Kōrero: Building trades

Whārangi 1. Early construction

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Māori and missionary carpenters

Māori were skilled woodworkers. They used pounamu (greenstone) and other rocks as adze blades to work wood. The first European carpenters in New Zealand were ship’s carpenters aboard James Cook’s vessels. Cook also introduced steel tools to New Zealand, trading items such as axes and nails with Māori.

Getting plastered


Early missionaries had to do everything themselves as there were few tradesmen around. Missionary William Williams wrote on 2 August 1828: ‘I have been employed during the last three days, in conjunction with the rest of the brethren, in plastering our new chapel. It may be thought strange in England that we should be thus occupied, but in New Zealand it is necessary that everyone should in some measure set his heart to the work.’1


A missionary group which arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1814 included the carpenter William Hall. Missionaries not only bartered tools with local Māori, they also taught carpentry at mission schools. By 1819 four Māori had been taken to Sydney on the brig Active to learn trades – two were learning to make bricks, one to make nails, and the fourth was in the blacksmith’s shop.

Growing demand

The new settlements needed tradespeople to build them. Both the New Zealand Company and government schemes for assisted immigrants gave priority to builders. By the mid-1850s Dunedin’s electoral roll, with some 400 names, included 16 carpenters, two bricklayers and two stonemasons. The number of tradesmen grew over the 1860s. An 1863 Dunedin directory lists 122 carpenters, 21 builders, nine bricklayers and nine stonemasons. In Invercargill the following year there were 50 carpenters listed – around 10% of the trades sections of the directory. By 1870 there were eight architects, 186 carpenters/builders/contractors, eight bricklayers, two masons, two plasterers and 10 plumbers working in Dunedin. Similar patterns occurred in other New Zealand towns – urban growth created demand for tradesmen.

Opportunities for tradesmen

Some early tradesmen arrived in the 1860s as gold miners. After they had given that a shot, they fell back on their trade, which was a more reliable source of income. In the late 1800s and early 1900s tradesmen often worked for a time as journeymen (who work for a wage), then went out on their own and established their own businesses.

Plasterer to architect


Scottish plasterer Thomas Forrester knew how to ornament building interiors with decorative designs, and had learned draughting skills at the Glasgow School of Art. He set up a building partnership with businessman John Lemon in Ōamaru in the late 1860s. They constructed 40 buildings between 1875 and 1884, but only nine between 1885 and 1890, as the building trade collapsed due to a depression. The practice wound up in 1890 with just £14 in the bank – but many of Forrester and Lemon’s fine buildings still stand.


In the 1850s and 1860s some carpenters, builders and other tradesmen established themselves as architects. Ōamaru builders Forrester and Lemon built many of the town’s fine Victorian limestone buildings, despite having no architectural training. In early New Zealand tradesmen could be upwardly mobile without qualifications, if they had the skills.

By the 1870s architects were more likely to have formal British qualifications and a distinct hierarchy had been established. The opportunities for builders and other tradesmen to be upwardly mobile became limited. The architect was the professional who designed from his office and inspected work. The builder did the building. Apprentices were boys and unskilled labour was cheap.

Tradesmen could demand higher wages than unskilled workers, so learning a trade was seen as a solid career path for boys. Tradesmen were very busy during the building boom of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Immigrant tradesmen who arrived in the 1880s economic depression, when building demand slackened, found it difficult to compete with established workers. Many took jobs with established firms for wages, where possible. In the 2000s demand for tradespeople remained variable, mirroring the booms and lulls of the building industry.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in G. L. Pearce, The pioneer craftsmen of New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1982, p. 18. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Carl Walrond, 'Building trades - Early construction', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/building-trades/page-1 (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010