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Household services

by Jane Tolerton

Servants were hard to come by in 19th- and early 20th-century New Zealand, despite being offered subsidised passage from Britain. Because of the servant shortage, many women had to learn how to do their own cooking and cleaning. Getting in household provisions was aided by home delivery of meat, milk and other groceries.

Servants in the 19th century

Servants made up a high proportion of New Zealand’s women settlers in the 19th century. Following the English middle-class model, most affluent settlers in New Zealand expected to pay servants to do the domestic work around the house and garden. Because of this servants were among the most sought-after immigrants, and some wealthier settlers brought their own. Most servants who came to New Zealand did not plan to be servants for long. There were never enough servants to meet the demand.

‘Of good character’


In the early 1860s the Otago provincial government offered assisted passages to ‘eligible SINGLE FEMALES above Twelve and not exceeding Thirty-Five Years of Age; who must be sober, industrious and of good moral character’.1


Māori generally did not take work as servants for Pākehā; if they did it was usually on a casual basis in country districts.

Subsidised immigration

Subsidised or free passages were offered to single women prepared to work as domestic servants. About 12,000 female assisted immigrants arrived in the 1850s and 1860s when provincial governments organised immigration. Around 20,000 arrived under the central government’s scheme in the 1870s.

Serving in paradise


On his 1872 visit English writer Anthony Trollope expressed a common view on servants in New Zealand: ‘In such a town as Christchurch, a girl of 20 or 23 can earn from 30 to 40 pounds a year and a comfortable home with no oppressive hard work; and if she be well conducted and of decent appearance she is sure to get a husband who can keep a house over her head. For such persons New Zealand is a paradise.’2


General servants

Most households with a servant had just one – a ‘general’. As well as cleaning and washing, her work often included looking after children, chickens and the vegetable garden, shopping, hand-sewing clothes, making soap, and even milking the cow.

Being able to say: ‘We keep a servant’, was a status symbol, but the ‘mistress’ usually worked in the house as well, often doing the cooking while the servant did the other work.

Bad pay and long hours

A servant had to be physically strong, and have a sense of subservience, as she was at the beck and call of her ‘mistress’. Her employers might even make rules about how she should spend any time off.

The working hours were long. A ‘general’ might work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., with half a day off on Sunday to attend church. Many lived in.

Tyrannical mistresses


A Wellington woman told the 1890 Sweating Commission (which investigated working conditions) that she worked a 16-hour day, from 6.30 a.m. to 11 p.m., with one night off a week and a weekend night off every fortnight – for 9 shillings a week. ‘I have been in service at four different houses and three of the mistresses were tyrants. I consider the hours of domestic servants should be regulated the same as those of humpers on the wharf.’3


Domestic service was badly paid. Servants earned 10–12 shillings a week on average, plus full board. At the top of the scale, a female cook could earn 20 shillings a week – about the same as a farm labourer, but less than many shop assistants.

Big houses

Some of New Zealand’s ‘big houses’ had about a dozen servants. Most had a permanent staff of four: cook, parlour maid, kitchen maid and gardener, while a laundry maid might cover three or four big houses. Only about a dozen houses had a butler.

Most servants lived in. They ate their meals together in the kitchen, not with the family. The exception was the governess, who often ate with the family and was addressed as ‘miss’ or ‘mrs’. Other servants were called by their first names. Few families had governesses, though wealthy families living away from main centres often did, sending their children to boarding school when they were older.

A plain, dark dress and a white apron, usually with lace trim, were standard, but parlour maids, who waited at table and opened the front door to guests, usually wore a white cap.

Holiday trouble


Some members of Parliament treated the 1896 bill that aimed to give domestics a half day off per week as a huge joke. One alleged that those in favour of the bill intended to spend the afternoon with their servant girls while their wives stayed home and did the work. The Dunedin Women’s Franchise League also opposed it, saying it would drive girls out onto the streets in all weathers, ‘thus compelling them by law to seek shelter in the huts or tents of men, not notorious, perhaps, for their moral control’.4


No union or days off

There was legislation governing wages or conditions for servants. Attempts to form unions for domestic servants in the 1890s failed. So did an 1896 Parliamentary bill for a half day off a week for servants. The Eight Hours Act 1901 gave them their holiday but, in spite of its name, it did not stop servants being called on to work 12 hours or longer per day.

    • Charlotte Macdonald, A woman of good character: single women as immigrant settlers in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Historical Branch, 1990, p. 1. Back
    • Quoted in Desmond Stone, ed., Verdict on New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1959, p. 198. Back
    • Quoted in Julia Millen, Colonial tears and sweat: the working class in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1984, p. 75. Back
    • Quoted in Herbert Roth, ‘The story of Amelia Anne.’ Here and Now 4, no. 4 (March 1954), p. 13. Back

The ‘servant problem’

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.

