Story: Street life

Page 1. Colonial street life, 1840–1914

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In the 19th century, as well as being used for the movement of traffic, streets were filled with traders selling their wares and people meeting and socialising. The right of pedestrians to occupy streets was unquestioned.

Building streets

New Zealand’s first cities were settled before streets were formed. In Auckland and Wellington colonists used the foreshore and Māori paths to move about.

Once surveys were completed, streets took shape. At first these were little more than dirt tracks, which were dust bowls in summer and quagmires in winter. The stench of horse manure, rotting refuse and open sewers was a daily irritant.

As drains were laid and streets paved or sealed, conditions improved significantly. Dunedin, for example, had been dubbed ‘Mud-edin’, but by 1895 one visitor could not speak too highly of the city’s asphalted footpaths.

Bogged down

In winter Dunedin’s streets became traps for the unwary. A butcher galloping his horse along one street ended up in a bog when the horse shied near a stream. For a few moments all that could be seen was his boots. A maid also came to grief when she crossed a muddy street lugging two pails of water. She sank into the sludge and became stuck. It was quite some time before she was rescued.

A social space

The primitive condition of colonial streets did not stop city people using them as living spaces. Paintings and photographs of cities regularly show people chatting, passing time, and playing on streets. With speeds limited to walking pace, horse traffic was able to negotiate around pedestrians (or vice versa) in relative safety.

Māori often congregated in particular areas (such as Auckland’s Fort Street) to trade and chat. However, their presence dwindled from the 1860s when the loss of their land in cities and other factors led many to leave for rural areas.

Main streets

Some streets assumed greater importance than others in the social life of cities. In its first years Wellington’s Lambton Quay had a dubious reputation as the haunt of drunkards, layabouts and prostitutes. However, by the 1880s it had shed its frontier image and become the city’s premier street. Auckland’s Queen Street, Christchurch’s Cashel Street and Dunedin’s Princes Street were similarly transformed.

Quay life

In 1885 a writer described a typical Lambton Quay day: around 9 a.m. ‘a crowd of smart well-dressed men’ hurry to government offices. At midday the street is populated by ‘ladies bent on shopping excursions’, idlers, and the ‘inevitable new chum gaping about in his usual helpless manner’. After 4 p.m. ‘fashionable [female] loungers’ appear in large numbers, joined at 5 p.m. by ‘a mighty exodus from the big buildings’.1

These streets came alive in the late afternoon, when fashionably dressed women came to town to socialise and promenade, before meeting husbands and boyfriends as they finished work at 5 o’clock. Re-united couples would ‘walk the block’ before heading home.

Wharves became extensions of streets in port cities – such as Auckland’s Queens Wharf, which ran out from Queen Street. They were used by residents as places to stroll, socialise, listen to street orators, or watch the workings of the port.

Late night shopping

On Saturday evening shops were open until 10 p.m. and main streets buzzed with activity. In Ōamaru the whole town would turn out to window-shop, buy goods, and mingle with the crowd. One 1870s resident bemoaned that it was ‘the only time we see the town lively’.2

In Wellington bustling crowds would promenade up and down Lambton Quay until late at night. One observer suggested that on a fine Saturday night a stranger might imagine he was in a city 10 times Wellington’s size.

Street dogs

Turning the corner of Dunedin’s George and Frederick streets in 1875, one commentator recorded stepping ‘into a squelching mass of hair and flesh that runs away with a howl, and perhaps a snap, merely to return when you are passed, and treat someone else to the same pantomime.’3


Horses were the ‘engines’ of 19th-century transport, and their snorting and the clip-clop of their hooves were a typical part of the street atmosphere, as was the presence and smell of their excrement. Wandering dogs were also common, and occasionally cattle or sheep would escape enclosures and wander onto streets.

  1. Quoted in Rollo Arnold, New Zealand’s burning: the settlers’ world in the mid-1880s. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1994, p. 193. Back
  2. North Otago Times, 9 April 1878, p. 4. Back
  3. Otago Witness, 13 November 1875, p. 13. Back
How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Street life - Colonial street life, 1840–1914', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010