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Rural recreation

by  Jock Phillips

Country people work hard, but they also enjoy their time off. From rugby, racing and beer to the more genteel pursuits of plays and music, from competitions in shearing, wood-chopping or floral art to Saturday-night dances at the local hall, rural people have always made their own fun.

Making their own fun

From the beginning of European settlement in rural areas, people made their own fun informally at home.

Work and play

‘There was of course no leisure on the farm,’ 1 recalled Francis Bennett, who grew up in South Canterbury in the early 1900s. For many in the country who lived on the job and had to work hard, this was undoubtedly the case. It was not always easy to distinguish work from play – for a woman, knitting a jersey could be recreation or a necessity, depending upon her family’s circumstances.


People talked and told stories – genteel conversation in homesteads, and rougher yarns and tall tales in the men’s quarters, where the talk was often lubricated by alcohol and accompanied by card games. On occasion, drinking and yarning spilled over into playful, or not-so-playful, fisticuffs.


Early rural settlers also made their own music. The family would sing hymns or Gilbert and Sullivan songs around the piano, while out in the men’s quarters concertinas or accordions accompanied a good singalong of shanties and folk songs.


For those who were literate, reading was a common pastime. Novelists like Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper were favourites, and Scots settlers recited Robert Burns’s poetry. At Brancepeth Station in the Wairarapa and Glenross in Hawke’s Bay, the farm owners set up large libraries for the use of the station hands. Newspapers passed from hand to hand, and were used to line hut walls, primarily to cover up cracks and stop draughts – but they also provided enjoyment for later residents.

The good old days

Oreti Walmsley from the Cheviot area recalled ‘the happy days in that old sitting room before the First World War. So much music. So much good literature, wholesome talk and happy, happy singsongs.’ 2

Out of doors

Country people made their own fun out of doors. Children climbed trees, gathered birds’ eggs and swam in creeks. Older males went hunting. In the early days, they shot birds like kererū (New Zealand pigeons) or chased pigs. Later goats and deer became favourite game. The ability to hunt, free of Britain’s restrictive game laws, became a recognised right of colonial men. Fishing was another pastime for days off. Colonists copied Māori in going eeling, and later fished for introduced trout.


People often visited friends or relatives, especially on Sunday after church or scripture-reading. There were also larger gatherings such as weddings, or parties on special occasions. Richer landowners hosted balls. Funerals provided an opportunity for people to gather and talk. Occasionally, at the larger homesteads, people were invited for games of croquet on the lawn, and in the 20th century tennis parties, usually accompanied by large afternoon teas, were common.

Black-beetle balls

Canterbury settler Laurence Kennaway recalled how men who a day before had cooked their own chops and done their own washing went to Christchurch for balls and ‘had to reduce themselves to the black beetle appearance of the evening exquisite of the nineteenth century’ just as people did in the ‘happy, finished, velvet country of England’. 3

Visits to town

Country people also went looking for fun in the closest settlement or town. Once accommodation houses appeared, men from the surrounding district would walk in to enjoy drinking and yarning around the bar on Saturday nights. Fights were common.

Men who lived and worked further out would come to town for a ‘burst’ or a ‘spree’. Having been paid, they would ‘knock down’ or ‘melt’ their cheques – drinking and perhaps gambling at cards until the money ran out. George Chamier said of Canterbury station hands, ‘They are moral enough when out of temptation, but see them in town. A hell on earth!’ 4

Other rural men combined business with pleasure. Locals usually stopped for a chat at the blacksmith’s when they brought horse teams in to be shod. Drinking and yarning followed meetings on issues such as the threat of scab (a sheep disease). Stock sales were said to be as much a picnic as a business transaction. On special occasions, country people made the long trip to the city to go to the races or attend balls.

    • Francis Bennett, A Canterbury tale: the autobiography of Dr. Francis Bennett. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 62. › Back
    • John Wilson, Cheviot: kingdom to county. Cheviot: Cheviot Historical Records Society, 1993, p. 178. › Back
    • Laurence J. Kennaway, Crusts: a settler’s fare due south. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1874, p. 209. › Back
    • George Chamier, Philosopher Dick: adventures and contemplations of a New Zealand shepherd. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1891, p. 31. › Back

Organised recreation, 1850–1900

As rural communities became more established, they began to organise formal entertainments.


