Story: History of immigration

Page 8. The great migration: 1871 to 1885

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The migration of the 1870s was the most significant in New Zealand history. In 1871 the non-Māori population was just over a quarter of a million; over the next 15 years more than that number (289,026) flooded into the country, although about 40% of them took a look and moved on. In 1874 there was a net addition of over 38,000 immigrants, the largest annual increase until 2002.

Vogel’s ‘think big’

The main reason for this flood was the free or assisted passages offered by the New Zealand government. Almost half of the new immigrants came with government assistance. Three-quarters of these sailed directly from the United Kingdom.

The explanation for offering this help is found in the ambitious vision of Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel. By 1870, with wool prices down and gold production in decline, New Zealand was in depression, and the New Zealand wars had created negative impressions overseas. Vogel believed that borrowing overseas funds could pay both for building railways and roads, and for large-scale immigration. This would not only create an economic boom; the new immigrants could settle on land purchased and confiscated from Māori, to engender social order and ‘British civilisation’. The Immigration and Public Works Act 1870 created the position of agent general in London to advance the immigration proposals. In March 1871 Isaac Featherston was appointed.

Brogdens’ navvies

At first there was little success in attracting prospective immigrants in Britain. People were put off by the bad reputation of New Zealand’s climate, its dangerous ‘natives’ and the high costs and perils of the journey. So a bulk contract was signed with the engineering firm of John Brogden and Sons, who brought out 2,712 labourers (known as navvies) in 1871, for work on railway contracts.


The 1870 act was open to Europeans, so Isaac Featherston turned his attention to Germany and Scandinavia. In October 1870 the Celaeno left London with 40 settlers from Norway and Sweden, and over the next two years several thousand arrived, attracted by the subsidised passages and offer of land. German forest workers and railway builders were brought out and gave their name to ‘German-towns’ near Waimate and Gore. Within 10 years the number of German-born people doubled to almost 5,000, and there were almost as many Scandinavians.

Attracting British immigrants

Conditions were made more attractive for United Kingdom immigrants. From 1873 the fare of £5 per adult was waived and travel was free. In addition, New Zealand residents could nominate friends and relatives to come and join them. The London office sent out public speakers and recruited local people – book sellers, grocers, schoolteachers – to spread the message. By 1873 there were 53 New Zealand government immigration agents in England, 78 in Scotland, and 46 in Ireland. Newspaper advertisements and posters called for married agricultural labourers and single female domestic servants, provided they were ‘sober, industrious, of good moral character, of sound mind and in good health.’ 1

Picture show

One agent described how his meetings were illustrated with large sheets of watercolour paintings which produced an ‘electrical effect’ on the audience. The illustrations included ‘the smoking meal of joints of mutton waiting for the New Zealand workman, enough to make him dance after a hard day’s work’. 2

The Revolt of the Field

People responded to the call. Many were farm workers facing the end of the golden age of British agriculture. Cheap foreign wheat lowered prices, wages and the demand for labour (numbers of farm workers fell by 16% in the decade). Increasingly, men were hired by the day on a casual basis. Cottage industries, like glove- or lace-making, disappeared, replaced by factories. Housing was poor, police cracked down on poaching game for food, and humanitarian but unpopular legislation ruled out the option of children earning.

According to Joseph Arch, a Methodist lay preacher and hedger, the farm labourers ‘were no better than toads under a harrow’. 3 Arch organised a labourers’ union, and like the ‘Captain Swing’ labourers’ riots 40 years earlier, the ‘Revolt of the Field’ spread across southern England. When the unions were locked out by the farmers in 1874 they encouraged members to sail to New Zealand. A unionist, Christopher Holloway, was given a free trip to New Zealand, and wrote back in positive terms. The trickle became the flood of 1874.

The land of bread and honey

In November 1873 the Labourers’ Union Chronicle wrote, ‘Not a farm labourer in England but should rush from the old doomed country to such a paradise as New Zealand – A GOOD LAND – … A LAND OF OIL, OLIVES AND HONEY; – A LAND WHERE IN THOU MAY’ST EAT BREAD WITHOUT SCARCENESS … Away, then, farm labourers, away! New Zealand is the promised land for you.' 4

Scotland and Ireland too

In Scotland a fall in wages and employment and the decline of domestic spinning brought suffering to people in the Lowlands. This was exploited by the leading New Zealand agent, the Reverend Peter Barclay, who insisted on a certificate of character from employers and clergy.

In rural Ireland poverty led the younger generation of peasant farmers to move – sometimes first to England or Scotland and then further. Many, particularly those from Munster (Southern Ireland), were nominated by relatives who had migrated to New Zealand during the gold rushes. In Ulster, agents often recruited women to work as domestic servants.

  1. W. D. Borrie, Immigration to New Zealand, 1854–1938. Canberra: Demography Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1991, p. 52. › Back
  2. Evening Post, 29 September 1874. › Back
  3. Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land: English villagers, New Zealand immigrants of the 1870s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1981, p. 23. › Back
  4. Labourers’ Union Chronicle, 29 November 1873, p. 1. › Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'History of immigration - The great migration: 1871 to 1885', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

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