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Rural workers

by  Carl Walrond

Runholders and shepherds, blacksmiths, shearers, cooks, roadmen and hawkers – New Zealand’s farming economy was built by the labour of its rural workers.

Large sheep runs

Early farming in New Zealand was dominated by large sheep runs in the east of the North and South islands. Elsewhere in the country, small family farms were slowly cut out of the bush.

Runholders and shepherds

Huge sheep runs were developed in the open tussock country of the eastern South Island in the 1850s and 1860s. Settlers had to find unoccupied open land and run sheep to establish the right to lease it. They needed capital to build up flocks and pay shepherds. These farmers were known as runholders. Large high-country farms were called runs or stations, while large lowland farms were often known as estates. On lowland estates, as well as running stock, fields were ploughed and crops and grain grown.

The labour force

As farms were set up, there was a demand for labour. Tussock lands had to be burnt and ploughed, bush cleared and swamps drained. Rural occupations were many and varied. There were bushwhackers, drainers, shepherds, cooks, blacksmiths, bullockies, musterers, drovers, shearers, roadmen, ploughmen, threshers, fencers, saddlers, packmen, rouseabouts, gardeners, grooms, maids, general farm hands and more. Some were permanent workers on salaries, while others were itinerant contracted workers.

There was a distinct hierarchy on many sheep farms. The manager or owner was at the top, followed by the head shepherd, then the shepherd, then often a married couple who lived on the farm, the wife doing domestic tasks and the husband farm work. Skilled workers such as shepherds earned more respect and money than unskilled workers such as farm hands.


Permanent hands like shepherds and cooks were usually paid a salary. Seasonal workers received wages, which were reasonable during shearing or harvest periods but poor at other times. In the late 1850s general hands on a salary earned £40 a year. Workers could earn higher rates working per day, but they did not have job security. The rate for a day’s work was 7 shillings, or 10 shillings for skilled workers such as blacksmiths. Head shepherds made around £60 a year, which rose to £100 in the 1870s because of demand for their skills.

Many hands make light work

In 1880 Te Waimate Station in South Canterbury had 57 permanent hands on its books: ‘The Manager, the Book-keeper, 7 Shepherds, 1 Stockman, 20 Ploughmen, 1 Head Ploughman, 2 Fencers, 1 Drainer, 2 Grooms, 4 Men’s Cooks, 1 Gardener, 1 Packman and Rouseabout, 4 Bushmen, 2 Bullock Drivers, 1 Waggoner, 1 Blacksmith and 1 Striker, 1 Carpenter, 1 Saddler, 1 Married Couple, 3 maids in house.’ 1

Permanent hands

Shepherds – the boundary keepers

South Island landowners and leaseholders were often English and had little experience in pastoral farming. Many employed Scottish shepherds. Before fences were built, flocks of sheep had to be watched so they didn’t wander over the station boundary or get attacked by wild dogs.

Shepherds lived lonely lives. They often patrolled the boundaries on foot, and slept in small huts, with dogs as their only company. After four or five years, some salaried shepherds had saved enough for a deposit on a small farm – the dream of many rural workers.


Large farms employed their own cooks, and cooks’ assistants known as ‘slushies’ who served up the meals. At shearing or harvest time the workload was considerable and cooks had to triple their quantities. They would already have been up for an hour before waking the men at 5.30 a.m. Shearers then often worked for an hour or two before breakfast.

The food was usually cold or hot mutton, potatoes, bread, salt and pepper. Cooks baked bread and also a popular alternative, the ‘brownie’ – made of dough, mutton fat, brown sugar and sometimes currants. Bread or brownie was doled out at regular smoko breaks along with large amounts of tea served in tin pannikins. Farmers often struggled to get cooks and some went through them at a great rate. Good cooks were valued, as food was important for farm productivity, and poor food made it difficult to keep workers.

Cooks who fed the workers were mainly men. On larger stations maids were employed in the homestead.

  1. E. C. Studholme, Te Waimate: early station life in New Zealand. Dunedin: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1940, p. 93. › Back

Itinerant workers

Some workers – including shearers, harvesters and drovers – moved around from place to place for work.


