Story: History of immigration

Page 12. Between the wars

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The Great War of 1914–18 (the First World War) put a stop to long-distance migration. Ships were not available and travel was dangerous. From 1916 to 1919, the net increase of population from migration was under 3,000.

‘98% British’

War intensified suspicion towards outsiders. People of German background were harassed, and they and socialists were targeted by the Undesirable Immigrants Exclusion Act 1919. Hostility towards Asian people also grew stronger. Although in the 1916 census only 181 Indians were recorded in New Zealand, anxieties grew that ‘Hindu coolies’ brought to Fiji under indenture might come on to New Zealand. When in the first half of 1920, 174 Indians arrived in New Zealand along with 725 Chinese, the government passed the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act, requiring an entry permit for people ‘not of British or Irish parentage’. That definition included ‘aboriginal natives’ of British Empire countries. A ‘white New Zealand’ policy had been established. Asians were not the only victims. The act was used against Dalmatians and Italians intending to enter New Zealand during these years. ‘98% British’ was the decree.

Migration for the empire

The Great War tightened bonds between Britain and its empire, and led to a revival of assisted emigration to the colonies, including Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The British race would be strengthened by exporting men from crowded cities to healthy dominions, and women to areas where there was a surplus of men. Single women might become British mothers. For the first time the British government subsidised migration, first with a scheme in 1919 to assist the migration of ex-servicemen, and then with the Empire Settlement Act 1922, which provided support for family emigration to the dominions.

Boys and girls come out to farm

One unusual immigration scheme brought out juveniles to New Zealand farms. It was known as the Flock House scheme, named after the homestead and property in the Manawatū where the young people were to be trained as farmers. Funded by New Zealand sheep farmers, it was intended as a debt of gratitude to British seamen. The 635 boys and 128 girls who came out were the children of seamen killed or wounded in the First World War.

New Zealand responds

Some New Zealanders, especially those in the labour movement, feared mass immigration would worsen housing problems, increase unemployment, and lower wages. But manufacturers and farmers wanted more labour, and the demand for domestic servants was still strong. New Zealand agreed to boost British government subsidies, reducing fares further.

The 1920s migrants

Between 1921 and 1927, assisted migrants from the United Kingdom represented over half all long-term migrants. They came in four main groups.

The largest group emigrated under the Empire Settlement Act. Through this scheme New Zealanders could also nominate anyone for whom they could provide a job and accommodation. This allowed many families to bring out relatives.

The other groups were:

  • Wives of New Zealand ex-soldiers.
  • Some 13,000 British ex-servicemen and their families.
  • 1,400 young men brought out to work on farms.

The influx of the early 1920s was one of New Zealand’s major immigration flows. Most of the newcomers sailed directly from Britain, as trans-Tasman migration had now dwindled.

There was much that was familiar about the character of the immigrants – women and children were well represented, craftsmen and builders were common among the men, domestic servants among the women. A good number came from London and the home counties as before. But the populations of Cornwall and Devon were now depleted, and many came from the northern industrial counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Durham. For the first time industry workers figured prominently.

Women on the waves

The SS Mahana was known as the ‘Brides’ Boat’ when it sailed to New Zealand in 1920. It was carrying English women on their way to marry New Zealand soldiers. Among the passengers were three sisters of one family who lived at Hornchurch, the site of a New Zealand convalescent hospital, all of whom were engaged to Kiwis.

Three in ten came from Scotland, where along with farming the older industries such as shipbuilding were in decline. Fewer came from Ireland; those who did were mostly from the north. Previously over half of Irish immigrants had been Catholic; now only a third were Catholic.

These ‘Homies’, as British immigrants were sometimes called, fitted well into small-town New Zealand. But in the cities resentment remained, particularly where there were housing shortages.

End of assistance

An economic downturn hit New Zealand in 1927 and became a full depression from 1929. The country was no longer an attractive destination, and government assistance tailed off before being abandoned in all but name in 1931. The Department of Immigration was shut down in 1932. From that year until 1935, 10,000 more people left New Zealand than arrived. In 1935 there was only one assisted migrant. The doors of New Zealand were essentially closed.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'History of immigration - Between the wars', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Aug 2015