From the beginning of European settlement in rural areas, people made their own fun informally at home.
Work and play
‘There was of course no leisure on the farm,’ 1 recalled Francis Bennett, who grew up in South Canterbury in the early 1900s. For many in the country who lived on the job and had to work hard, this was undoubtedly the case. It was not always easy to distinguish work from play – for a woman, knitting a jersey could be recreation or a necessity, depending upon her family’s circumstances.
People talked and told stories – genteel conversation in homesteads, and rougher yarns and tall tales in the men’s quarters, where the talk was often lubricated by alcohol and accompanied by card games. On occasion, drinking and yarning spilled over into playful, or not-so-playful, fisticuffs.
Early rural settlers also made their own music. The family would sing hymns or Gilbert and Sullivan songs around the piano, while out in the men’s quarters concertinas or accordions accompanied a good singalong of shanties and folk songs.
For those who were literate, reading was a common pastime. Novelists like Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper were favourites, and Scots settlers recited Robert Burns’s poetry. At Brancepeth Station in the Wairarapa and Glenross in Hawke’s Bay, the farm owners set up large libraries for the use of the station hands. Newspapers passed from hand to hand, and were used to line hut walls, primarily to cover up cracks and stop draughts – but they also provided enjoyment for later residents.
The good old days
Oreti Walmsley from the Cheviot area recalled ‘the happy days in that old sitting room before the First World War. So much music. So much good literature, wholesome talk and happy, happy singsongs.’ 2
Out of doors
Country people made their own fun out of doors. Children climbed trees, gathered birds’ eggs and swam in creeks. Older males went hunting. In the early days, they shot birds like kererū (New Zealand pigeons) or chased pigs. Later goats and deer became favourite game. The ability to hunt, free of Britain’s restrictive game laws, became a recognised right of colonial men. Fishing was another pastime for days off. Colonists copied Māori in going eeling, and later fished for introduced trout.
People often visited friends or relatives, especially on Sunday after church or scripture-reading. There were also larger gatherings such as weddings, or parties on special occasions. Richer landowners hosted balls. Funerals provided an opportunity for people to gather and talk. Occasionally, at the larger homesteads, people were invited for games of croquet on the lawn, and in the 20th century tennis parties, usually accompanied by large afternoon teas, were common.
Canterbury settler Laurence Kennaway recalled how men who a day before had cooked their own chops and done their own washing went to Christchurch for balls and ‘had to reduce themselves to the black beetle appearance of the evening exquisite of the nineteenth century’ just as people did in the ‘happy, finished, velvet country of England’. 3
Visits to town
Country people also went looking for fun in the closest settlement or town. Once accommodation houses appeared, men from the surrounding district would walk in to enjoy drinking and yarning around the bar on Saturday nights. Fights were common.
Men who lived and worked further out would come to town for a ‘burst’ or a ‘spree’. Having been paid, they would ‘knock down’ or ‘melt’ their cheques – drinking and perhaps gambling at cards until the money ran out. George Chamier said of Canterbury station hands, ‘They are moral enough when out of temptation, but see them in town. A hell on earth!’ 4
Other rural men combined business with pleasure. Locals usually stopped for a chat at the blacksmith’s when they brought horse teams in to be shod. Drinking and yarning followed meetings on issues such as the threat of scab (a sheep disease). Stock sales were said to be as much a picnic as a business transaction. On special occasions, country people made the long trip to the city to go to the races or attend balls.