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Street life

by Ben Schrader

In the 19th century New Zealand’s city streets were busy places where people gathered to chat and hawkers sold their wares. The 20th century saw the decline of street life, as cars took over the roads and people moved to the suburbs. But in the 2000s city life is bustling again, with the rise of café culture and inner-city living.

Colonial street life, 1840–1914

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

Street trade and people, 1840–1914

As soon as cities were founded traders took to the streets, adding to their bustle and vitality. Among the first were enterprising Māori. In 1840s Auckland and Wellington Māori sold fresh fish, meat and produce to settlers from street stands.

Singing for their supper

With their bellowing cries (to attract customers) and colourful banter, hawkers contributed to the liveliness of streets. Not everyone appreciated their efforts – one critic suggested some hawkers ‘looked no better than their distressing voices sounded’.1 Municipalities came to agree, and eventually banned their calls as a public nuisance.


Hawking (selling goods on the street) was a quick way for new migrants and the poor to set up in business. Working from morning to night, hawkers eked out a sparse living selling fruit or small items like combs.

Because hawkers did not pay rent and rates, shopkeepers considered them unfair competition and wanted them banned. Municipalities believed hawkers provided a valuable service in keeping fruit prices down, but from the 1870s introduced annual licence fees to regulate trade.

Coffee stalls

Coffee stalls opened for trade in the mid-evening, providing night owls with hot drinks and snacks. Stalls were carts with a charcoal-fired coffee urn and storage for food, such as hot pies – hence their other name: pie carts. They were on main streets or near wharves to catch shift workers.

In 1877 a temperance advocate called for more coffee stalls as a ‘counter attraction’ to pubs.2 But police considered them a stomping ground for criminals, asserting that thieves hung around stalls to rob unsuspecting customers.

Cursing coffee drinkers

In 1879 Dunedin City Council heard from a ratepayer that the ‘fighting and vicious Billingsgate [swearing]’ of nearby coffee-stall patrons was disturbing his family’s sleep. In considering the issue some councillors argued if coffee stalls led to ‘noisy language they should be abolished’. Others thought them ‘useful to midnight wayfarers, and even to councillors going home with the milk in the morning’.3 The stalls were allowed to stay.


With more men than women living in cities until the late 19th century, business for prostitutes could be brisk. In 1888 a clergyman protested he could not walk down Queen Street, Auckland, on a Saturday night without passing at least ‘50 young girls who are living a life of vice’.4 Some newspaper and telegraph boys supplemented their low incomes by providing sexual services to men.

Morals campaigners tried to suppress prostitution. Under the Contagious Diseases Act 1869 suspected prostitutes could be forced to undergo a genital examination and have treatment if disease was found. Soliciting (offering people sex for money) was prohibited, but such measures failed to remove prostitutes from streets.

The whiffler

In 1929 the writer Louis Ward recalled ‘the whiffler’, a vagrant who traversed Wellington’s Lambton Quay in the 1880s. ‘The whiffler sometimes looked a fearsome object, garbed in the costumes of a Red Indian, carpet slippers on his feet, a string of sausages round his neck, and a sheep's pluck [heart, liver and lungs] whirling in the air, as he whooped along in vain pursuit of the youngsters.'5

Vagrants and thieves

A vagrant was a person who had no visible lawful means of support – a crime in colonial society. The popular view was that vagrants loitered in cities, living comfortably not by the sweat of their own brow, but ‘by the perspiration of other people’s foreheads’.6

Vagrants ranged from the ‘cadger’ (destitute vagrant) to the professional thief. Cadgers lived on the streets, stealing opportunistically to avoid work. Professional thieves were more organised. One of their strategies was to befriend country visitors at railway stations or ports and trail them to hotels. Disarmed by drink, the visitor would be encouraged into a back street and robbed.

Larrikins and street gangs

Larrikins were city children and adolescents who engaged in mischievous and antisocial behaviour such as smoking in groups on street corners, spitting on footpaths, insulting women, vandalism and stealing fruit. Some larrikins formed street gangs that engaged in robbery and unprovoked violence. In 1885 the ringleader of a Dunedin gang assaulted a Chinese man ‘just for the fun of the thing’.7

Begging for a leg

In 1895 Henry Thompson was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment by a New Plymouth judge for begging to get a cork leg. An artificial leg belonging to the accused was found packed in a box at Inglewood.