People came to community picnics at local beauty spots, on foot, or more often by horse, dressed in their finery and bringing food hampers. The people of Cheviot, Canterbury, gathered at Gore Bay; those in Kaponga, Taranaki, had a monster picnic at the mouth of the Inaha Stream. Folks in Oxford, Canterbury, had a New Year’s Day picnic at Ashley Gorge. At most picnics a bullock was roasted and there were informal competitions, such as tugs of war.


Picnics were a summer affair, usually held on holidays, such as Easter Monday, Boxing Day, or New Year’s Day. The latter was a Scottish, not English, holiday, but spread rapidly through the country in the 19th century. Some places celebrated other days, such as St Patrick’s Day or St Andrew’s Day. Canterbury sawmillers appear to have had a day off on St Andrew’s Day.

Other events held on holidays included concerts, races and athletic sports. In Manaia, Taranaki, horse races were run on Boxing Day and athletic sports on Easter Monday. By the turn of the 20th century special occasions – such as the relief of Mafeking in the South African War – were sometimes celebrated with fireworks and feasts.


Horse races began early in colonial New Zealand. There was a race meeting in the Bay of Islands in 1835, and races became an instant feature of the provincial anniversary celebrations in the main centres. In rural areas racing began informally, especially in the sheep-farming areas on the east coast, to celebrate the end of shearing. Station hands, shearers and squatters brought along their hacks for racing, followed by a feed supplied by the station owner. At Woodthorpe, in inland Hawke’s Bay, races began in the early 1860s as a Christmas festival. The landowners put on a spread, and by the 1870s the races were interspersed with sports like jumping, or throwing and catching a greasy pig.

Racing soon became institutionalised in small settlements, and racing clubs, courses and regular meetings were set up. Often these were held on holidays such as New Year’s Day, and were followed by concerts or a dance. By the 1880s in North Canterbury, there were racing clubs at Waiau, Hurunui, Hanmer and Culverden, and steeplechasing began at Willowbridge in South Canterbury in 1873. In the North Island, Māori were active participants in early horse races.

Racing to ruin

By 1888 the newspaper in the rural community of Waipawa, Hawke’s Bay, was not happy that the local people ‘have gone racing mad’, and asked: ‘What will happen, ultimately, if things go on for any length of time as they are now? Will it not mean the undermining of trade, the wreck of our hopes for the future – the bankruptcy of our people? … if the disease be not checked at once, it will involve our children in misery and our country in ruin.’ 1

Athletic sports

Some traditional sports of British rural workers, such as cockfighting and bull-baiting, were seldom practised in New Zealand. But sports like athletics and cycling did emerge in the last part of the 19th century. Often sports days were held in association with horse races. In the 1870s and 1880s, Caledonian societies began sports days, often on New Year’s Day, or Boxing Day. These events involved running races, cycling, wood chopping, jumping, tugs of war, wrestling, and, in areas with Scottish settlers, Highland dancing.

A & P shows

Race and sports days were usually annual events. So were A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows, which spread through rural areas from the 1870s. Initially intended to improve farming, the shows became primarily a rural entertainment. Whether the day was spent watching the grand parade of animals or cruising the sideshows, the show was the recreational high point of the year, and was usually followed by a dance or a social in the evening. In the far north, rural Māori played an active role in the early A & P shows.

  1. Waipawa Mail, 29 December 1888. › Back

Small-town sports, 1890–1960

From the 1890s social changes allowed rural people to get involved in recreation in nearby small towns. Improved transport, such as train services, better roads and (from about 1910) cars, made it easier for farm workers to travel to local centres and for sports teams to visit their neighbours.

The 1894 Shops and Shop Assistants Act prescribed a weekly half-day holiday, freeing up workers in small towns to enjoy recreation. Farm workers tended to follow suit. As smaller farms were established, rural populations grew, and the spread of dairying led to farmers meeting and socialising at the dairy factory or creamery.

Sports clubs

At the end of the 19th century, small towns began to set aside grounds for team sports, and organised teams emerged.


Rugby became the game of choice for young rural males. It was first played in New Zealand in 1870, and within six years there were teams in rural communities including Temuka, Rangitīkei, Hāwera and Riverton. By the beginning of the 20th century most small towns had rugby teams. Rugby players were more likely to be from farms than football or cricket players – perhaps because of the importance of physical size and strength. The game was popular among rural Māori.