Shearers had a regular calendar. Many worked in Queensland, Australia, in June and July, moving down to New South Wales from August to November. Then they boarded a ship to New Zealand, where they could work from November to February. Much time was lost to travelling, and shearers worked perhaps two-thirds of these 30 weeks. Shearing was done with hand-held shears, which put immense strain on the hands, wrists and arms. From the late 1880s shearing machines were introduced, which made the job a little easier and allowed more wool to be taken off the sheep.

Māori were prominent in early shearing gangs, especially on the North Island’s East Coast. They worked in extended-family groups, including women and children, rather than the male-dominated gangs in the rest of the country. Māori shearing gangs are still prominent in the industry.


Musterers specialised in bringing sheep off the high country in autumn for shearing. They mostly worked on foot, each with a team of five to seven dogs. A mustering team usually comprised the station’s head shepherd and four to six contracted musterers. The packman brought in the gear to the musterers’ huts by packhorse. He also cooked meals and killed a few sheep for mutton and dog tucker.

Musterers walked huge distances trying to find all the sheep, often climbing and descending through rough bluffed country.


Drovers were contracted men who took stock from one place to another, often to farms, or to the saleyards or freezing works. They rode horses and used dogs.

Missing mates

Poet David McKee Wright touched on the lonely life of the itinerant worker who made friends and never saw them again in his ballad ‘While the billy boils’:

‘He went to a job on the plain he knowed of and I went poisoning out at the back,/And I missed him somehow—for all my looking I never could knock across his track. /The same with Harry, the bloke I worked with, the time I was over upon the Coast,/He went for a fly-round over to Sydney, to stay for a fortnight—a month at the most!’ 1


Introduced rabbits became a scourge in the 1870s. They competed with sheep for grass, and in places their burrows turned the ground into a moonscape. Rabbiting was mainly seasonal work, with rabbit-infested runs employing 50–100 men for short periods over winter to kill rabbits. Some large Central Otago runs had their own permanent rabbiters.

At first rabbits were hunted using dogs, and their burrows were dug up. However, numbers exploded, and large-scale poisoning became the only practical method. When refrigeration was introduced in the 1880s, a rabbit industry developed and animals were trapped for their meat and skins. Schoolboys often earned pocket money by shooting rabbits.

The professional rabbiter was a lonely man, often living in a tent down by the trees near a river. Rabbiters were common in rural areas until the late 1940s, when the government introduced a levy on rabbit skins to devalue the pest. In 1947 control of rabbits was given to locally-elected rabbit boards, which levied farmers and organised their own control methods, with part-funding from the government.

  1. David McKee Wright, ‘When the billy boils.’ In New Zealand farm and station verse, 1850–1950, edited by A. E. Woodhouse. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1967, p. 38. › Back

Grain and crops

Importance of horses

Large lowland estates grew grain and crops, and needed horses to plough the land. They bred their own, and could have around 100 working horses, requiring a full-time blacksmith and assistant, and a saddler to repair harnesses and collars. Blacksmiths made horseshoes and tools, and repaired ploughs.

Many other rural jobs involved horses – there were horse breakers and castrators, and rural towns had livery stables where horses could be kept and fed for a charge. The work of farriers (who shod horses) and wheelwrights (who made wheels) also depended upon horses.

In 1918 there were 351,544 horses in New Zealand, but this had dropped to 319,034 in 1921. They were slowly being replaced by machines.


Until the 1870s, ploughing was done with bullocks and a single-furrow plough. Then Clydesdale horses replaced the bullocks, and double- and three-furrow ploughs were introduced. Ploughmen were often called teamsters, because of their teams of horses. They contracted themselves and their horses out to farmers. Ploughing competitions were popular from the 1860s. Two-furrowed ploughs with three wheels, pulled by four Clydesdale horses, were ideally suited to ploughing the tussock-covered plains and downs of Canterbury.

Much ploughing was done by contractors, who were paid 10 shillings ($64 in 2008 terms) an acre (0.4 hectares) in 1877.


As wheat and other grain crops were grown on the lowlands from the 1870s, demand grew for gangs to operate threshing mills. On big estates such as Te Waimate in South Canterbury, around 300 men were taken on at harvest time. Early threshing mills were worked by horses – in the 1880s these were replaced by portable steam threshing mills, which were used for the next 50 years.

