Kōrero: Household services

Whārangi 2. The ‘servant problem’

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Shortage of servants

Nineteenth-century New Zealand had a shortage of servants. Governor William Hobson’s wife Eliza wrote in 1841: ‘I wish a few ships loaded with emigrants would arrive that the price of labour may be reduced. Servants that you would not take into your house in England are … thirty or forty pounds a year, and men servants seventy, and even then they consider it a favour to live with you.’1

Unservile servants


Jessie Campbell wrote in astonishment from Petone in 1841: ‘[O]ur manservant left because he did not consider £30 per year, bed, board and washing, sufficient wages,’ and, ‘My Skye servant has got married, she was so plain looking I thought I was sure to have her for some time’.2


Two decades later Lady Barker noted that, ‘The great complaint … among Ladies is the utter ignorance and inefficiency of their female servants. As soon as a ship comes in it is besieged with people who want servants, but it is very rare to get one who knows how to do anything as it ought to be done.’

Single women with the courage to emigrate usually had ambitions beyond being a servant. Many soon left service to marry – on average much earlier than they would have in Britain. This was partly because there were many more men than women in New Zealand.

Others left for hotel or factory jobs with better pay, free evenings and weekends, and the company of other workers. The Otago Daily Times noted in 1878: ‘Mothers may storm and argue but sweet seventeen loves her liberty and will have none of the drudgery of domestic service while there is a pocket to be sewn into one of Mr Hallenstein’s waistcoats.’3

The necessity of servants


When Parliament debated the end of free passage for immigrant servants in 1871, Sir John Cracroft Wilson said this was ‘a serious blow for the prosperity of Canterbury, because without servants educated people could not remain in New Zealand. They must have somebody else to do the work for them which they are not in the habit of doing for themselves.’4 Wilson had brought his own servants when he arrived from India to settle in Christchurch.


The press often made the ‘servant problem’ sound comic: ‘The average housewife cannot get a servant girl, even if she offers champagne and oysters for supper and eight afternoons “out” in a week … Why, some mistresses are prepared to give up the best bedroom, and the use of the piano, and do the cooking themselves … if they can only get a Belinda Ann to condescend to grace them with her society.’5

DIY housework

In the absence of servants settlers had to do their own housework and cooking. Handbooks such as Brett’s colonists’ guide (1897) contained recipes for people who had to do their own cooking for the first time.

Some found they enjoyed it. Jane Maria Richmond wrote to a friend in England in 1853, ‘I consider myself a much more respectable character than I was when I was a fine lady, did nothing for anyone but made a [great] many people do things for me … I am so proud at finding how easy it is to be independent. When my pantry [is full], ready for the Sunday bush party, I feel as satisfied and proud as a mortal can. I am much more in my element here than I ever was before.’67

Still hospitable without servants


In 1883 Mary Rolleston, on a trip in Northland, found that, ‘None of the friends with whom we have stayed have servants; they cannot induce them to come to these out of the way places, but this fact made no difference to their hospitality … (they seemed delighted to have visitors) and all the household arrangements were not only comfortable but tasteful and refined.’8


Lady Barker, having been forced to learn to cook by the lack of servants, not only published a cookery book after her return to England, but was appointed head of a cookery school in London.

Employment agencies

Servants often got their jobs through employment agencies called registry offices, which usually had more vacancies on their books than women to fill them. The Servants Registry Office acts of 1892 and 1895 aimed to make sure registry offices didn’t charge too much and had no role in ‘procuring servants for unknown or improper purposes.’9

The government operated its own free employment service to find women jobs, mainly in domestic service. The women’s branch of the Labour Department operated in six cities between 1908 and 1920, but also found too few women to fill the available jobs.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Alison Drummond, ed., Married and gone to New Zealand: being extracts from the writings of women pioneers. Hamilton: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1960, p. 56. Back
  2. Quoted in Julia Millen, Colonial tears and sweat: the working class in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1984, p. 55. Back
  3. Lady Barker, Station life in New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1950, p. 41 (originally published 1870). Back
  4. Quoted in Colonial tears and sweat, p. 147. Back
  5. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1873, pp. 1247–1248. Back
  6. Quoted in Terence Hodgson, The big house: grand and opulent houses in colonial New Zealand. Auckland: Random Century, 1991, p. 49. Back
  7. Quoted in Frances Porter, Born to New Zealand: a biography of Jane Maria Atkinson. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1995, p. 62. Back
  8. Quoted in Colonial tears and sweat, p. 92. Back
  9. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1896, p. 26. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jane Tolerton, 'Household services - The ‘servant problem’', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/household-services/page-2 (accessed 22 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Jane Tolerton, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010