Story: Picnics and barbecues

Community picnics in the 19th and early 20th centuries were major social events. Special trains were laid on, people dressed in their finery and there was entertainment for all. Later, private car ownership meant picnics became a more low-key affair.

Story by Peter Clayworth
Main image: Rotary Club picnic, Kaiaua, 1966

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Picnics, 1800s to 1920s

Picnics are meals eaten outside for recreation. In colonial New Zealand, family and community picnics were popular. Most wage workers only had Sunday off, and were sometimes criticised by devout churchgoers for picnicking on Sundays.

The ‘picnic season’ was from November to May, with picnics often held on public holidays. Community picnics were major events, involving sports, games and people dressing up in their best clothes. Many organisations and workplaces held annual picnics, and some unions negotiated an annual picnic day for workers. From 1877 there were regular picnic excursion trains on public holidays. Labour Day picnics attracted huge crowds.

Car ownership and Sunday drives

As car ownership increased from the 1920s, Sunday drives became popular. Families had more choice over places and times for picnics. From 1945 most New Zealanders had a two-day weekend, so family picnics became common. There were fewer large community picnics. In the 2000s New Zealanders still enjoyed picnicking, but picnics were no longer a major recreational activity.

Picnic spots

In colonial times, picnics were simply held in farm paddocks or parks – or sometimes by rivers, lakes or the sea. Local councils set aside some areas as picnic reserves. City dwellers had favourite spots for getting away from town, and some sites were set up with tables, seating and fireplaces.

Picnic food

Nineteenth-century picnickers ate cold meat, pies, cakes, sandwiches and sausage rolls, and cooked chops and potatoes on open fires. At the beach people collected shellfish. Community picnics sometimes involved roast oxen, or hāngī put on by local Māori. Tea was brewed over a fire, or from the 1930s water was heated in a thermette – a water container with a funnel for lighting a fire. Cold drinks were kept cool in buckets of ice – or, from the 1960s, in a chilly bin.


A barbecue is an outdoor meal (usually meat) cooked quickly over charcoal or gas, often in the host’s backyard. Barbecues became popular in the later 20th century, and garden designs included special areas for barbecuing. Barbecue cooking is often done by men.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Picnics and barbecues', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 September 2013