Story: Inner-city living

Page 1. Early inner-city living and its decline

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The inner city refers to the central business district (CBD) and immediate surrounding residential areas – a total of about 2 square kilometres. Before the advent of large-scale public transport, most city dwellers lived within walking distance of their workplaces. The exception was the wealthy élite, many of whom rode in carriages from their homes in the outer suburbs. The introduction of cheap public transport in the late 19th century gradually allowed middle-class families to also live outside the city. With ample space for gardens and safe outdoor play, suburbs were considered to be the best place to raise children.

Decline in living conditions

As middle-class families left for the suburbs, investors bought up vacated houses and rented them to working-class families and the poor. Large houses were often converted into multiple dwellings, which were individually leased. Conversions were usually rushed and makeshift – thin walls and ceilings meant there were few secrets between neighbours. High rents encouraged overcrowding and the subletting of rooms. The speculative nature of such housing meant that despite profitable returns, few landlords maintained their properties properly, and many buildings fell into disrepair.

By the 1920s there was a zone of boarding houses and run-down dwellings between the CBD and suburbs. This area included ethnic enclaves, such as Wellington’s Chinese community.

Boarding and lodging houses

Boarding and lodging houses were concentrated near inner-city ports and railway stations, where they could cater for new arrivals – mostly single men. Many of these establishments were the converted former homes of wealthy city merchants. Bedrooms were let to individual tenants and bathroom facilities were shared.

Homes of despair

Often home to the despondent and desperate, boarding and lodging houses were scenes of many suicides. In 1867 Elizabeth Irvine hanged herself in a Whanganui lodging house. Having recently migrated from Ireland expecting to marry, she arrived to discover her fiancé had taken another wife – ‘too common’ a story, regretted the Evening Post.1 In 1886 former Royal Navy officer Theodore Berhew ‘blew his brains out’ in an Auckland boarding house after failing to prosper in New Zealand.2

Boarding-house meals were cooked by the landlady and served in a common dining room. The living room, also shared, was a place to read, converse or play cards. This communal emphasis distinguished boarding houses from lodging houses, where meals were not provided and lodgers cooked for themselves in a shared kitchen. Usually there was no common living space, forcing the residents to stay in their rooms or go out on the town.

Because boarding houses provided meals, they had a higher status than lodging houses. For new arrivals and city visitors, boarding houses were respectable places to stay. Tenants were mostly men, but couples and single women also took rooms. However, lodging houses were considered cheap accommodation for the working class and poor. With less oversight of comings and goings, they were also suspected places of ill repute.

In the 1920s boarding and lodging houses became seen as equally unwholesome. Wealthy tenants deserted boarding houses for more fashionable blocks of flats. Women left too – the decline of live-in domestic service and the rise of clerical and professional work saw women move to inner-city hostels, away from places where they were vulnerable to sexual advances.

St Elmo’s rise and fall

The grand St Elmo Boarding House in Christchurch’s Worcester St suffered a loss in status over time. As late as the 1920s it was advertised as providing ‘superior private accommodation’, but by the early 1930s it had been demolished. In its place rose St Elmo Courts, a seven-storey block of one- and two-bedroom flats for the city’s affluent.


Hostels were similar to boarding houses, but were institutionally rather than privately operated. Often run by welfare organisations, they were segregated into men’s and women’s accommodation. They catered for young people beginning their careers, and staff took a mentoring role, warning fresh-faced arrivals from the country about the pitfalls of city life. Hostels gave new arrivals immediate access to social circles – groups often went out to movies, dances or sports games. They also provided opportunities to meet a partner among the other residents or their brothers, sisters and friends. Hostels declined in popularity in the 1960s, when flats – shared-house accommodation – became the preferred lodging of young people.

  1. Evening Post, 13 March 1867, p. 2. Back
  2. Grey River Argus, 7 December 1886, p. 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Philip Morrison and Ben Schrader, 'Inner-city living - Early inner-city living and its decline', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Philip Morrison and Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010