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Parades and protest marches

by Ben Schrader

Since colonial times New Zealanders have taken to the streets to celebrate success or promote a cause. Sporting processions have seen people bursting with pride at local prowess, but sport also caused pandemonium in 1981 when thousands marched against a tour by the South African rugby side.

Parades and protest marches before 1890

A parade or protest march is a procession of people through the streets to celebrate an event or publicise a grievance. To generate maximum publicity, most processions are held in cities – their success is often judged by the size of the crowds they attract.

Parades and protest marches use symbols and rituals. Flags, banners, music and chants express the identities and aims of marchers. Colours can be symbolic – red is linked to unionism, and black may represent grief. Buildings and places also have symbolic importance. Squares, parks, landmark buildings like Parliament, and other symbols of government, often provide focal points for marches and rallies. Marches give participants a communal voice, and attempt to shape events.


City and town dwellers were treated to many street parades in the 19th century. These ranged from the formality and pomp of military parades to the theatrics of circus parades.

Recruiting parade


In 1870, following their evening drill at Fort Britomart, the Auckland Naval Volunteers (Reservists) decided to parade under arms through the city streets. As their band played ‘spirited airs’, an exuberant crowd soon fell in behind, ‘thus showing what an influence such parades … would have in popularising the movement, and inducing recruits to join.’1


Military parades

Early military parades – processions of units of the armed forces through the streets – emphasised the power of the state. After hearing in 1840 that Wellington settlers had set up their own government, Lieutenant-Governor Hobson dispatched a military contingent to reassert his authority. The sight of soldiers marching along Lambton Quay soon led Wellingtonians to pledge loyalty to the Crown.

Royal visits

Royal visits allowed people to express their loyalty to the British Crown and encouraged large parades and elaborate street decorations – arches, flags and festoons. The first visit by a member of the British royal family was by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1869. On arrival at Port Nelson he was received with the ‘tremendous cheers of several thousand persons’,2 after which he joined a parade into the town by police, firemen, friendly-society members, children and politicians.

Picnic and circus parades

Parades often preceded group picnics and galas. During the 1870s Auckland’s Sunday schools held their annual picnics on New Year’s Day. In the morning processions of children marched through the streets to their destinations. They returned in the evening in ‘little knots, showing in sunburnt faces the wear and tear of the day.’3

Circus spectacle


An 1880 parade by Cole’s circus attracted thousands onto Wellington streets. The procession included ‘a cage of three lions, with the tamer calmly seated in their midst; a ferocious-looking savage seated in a large glass case, holding in his right hand a huge reptile; [and] two large and two baby elephants’. The parade, said the press, was ‘at once gay and imposing’ – the best of its kind to have come to the city.4


Circuses usually marked their arrival in town with a promotional parade of animals and performers.

Funeral processions

In the 19th century most funeral processions consisted of a horse-drawn hearse followed by a few carriages and mourners on foot. By the 1880s it had become the convention to remove hats and stand in respectful silence as the group passed. Funeral processions for prominent citizens attracted large crowds.

Religious parades

There were few religious parades in New Zealand. Churches generally evangelised indoors. The Salvation Army was an exception. From its arrival in 1883 it used street processions to promote its ministry. These featured brass bands, singing, tambourine playing, banners and preaching.

A gruesome death


In 1867 the residents of Cambridge ‘executed’ an effigy of Auckland politician George Graham. The townsfolk loathed Graham – a Crown negotiator during the 1860s New Zealand wars – for his alleged sympathy for Māori rights. Graham’s ‘death’ was long-drawn-out. After receiving 50 lashes, he was hanged. Then the effigy was taken down and paraded through the streets to the tune of ‘The rogues march’. Afterwards the ‘corpse’ was riddled with bullets, before being burnt ‘amidst groans and hisses’.5


Effigy burning

The first protest marches often involved effigy burning – combining demonstration and street theatre. In 1843 Aucklanders marked the end of Willoughby Shortland’s detested reign as acting governor with a large party and bonfire. After repeated cheering for Captain Robert FitzRoy, the new governor, ‘three groans – most awful’6 were proposed for Shortland, whose effigy was carried about and thrown into the fire. People who were perceived to be working against local interests were often targets of effigy burning.

Irish Fenian protest march

Some protest marches were more subdued. In 1868 almost 800 people marched through Hokitika streets in a mock funeral for three Fenians (Irish nationalists) who had been hanged in Britain (contentiously) for killing a Manchester policeman. The procession ended at the cemetery, where a cross was erected to the memory of the men, infuriating those who believed them guilty.

