Story: Voluntary welfare organisations

Page 3. Welfare services expand, 1890s–1930s

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Growing welfare needs

An expanding population and economic recession in the 1880s disproved the view that there was no real poverty in New Zealand. Growth of towns made the plight of the poor more visible. There were more old people in the population, some without families to assist them. Prisoners’ aid societies, sailors’ rests (which provided accommodation and recreation facilities for sailors in port), shipwreck relief associations, hospital guilds and societies for the protection of women and children were set up in the main centres.

Government subsidies

Many organisations were based on British examples, but were smaller and had less certain funding. Charities were dependent on annual subscriptions, special collections and small government grants. Some organisations attracted more generous government funding than others. The government recognised the Foundation for the Blind (formed in 1890) as the main provider of services to this group, and provided subsidies and payments for the children assisted at the Institute for the Blind. The Plunket Society, which supported mothers and babies, gained government subsidies even before it was incorporated in 1907. Such assistance helped both organisations to become nationally dominant.

Philanthropy and charitable trusts

New Zealand never developed a strong tradition of private philanthropy. Large donations and bequests from the wealthy to support charity were unusual. Those philanthropic trusts that did come into existence were valued all the more because of their rarity. Some early trusts operated in particular areas. A wealthy farmer, Dan Bryant, created the Waikato-based Bryant Trust in 1921. The T. G. Macarthy Trust, established in 1912 from the estate of a wealthy brewer, operated in the Wellington region.

First World War

During the First World War nearly 1,000 patriotic societies were formed. They were concerned with the welfare of refugee populations overseas, especially in Belgium, and with supporting New Zealand soldiers and their families. Later they assisted servicemen who returned home disabled.

Wartime fundraising efforts were ingenious and untiring. Women formed knitting and sewing circles, while children collected eggs and bottles for sale. Queen carnivals (in which young women competed to raise funds) became very popular, as they provided a distraction from wartime sorrow while raising large amounts of money. Art union lotteries provided another means of fundraising, but they were denounced by some church people as encouraging gambling.

It was estimated that by the end of the war, New Zealanders had raised approximately £4.9 million ($525 million in 2019 terms) for patriotic causes. In the process, many women gained experience in organising and in fundraising. They would carry this sense of social purpose into the post-war years.

Mother of millions

The Red Cross attracted many women volunteers during the First World War by appealing to their nurturing instincts. The organisation described itself as ‘The GREATEST MOTHER in the WORLD’, dedicated to ‘warming, feeding, and healing thousands of suffering men’.1

Red Cross

A branch of the British Red Cross was formed in New Zealand in 1915, working with the St John Ambulance Association to supply war relief services. The Red Cross assisted during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and a polio epidemic in 1925. It also arranged community classes in home nursing. The Junior Red Cross was a major presence in schools for many decades, providing New Zealand schoolchildren with international pen-pals and projects on healthy living. An independent New Zealand Red Cross was formed in 1931. The Hawke’s Bay earthquake that year had revealed the need for greater efficiency in disaster relief, and the Red Cross prepared itself to play this role.

  1. Margaret Tennant, The fabric of welfare: voluntary organisations, government and welfare in New Zealand, 1840–2005. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2007, p. 99. Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant, 'Voluntary welfare organisations - Welfare services expand, 1890s–1930s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2021)

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