Beggars, bootblacks and buskers

Begging was illegal on city streets. Those caught doing so were classed as vagrants and could be imprisoned or face stiff fines.

Bootblacks, who polished shoes, were allowed to ply their trade, and were often found at important intersections.

Busking was not encouraged, but invalids and the blind were sometimes granted busking permits to make a living. Their instrument of choice was the hand organ.

Street orators

Street orators, who often stood on soap boxes, ranged from God-fearing evangelists through to bigots and socialist firebrands. Late shopping nights and Sunday afternoons were the most popular speaking times. Some orators gained large and appreciative crowds, while others barely attracted any bystanders.

  1. Evening Post, 24 May 1913, p. 3. Back
  2. Tuapeka Times, 28 February 1877, p. 2. Back
  3. West Coast Times, 24 January 1879, p. 2. Back
  4. Evening Post, 24 September 1889, p. 3. Back
  5. Louis E. Ward, Early Wellington. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1929, p 259. Back
  6. Evening Post, 20 July 1906, p. 5. Back
  7. North Otago Times, 31 July 1885, p. 2. Back

Pedestrians give way to cars

Sidelined to footpaths

Being struck by a horse ridden ‘furiously’ through streets had long been a hazard of city life, and largely explains why traffic was restricted to walking pace. However, as trams and cars were introduced, it made little sense to maintain this speed limit.

Furious motorcyclist

In 1904 Thomas Stone was charged with furious motorcycling down Dunedin’s George Street. The prosecution alleged Stone was riding between 15 and 20 miles per hour, before knocking down a boy standing on the street. The defence argued Stone was only going half that speed. The judge disagreed and fined Stone 50 shillings and court costs. The injured boy recovered.

But raising traffic speeds increased the prospect of accidents. Municipalities decided the solution was to lift traffic speeds and confine pedestrians to the safety of footpaths. Traffic engineers and motorists applauded the change. Pedestrians congested streets and obstructed traffic flows – removing them would make cities more efficient.

Controlling pedestrians

In 1907 a full-time policeman was assigned to point duty (directing traffic) at the busy intersection of High, Hereford and Colombo streets in Christchurch, to make traffic run more smoothly. Other cities copied Christchurch’s lead. Constables were also charged with warning children against playing on streets – not always to great effect.

In the early 1920s pedestrian crossings were instituted to encourage people to cross streets at particular points. To traffic engineers’ consternation, pedestrians largely ignored them. Parallel white lines were then introduced to better define crossings and deter jaywalking. This was followed by a 1937 government regulation declaring vehicles had to give way to pedestrians on crossings.


The expression ‘jaywalking’ was coined in early 20th-century America, and formed part of a campaign by motor vehicle promoters to make streets non-pedestrian zones. ‘Jay’ was slang for a stupid person. A jaywalker was therefore a pedestrian who stupidly ignored traffic regulations. The term came into use in New Zealand in the early 1930s.

By the 1950s motorists’ supremacy over city streets was unquestioned. Australian writer Frank Clune remarked in 1956: ‘Traffic moves fast in Auckland’s maze. “Pedestrians, beware” is the motto. Twice in ten yards I was nearly knocked down.’1

Pedestrians retreat

Confined to narrow footpaths, there was less space for pedestrians to stop and chat, particularly at lunch and other busy times. Many withdrew to tearooms and pubs to socialise.

  1. Frank Clune, Roaming round New Zealand: the story of a holiday trip. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1956, p. 8. Back

Street life declines

The 20th-century drive to regulate streets and remove perceived obstacles to efficiency came at the cost of street life. Among the first casualties were hawkers.

Moving on hawkers

Hawkers with baskets were allowed on Wellington footpaths as long as they kept moving. The rule proved ineffectual: hawkers would move from a lucrative spot when directed by a traffic officer, but would quickly return to it once the officer was out of sight. In 1939 the council prohibited hawking in central city streets, with the exception of flower sellers.

Hawkers banned

Hostility to hawking from shopkeepers had been growing since the 1900s. As the pace of city streets became faster, councils restricted them to back streets. Other hostility was racially motivated. In Wellington critics complained that the ‘Bombay men’ (Indians) dominated the fruit and vegetable trade at the expense of Englishmen.

Cruising streets

Increasing regulation did not stop streets from remaining important pick-up places for gay men. Requests for a cigarette or a light between strangers might lead to an invitation to a movie and sex. The Exchange in Dunedin (on Princes Street) and Auckland’s ferry building precinct were popular cruising areas. Police often turned a blind eye to such activities, but those caught having sex faced severe penalties. Homosexual sex was not legalised in New Zealand until 1986.