    • Daily Southern Cross, 12 May 1870, p. 3. Back
    • Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 12 May 1869, p. 2. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 2 January 1872, p. 2. Back
    • Evening Post, 30 November 1880. p. 2. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 14 October 1867, p. 3. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 9 September 1843, p. 3. Back

Parades, 1890 to 1950

Labour Day parade

The 1890s saw the trade union movement use parades to celebrate the unity and collective strength of working people.

The first Labour Day parades were held on 28 October 1890, during a trans-Tasman maritime strike, when thousands marched in the main centres to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the eight-hour working day in New Zealand. Their success led unionists to begin annual galas. Participants marched behind floats, trades tableaux, banners and emblems, and proceeded to parks for family-oriented picnics and sports events. Prizes were awarded for the best floats and athletes. In 1899 Labour Day became a public holiday and the parades swelled. Enthusiasm for the parades declined in the 1920s and they were discontinued.

Anniversaries and jubilees

Commemorating the anniversary of a city, town or region fostered common memories about their Pākehā beginnings and development.

Otago’s 50th jubilee parade through Dunedin in 1898 was divided into three sections: community and business, historical, and military and dignitaries.


Processions as part of university graduation ceremonies began at Canterbury College in 1899 and were quickly adopted by other colleges. The ‘procesh’ was an opportunity for students to engage in high jinks and bawdiness. It generally consisted of a series of floats satirising political issues, current events and public figures. Students wore fancy dress and engaged in stunts.

The ‘essential elements’ of the procesh were ‘topical satire, drunkenness, transvestism, the exchange of missiles with onlookers (from flour bombs to sausage strings) and displays on sexual and scatological themes’.1 In 1912, Auckland students acquired police uniforms. They held up trams, inspected shops and made mock arrests.

In the early 1970s student interest in the procesh faded. In many university towns it was replaced by a formal street parade of graduands.

Heroes’ welcome


In 1940 Auckland and Wellington hosted jubilant parades to welcome sailors of HMS Achilles. It had served in the battle of the River Plate, at Rio de la Plata off the coast of Argentina and Uruguay. It was the first major naval battle of the Second World War. Over half of the Achilles personnel were New Zealanders.


Military parades

Military parades became more important as New Zealand troops began fighting overseas.

Parades farewelling troops leaving for war, or welcoming those returning home, became popular during the South African War. They were designed to arouse patriotic fervour and to show support for service personnel. They typically included a military band, New Zealand and allied flags, and streamers and bunting. After the Second World War parades commemorating past battles, particular service units, or official anniversaries became the most common.

Anzac Day parades

Anzac Day parades began in 1916 and are held annually throughout New Zealand on the morning of 25 April. They form part of a ceremony commemorating the 1915 Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landing at Gallipoli, Turkey, and New Zealand’s war dead and veterans.

The parade occurs in the late morning, following dawn remembrance services at local war memorials. Medal-wearing veterans march behind standards and banners to the main war memorials for commemorative services. They are joined by members of the armed forces and other community groups, and, more recently, by families and descendants of veterans.

Victory parades: VE and VJ days

New Zealand found out about Germany’s surrender in the Second World War on 7 May 1945, but the government decreed that celebrations should wait for the official peace announcement on 9 May – Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Dunedinites ignored the order and on 8 May flocked into the city to party. The town hall bells pealed and thousands milling in the Octagon broke into song.

The following day in Christchurch, unions organised a victory parade from Latimer to Cathedral squares, where marchers sang patriotic ditties. People also danced, kissed strangers, and engaged in street theatre. Similar scenes followed the surrender of Japan (VJ Day) on 15 August 1945, although in Auckland too much celebratory booze led to bottle throwing in which people were hurt.

    • Rachel Barrowman, Victoria University of Wellington 1899–1999: a history. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999, p. 90. Back

Royalty, sport, commerce

Royal visit

The second half of the 20th century saw the first visit by Queen Elizabeth II, which attracted some of New Zealand’s largest parades.

Dressed for the Queen


In 1953 Auckland City hired a display artist with a staff of five to dress Queen Street for the royal visit. The display included 23 holly garlands, 920 electric lights (representing holly berries), 65 flower boxes with 62,400 artificial flowers, and thousands of illuminated cut-out crowns.


The 1953–54 tour by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip was the first time a reigning monarch had visited New Zealand. Throngs of excited people lined city streets and country roads and railway lines, waving British flags and cheering the couple’s progress through the country. By the tour’s end it was estimated that two-thirds of New Zealanders had seen their Queen. Subsequent royal tours have attracted crowds but never reached the same fever pitch.

