Kōrero: Class

Whārangi 3. Colonial society – the working class

Ngā whakaahua

Occupational hierarchy

Outside the elite, was there a class hierarchy in colonial New Zealand? As New Zealand was not an industrial society, and the majority of people lived in the country or in small towns, there was no great job specialisation. There was movement between occupations, and many workers had a number of seasonal jobs. Artisans (skilled manual workers) usually served an apprenticeship and worked as employed journeymen before becoming masters who employed others. For them, craft was more important than class. It is difficult to establish a water-tight occupational hierarchy.

However in urban society there was a rough ranking of occupation on the basis of income and prestige. At the top was a wealthier elite of landowners, merchants, bankers and some professional people like doctors and lawyers. Then came more minor entrepreneurs, and professionals like teachers. Next were a group of respectable workers such as shopkeepers, clerks and skilled artisans. Finally there were the unskilled labourers. In smaller towns these distinctions became less important.

Uppity workers

Even in New Zealand’s small cities it was hard to translate these occupational contrasts into tight class distinctions. For a start, working people were better rewarded than in Great Britain – wages were higher, hours of work less and food cheaper. Constantine Dillon wrote in the 1840s: ‘This is a glorious country for a labouring man!!! No starvation, no fear, no poor law union, high wages, short hours, infinite grazing for cows’.1 There was a growing expectation that social mobility was possible during one’s own lifetime, and more especially for one’s children. Old-world marks of inferior status began to wither. Domestic servants became ‘uppity’ and when in 1851 Charlotte Godley instructed her servant Elizabeth to wear caps again Godley commented that this was ‘very uncolonial’.2

Colonial insolence

In a letter to the Auckland Herald in 1879 ‘Head of Family’ complained about the stroppiness of colonial servants who ‘grilled prospective employers’, enjoyed exorbitant wages and would not tolerate criticism.3

Things tightened up in the depression of the 1880s. It was harder to find work, and men often had to leave their homes and drift from one short-term labouring job to another. By the late 1880s there was a scandal in Dunedin about alleged ‘sweating’ (exploitation of workers) in the clothing industry. The depression and increased urbanisation heightened disparities.


Land ownership was another class indicator. In the cities distinct residential areas emerged. In Dunedin, the wealthy were found on the City Rise or in Māori Hill, the skilled artisans on the flat in suburbs such as Caversham. In Wellington distinctions emerged between the grand residences of Thorndon and the workers’ cottages in Newtown. Community institutions such as churches or lodges which had built links between people in small towns now reinforced difference.

Yet, in comparison with Europe, property ownership was remarkably widespread. The 1882 freeholders’ return revealed 71,000 people owned land in the country – about half the adult male population. This land ownership gave many colonial New Zealanders a sense of middle-class respectability. By comparison with Britain and North America, the suburbs were more mixed. In Caversham, for example, a remarkable range of people lived close to each other.

Class consciousness

The absence of an aristocracy, the small size of firms and towns, relative affluence, some social mobility, and broad property ownership weakened class consciousness in colonial New Zealand. Some argue it virtually disappeared and that aspirations for individual mobility eclipsed working-class consciousness. However, in the 1880s working people in the larger towns organised into unions, with the first major industrial action occurring with the maritime strike of 1890. In certain places, such as among Dunedin artisans, the language of class struggle was heard. Political candidates claimed that they represented ‘labour’ interests. Yet such consciousness was limited in time and place. It was found only in the large cities, on the wharves or at coal mines such as Brunner on the West Coast.

The working class was also divided by important cultural differences – between Pākehā and Māori, Catholic and Protestant, or between those aspiring to respectable middle-class sobriety and those enjoying the camaraderie of the pub. There was an important distinction between those who owned their piece of land, were married and raised a family, and those who were footloose, unattached and drifted from one unskilled job to another. This disrupted any sense of a coherent working class.

There were important distinctions of wealth, occupation, property ownership and culture in colonial New Zealand. But it is difficult to argue for the existence of tightly demarcated classes.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Erik Olssen, ‘Social class in nineteenth century New Zealand.’ in Social class in New Zealand, edited by David Pitt. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1977, p. 27. Back
  2. Quoted in Julia Millen, Colonial tears and sweat: the working class in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1984, p. 82 Back
  3. Quoted in Colonial tears and sweat, p. 74. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Class - Colonial society – the working class', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/class/page-3 (accessed 26 June 2019)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018