    • 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
    • Quoted in Julia Millen, Colonial tears and sweat: the working class in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Wellington: Reed, 1984, p. 55. Back
    • Lady Barker, Station life in New Zealand. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1950, p. 41 (originally published 1870). Back
    • Quoted in Colonial tears and sweat, p. 147. Back
    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1873, pp. 1247–1248. Back
    • Quoted in Terence Hodgson, The big house: grand and opulent houses in colonial New Zealand. Auckland: Random Century, 1991, p. 49. Back
    • Quoted in Frances Porter, Born to New Zealand: a biography of Jane Maria Atkinson. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1995, p. 62. Back
    • Quoted in Colonial tears and sweat, p. 92. Back
    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 1896, p. 26. Back

Domestic service since 1900

Women shun service

About half of the female workforce was in domestic service in 1880, but only about one-third was in 1900. The ‘servant problem’ got worse as more women could afford to employ a servant, but fewer women wanted to be one. Shops and offices became the main places where women were employed.

Daughters as domestics

Daughters who didn’t work outside the home were often pressed into service. The 1901 census counted 50,000 daughters or other relatives (excluding wives) performing domestic duties.

Cookery classes were included in the high school curriculum from 1908, when Wanganui Girls’ College led the way. Otago University began a home science degree in 1911, encouraged by Plunket founder Truby King.

Kitchen culture

The shortage of servants had an effect on New Zealand cuisine and kitchen culture. Because New Zealand women did their own cooking, New Zealand food was plain and simple. Recipe books such as Melanie Primmer’s The up to date housewife (1926) assumed the person using the book was a woman, a homemaker, and not a mistress or servant. They gave ‘handy hints’ on how to do the washing and clean the grate. As homemakers spent a lot of time in the kitchen it became a focus of architectural attention, and New Zealand women were early adopters of labour-saving devices.

Servants should be obedient


During the 1930s depression some women were forced into domestic service. It was badly paid, but was the only job going. In Mary Findlay’s autobiographical novel Tooth and nail, schoolgirl Mary Wilkinson finds hard-hearted female employers and husbands who try to seduce her, including one who tells her: ‘Servants should be obedient to their masters.’ In one job she worked from 5.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m., with only one weekday afternoon and every second Sunday afternoon off, for five shillings a week.


Between the world wars

From 1918 to 1939 domestic service was still the single largest employment category for women, and there was still a servant shortage. In the 1920s about 4,500 British domestic servants arrived in New Zealand as part of a scheme sponsored by the New Zealand and British governments. Also operating in Canada and Australia, it was an attempt to solve both the post-war ‘surplus women’ problem in Britain and the ‘servant problem’ in New Zealand. But, as with earlier schemes, the women left quickly for marriage or other occupations.

War kills domestic service

The Second World War put an end to domestic service as an occupation. In 1936 there were 32,000 domestic servants; nine years later, at the end of the war, there were only 9,000. Women were ‘manpowered’ into essential work during the war – and domestic service was not in that category.

1945 onwards

In the post-war decades women generally did their own housework. Paying someone to help was unusual. According to the 1951 census, only one in 10 married women worked outside the home. Women who worked as housekeepers for others tended to be older single women, or sole parents who needed a place to live and work with their child. This changed in the early 1970s, when the Domestic Purposes Benefit provided an independent income for ‘solo mothers’.

As women moved into paid work outside the home – which one-third of married women had by 1976 – employing a cleaner or childminder became more acceptable.

House-cleaning services

In the 2000s very few people work as full-time domestic servants in private homes. However, the number of part-time house cleaners has risen. The service sector has grown strongly as people pay for others to do the jobs that once took up their ‘leisure time’.

Some house cleaners work for companies, but most are individual women, including new migrants, who work for cash.


Most New Zealanders have always seen gardening as a do-it-yourself enterprise and pastime. Professional gardeners have fallen into two types: trained gardeners who do landscape gardening or maintain large properties, and gardeners who work regularly or intermittently doing everything from planting to mowing lawns.

A gardening mission


The Reverend Richard Davis was probably the first Pākehā New Zealander who could be described as a gardener by occupation. He left his Dorset farm with his family, on a personal mission to make sure missionaries in Northland could feed themselves. In the 1830s he planted large gardens at Church Missionary Society mission stations, including fruit trees, grape vines, berries and vegetables, to feed Māori workers as well as the missionaries.


Professional gardeners in the 19th century

Many of New Zealand’s early professional gardeners began their careers in England with an apprenticeship and work on large properties there. After emigrating they might become head gardener on a large country estate, but they tended to diversify. Some opened their own nurseries, or designed and maintained public and private gardens.

The seeds of success


Gardener John Nairn, who had been apprenticed at the age of 10, emigrated as a botanist with the New Zealand Company. He married Eliza Liston, a servant. One of their sons, Charles Nairn, became one of the richest men in Hawke’s Bay. He employed many servants and gardeners at Pourere, the 32-room house he built in 1875.