In 1915 Christchurch bowed to ongoing criticism and pledged to stop issuing licences to fruit hawkers. Auckland restricted hawkers’ selling times, while Wellington erected fixed stands, leasing them to the highest bidder. These were discontinued in 1933 on the grounds they were an eyesore, though some suggested it was really because white shopkeepers were unable to compete with the low prices of the Indian stands. Soon after, Christchurch prohibited all but newspaper and race-card sales in city streets. Other cities followed suit.


Buskers faced further regulation as well. They were banned from busy streets and allowed to play only for a limited time on any one spot. Complaints from the public could see them quickly moved on.

Six o’clock closing

Government measures also affected street life. The most important was the introduction of six o’clock closing of bars in 1917. With a leisurely evening pint no longer an option, men crowded into bars at five o’clock and drank heavily for the next hour. Women were excluded from public bars, and generally stayed at home. The early evening promenade of earlier times – where men and women walked the block after work – gave way to the rush (or swagger) of men piling onto trams after the bars closed.

Friday night shopping

Late-night shopping switched from Saturday to Friday after unions argued it was unfair that shop workers only got one-day weekends. Christchurch made the switch in 1913, followed by Wellington in 1915.

The early exodus made city streets dull places in the evening. The exception was Friday, with late-night shopping, and the brief interlude after cinema screenings when crowds flocked to pie carts or one of the few late-night eateries, such as Wellington’s Green Parrot Café. Street orators also sometimes enlivened evenings.

Suburban street life

Overseas visitors in the 1950s and 1960s often grumbled about the deadness of city streets after working hours, but few of the locals seemed to mind. By this time most New Zealanders lived in the suburbs, seeing ‘town’ mainly as a place to work, shop, and catch the occasional film or play. For them, street life meant children playing football or hopscotch, and the ‘suburban symphony’ of motor mowers, power drills and revving cars. As the satirist Austin Mitchell wrote in 1972: ‘Americans flee the noisy cities to the quiet of suburbia. [In New Zealand] if you want weekend peace you must go to town.’1

  1. Austin Mitchell, The half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombes, 1972, p. 110. Back

Street trade and people, 1915–2008

City street life did not totally disappear in the 20th century. Some traders managed to remain in business, including many street prostitutes (streetwalkers). Meanwhile, the homeless continued to be tolerated as a colourful, if sometimes disturbing, aspect of street life.

Plain and popular

In an ordinary day Jim Samuels made between 10 and 12 dozen pies for his Nelson pie cart, which he set up in 1935. His recipe was simple: the filling was made of mince, salt and water. This was thickened during cooking, spooned into pie tins, covered with pastry and baked. Jim’s pies were famous in Nelson. On public holidays or before a big game he would make 20 dozen pies to meet demand.

Pie carts

With its blazing lights and promise of a quick, filling feed, the pie cart succeeded coffee stalls as the night owl’s eatery in the 1920s. Rather than actual carts, they were usually long caravans, with an open counter down one side, sheltered by an awning. Inside, the galley kitchen featured blackened stovetops, stacks of crockery, and gleaming tea and coffee urns. The standard fare was ‘pie, pea and pud’ (pud being mashed potato), all for the price of one shilling (10 cents).

The cart came into its own when cinemas and dance halls emptied. With few other places open, people flocked to the carts to eat, gossip and flirt. On cold evenings crowds would huddle under the awning, warming their hands on steaming drinks. From the 1990s the rise of late-night cafés and fast-food outlets reduced pie cart numbers.


The cry of boys selling newspapers was a feature of city life until the demise of metropolitan evening newspapers in the late 20th century. A standard pitch was for one boy to start a call and for other boys to carry it down the street, like an echo.

Coffee carts

Coffee carts returned to city streets in the mid-1990s, now as a day-time rather than night-time business. Most catered to office workers wanting a quick espresso to take to back to work. Others were sited on the main streets of towns to attract passing traffic.


In 2003 Parliament decriminalised prostitution. Despite the fear of some, this did not lead to a steep increase in streetwalkers. A 2006 survey showed numbers actually declined in Auckland and Wellington. In the same year Christchurch police found girls as young as 12 soliciting on Manchester Street. Some argued under-age prostitutes should be driven from streets, but others said this would push them into less safe areas. In 2007 streetwalkers made up about 17% of all prostitutes.