Travelling to the game was part of the fun – as were the smoke concerts (men’s gatherings, with alcohol and tobacco smoking) and drinking afterwards. From the inter-war years, rugby matches also attracted large numbers of spectators. By the 1950s in the Amuri district, most people attended the weekly game.

Rugby mad

In 1960, at the opening of Culverden District High School, the minister of education offered the young Michael O’Callaghan autographs of the parliamentary Cabinet. ‘No thanks,’ Michael replied, ‘I collect only important people like All Blacks.’ 1 He became an All Black himself eight years later.

Other sports

In some areas, cricket began very early. Rangitīkei had a cricket club in 1866, games were played between married and single men in Oxford in 1867, and further north in the Amuri district, stations held games on Sunday afternoons. But cricket was never as popular as rugby with farming folk. Preparing the pitch was difficult, and in dairying districts like Taranaki the game was killed by the demands of evening milking. Rugby, however, was played in winter, when cows were dry.

Because summer was a busy time on the farm, summer sports were less popular with country people. Tennis was played on private courts. Small towns had clubs for rifle shooting and bowls, but they were mainly played by locals, not farmers. In the 1920s, golf became popular as car ownership spread. Women’s netball took off a bit later, in the 1940s – but there were few unmarried women on farms, so most players were townies.

    • Margaret Lovell-Smith, Hurunui heritage: the development of a district, 1950–2000. Amberley: Hurunui District Council, 2000, p. 137. › Back

Country halls, 1890–1960

Even more than sports grounds, the local country hall greatly facilitated organised recreation in small-town and rural New Zealand. In a few places halls were built in the late 19th century; in other areas school buildings, or military drill halls (as at Culverden and Marton), were used. In some communities lodges such as the Masons and the Oddfellows had put up buildings for their own gatherings. Sometimes these were more widely used, or sold to the local council for public use – as with the Oddfellows Hall in Waipawa in 1910.

Cheese balls

Tauwhare got a new hall in 1903 when part of the local cheese factory was moved onto the new site. Fifty couples at the opening ball were said to be tantalised by the lingering smell of cheese.

However, in most places halls were built new. There was a burst of building from 1900 to 1930, then again in the 1950s when halls erected as war memorials received a government subsidy. Building a hall was as much a social event as a chore. It often began with fundraising, which might involve barn dances or a ‘queen carnival’ in which young women headed teams that competed to raise the most money. Working bees were usually followed by beers and good conversation.

In Māori communities, the meeting house and whare kai (eating hall) often served similar functions, although Māori also attended functions at local halls.


Halls hosted cultural activities such as concerts, lectures, magic-lantern shows, local dramatic societies or visiting drama troupes. Debating societies or book clubs sometimes used halls, and a few communities had a separate library.

Halls also hosted farewell functions and welcomes, such as the return of soldiers after the world wars, featuring musical items and a ‘legendary supper’. In the early 1900s there was a fashion for band rotundas where brass bands played on Sunday afternoons.

Youth and women’s groups

Youth groups, such as Cubs and Scouts, usually met at local halls. Women’s groups were the greatest users. The most common were the Women’s Institutes (after 1952 renamed Country Women’s Institutes, CWI), and the Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union (WDFU, after 1946 the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, WDFF).

These groups were founded in the 1920s, when women had increased leisure time because of farm mechanisation and smaller families. The two organisations started out with different constituencies – the WDFU catered for wives of landowners, and the Women’s Institutes for all rural women, including Māori – but they had common programmes. They offered cultural activities such as book clubs, classes in subjects like dressmaking or floral art, and arts-and-crafts competitions. Meetings always finished with a large afternoon tea.

The Red Cross and the Plunket Society met at halls. Women also organised regular events such as horticultural shows. At Kaponga a horticultural show began in 1899 in association with the Caledonian Society’s baby show. By 1910 there were 954 entries, with men dominating the garden produce and fruit competition, and women the floral arrangements and preserves.


Halls were often used for card evenings, especially euchre games. From the 1910s to the 1950s, small towns without cinemas showed ‘flicks’ in the hall on Friday or Saturday nights.

Like hot cakes

On one occasion euchre in the Morven hall drew so many participants that there wasn’t enough supper. Women rushed home to bake while the cards proceeded, then drove back to the hall with the car windows open to cool the sponge cakes.


