Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Picnics and barbecues

by Peter Clayworth

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.

Family and community picnics, 1800s to 1920s

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.

    • 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
    • Quoted in Neill Atkinson, Trainland: how railways made New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 2007, p. 83. Back
    • Daily Southern Cross, 7 January 1870, p. 4. Back

Sunday drives and picnic spots

Impact of car ownership

New Zealand car ownership grew in the 1920s, and roads were extended and improved. Families now had a wider choice of picnic times and venues, easily transporting food and gear. Religious disapproval of Sunday picnics had largely vanished, so the Sunday drive flourished.

Petrol rationing and shortages during the Second World War meant less private motoring for leisure. Train and ferry excursion trips continued in the early war years, but from May 1942 Sunday train excursions were curtailed for the duration of the war. Despite the transport difficulties, picnics remained popular as an inexpensive leisure activity.

The abolition of Saturday shopping in 1945 made the two-day weekend a reality for most New Zealanders, while car ownership expanded. The limited availability of weekend entertainment led to the heyday of the family drive and picnic. Perhaps as a result, large-scale community picnics became less common.

Popular spot

Coe’s Ford, Selwyn River, was described in a 1927 newspaper: ‘Scores of cars are parked every Sunday on the shingle of the riverbed, or along the roadside leading to the ford on either side of the river …There is no traffic bridge over the stream and when the water is at normal height motor cars … plough through a mountain of spray which splashes windscreen, body and hood.’1

In the 1960s entertainment options proliferated, while in the 1970s, petrol prices increased, discouraging the weekend drive. In the 2000s picnics no longer had the central role in New Zealand recreational culture they once held, but they remained a widespread summer leisure activity. The community picnic has also survived in a number of forms, including ‘teddy bears’ picnics’ (children’s events that are held around the country) and picnic baskets at outdoor summer music events.

The picnic spot

In colonial times, a community picnic might simply be held in a farmer’s paddock, with enough room for sports and children’s games. In towns a local park served the same purpose. The banks of rivers, lakesides, bush clearings and the more accessible foothills of mountain ranges were ideal for those wishing to enjoy natural beauty. Some areas were purchased by local councils and set aside as picnic reserves.

From at least the 1860s, the beach was a favourite place for picnicking, walking and beachcombing. However, ocean swimming was not generally regarded as a respectable pastime until about the 1890s.

Untidy Kiwis

Popular picnic areas felt the impact of the motorised picnic-goer. In 1929 the Auckland Star reported on the damaging results to beauty spots. ‘Here, as in England, tins, bottles, paper and waste food are permitted to be thrown recklessly about the sands, shores and woodlands of the countryside.’2

City dwellers had popular coastal and rural getaway spots. Wellingtonians, for example, made for beaches such as Days Bay or the rural lands of the Hutt Valley.

Cars allowed access to lakes, rivers and beaches near to roads. From the mid-1920s councils and the Automobile Association began creating highway picnic sites. The ideal roadside picnic site was one that combined ‘grass, shade, water, privacy and a safe spot for a fire’.3 Some picnic sites were set up with tables, seating, fireplaces and toilets. In the later 20th century some of the more popular sites were equipped with gas cooking facilities.

    • Ellesmere Guardian, 8 February 1927, p. 6. Back
    • Auckland Star, 5 March 1929, p. 6. Back
    • Auckland Star, 3 December 1938, p. 2. Back

Picnic food and the barbecue

Filling the picnic basket

Nineteenth-century picnickers filled their baskets with cold meats, poultry, pies, cakes and tarts. Bacon or mutton chops were cooked on open fires, with potatoes baked in the embers. By the 1880s sandwiches and sausage rolls were staple picnic fare. At the seaside, picnickers collected oysters, mussels and other seafood to add to their meal. Salads were a must for summer food by the early 20th century, and canned foods such as salmon or sardines became widely available.

A picnic with Ngāpuhi

At a Boxing Day picnic in 1888 Hokianga Ngāpuhi played host to their settler neighbours. The huge hāngī-cooked meal was followed by sports.’The European youngsters had no show with the Maori boys and girls who ran completely away from them in every race.’1 The Pākehā men, on observing their hosts’ fine physical condition, quietly dropped all suggestions of a tug-of-war competition.

At 19th-century community picnics, whole roast oxen were sometimes laid on. Hāngī might be set up by Māori, giving their Pākehā neighbours a chance to experience Māori cuisine. Big events, such as Labour Day picnics, had refreshment tents, but picnickers also brought their own food.

Picnic tea was traditionally brewed over an open fire in a billy, often simply a blackened jam tin with a wire handle. In the 1930s the thermette made its appearance. This New Zealand invention was a simple metal water container, with a central funnel for burning material to heat the water. Thermettes were used extensively, but from the 1960s became less common. In contrast the Thermos, available in New Zealand since 1908, continues to be a standard device for taking hot drinks to picnics.

Lemonade, iced tea or beer were kept in metal buckets with ice. From the 1960s New Zealanders adopted the chilly bin (insulated cooler) to keep drinks and food cold.

The modern picnic still involves sandwiches, salads and cakes. In the 2000s items such as hummus and guacamole are also found in the picnic basket.

The great Kiwi barbie

In a famous 2010 photo opportunity Prime Minister John Key sucked back a cold beer from the bottle, while Prince William handled the steaks on the barbie. The image suggested was of a warm, relaxed country, egalitarian, informal and welcoming, with plenty of good local food and drink.

The barbecue in New Zealand

In New Zealand before the 1950s the term barbecue referred to the North American method of slow meat roasting, involving spicy sauces. The word ‘barbecue’ was also sometimes used to describe a hāngī.

Since the 1950s the New Zealand (and Australian) barbecue became an outdoor meal with food, usually meat, grilled quickly over charcoal or gas. In contrast to picnics, barbecues are often held in the host’s backyard. Traditionally barbecue cooking is carried out by males.

The barbecue appears to have become a widespread activity in New Zealand as suburban living created an environment for backyard entertaining. Early barbecues were often homemade brick or drum constructions, using charcoal as a fuel. In the early 1970s people began to use free-standing kettle grills or hotplates, while the late 1970s saw the introduction of the gas-fired grill. Garden designs began to incorporate special areas for barbecuing.

The barbecue has become a promotional tool to present an image of New Zealand to the rest of the world. Embassies and trade delegations hold ‘barbies’ showcasing New Zealand’s meat, seafood and wine. A video for the 2012 Frankfurt book fair, promoting New Zealand as the fair’s guest of honour, showed New Zealand authors meeting at a convivial backyard barbecue. Barbecues, informal and egalitarian summer events, have come to symbolise the best features of the Kiwi way of life.

    • Star, 11 January 1889, p. 5. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Peter Clayworth, 'Picnics and barbecues', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 September 2013