Men were usually employed on a contract basis. They were paid per bushel of grain, and often worked from six in the morning till 10 at night. The threshing mill was portable and towed a cookhouse and bunkhouse. It was often moved at night – workers had to try and sleep, and the cook prepare food, while they bumped along the metal road to the next farm.


Before small huts and men’s quarters were built, many farm workers were housed in stables and sheds. There was little to protect rural workers from exploitation. There was an oversupply of labour for unskilled work – those who didn’t like a job could leave and the farmer could easily fill their boots. Skilled workers had more bargaining power – so did shearers, threshing gang workers and harvesters, whose labour was critical at certain times.

Shearers exercised their power by striking, and many shearers’ unions were set up in the eastern South Island in the 1870s. Unions representing rural workers advocated for better working conditions, hours and pay. Membership grew steadily until the depression of the 1930s. It leapt in 1936 when the Labour government introduced compulsory unionism.

On the road


Wagoners were another unique breed of rural worker whose lives were itinerant – but usually back-and-forth on one route, delivering supplies and collecting produce. Eight Clydesdale horses typically pulled a narrow four-wheeled wagon. Many places had no real roads, just tussock hills with ruts, and on steep inclines men had to hold down the upper side of wagons to stop them rolling into gullies. As roads improved, wagons got wider. Before the better roads, 3 kilometres an hour was considered a good speed.


Men were employed by road boards, which levied farmers to pay for the work. Road grading was done by a couple of draught horses, a single-furrow plough, a horse-drawn scoop, a shovel and a pick. Before crushing machines, heavy hand-held hammers were used to break river boulders into metal. A horse and cart with a tip tray transported the metal, tipping and spreading it on roads at regular intervals.

Bullock drivers

Bullock teams could pull heavier loads than horses, and could also negotiate rougher country. In the early days they were the only means of supplying remote stations and taking out the wool clip. A return journey to the more isolated South Island stations could take a month, as flooded rivers often held up the team. Teams rarely moved more than 30 kilometres in a day. Drivers were tough men, known for their bad language.

Thirsty work

Bullock drivers were often hard-living men. One Sam Phelps, who was often locked up for drunkenness, named his bullocks after magistrates and loudly cursed his beasts whenever officials were nearby. In the mid-1930s, bullocks in one of the last teams on the Wairarapa coast were all named after drinks – Whisky, Brandy, Soda, Beer, Gin, Wine, Sherry, Rum, Stout, Lemonade, Ginger and Coffee.

‘Working class athletes’

Many itinerant rural labourers went ‘on the swag’ – they walked from job to job. John A. Lee, who later became a cabinet minister, worked as an itinerant labourer in the early 1900s. His 1977 book Roughnecks, rolling stones and rouseabouts detailed the lives of these men. It included the reminiscences of many other people, one of whom described labourers as ‘working class athletes’.

One example was Jock McKenzie, known as the Highland Chief, who was said to be in Ōamaru, drunk, at 5 a.m., but showed up at 9 a.m. for the shearing call at Ōtemātātā Station, some 80 kilometres away. While such anecdotes may be exaggerations, no one could shear more sheep in a day than McKenzie. Physical prowess was respected in rural communities, and still is.

Once the shearing or the harvest were finished on one farm, it was time to get on ‘Shanks’s pony’ or ‘the hobnail express’ – in other words, walk to the next station. Often workers cashed their cheque at the nearest pub. After a drinking binge – sometimes lasting days – they were broke and hit the road again.

The professional swagger

There were also a number of professional swaggers, who chose to stay on the road, avoiding work and cadging free meals from farmers. Famed in rural folklore, they included such characters as Russian Jack in the lower North Island, and Barney Whiterats and Shiner Slattery in Canterbury and Otago. They fell into a band of gentlemen of the road who belonged to the ‘starlight boarding house fraternity’. 1 Swaggers spent their lives wandering, finally ending up in an old men’s home, their wanderlust unquenched but their bodies failing.


Hawkers were mobile salesmen or saleswomen, usually with a horse and cart containing their wares. They mainly sold clothing, general provisions, crockery and trinkets. Some offered a service, such as the old Lebanese woman who pushed a pram around the Waimate back roads repairing old pots and pans. Another, known as the Sewing Lady, had a pram containing a hand-operated sewing machine, which she used to patch sheets and clothing.