The Saturday night dance was the best known use of country halls from the 1920s to 1970s. In many communities dances were held weekly. Most people from the farms around attended. There was dancing from about 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., with supper at 11.30. Women were often let in free if they provided ‘a plate’ (of food). With no alcohol allowed in the hall, young men often disappeared between dances to drink beer outside or in their cars.

Sometimes more formal balls were held, often sponsored by the local racing or hunt club. The hall was decorated with foliage, people dressed up (women in long frocks and gloves), and the dancing might go on all night. Occasionally there were special evenings such as fancy-dress or masquerade balls, and mock debutante balls with participants cross-dressing.

On occasion people hired the hall for private parties – 21st birthdays or engagement parties – although these were also held in woolsheds on neighbouring farms.

Rise and fall of rural recreation, 1950–2000

High point

In many respects the 1950s and 1960s were the halcyon years of rural recreation. Many people still lived in the country. Farming was prosperous, and prosperity bought leisure. Roads improved and many people could drive to the local hall or sports ground. Sports games were well attended, dances at the hall were regular, and women’s groups flourished. In larger communities the returned servicemen’s association (RSA) club offered a popular drinking place for veterans.

Horse riding

After the Second World War, horse riding became popular as recreation. In 1944 Dorothy Campbell of Hastings set up the first pony club, and two years later the New Zealand association was formed. The movement spread fast in rural areas, encouraging young people, especially girls, to take up horse riding.

In the early 2000s, there were over 8,000 members and 81 clubs, holding regular classes and camps. Some communities had run horse sports since the 1920s, and now more put on gymkhanas. There were dressage and jumping competitions, and novelty events such as egg-and-spoon or thread-the-needle races. Riding and jumping competitions increased at A & P shows.

Social change

From the 1960s social changes brought a decline in some established rural recreations.

  • The introduction of television in 1960 led to the end of Saturday night ‘flicks’.
  • Improved roads made it easier for people to travel further for recreation – to larger centres, or into cities like Christchurch and Hamilton, for cinemas and concerts.
  • The growing number of women in paid employment, and new attitudes encouraging joint activities for men and women, affected the rural women’s organisations. The Hurunui district had 18 Country Women’s Institutes in the 1950s. Five closed between 1967 and 1978, and another five were gone by 1998.
  • Tough economic times on farms led to people moving to the city. It became harder to fill the sports teams, and clubs closed.

Halls also fell into disuse as the end of six o’clock closing encouraged pubs to provide food and comfortable seating. Sports clubs, especially golf clubs, built clubhouses with bars. The hotel and the club replaced the hall as the centre of Saturday night fun, and dances were no longer held. Some halls were sold off. Increasingly social gatherings were private, not community affairs.

Who’s who?

One woman who had grown up in the Waikākahi district was appalled when name tags had to be handed out at a function at the local hall in the 1990s. Such an act was unimaginable in the 1950s when everyone came to the hall regularly.


Many older clubs such as the RSAs and lodges which had once attracted good attendance began to see a big fall-off. Many lodges closed.

Lions was a new organisation which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. The Lions raised money or organised working bees for the local community, and the combination of fundraising and socialising was attractive for many country folk.

Clubs did not entirely disappear. In 1999 Culverden in North Canterbury still had 45 clubs – around one-third sporting groups, one-third women’s and cultural groups, and seven organisations for young people.

Work as play – rural competitions


From the early days of European settlement, competitions based on rural work skills emerged. In the 19th century, communities held ploughing matches using teams of horses. In the 1920s ploughing with tractors began, and in 1956 a national championship was established. New Zealand has also hosted world ploughing contests in 1967, 1980, 1994 and 2010.

Wood chopping

In forested areas axemen began to compete against each other. By the end of the 19th century, wood chopping was a regular event at sports days and shows. Sometimes axemen’s carnivals were held. By the late 20th century loggers used chainsaws, not axes, to cut down trees, so wood chopping was purely a sport.


Informal shearing matches may have been held as early as the 1860s. Later in the 19th century, especially as shearing machines were introduced, matches were held at A & P shows. In the second half of the 20th century the sport became more serious, and the Golden Shears, an annual competition, began in Masterton in 1961.