Sporting parades

After the All Black rugby team won every match on its 1924–25 northern hemisphere tour, the ‘Invincibles’ were given a victory parade through Wellington streets. Parades celebrating national or regional sporting success became more common. 

Parades before provincial rugby’s Ranfurly Shield challenges became a tradition.

Mooloo parade not enough


In 2007 a Mooloo (Waikato rugby’s mascot) parade through Hamilton streets attracted 36 floats and a sea of cowbell-ringing supporters. They were there to cheer on their team in its defence of the Ranfurly Shield. Sadly for them, Waikato lost the shield to Canterbury. They had held the ‘log of wood’ for only one week.


Such was the success of the (Canterbury) Crusaders in the Super Rugby competition in the early 21st century that a victory parade through central Christchurch seemed to be almost an annual event.

When Team New Zealand won the America’s Cup for yachting in 1995, large victory ticker-tape parades were held down Auckland’s Queen Street and along Wellington’s Lambton Quay.

Santa parades

The first Santa parade was organised by Auckland’s Farmers department store in 1934. By the 1950s most cities held a Santa parade each year to launch the Christmas shopping season. Meandering through central city streets, they featured dozens of highly decorated and fanciful floats, delighting children and the young at heart. Santa’s float, attended by elves, came into view last.

Festival parades

Festivals often have parades as part of their programmes. They help to publicise festival events, and allow people to showcase their cultures – ethnic festivals often feature traditional music and people in indigenous dress.

Napier parades

Festivals are often used to promote local lifestyles. Napier has been particularly successful at this. As far back as 1913, its 30,000 Club (named for the city’s target population) began an annual Mardi Gras to attract visitors and new residents. In 1914 the festival’s parade stretched a mile and drew 20,000 people. Displays included a Māori waka (canoe), trade floats, and groups dressed as Native Americans and cowboys.

In 1989 the city began a festival celebrating its art deco architecture. Held every February, this includes an art deco-themed parade through city streets.

Cuba Street carnival


Begun in 1999, Wellington’s biennial Cuba Street carnival celebrates the city and its cultural diversity. The highlight is an illuminated night parade.


Hero parade

In the 1990s homosexual groups organised festivals to promote gay and lesbian pride and self-esteem. They included colourful Mardi Gras-style street parades. Auckland’s Hero parade along fashionable Ponsonby Road attracted hundreds of participants and tens of thousands of spectators. It featured scantily dressed ‘marching boys’, voluptuous drag queens, and female ‘Elvis Presleys’. Moralists slammed the parade for its blatant displays of sexuality and called for it to end. This happened after the 2001 parade made a financial loss.

Boobs on Bikes

A controversial parade in the 2000s was the ‘Boobs on Bikes’ event down Auckland’s Queen Street. It featured bare-breasted women riding on motorcycles and in open-top cars. Organised by pornographer Steve Crow, it promoted his annual Erotica Expo. Critics made unsuccessful appeals to city bylaws to stop it. The 2008 event was preceded by a march protesting against the parade.

Protest marches, 1890 to 1951

Workers’ unions grew from the 1890s and increasingly used protest marches to publicise their issues, and to seek support from bystanders and the media during industrial disputes.

Unemployment protests

During economic downturns when work dried up the jobless typically looked to governments for relief. In 1886 about 500 Auckland unemployed, ‘many of them on the verge of starvation,’1 marched through the city demanding work. Sometimes the authorities were unable or unwilling to help. In 1908 Christchurch unemployed organised a ‘begging procession’ which went around city shops asking for food.

During the 1930s economic depression the jobless protested about their plight with regular marches – culminating in the 1932 riots in which frustrated protesters rampaged in the streets and clashed with police.

Standing by their men


Observers reported that Waihī women were steadfast in their support of the strike: ‘[T]heir voices are shrill with excitement as they join in the cheering and the hooting. That … [they] are restless is abundantly indicated by their presence in large numbers in the streets at all times, children of tender years who simply must be looked after being brought along in perambulators.’2


Union protest, Waihī

Among the first places where workers used protest marches in an industrial dispute was Waihī in 1912. Gold miners protested against the formation of a breakaway union by striking. Their employer reacted by employing strike-breakers in the mines and to drive the engines which serviced them. Strikers, their wives and children protested by marching through Waihī streets in ardent shows of solidarity. When strike-breakers and police stormed the miners’ hall, unionist Frederick Evans was shot and later died.

Waterfront disputes

Conflict arose during the 1913 waterfront strike in Wellington. On a number of occasions protest marches by striking wharf-workers and their supporters, with brass bands and various trade banners, clashed with horse-mounted police and special constables. Dozens of people on both sides received bloody beatings.

