields. In rural New Zealand the traditional importance of the family as a productive economic unit was restored for a time.

Colonial family farming

Outside the large pastoral runs, on smaller east-coast holdings or in bush areas of the North Island, the family became the crucial unit of farming life in New Zealand. Even where a settler worked for wages on farms, a wife was valuable. James Adam, an immigration publicist, wrote in 1876 that if a young man married ‘a girl who knows something about dairy or household work, and is willing to assist in the house’, then the farmer would pay much higher wages. 1

Farm band

One family in Stratford, Taranaki, advertised in 1894 for a position on a farm as a family unit: ‘WANTED – situation by a married man, with grown up family, on farm or station. All can milk; a general farm band.’ 2


For settlers attempting to establish themselves on their own land, survival required the involvement of the whole family. To make ends meet men were often absent working to make roads or labouring for wages on larger properties at jobs such as shearing or harvesting, leaving women and children to run the farm.

Families on farms were a long way from shops and specialised craft workers, so they had to be very self-reliant. If they needed help, they often had to walk long distances. There was a chronic shortage of servants, and those available often left to get married. Lizzie Heath wrote to her sister in 1868 that ‘housekeeping here is very different to at home’ because without shops nearby one had ‘to make things to do other things’, such as preparing the yeast to make bread, or drying and baking feathers for mattresses, or washing and drying hops for beer. 3

Women and children became essential to a farm’s success. Charles Hursthouse, writing for immigrants, said that a wife ‘was far prettier and more fruitful than patent plough, thrashing mill or thorough-bred,’ 4 while I. Rhodes Cooper advised settlers that ‘[t]he only men who can farm with success on a small capital, are married men, with three or four sons to assist them in fencing, ploughing, planting, etc.’ 5

Colonial know-how

Jessie Campbell, farming in Whanganui in 1843, wrote to her sister, ‘It is quite amusing how ignorant some of the ladies here are of the knowledge most necessary for settlers’ wives. A lady told me the other day that she could not make butter, the cream she kept for it always became so sour! She could hardly be persuaded that my butter was made from sour cream.’ 6

Women’s role

Women did not do everything around the farm. Unless the family was very poor, wives were excused from heavy labour such as harvesting or ploughing, and did work close to the home which could be combined with looking after children. They carried out the cleaning, washing, mending, knitting and sewing, and of course the cooking – sometimes taking out scones or sandwiches to the men in the fields at harvest or shearing time. Women also gardened, preserved fruit and vegetables and made soap – activities which saved money. Around the house, gardening, feeding the chickens, calves and pigs, and milking cows were seen as acceptable extensions of women’s roles. Women also churned the butter. Bessie Royds, wife of a crop farmer, described herself as ‘our own dairy maid, baker, washerwoman and house maid’. 7

Family labour

Jack Jewitt, his wife Sarah and their seven children migrated in 1874 and within a year they were hard at work. They had a small plot of land with fowls, pigs and hens. Jack was away for a month at a time working on the railway. His wife was a charwoman for 7s. a day; and also earned 2s. 6d. for knitting a pair of socks. Three children were in domestic service: Ellen, aged 15, earning 10s. a week, 13-year-old Tom earning 8s., and Sarah, nine, who was earning 2s. 6d. looking after a baby.

Children’s role

Perhaps women’s most significant role economically was to bear and care for children. Until the end of the 19th century the birth rate was high – about six or seven children per adult woman. Women married younger on average than in Britain and so child-rearing began early. Children became invaluable to the farm economy. From the age of four or five they would begin to help in the vegetable garden or feed the animals. As they grew stronger they would go hunting and fishing to help supply food to the household. Before long they would be assisting around the farm – boys would take part in heavy activities like harvesting, and the girls might help with the baking. Later the boys would take over running the farm and support their parents in sickness and old age.

  1. James Adam, Twenty-five years of emigrant life in the south of New Zealand. Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1874, p. 33. › Back
  2. Taranaki Herald, 31 August 1894, p. 3. › Back
  3. Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds., My hand will write what my heart dictates. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1996, p. 172. › Back
  4. Charles Hursthouse, New Zealand the ‘Britain of the South’. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1997, p. 397 (originally published 1861). › Back
  5. I. Rhodes Cooper, The New Zealand settlers’ guide. London: E. Stanford, 1857, pp. 5–6. › Back
  6. My hand will write what my heart dictates, p. 156. › Back
  7. My hand will write what my heart dictates, p. 256. › Back
How to cite this page:

Emma Dewson and Jock Phillips, 'Farm families - The colonial family and the household economy', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 February 2024)

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