Story: Picnics and barbecues

Page 1. Family and community picnics, 1800s to 1920s

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Origins of picnics

In the pre-industrial age most people worked outside, which was also often where they ate their meals. For Māori the safest and easiest option was outdoor cooking, a practice adopted by some early Pākehā settlers.

Picnics are meals eaten outdoors for recreation. In the late 18th century the French term ‘pique-nique’ referred to a fashionable gathering with each participant contributing to the provisions. By 1800 the British adopted the term ‘picnic’, which soon specifically referred to outdoor meals.

Christmas picnic, 1827

The artist Augustus Earle picnicked with whalers and local Māori at scenic Rangihoua in the Bay of Islands to celebrate Christmas in 1827. ‘The captains of the two whalers then in the harbour joined our party; and as every one contributed his share towards our pic-nic feast, the joint stock made altogether a respectable appearance.’1 Local missionaries considered themselves too respectable to partake in the feast.

Leisure time and the picnic season

In colonial New Zealand both family and community picnics were popular pastimes, providing an opportunity to relax and socialise. Rural picnics usually occurred outside of peak work seasons, but when the weather was still good. Station owners on treeless Canterbury properties rode miles to picnic in the bush.

For urban dwellers a picnic at the park or beach or in the countryside provided a break from town life. Most colonial New Zealand wage workers only had Sundays off. Sunday picnickers risked condemnation from churchgoers for breaking the Sabbath, but many ignored such criticisms. In the 1870s railways and ferries began to run regular Sunday picnic excursions from towns to rural beauty spots. Devout churchgoers condemned Sunday excursionists as ‘the Devil’s travellers’.2

From the 1890s a growing number of workers received a weekly half-holiday. Usually on Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday, half-holidays allowed picnicking without fear of sabbath-breaking.

The ‘picnic season’, from spring in November through to autumn in May, included a sequence of public or bank holidays. The Prince of Wales’s birthday, 9 November, was followed by Christmas and New Year. Most provincial anniversaries were celebrated during the season, as were St Andrew’s, St George’s and St Patrick’s days. Easter led into Queen Victoria’s Birthday on 24 May. From 1890 unions held parades and picnics for Labour Day in October, which became a statutory public holiday in 1899. Public holidays were ideal for community picnics, with most people off work and no sabbath disputes.

Made it in the end

In December 1870 the picnic excursion ketch Mary Thompson became stuck on the riverbed on the tidal Wairoa River, at Kaipara Harbour. The passengers transferred to the cutter Marwell, which in turn ran aground at Whakahaia. They were then collected by the Bluebell, which finally deposited them at their destination, Tikinui Point. The party then got down to polishing off ‘turkeys, fowl, ham, tarts, wine, gingerbeer, and other good things, liberally provided’. 3

Community picnics

19th- and early-20th-century community picnics were major social events, involving informal sports, games and people dressing in their best clothes. Sunday schools, churches, friendly societies, temperance groups, sport and social clubs, volunteer units, veterans’ groups, businesses and workshops all held annual picnics. Some unions negotiated a special picnic day in their industrial awards.

Rural community picnics were often hosted on farms. Around 750 residents of Kelso, West Otago, enjoyed the 1883 New Year’s picnic on the McKellars’ farm at Brooksdale. Some rural community picnics were held at local beauty spots, such as Gore Bay, a favourite site for the people of Cheviot.

Town dwellers held community picnics in parks, or went on excursions. From 1877 New Zealand Railways ran regular picnic excursion trains on public holidays. Picnic organisers could charter special trains at cheap rates.

The Labour Day picnic became an institution. Some 8,000–10,000 people flocked to Wainoni Park on Labour Day 1913 for the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council picnic. The crowds were entertained by children’s lolly scrambles, a baby show, sports and brass-band music.

  1. Augustus Earle, Narrative of a residence in New Zealand. Journal of a residence in Tristan da Cunha. London: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1966, p. 141. Back
  2. Quoted in Neill Atkinson, Trainland: how railways made New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 2007, p. 83. Back
  3. Daily Southern Cross, 7 January 1870, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Picnics and barbecues - Family and community picnics, 1800s to 1920s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 Sep 2013