A good example was Scotsman William Smith. He was apprenticed at 13 and worked his way up to supervisor gardener through jobs at large English country houses. After emigrating to New Zealand in the 1870s, he worked at Mt Peel Station in Canterbury. He later worked in both private and public gardens, including New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park, where he bred kiwi, wrote on horticultural and natural history topics, and encouraged conservation.

Professional gardeners in the 20th century

The career of Alfred Buxton, New Zealand’s most significant landscape gardener of the first half of the 20th century, shows that gardeners continued to diversify. He was apprenticed as a teenager to Canterbury’s leading nurseryman, Thomas Abbott. Buxton later went on to open his own nurseries, start a highly fashionable landscape gardening company that undertook commissions in many parts of the country, and grow commercial flowers in his retirement in Ōtaki, while continuing to do some design work.

Gardening for his supper


Jimmy O’Neill was a classic cowman-gardener. He arrived at Maraekōwhai station, in Hawke’s Bay, in 1916 to work as a teamster, looking after the horses and growing oats for their fodder. When horses were no longer needed, he became the cowman-gardener, keeping a large vegetable garden and sometimes helping out in the cookhouse. After retirement age, he continued to work in return for board in a little hut next to the cookhouse and three meals a day. He was the station’s longest-serving employee when he returned to Ireland in 1961, aged 83.


General gardeners

Large country estates often employed a number of gardeners. However, male ‘help’ employed in New Zealand households tended to be jacks-of-all-trades, sometimes termed ‘cowman-gardeners’. As the tag implies, they milked the cow and gardened, but usually did other odd jobs as required.

Although many New Zealand settlers planted and maintained their own gardens, by the late 19th century it had become reasonably common for larger city householders to employ a gardener, often on a part-time or casual basis. Gardening, like house cleaning, was a job that students and artists often used to earn money in the 20th century.

Franchise firms expand

Franchise gardening firms such as Mr Green Home Services and Jim’s Mowing grew in the late 20th century. This expansion of the service sector was caused by people employing others to do the household tasks their parents would have made a point of doing for themselves, while they worked longer hours and kept their leisure time free of domestic chores.

Home deliveries

Delivery services

A variety of delivery services operated in New Zealand cities and towns up until the mid-20th century. Milk, groceries and meat were delivered in most places, as was coal for the fire and ice for the pre-refrigerator ice chest. Bread sellers and fruit and vegetable vendors arrived regularly in some places, and hawkers selling rabbit, fish or whitebait arrived intermittently.

Training on the milk run


New Zealand’s best-known athletics coach, Arthur Lydiard, had a milk run. He encouraged his runners to do a milk run because it was such a good way of building the stamina required for middle- and long-distance running. Barry Magee, who won an Olympic bronze for marathon running, remembers that some criticised the mileage Lydiard demanded: ‘Other coaches said he was killing us, that it was disastrous to be running those mileages. Year by year the public perception changed.’1


Milk deliveries

The milkman

In the days of horses and carts, milkmen carried big vats of milk on a horse float and filled the household billy. In some places horse delivery continued on into the 1960s, when trucks took over completely. Milkmen bought a ‘milk run’, and often worked in the very early morning before other vehicles were on the road.

The switch from vats to glass bottles came in the 1950s. People left money in one of the bottles or, later, used tokens, usually bought at the local dairy. The shift from the pint bottle to cartons came in the late 1980s.

Deregulating the milk run

Milk regulations were introduced in 1944 to ensure a year-round supply of fresh milk at a reasonable price. One milk producer in each area was granted the right to supply town milk. Until the late 1980s the sale of milk in supermarkets was prevented by regulation to protect home-delivery vendors against price cutting.

Deregulation of the milk industry began in 1986. Supermarkets could now sell milk, but the price was controlled. By 1991 only one-third of consumers still bought their milk from a vendor at their gate.

After full deregulation in 1993, milk could be sold by anyone at any price – opening the way for supermarkets to undercut the milkman. The home-delivery system died out over the new few years.

Grocery deliveries decline

During the Second World War the shortage of both labour and petrol interrupted the delivery system. As few housewives had cars, they had to carry heavy shopping home on foot.

Delivery services resumed after the war. Housewives could have a standing order for a weekly delivery, could phone through an order or leave a list with the grocer while out doing the shopping. Shop staff would assemble to goods. This included weighing out and bagging up items like flour and sugar, which were kept in bulk. The order was usually delivered in the afternoon.

From the 1950s, with increased car ownership and the arrival of supermarkets, deliveries gradually declined – along with the grocers, butchers and greengrocers that had been prepared to deliver. Some city areas still had deliveries in the 1970s, but in the next decades more women were in paid employment, and there were fewer people at home to deliver to.

The internet delivers

From the late 1990s the internet brought back home delivery of supermarket goods. Woolworths began its online service in 1998, and after 10 years of operation it was turning over more than one of the group’s average-sized stores.

    • Quoted in Joseph Romanos, Arthur’s boys. Auckland: Moa Beckett, 1994, p. 28. Back

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How to cite this page: Jane Tolerton, 'Household services', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Jane Tolerton, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010