  1. Jim Henderson, Swagger country. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1976, p. 147. › Back

Changes in the rural sector

Wool, wheat and refrigeration

In the 1870s wheat-growing was expanding, especially on the Canterbury Plains, creating demand for threshing gangs at harvest time. By the 1890s the dominance of wool had begun to wane as refrigerated shipping made meat, butter and cheese into exportable commodities.

The groceries are coming

Irishman Creek Station had a good view across the Mackenzie plains towards the road from Burkes Pass. In the 1920s a whole year’s stores was brought in by traction engine (which had replaced bullock teams). Coal, flour, sugar, oatmeal and chests of tea were piled up on wagons. From the station, staff could see the engine’s steam up to two weeks before it arrived.

Technology and mechanisation

In the early 1900s, mechanisation gradually reduced farm labour needs. Shearing machines replaced hand shears. Header harvesters, firstly horse-drawn, were introduced in the late 1920s, and by the mid-1930s had replaced steam threshing mills. At the same time, tractors with rubber tyres were replacing horses.

Mechanisation increased the viability of smaller farms, run by a farmer with his wife and children. Numbers of itinerant workers dwindled – although there was still work for contractors such as shearers, harvesters and fencers. By the 1920s, most New Zealanders lived in urban areas, and less than 30% of the male workforce was engaged in agriculture.

Demise of the casual labourer

Artist Trevor Moffitt’s father Bert was a casual rural labourer in the small town of Waikaia, Southland. But by the mid-1940s, within a decade of Trevor’s birth, the writing was on the wall for such roles. ‘The moment concrete posts came in, header harvesters came in, machine shearing came in, [my father] couldn’t change or adapt or somehow be part of that. So what had been there for years and years on a seasonal basis just disappeared in a year or two.’ 1

Second World War

In the Second World War there was an acute labour shortage because of men away fighting. Many farms were without farmers. Young women, known as land girls, stepped in to manage properties – but this was just a brief interlude until the men returned. The government was keen to provide farms for returned servicemen, and steep hill country in the North Island was developed in the 1940s and 1950s. Contracted scrub cutters attempted to convert mānuka-covered hills into pasture. From the 1950s the use of superphosphate fertiliser on paddocks greatly increased grass growth and stocking capacity.

Specialist workers

Specialist rural workers emerged after the war, as more science was applied to farming. Government-employed farm demonstration workers taught farmers new practices and technologies. In the era when milk was separated on the farm, up till the mid-1950s, herd testers visited dairy farms to assess milk quality. Often women, they arrived just after lunch, had a cup of tea, then tested the evening’s milk. In the morning they did another test before moving on to the next farm.

Selective breeding, which became more common in the 1950s and 1960s, greatly increased productivity and contributed to the intensification of farming. Artificial insemination technicians still exist in the early 2000s. More recently, TB testers visit farms testing deer and cattle for bovine tuberculosis.

  1. Quoted in Chris Ronayne, Trevor Moffitt: a biography. Auckland: David Ling, 2006, p. 21. › Back

The family farmer

Breaking up the estates

In the 1890s the government wanted to free up more land for settlers and small farmers. Between 1892 and 1912, the Crown bought 223 estates, totalling over 500,000 hectares, and broke them into smaller farms on which they settled 7,000 families. This occurred mostly on the lowland estates – hill-country runs remained large. Most of the broken-up estates were in the South Island. In the North Island, government purchases and land confiscations from Māori were subdivided and sold off as small farms. Much of this land was covered in forest and had to be cleared.


Until the 1900s, small landholders eked out a living – farmers may have had a cow for milk and some chickens and pigs, but a small wool clip made them little money. Many had to work off the farm as contractors, so they could afford to get by and to develop their farms. In Northland some small-scale farmers dug kauri gum.

From the 1890s there were increasing numbers of smaller farms. Refrigeration had created an export market for meat and dairy products as well as wool. As the small family farm became capable of supporting itself, the workload fell on the family. Family labour was augmented by contracting out large jobs such as shearing or threshing and harvesting. Farmers also pooled their labour – for example, helping each other in turn as they mustered sheep before shearing. From the 1900s, the settled contractor increasingly replaced the casual itinerant worker. Small businesses such as fencing contractors servicing rural areas developed in small towns – largely enabled by better roads and the growing use of motor vehicles.


