Story: Marriage and partnering

Page 2. Marriage in the 19th century

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In 19th-century New Zealand marriage was a personal relationship with very important public functions. Marriage created families. It provided companionship and sex, and the framework within which children were born and reared.

Marriage was, for many couples, a working partnership, and families were the basis of many businesses. Marriage was seen to encourage social stability and moral behaviour, and allowed secure transfer of property within a family. It had a strong religious meaning, a joining of two people by God for life.

The importance of marriage meant that it was supported and protected by the state and justice system. Entry to and exit from marriage was firmly controlled, and the responsibilities of husband and wife were supported by law and by the fact that the welfare system was very limited.

Marriage or rugby?

In 1896 marriage and rugby were presented as incompatible by Thomas Eyton, promoter of the 1888 New Zealand Natives tour of Britain. His imaginary encounter began:

‘You do not love me?’ he cried, rubbing his hands till his 15-carat gold-plated ring bit his finger. ‘You will not be my wife? That is your final answer! Then goodbye.’ He turned to the door, his great frame shaking with bitter sobs.

‘Stay, where are you going?’ she screamed, fearful lest he might do something desperate.

He folded his arms and raised his eyes ceilingwards. ‘I am going,’ he said firmly, ‘to join a football club.’ Her worst fears were realised.1

Marital duties and responsibilities

Marriage unified a couple. In legal terms, the wife’s existence was much reduced, and absorbed into that of her husband. A wife was known by her husband's name, becoming, for example, Mrs John Jones. The couple set up a home together, and husband or wife was seen to have deserted the marriage if they lived apart.

Within marriage, men and women had different responsibilities, sanctioned by custom and enforced by law. A husband was the legal owner of any property a wife had, and was entitled to any wages she earned. In return, he had to financially support his wife and children, pay her debts and for any items she bought on credit.

Wives were expected to bear and rear children, and manage the household: cleaning, making clothes, preserving food and cooking. In some families the wife was responsible for managing the money. It was also her responsibility to care for elderly or sick family members. In poorer families women would sometimes undertake paid work, and in many families wives assisted husbands with their work.

First marriage

The first European marriage celebrated in New Zealand was between Maria Ringa and the Norwegian whaler and trader Phillip Tapsell in 1823. The marriage did not last – Ringa left her husband on the day of their marriage. She was the first of three high-born Māori women Tapsell married. His second and third wives were Karuhi, sister of Ngāpuhi chief Wharepoaka, and Hine-i-turama Ngatiki of Ngāti Whakaue. 

First regulation

Many colonists arrived in New Zealand already married. They would have wed in a church, register office or registered building (such as a non-Church of England chapel). Two witnesses would have been present, and the marriage recorded in a publicly available register. Before marrying, a licence needed to be obtained, or banns (an announcement of the intention to marry) published.

A variation of this system was soon set up in New Zealand. The regulation of marriage began with an ordinance in 1842 that allowed any minister of a Christian religion to perform a marriage ceremony. The first Marriage Act was passed in 1854; from 1856 non-Māori residents had to give notice of their intention to marry and obtain a marriage licence before any wedding could take place.

Who married who

Choosing a wife or husband depended on who was available. In the early and mid-19th century, Māori–Pākehā intermarriage was common. Until the early 20th century there were more men than women in the European population; single women who migrated to New Zealand usually married within a few years. No more than 6% of Pākehā women over the age of 45 were single.

Couples tended to come from similar backgrounds. Marrying up or down was not usual – movement from one class to another seldom occurred through marriage.

Creating a servant shortage 

The ease and rapidity with which single women found husbands helped continue and build a servant shortage. ‘[T]he demand is increased by the rapidity with which England’s unmarried daughters obtain husbands,’ reported T. H. Gregg in 1875. ‘A short courtship, a shorter notice to her mistress, a new home is set up.’2

Rate of and age at marriage

Between 1855 and 1900 change in New Zealand's population was extensive. The rate of marriage per 1,000 non-Māori New Zealanders per year (which went from 10.91 to 7.67) was strongly affected by these shifts in the population.

English common law (which applied in New Zealand) allowed girls to marry at 12, and boys at 14. Marriage at such an age was rare, and those marrying under the age of 21 required the consent of father, guardian or mother.

Until the end of the period, women in New Zealand married at a markedly earlier age than those in Britain. In the 1870s the median age at which women married was 23, while that for men was 29. In the 1890s the median age at which women married increased to 24, while that for men dropped to 28.

The proportion of the male population who married was smaller than that of the female. There were more men than women, so their chance of finding a partner was lower. Colonial New Zealand may also have attracted men who were not interested in marriage and settling down.


The death of a husband or wife was common, and widows and widowers often remarried. The rate of remarriage amongst those aged 30–45 was high; this was also the age at which people were most likely to have dependent children. Without a breadwinner, women struggled to support their offspring. Widowed fathers were expected to continue working and, if necessary, put their children into institutional care. Finding a wife meant companionship, and keeping the family intact.

Bigamy, polygamy and common-law marriages

Not all marriages were what they seemed. Bigamous, polygamous and common-law marriages usually only came to public attention when something went wrong. (Common-law marriages were those in which a couple lived together and were accepted as married by their friends and family, but were not legally married.) The rate at which such marriages occurred is impossible to find out – those involved kept the nature of their relationship secret.

Breach of promise

Those who failed to honour a commitment to marry could end up in court charged with breach of promise by the abandoned party (invariably a woman), and often had to pay financial compensation.

Breach of promise cases, both local and British, were widely reported. The English cases, featuring millionaires, viscounts and baronets, with huge sums demanded as compensation, brought a whiff of entertaining scandal. New Zealanders were more likely to be farmers and office workers, and the compensation of £100 to £250 ($18,000–$45,000 in 2010 values) was usual.

Breach of promise cases, relatively common in the 19th century, became less so through the 20th century.

  1. Quoted in Jock Phillips, A man’s country?: the image of the Pakeha male, a history. Auckland: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 130. Back
  2. Quoted in Karen Duder, ‘Domestic servants, marriage and mobility in Dunedin, 1880–1890’. Dip Arts thesis, University of Otago, 1989, p. 18. Back
How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Marriage and partnering - Marriage in the 19th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 May 2017