Story: Scandinavians

Page 4. 20th-century migration

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1920s–1930s: Norwegian whalers on Stewart Island

During the 1920s and 1930s Norwegian whalers prowled the Southern Ocean. Summers were spent chasing leviathans in the Ross Sea. Over winter, ships headed north to Stewart Island’s Paterson Inlet to prepare for the next season. In 1927 machine shops, a huge workshop, boiler room, blacksmith’s forge and slipway were built at Prices Inlet. The Norwegian flag was soon flying from the manager’s house. The settlement was short-lived as the early 1930s were marked by a glut of whale oil and the economic depression. In 1933 the factory ship the Sir James Clark Ross returned to Norway with her whale chasers in convoy. Today Prices Inlet is littered with rusting propellers, boilers and concrete foundations – legacy of a short-lived enterprise. Some whalers married local girls, but most returned with their ships.

1950s–1960s: Danish assisted migration

A shortage of labour in the 1950s prompted the government to introduce travel subsidies of £50 to unmarried builders aged 20–45 from Denmark. In 1955 this extended to include free passage from England for all unmarried Danes aged 18–45 regardless of profession. The only requirements were ‘good health and good character’. From 1956 to 1967, 234 single men and 26 single women received some immigration assistance. Records show that from 1945 to 1968, 2,151 Danes arrived – the largest influx of Scandinavians since the organised immigration of the 1870s.


Only some 1,500–2,000 Finns have migrated to New Zealand. Early arrivals were mariners who formed scattered coastal settlements. The main Finnish inflow was in the 1950s and 1960s when the growing pulp and paper industry imported Finnish technology. Groups of Finns and their families were recruited by New Zealand Forest Products Ltd. The majority went to Tokoroa and Kawerau where they found the conditions bleak, but they quickly adapted. A sauna was built and sports and cultural activities were organised by the Finnish club. Some chain migration of friends and relatives followed. By the 1970s second-generation Finns had been assimilated, and the Finnish club closed in 1984. In 2013 over one-third of Finns lived in Auckland, which had an active Finnish society.

A prize of war

In the Second World War Finland was a ‘territory in enemy occupation’. All Finnish ships within Allied waters were fair game. In 1941 the sublime deep-sea square-rigger Pamir was seized in Wellington as a ‘prize of war’. The crew were detained, but allowed to work ashore.

From 1942 to 1948 the Pamir sailed across the Pacific. On her tenth voyage she circumnavigated the globe. Many young Kiwis gained their sea legs on the decks of the Pamir.

In November 1948 the Pamir was returned to Finland. Fittingly, her former commander, Captain Björkfelt, flew out to sail her back. Before departing, the New Zealand flag was solemnly lowered and replaced with the Finnish colours.

1970s–2000s: recent migration

In the 1970s immigration slowed with New Zealand’s economy. Over the 1990s, as the economy improved, some 1,000 Scandinavians were approved as permanent residents. Swedes have been the most numerous recent immigrants, followed by Danes, Norwegians and Finns. Most are professionals who have arrived through work or marriage.

There are at least a dozen Scandinavian organisations. Clubs based on nationality often speak the native tongue, as members are more recent immigrants. Although members of societies in Norsewood and Dannevirke trace their ancestry to early settlers, they are now totally assimilated. And even if ‘farvel’ signs and folk dancing have made recent appearances, very little Scandinavian culture is evident. Dannevirke residents recently voted against a proposed giant Viking statue.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Scandinavians - 20th-century migration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 April 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015