Dog trials

Dog trials may have been held as early as the late 1860s, but the sport did not become widespread until the end of the 19th century when trials were held at A & P shows. In 1936 the first national competition was run. In the early 2000s there were 90 sheep-dog trial clubs in the North Island, and 71 in the South Island.


In 2007 Callum Thomsen, a Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer, won the Young Farmer Contest. He took home a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle, a car, machinery, fertiliser, a selection of Swanndri clothing and $5,000 in cash, to the total value of $83,685.

Young Farmer Contest

The pre-eminent farm work competition is the Young Farmer Contest. This grew out of Young Farmers’ Clubs, which began, after some short-lived predecessors, at Palmerston, Otago, in 1932. The intention was for country boys who had left school to meet and learn farming methods. Clubs spread quickly in rural areas in the 1930s and a federation was formed. The clubs began to hold various competitions – for ploughing, stock judging, debating, and eventually in 1969 the Young Farmer of the Year contest.

Now called the Young Farmer Contest, the competition involves 21 district finals, seven regional finals, and a grand final which involves three days of theoretical and practical challenges, climaxing with a televised evening show.

Rural horse sports

European settlers used horses for farm work such as ploughing and shepherding, and soon for recreational purposes. The earliest and most widespread was horse racing, which rapidly became part of rural life for both Māori and Pākehā.


Hunts, when riders follow hounds cross-country in pursuit of prey, were more limited in their social following. Hunting began when Governor George Grey imported beagles for hunting rabbits. The sight and ‘music’ (barking) of these small hounds were said to have roused the sporting instincts of homesick settlers, and a hunt was established at Pakuranga in 1872. Others followed in the 1880s, and by 1901, a year after the New Zealand Hunts Association was formed, there were 12 hunts, mostly in Canterbury and on the East Coast of the North Island. In 2007 there were 26.

At first, hunts were funded by holding race meetings at which bookmakers paid fees. Bookmakers were abolished in 1910, creating a financial crisis, but eventually in 1921 hunts were given totalisator permits.

What a drag

The ‘drag’ used by early hunts was a sack doused in aniseed then dragged over the course for the hounds to follow. More recently freshly-killed possum has been used.

At first hunts followed a drag. Hares were imported and thrived, so now most hunts follow hares instead. Initially hunters jumped over gorse hedges and wire fences, about 50 such obstacles in about 12 kilometres. This too has changed, especially with the advent of electric fences, and now most fences have the top wire lowered to a suitable jumping height and covered with a wooden spar.

Each club is distinguished by its own colours. Winter is the hunt season, with up to 30 meets. About 60 riders follow the master and a ‘whipper-in’ who controls the hounds. At the end of the meet new riders are ‘blooded’ – the blood of the hare is smeared on their cheeks.


Polo is another rural sport involving horses, and, like hunts, is largely confined to the rural elite. Originally an Indian game, polo became popular in the British military. It involves two teams of four riders who attempt to score goals using mallets. They normally play six chukkas (or periods) of seven minutes each.

The first game was played in New Zealand in 1890 following the presentation of a trophy for polo by Captain Savile, aide-de-campe to the governor. In 2007 there were 19 polo clubs and about 300 players. The major regions are Waikato, Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury/Marlborough.


Rodeo originated in the west of the United States, where cowboys’ skills in herding cattle were brought into the ring for sport. Rodeo did not appear in New Zealand until the early 1960s and a national championship began in 1973. In 2007 there were 32 rodeos over the summer in New Zealand, 16 in each island.

The major events are:

  • bareback – the rider attempts to stay on a bucking bronco using only a cinch rope hand-hold
  • rope and tie – the rider lassos a calf from their horse, then dismounts and throws the calf to the ground
  • saddle bronc – the rider attempts to stay on a bouncing horse using a saddle and a rein
  • team roping – the only team event involves a header who attempts to lasso a steer around the horns, then the heeler tries to rope both hind legs
  • barrel racing – the only all-female event involves riding around three barrels in a clover-leaf pattern as quickly as possible
  • steer wrestling – the rider jumps from their horse and tries to wrestle the steer to the ground
  • bull riding – the rider attempts to stay on a rampaging bull by holding onto a rope with one hand.

Rodeo is popular in country districts as a spectator sport, but few people participate. Māori have become prominent in rodeo in New Zealand.

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How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Rural recreation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 September 2021)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Nov 2008