Protest marches also featured prominently in the divisive 1951 waterfront dispute. On 2 May, 1,000 placard-waving unionists set out from Wellington’s Trades Hall to march to Parliament. Their path was blocked by police at the corner of Dixon and Cuba streets. Scuffles between police and protesters broke out, but union leaders persuaded the marchers to disperse calmly.

Things were less peaceful in Auckland. On 1 June, a protest march up Queen Street by several hundred unionists was attacked by baton-wielding police. In the melée that followed, 22 men were badly injured. The unprovoked attack highlighted rising antagonism between police and protesters. Unionists named the day ‘Bloody Friday’.

Peace movement

In 1938, the Christian Pacifist Society started regular sandwich-board processions through Wellington streets.

A decade later, the movement demonstrated against proposals for military conscription. In Nelson, 16 pacifists marched to the cathedral steps and held a rally. Hooligans heckled the group and manhandled the pacifists’ leader, Barry Barrington. When police finally moved in, it was Barrington they arrested.

    • Wanganui Herald, 21 July 1886, p. 3. Back
    • Evening Post, 21 September 1912, p. 9. Back

Anti-nuclear, Vietnam, Māori, 1950s to 1970s

Nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific from the 1950s drew new supporters to the peace movement. The 1960s and 1970s saw increased protest generally. This was linked to the influence of American and European counter-culture movements, which sought to change society by rebelling against prevailing conservative values. Protest marches became one means to this end.

A New Zealand Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was launched, and began a series of protest marches based on the anti-nuclear Aldermaston marches in Britain. The first was at Easter 1961, when 36 young people marched from Featherston to Parliament. Its success led to other marches.

Television age

CND’s 1963 march from Paraparaumu to Wellington was highly choreographed. Organisers knew the march would be televised and quickly recognised the publicity potential of the new medium. The CND sign was prominently displayed on banners, which included slogans like: ‘Don’t let NZ’s hills turn black’ and ‘Atoms for peace not war’. Children – ‘New Zealand’s future’ – were prominent at the front of the march. Song sheets were handed out and food and sleeping places prepared. Peace badges were worn by protesters and given to bystanders, who were also handed information leaflets and asked to sign petitions.

Burning Nixon

In May 1970 students protesting at Kent State University in the US were shot by National Guardsmen. University of Auckland students organised a spontaneous protest. Mike Lee remembered ‘how the roaring crowd, red flags flying, burst out of Albert Park, marched down Victoria Street to the American consulate and burnt an effigy of US President Richard Nixon on the street. The crowd shouted, “Burn baby, burn.”’1

New techniques

One focus of protest was the Vietnam War. New Zealand entered the war in 1965 to support the United States and its allies. Street marches against the war occurred as early as 1964, but its escalation and mounting costs increased opposition to it. Borrowing methods developed in the United States, anti-war groups organised ‘mobilisations’ and ‘happenings’. ‘Mobes’ combined marches with rallies and concerts. At one 1969 mobe, 300 students gathered in the quadrangle at the University of Canterbury to hear folk singers, rock bands and speakers, before noisily marching around Cathedral Square to Army Headquarters to protest against the war.

Stunts and street theatre

Stunts and street theatre also played a greater part. When US vice-president Spiro Agnew visited New Zealand in 1970, protesters marched to his Auckland hotel and kept up a rowdy protest until 11.45 at night, when point police violently removed them.

Culture clash

Peter Calder was an Auckland student and regular protester in the early 1970s: ‘Our weekly forays down the Golden Mile would bring the drinkers lurching out of the public bars. They would lean uncertainly on lamp-posts, inviting the passing parade to “gedda a bloody haircut, ya useless bastards” and complaining to each other that “ya can’t tell the difference between the blokes and the sheilas these days.”’2

In 1971, Victoria University students marched to the US embassy in Wellington with a banner of 28 stick figures representing the number of New Zealanders killed in the war. During a 28-hour vigil, they ticked off one figure each hour. Such strategies maximised publicity and were adopted by other protest movements, including the feminist and Māori-sovereignty movements in the 1970s and 1980s.

1975 Māori land march

In 1975 a group of Māori led by kuia (female elder) Whina Cooper organised a hīkoi (march) from Northland to Parliament to protest about the continuing alienation of Māori land. Marchers stayed in marae along the route, and in Wellington they filled Parliament grounds. In the same year, the government set up the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate Crown breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi and their detrimental effects on Māori.

