Story: Voluntary welfare organisations

Page 2. 19th-century charity

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Māori support structures

Early European settlers encountered a Māori communal society with its own support mechanisms based on family and tribal relationships. While a few Europeans became integrated into Māori social networks, most stayed well outside them, although they sometimes depended on Māori trade and other assistance.

The first Pākehā charities

Pākehā settlers created their own informal support networks. Neighbours helped in times of crisis: the loss of a home through fire; injury while clearing bush; the death of a breadwinner. In larger communities these supports gradually became more structured, following models of voluntary organisation brought from Britain and Europe, where voluntary organisations had expanded considerably since the late 18th century.

The vast range of charities in Britain could not be replicated in New Zealand, which had too few people and very different social conditions. Colonial New Zealanders were suspicious of the class ideas behind much British charity. Strongly individualistic, they saw poverty as personal failure, an inability of the lazy and inadequate to take advantage of the opportunities in a new land. Women and children were more likely to be exempt from this judgement, so the few colonial benevolent societies focused on them.

Colonial charity


In March 1860 the Auckland Ladies’ Benevolent Society reported that it had assisted 70 cases over the previous year. Of these, 16 were destitute widows, one of them an older woman with 10 children. Thirteen deserted wives and 14 abandoned, orphaned or neglected children were helped. The society noted that in many cases distress was caused by the drunkenness and misconduct of men who ought to have been the protectors of their families.


Women organised some of the earliest charities, including the Auckland Ladies’ Benevolent Society in 1857 and the Onehunga Ladies’ Benevolent Society in 1863. Benevolent societies were formed by groups of men and women in Dunedin in 1862, Christchurch in 1865 and Wellington in 1867. Other societies followed, but always struggled to survive. Many soon depended on government grants, as private bequests and donations were limited.

Mutual-aid and friendly societies

While not usually regarded as charities, from 1841 mutual-aid organisations on the English model provided an important form of social and financial support for those who could afford to join them. They included the Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters.

Members, usually working men, paid a regular subscription to ensure support from the friendly society in time of sickness. The societies also played an important social role, providing settlers with a familiar institution to ease their transition into the colonial environment. They organised festivals, picnics and parades, providing entertainment not just for members but for the whole community. By the end of the 19th century there were 465 friendly societies and lodges in New Zealand, with a total membership of around 40,200.

Church welfare

Church charitable efforts were initially parish-based and relied on church members to detect instances of need. By the 1880s, as denominations became more established, their social outreach expanded. Influenced by evangelical Christianity, new ventures combined good works with religious conversion. The Salvation Army’s work was the most varied. The Catholic Church relied largely on female religious orders for its welfare outreach. A locally established Catholic order, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert’s Sisters of Compassion, was especially admired for charitable work across denominations.

Rescue homes, orphanages and shelters

Church-run ‘homes for fallen women’ first attempted to ‘save’ prostitutes by teaching them more morally and socially acceptable ways to make a living, and later turned their attention to helping single mothers and their babies. One of the first rescue homes was established in Christchurch in 1864. The number of homes was boosted by the arrival of the Salvation Army in 1883. By 1890 there were at least 12 women’s homes operating in New Zealand, mostly under church direction.

Various churches set up orphanages, soup kitchens and men’s night shelters, and worked with discharged prisoners.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant, 'Voluntary welfare organisations - 19th-century charity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2021)

Story by Margaret Tennant, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 Sep 2018