Kōrero: Youth organisations

Whārangi 1. Christian youth organisations

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Early youth organisations

Since the 1850s hundreds of thousands of young New Zealanders have joined organisations such as Guides, which have given them opportunities for adventure and new experiences. Boys and girls had fun in halls and camps while leaders sought to develop their minds, souls and bodies by encouraging active citizenship, resourcefulness and Christian belief.

Membership ages varied between organisations and over time. Initially most focused on those aged 12–18, but their popularity quickly saw similar groups emerge for younger children. They varied in how religious they were – the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Life Brigade were more devout than the Scouts or Guides – although all taught a Christian message.

Youth organisations arose in the late 19th and early 20th century, at the height of the British Empire. Members were seen as Christian soldiers and future defenders of the empire. At that time youth were increasingly defined as a group distinct from children and adults. Young people were seen as having too much spare time, and church leaders and parents worried about the devil making work for idle hands.


New Zealand’s first formal youth organisations were based on British groups which worked to solve the ‘problem’ of idle boys. The YMCA originated in London in 1844, and promoted Christian values. The first New Zealand association began in Auckland in 1855 and others soon opened. Camping was a common activity in the YMCA’s ‘boys’ work’ programme, and considerable fundraising went into developing large campsites. During the 20th century the YMCA expanded its reach, catering to all ages. Its youth work included active recreational programmes, team sports, and classes in practical skills relevant to future employment.

In 2019 the 13 affiliated associations of the YMCA in New Zealand operated 100 centres from Auckland to Invercargill. Their programme had expanded to include:

  • sport and recreation
  • education
  • out-of-school care
  • early childhood education
  • home-based care
  • fitness clubs
  • camping and outdoor education
  • youth development
  • accommodation.

The YMCA offers services to people of all ages and genders, with a focus on empowering and challenging teenagers and young adults.

Boys’ Brigade

The Boys’ Brigade started in Glasgow in 1883. A branch opened in 1887 in Auckland – the first outside the United Kingdom. Boys were seen as lacking role models and opportunities for physical and spiritual development. Military drill, physical training and moral lectures would keep them away from street temptations and develop them into good, capable men and potential soldiers. The organisation flourished and spread until around 1910, after which it declined because of a lack of leaders and the introduction of compulsory military training for 12 to 21 year olds. It revived in 1926 with the founding of the First Dunedin Company at the Caversham Baptist Church. After reaching a membership of around 12,000 in 1965, it had around 2,600 members in 2009. Since its inception the organisation has had close links with the Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches.

In the early 21st century the Boys’ Brigade offered a variety of programmes for 6–18 year old boys. It is closely linked to a new parallel youth movement, ICONZ, which offers church-based adventure and activity-based programmes for boys with the goal of enabling them to become ‘true kiwi icons’. Huts, campsites and lodges are used for ICONZ programmes. In 2014 Boys’ Brigade and ICONZ reported having an impact on the lives of 1,900 boys.

YWCA Girl Citizen’s creed

The Girl Citizen creed reflected the responsibilities of citizenship:

I am a New Zealand girl.
I was born in the land of opportunity.
I was born in a land where girls are educated.
I was born in a land where girls and women are beginning to feel that they are sisters, and, therefore, responsible one for the other.
I was born in a land where I may have Jesus Christ for my friend.
I must be a good citizen, for to me much has been given.1

Girls’ Friendly Societies and YWCA

In the 19th century girls were viewed as impressionable and in need of protection. Local church youth groups and Girls’ Friendly Societies provided venues for learning domestic skills and Bible verses, and avoiding ‘temptations’. The YWCA was established in Britain in 1855 and the first New Zealand branch opened in Dunedin in 1878. It spread to other centres, providing working girls with respectable accommodation and spiritual fellowship. YWCA’s ‘Girl Citizens’ were active in the 1920s and 1930s, providing a forum for girls to become involved in civics (the study of a citizen's rights and duties), in contrast to earlier YWCA groups’ emphasis on household skills.

In the early 21st century the YWCA is focused on ‘empowering girls’ and values diversity and inclusivity. It challenges ethnic and religious divisions and acts to support peace, human dignity and environmental sustainability. The international YWCA organisation is a strong advocate for the well-being of girls and women. The YWCA has a commitment to fostering women’s leadership at local, regional, national and international levels.

Girls’ Brigade

The Girls’ Life Brigade – which became the Girls’ Brigade in 1965 when it amalgamated with similar organisations – was formed in England in 1902, with the motto ‘To Save Life’. It was preceded by the Girls’ Brigade, established in Ireland in 1893, and the Girls’ Guildry, established in Scotland in 1900. The first New Zealand company started  at the Caversham Baptist Church in Dunedin in 1928. Like the Boys’ Brigade, the Girls’ Life Brigade was based on education in Christian citizenship and military drill. It was aimed mostly at teenage girls, who were kept busy in Sunday school and Bible classes, and encouraged to develop domestic and vocational service skills. There were about 19,000 members in 1965 and 1,790 in 2015.

In the early 21st century Girls’ Brigade New Zealand focuses on ‘empowering girls to succeed in tomorrow’s world’. The aim is to combine confidence in outdoor activities, friendship, learning new skills and faith. Like Boys’ Brigade, it is associated with ICONZ, whose girls' programmes are aimed at 5–17 year olds and offer ‘values based activities in a safe environment’.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Sandra Coney, Every girl: a social history of women and the YWCA in Auckland. Auckland: Auckland YWCA, 1986, p. 138. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Helen Dollery, 'Youth organisations - Christian youth organisations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/youth-organisations/page-1 (accessed 26 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Helen Dollery, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 31 Jan 2019