    • Mike Lee, ‘Vietnam and the 60s: towards a perspective’, New Zealand Political Review, 20, Oct/Nov 1997, p. 38. Back
    • New Zealand Herald, 5 May 1992, s. 2 p. 1. Back

Protest marches, 1980s to 2000s

Kiwis Care march

Until the 1980s street marches were largely the preserve of the political left. But in March 1981 about 50,000 people joined an anti-union march down Auckland’s Queen Street. The ‘Kiwis Care’ march was organised by Tania Harris, a 22-year-old sales representative. Ticker tape flew from shop windows and a stereo shop blasted the national anthem. Some people openly wept.

Harris had tapped into public anger over a series of strikes that had stopped international flights, sailings of Cook Strait ferries, and beer deliveries. Many people believed unions wielded too much power and were wrecking the country. Anger had been on display the day before, when up to 4,000 striking unionists marched the same route. Fist-waving shoppers and businessmen had booed, hissed and abused the strikers, calling them ‘traitors to New Zealand’ and demanding they ‘get back to work’.1

1981 Springbok tour

A few months later the South African Springbok rugby team toured New Zealand. People who opposed South Africa’s apartheid regime pledged to stop it. Chanting slogans like, ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your racist tour’, they marched to rugby grounds to hinder spectators getting to games. Tour supporters organised their own marches, with placards bearing slogans like, ‘Support the tour, punch a demonstrator’.2



Graeme Frederick was outside Eden Park on the day of the third test when police charged protesters: ‘I saw indiscriminate violence of incandescent intensity. I saw people lying on the ground with policemen standing over them, wielding batons like sledgehammers; I saw people kicked and trampled on; I saw three teenage women chased down a driveway and struck with batons. I saw people, including myself, rendered motionless by terror.’3


In the middle were the police, who increasingly attacked protesters to maintain control, with bloody results. Protesters responded by wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying home-made shields. At the last rugby test on 12 September, three protest marches converged on Auckland’s Eden Park. The game went ahead but ‘all hell broke loose’4 as protesters waged running street battles with police. Bruises and cuts soon healed, but the emotional wounds and the rift in New Zealand society lasted longer.

Economic reforms

There were few large workers’ marches until the late 1980s. Economic reforms introduced by a Labour government – known as ‘Rogernomics’ after Minister of Finance Roger Douglas – led to a new wave of protest marches from the mid-1980s. Farmers protested against the removal of agricultural subsidies, workers protested against the loss of jobs and conditions, and the closure of post offices brought whole communities out in protest. The Labour government took no notice, nor did its National successor. In 1991 new legislation (the Employment Contracts Act) severely curtailed union power. Labour restored some union power in the early 2000s, by which time unions had moved away from street marches as a protest strategy.

Protesting against business


In 1990, a group from the Unemployed Workers’ Union stormed and briefly occupied the boardroom of the Business Roundtable in Wellington. They believed the organisation’s successful promotion of free-market policies had contributed to high levels of unemployment. Others mounted a noisy protest outside the building, partly blocking the street for three hours.


Recent marches

Anti-globalisation movements organised marches in Auckland to protest against meetings of the Asian Development Bank in 1995 and APEC (Asia–Pacific Economic Co-operation) in 1999. Scuffles with police made headlines.

In 2004 thousands of Māori marched to Parliament to oppose the Foreshore and Seabed Bill, protesting against the loss of a traditional right to land and resources.

New developments

March organisers are always looking at new ways to generate publicity – particularly television coverage. One development in the 2000s was the use of T-shirts with slogans, worn by marchers to provide a procession with a strong brand identity.

Back to the future?


Underlying the Destiny march was an apprehension that society was eroding conservative values. These were reflected in the march. It was led by men – women and children trailed behind – and only men spoke at the rally. This personified the church’s belief that women should be submissive to men in family and public life. (Feminists had marched along the same streets demanding equal rights with men 30 years before.)


This was pioneered by the fundamentalist Destiny church in a 2004 protest march to Parliament against the Civil Union Bill, which was to give legal recognition to gay relationships. All marchers wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Enough is enough’, which they chanted while punching the air. The uniform dress and regimented lines of marchers gave the procession a paramilitary feel. Still, the size and discipline of the march generated substantial publicity in the media and on the internet, where bloggers debated its meaning. Since then, other marches have also used T-shirts to promote their messages.

School strikes for climate

In the late 2010s and early 2020s, New Zealand secondary students became part of a worldwide movement inspired by young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Thanks to the time zone, marches and rallies in New Zealand cities were usually the first in the world.


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Parades and protest marches', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 March 2010