Kōrero: Class

Whārangi 5. A middle-class society? – class consciousness, 1890 to 1970

Ngā whakaahua


Between 1890 and 1970 there were perceived differences in style and values between people of higher and lesser socio-economic position. There was a tendency for people at the top, especially if they belonged to the rural elite, to speak with a refined ‘English’ accent, while working people tended to have a broader New Zealand accent. Richer people drank in private bars, working men in public ones. At the racecourse, those sitting in the members’ stand were distinguished from the ordinary punters. Trains had first-class carriages until 1978. Professional families tended to have many books, and listened to the non-commercial YA radio stations, while the commercial ZBs catered for working people. Yet these differences were not extreme – for example the difference in comfort between first- and second-class train carriages was never as great as on English trains.

Class could matter

On trains the second-class carriages were at the front of the train, close to the noise, dust and smoke of the engine. First-class carriages were at the back. Class distinction was tragically demonstrated in the Tangiwai railway disaster of 1953. All five second-class carriages plunged into the Whangaehu River, the leading first-class carriage teetered on the edge before falling in (but all but one passenger were saved), and the remaining three first-class carriages remained safe on the track.


How much did material and cultural differences lead to a subjective sense of class consciousness? Class identity over time was softened by some upward mobility. In the Wellington suburb of Karori from 1928 to 1970 more than two-fifths of the sons of semi-skilled or unskilled blue-collar workers had reached white-collar occupations by the time they were married. But in the less well-off suburb of Johnsonville the figure was more like one fifth; and about half of the sons of professional or managerial fathers inherited their father’s status. So, as well as mobility, there was also considerable class persistence. In the 1960s students’ aspirations for education and career were strongly correlated with their father’s occupation.

One, two or three

In the 1970s Johnsonville people had no agreement on the number of classes in New Zealand. A mechanic thought there were two: ‘working and middle’. A welder believed in three: ‘The upper class are the wealthiest and quite small, the middle class which is very large in New Zealand, and, of course, the workers’. An electrician claimed four: ‘the upper class, the middle and lower class … and you could mark them out by their jobs, their houses and habits. Then you would have your unemployed, Polynesians, those sorts of people.’1

Class consciousness

The strongest evidence of class consciousness in the mid-20th century was in politics; and it was often generated by industrial disputes, especially the national strikes of 1913 and 1951. In general, rural landowners and urban managers or higher professionals voted for the National Party. Unionists and manual workers voted for the Labour Party. Suburbs which housed people at either extreme showed quite different political loyalties. Sydenham and Auckland Central had huge Labour majorities; Karori and Fendalton had National majorities. Yet even these distinctions began to soften. In the Labour Party cabinet of 1935–38 ten of the 13 ministers were ex-unionists; but in the 1972–75 cabinet there were only five of 20. Increasingly people with a professional, educated background were represented in that party.

When people in Johnsonville were questioned in the 1970s most did recognise the existence of classes, but few considered class action important to social change. There remained a strong cult of egalitarianism, and a belief in the possibility of personal upward mobility. A major concern was that the rich or those with status did not give themselves ‘airs’. It remained important that the manager or the successful professional did not act ‘posh’, but remained ‘a good joker’.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. David G. Pearson, Johnsonville: continuity and change in a New Zealand township. Auckland: Allen & Unwin, 1980, p. 140 Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Class - A middle-class society? – class consciousness, 1890 to 1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/class/page-5 (accessed 16 June 2019)

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