Street gangstas

Inspired by hip hop and ‘gangsta’ rap culture, Los Angeles-styled street gangs arose in New Zealand in the 1990s. By 2007 there were 2,000 street gang members in Auckland alone. These gangs particularly appealed to Māori and Pacific youth. Members rose through the ranks by committing crime, including robbery and aggravated burglary.

Street criminals

Thieves and criminals remain a hazard of street life. While few people become crime victims, the incidence of serious street crime – including assault and rape – has risen since 2000. The increase has been blamed on the lowering of the drinking age (to 18) in 1999 and the widespread availability of alcohol and drugs.

The homeless

In the past homeless people were classed as vagrants, but government benefits mean few now have no means of support. While most live in temporary accommodation – such as night shelters – a small proportion sleep rough on the streets or in parks.

Many homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts, and cannot hold down a regular job. Some are children who, escaping domestic violence or abuse, find support in street gangs. Others have mental illnesses. In 2007 it was estimated there were between 250 and 400 homeless people in central Auckland alone.

Rebuilding street life

The arrival of international jet travel in the 1960s allowed more New Zealanders to travel overseas and experience the outdoor cafés, markets and street artists of cities like Paris and Bangkok. Some lamented the lack of life in city streets back home and tried to turn things around.

End of the six-o’clock swill

With the end of six o’clock closing in 1967 pubs could now stay open until 10 p.m. But rather than open pubs to the street, drinking remained behind closed doors. It was only at closing time, when patrons staggered outside, that streets briefly came alive. Apart from the occasional fight, or the spectacle of streetwalkers touting for trade, streets soon fell silent.

Spreading cheer

In the 1970s councils began encouraging busking to promote street life. In his application for a licence to play a steel guitar, one Wellington busker pledged to ‘brighten up the atmosphere and make the city an even more cheerful place to live’.1 Hopefully his skill levels matched the magnitude of his promise.

Street malls

More successful for encouraging city life was the street mall, where a section of road was closed to traffic. The idea came from the United States, where activists had challenged motorists’ supremacy over streets by demanding more space for people. New Zealand’s first street mall was Cuba Mall in Wellington. Opened in 1969, it included a stage for performances and places for people to pause or sit. The mall’s popularity inspired Auckland’s Vulcan Lane and Cashel Street Mall in Christchurch.

Bustle returns

A number of factors boosted street life from the late 1980s:

  • Increasing numbers of professional people and students moved into inner-city apartments.
  • Entrepreneurs fought city councils to allow street cafés – with tables and chairs on footpaths – and eventually won. Cafés began serving espresso and opening late into the night,
  • The Sale of Liquor Act 1989 allowed more places to sell alcohol and extended opening hours.

These changes increased the number of people on city streets, day and night. In the early 2000s on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, Wellington’s Courtenay Place, and Christchurch’s Oxford Street strip, people often stroll until the early hours. The bustle that characterised colonial city streets was back.

One downside has been that easy access to alcohol has increased the incidence of drunkenness and street crime. As a result, most cities have now banned liquor consumption on city streets, except for licensed bars and cafés.

Street festivals

Festivals embellish street life and give cities a buzz or energy that draws people in. Christchurch’s World Buskers Festival began in 1994 and attracts about 40 local and overseas acts every January. The event is the city’s most popular festival, with a total audience of 250,000 in 2007.

Great act

One entertainer who wowed the crowd at the first Cuba Street Carnival had a show that involved falling off his armchair, again and again.

Billed as New Zealand’s largest street party, Wellington’s Cuba Street Carnival started in 1999 and is held biennially over two days in February. It features a Latin American-style street parade, live bands on multiple stages and dozens of market stalls.

Urban design

City councils can promote street life through urban design. As well as adding vitality, busy streets are safer. In 2007 and 2008 Auckland’s Queen Street and Wellington’s Lambton Quay were remodelled to make them more pedestrian-friendly. This included widening footpaths, lowering speed limits, and providing seating and other street furniture. After 100 years of streets being used mainly for the passage of traffic, people are rediscovering streets as social spaces: places to meet, chat and linger.

  1. E. Branigan, ‘Trentham to town clerk’, 5 April 1977. Wellington City Archives (00001:1874:50/548 pt 8). Back

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Street life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 March 2010