On his first visit to New Zealand, in 1769–70, British explorer James Cook described Māori as ‘a Strong, rawboned, well made, Active People, rather above than under the common size, especially the Men’.1 Joseph Banks, the naturalist and botanist who travelled with Cook on this expedition, noted that the ‘men are of the size of the larger Europaeans, Stout, Clean Limnd and active, fleshy but never fat as the lazy inhabitants of the South Sea Isles are, vigorous, nimble and at the same time Clever in all their excersizes’. Banks reported that Māori women were ‘rather smaller than Europaean women’.2 At the time, a fully grown male in England or Ireland could expect to reach 167–168 centimetres, while the average woman was 154–155 centimetres tall.
Few statistics are available on the size and shape of 19th-century New Zealanders. However, it is known that an improved diet made people taller and larger. In a country renowned for the abundance of its produce, those born in the 1880s were a little taller than those born in the 1860s and 1870s. The economic depression of the late 19th century, though, had a marked effect on the health and body shape of both Māori and Pākehā. New Zealanders born in the 1890s were shorter than their 1880s counterparts.
The 1913 survey of schoolchildren showed that half of the children in Wellington schools were suffering from malnutrition. Even so, it was claimed that the average New Zealand child was ‘superior to the English child’.3
In the early 20th century, New Zealand followed Germany’s lead and introduced systematic inspection of schoolchildren. In 1913 newly appointed school medical officers carried out the first of several major surveys. Children’s heights and weights were recorded and their general medical condition noted. In the initial survey the average height of a 10-year-old boy or girl was 132.5 centimetres, with the boy weighing 28.9 kilograms and the girl 28.6 kilograms.
Subsequent surveys in 1925, 1934, 1954 and 1969 showed increases in children’s weight and height, particularly between 1934 and 1954. By 1969, 10-year-old boys weighed 33.9 kilograms and girls 34.6 kilograms. The girls, at 140.2 centimetres, were slightly taller than the boys, who stood at 140 centimetres. Māori children, especially girls, were consistently heavier than their non-Māori counterparts. When the overall New Zealand figures were compared with other national surveys it was found that New Zealand girls were heavier than their British and Canadian counterparts, but American children weighed more than the New Zealanders.
In 1909 Christchurch physical culture instructor Fred Hornibrook compared the measurements he had collected from 1,200–1,500 men with similar international data. He found that the New Zealanders were taller but lighter than men in the US and England, and called upon the government to introduce national physical and military training.
There was no comparable system to the School Medical Service for adults, so national figures for adults are harder to determine. By the early 20th century, however, doctors were measuring and weighing hundreds of individuals, determining what was ‘average’ and advocating eating and exercise routines to improve the health of the nation.
A study of the men of the Maori (Pioneer) Battalion who returned from the First World War revealed that on average they were 170.9 centimetres tall and weighed 74.3 kilograms. Soldiers from Ngāti Kahungunu tipped the scales at 76.2 kilograms.
In the mid-20th century policemen were required to be at least 175 centimetres tall, compulsory military trainees averaged 173.7 centimetres and weighed 64.6 kilograms, and the typical Royal New Zealand Air Force man stood at 174.2 centimetres and weighed 69.6 kilograms.
In 1970, when the metric system was being introduced, the ‘commonplace’ measurements given as examples included a man’s height of 172 centimetres (5 feet 8 inches), his weight of 74.8 kilograms (11 stone 11 pounds) and a woman’s weight of 57 kilograms (9 stone).
By 2009 the average man weighed 84.7 kilograms and was 175.5 centimetres tall, while the average woman weighed 72.1 kilograms and stood at 162.5 centimetres.