Story: Housing and government

Page 1. Immigration barracks to workers’ dwellings

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Immigration barracks

The New Zealand government’s first major housing initiative was to build immigration barracks to accommodate new settlers for a short period while they found their feet and secured employment. Originally colonising companies provided barracks – sometimes belatedly. In 1840 Wellington’s first European settlers lived under canvas while New Zealand Company officials engaged local Māori to erect huts for them to live in. A decade later Canterbury’s pioneer settlers moved straight into barracks beside Lyttelton’s wharf.

With the beginning of self-government in 1854, provincial governments became responsible for immigration and immigration barracks. This responsibility passed to the central government in 1870, when Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel (later premier) stepped up government-assisted immigration.

Passing through

In 1870s Christchurch all government-assisted immigrants passed through Addington’s immigration barracks. After being declared fit by a doctor, new arrivals had two days to wash and mend clothes before job interviews at the barracks on the third day. On accepting a position, immigrants promptly left. Those who declined to accept the going wage rate were expelled. This was to prevent loafers and malcontents from indulging themselves at the government’s expense.

During their stay immigrants were expected to complete daily chores and abide by the rules. Conditions were basic, but people were well fed and provided for – the government recognised that negative reports could deter future immigrants. In 1874 Harriet Herbert described the Christchurch barracks as ‘a splendid place, so comfortable and everyone so kind to us’.1

With the end of Vogel’s assisted immigration scheme in the late 1880s, the barracks were no longer needed and were either put to other uses or demolished. Since then, most immigrants have found their own accommodation on arrival in New Zealand or have been housed in dedicated refugee camps. In 2010 new refugees spent six weeks at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre learning about New Zealand life before entering the wider community.

Native hostels

From the 1840s Māori regularly visited towns to trade. Pākehā prejudice meant few hoteliers welcomed them as guests. The government therefore built ‘native hostels’ in major towns where visiting Māori could stay free of charge. The Auckland hostel was opened in 1850 in Mechanics Bay. Traders could land their waka (canoes) and quickly transfer their produce to a covered market area outside the hostel. The hostel was well-frequented and survived into the 1930s.

The colonial housing market

While the government continued to supply specialist accommodation – such as asylums and military barracks – it did not provide general housing. This was due in part to a widespread conviction that this was the role of private enterprise. Most New Zealanders either rented their home from an investor-landlord or owned it themselves. The government restricted its role to (lightly) regulating the housing market, for example by giving municipalities (town councils) the power to prevent overcrowding and cleanse filthy houses – measures that were rarely used.


The 1890 election of the reformist Liberal government saw the state take a more interventionist line. Growing concern over slum-like housing conditions and extortionate rents in the main cities led reformers to claim the market was failing to deliver good-quality and affordable housing. They argued that New Zealand should follow Britain and erect municipal rental homes for city workers. In 1900 the government gave local councils that power, but municipalities were too busy building streets and sewers to take on housing as well, so the state took the lead instead.

Workers’ dwellings

In 1905 Premier Richard Seddon pushed through legislation enabling the state to erect workers’ dwellings in the main cities. Suburban land was acquired, away from inner-city pollutants, and the first houses were completed in Petone, near Wellington, the following year. However, distance from city workplaces and high rents (due to superior construction standards) deterred tenants and the scheme was not successful.

Seddon’s successor, Joseph Ward, favoured home ownership. He set up a scheme offering low-interest state loans for land-owning workers to erect their own houses. By 1910 nearly 1,300 loans had been taken out, compared to the erection of just 126 workers’ dwellings. In an attempt to bolster the workers’ dwelling scheme, the state offered to build houses for landless city workers on a mere £10 deposit. Workers had the option to rent, lease or buy. William Massey’s Reform Party had opposed the state being a landlord. When it came to power in 1912 it ended the state’s first venture into workers’ rental housing by selling the remaining stock.

  1. Quoted in Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land: English villagers, New Zealand immigrants of the 1870s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1981, p. 240. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Housing and government - Immigration barracks to workers’ dwellings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 20 Jun 2012