Much of New Zealand, especially the North Island, had to be cleared before it could be farmed. Often bush was simply felled. Once dry it was burned, and grass seed sown in the ashes.

The job of chopping trees fell to the bushwhacker. Newspapers advertised felling contracts, often in hill country. Typically all trees greater than half a metre in diameter had to be dropped. In 1897 this brought a contracted gang just over $31 (in 2008 terms) per hectare. Men typically worked in teams of four or five and carried in all supplies. Huts built from ponga (tree-fern) logs were thatched with nīkau-palm or tree-fern fronds. Bushwhackers worked from dawn to dusk, wet or fine, six days a week, earning just enough to make a living. Sunday was spent gathering firewood, getting the camp in order and hunting pigs for meat.

Dairy demands

Children on dairy farms had to help out. One author wrote, ‘The task of milking as many as five to ten cows each morning and then facing a walk of up to 8–10 kilometres to the nearest sole-charge school resulted in large numbers of country children from small dairy farms being too tired to learn at school, probably attending only for a chance to escape the daily drudgery of looking after dairy cows.’ 1


For decades the sharemilking system has been a central part of the dairy industry. Dairying is demanding work, with the herd usually milked twice daily when cows are in milk. Many farmers contract out their land and their herd to sharemilkers, who get a share of the milk produced. By sharemilking, these young men or couples gain experience and can save for their own land.

Wives and children

The family farmer was assisted by his wife, who also looked after the farmhouse and children. A 1939 survey of dairy farms found that in a one-week period 38% of wives worked on the farm as well as doing domestic work. Children were given chores such as milking the cow and feeding the chooks or pigs. By the time they were in their teens they were often heavily involved, and boys were groomed to take over the farm if they showed an inclination.

  1. Irene Waswo, Farming progress in New Zealand, 1814–1995. New Plymouth: I. Waswo, 1996, p. 64. › Back

Contemporary rural workers

Falling labour force

In the 1920s around 30% of New Zealand’s workforce was employed in rural work. By 1951 this had dropped to around 20%, and in 2004 to about 6%. In 2004, 128,430 people were employed in agriculture, and in agricultural servicing and processing industries. A further 28,710 were employed in horticulture, and 23,405 in forestry and forestry processing.

Patterns of employment have also changed. In sheep farming and cropping there has been a shift from permanent live-in farm labour to family and contract work. In the 1990s and 2000s, dairying expanded into new regions and became more intensive. Dairy farms have grown larger, increasing the demand for paid labour.

Boom and bust

The 1950s to the 1970s were boom decades for agriculture, with huge gains in farm efficiency and productivity. By the 1970s and 1980s farmers were managing 5,000 animals on their own – something which was unheard of a few decades earlier. Diversification into forestry, horticulture and viticulture also provided work opportunities.

When the government removed many agricultural subsidies in the 1980s, farmers faced harder times. The number of men in rural employment fell, but the number of women working (both on and off the farm) increased. With better transport, farmers’ wives often found work in nearby towns to augment the family farm’s falling income.

The 1980s and 1990s also saw the closure of many small freezing works, dairy factories and other processing plants, leading to job losses. These were typically replaced by a few very large plants.

Diversification and seasonal jobs

New job opportunities have arisen in horticulture and viticulture – but pay rates are low and the hours long. New Zealand’s high employment levels in the 2000s made it difficult for these industries to attract workers.

Plenty of labour is needed to set up a vineyard, and at pruning and harvest time. In Central Otago many orchards employ students or backpackers. In Hawke’s Bay in 2005, apple growers and other horticulturalists had to import labour to New Zealand as they could not attract local apple pickers. In 2007 a new policy was introduced, allowing viticulturists and horticulturists to employ up to 5,000 overseas workers a year if they could not find New Zealanders to do the work.

Move to rural areas

Since the 1980s, an increasing proportion of people live in rural areas but do not rely on agriculture for their income. Many live on lifestyle blocks on the outskirts of cities or towns, and commute or work from home.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Rural workers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008