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City children and youth

by Ben Schrader

Children and young people have always been a vital presence in cities, whether at work – in 19th-century factories, on paper rounds or milk runs, or in McDonald’s – or at play. Cities came to be seen as a bad influence on young people, and families headed for the suburbs.

Working children

Early arrivals

The companies that colonised New Zealand valued families with children, because they were more stable, and more likely to put down roots than single people. In 1845, children and adolescents (aged 19 and under) made up 52% of Wellington’s European population (Māori were not counted). In 2006 the total figure was 25%, reflecting the wider age distribution that occurs as cities mature.

Definitions of children and youth

From the late 19th century a child was designated a youth at the age of 12 – the official school-leaving age from 1877 to 1944. In 2009 the Ministry of Youth Development promoted the interests of young people aged from 12 to 24.

Child labour

Full-time work

In colonial cities young people’s wages were an important addition to household budgets. Until 1873 there were few restrictions on their labour. Adolescent girls, in particular, worked as live-in domestic staff – mainly cleaning, cooking and childcare – in the homes of city élites. Hours could be long, and exploitation (sometimes sexual) by employers was a risk. Consequently factory, retail, and office work held more appeal. Jobs in these sectors included laundering clothes, finishing shoes, packaging hosiery, serving customers, running messages and clerical work.

Office work had the highest social status. It usually required further training – in typing and bookkeeping – at secondary schools. This was often too expensive for working-class children, who mostly entered factory work at the end of their compulsory primary schooling.

Improving conditions

From 1873 the government began to regulate factory work: child workers had to be over 10, could work no more than an eight-hour day, and were banned from night shifts. In 1877 compulsory primary education to age 12 raised the minimum age of child workers. Under the Factories Act 1891, workers under 16 had to be certified fit for factory work and could only work in non-noxious areas. These interventions significantly improved children’s working conditions.

Overworked students

In 1909 a headmaster of a Dunedin primary school expressed alarm that boys who had done well in standard four were failing standard five. ‘On making enquiries, I find eight boys working ten and ten and half hours daily. Some get up at 3:30 o’clock to work milk carts. These children are quite listless at school.’1 The principal decided he couldn’t hold his teachers responsible for the boys’ educational advancement – or lack of it.

Part-time work

Even with compulsory schooling, children’s wages were important in poorer city households – and remained so into the 2000s. In the 1920s nearly one-third of standard four and five (year six and seven) boys of an inner-city Wellington primary school were in paid employment. They delivered milk in the morning, newspapers after school, and a range of other goods.

Part-time work also provided money for buying toys, from Meccano sets and hula hoops in the 1950s to skateboards and computer games in the 2000s. Since the late 20th century the nature of work has changed. While babysitting continued to offer steady employment, home milk delivery no longer existed, and a decline in metropolitan newspapers led to fewer paper rounds. These jobs have largely been replaced by retailing and service work, such as stocking supermarket shelves, staffing checkouts and flipping hamburgers.

Undersized pay

In 2005 the Unite union started a campaign to ‘super-size my pay’ for fast-food outlet staff – a satirical reference to super-sized portions of fast food. In Auckland, teenage KFC workers struck in support of their claim. Fifteen-year-old Sam Van Der Kolk said youth rates meant he had to work long shifts to make enough money: ‘I have worked until 4am before, and then I have school the next day.’2 The teenagers thought it unfair that they were paid less than those over 18 for the same work. The campaign succeeded in raising their pay.

Youth rates

Low-paying, low-prestige jobs with few benefits became widely known as ‘McJobs’ after the fast-food chain McDonald’s. A minimum wage had been set for workers aged 20 and over in 1983, and a minimum wage for 16–19-year-olds was introduced in 1994. Set at 60% of the adult rate, it became known as youth rates. In 2001 the government abolished youth rates for those over 18, and in 2008 ended them altogether. However, in 2013 the National-led government reintroduced youth rates. Some workers aged 16–17 could be paid 20% less than the minimum wage, as could workers aged 18–19 who had been on a welfare benefit for six months.

There was no minimum age for employment, but children under 16 were not permitted to work during school hours.


Parents valued their children’s labour. Even young children could help with household chores. In the colonial period these included gardening, feeding hens, chopping firewood or filling coal buckets, dusting furniture, cooking, and minding siblings. In the early 2000s chores included stacking dishwashers, vacuuming floors, mowing lawns, and hanging out or folding washing. Many children received pocket money for completing chores, to buy sweets and other small items. Pocket money usually stopped when children entered paid work.


Diversity and conflict

Children’s and adolescents’ experience of city life was initially framed by their neighbourhood and class. In colonial cities the rich usually lived in roomy mansions on prominent sites, while the poor crowded into tiny cheek-by-jowl cottages on lesser streets.

Class and territory

Class and territory also defined relations between children. Children from different classes often viewed each other with suspicion, if not derision. In 1840s Wellington, fighting between two adolescent gangs – one based in working-class Te Aro and the other in middle-class Thorndon – was relatively common.

Cats vs rats

During the 1920s Beresford Street school in Freemans Bay, Auckland, was considered socially superior to Nelson and Napier Street schools, as more of the students’ parents were skilled workers and tradesmen. Hence the rhyme:

Napier Street the cats,
Nelson Street the rats,
When you go to Beresford Street,
You learn to raise your hats.

But there were also distinctions within classes. In 1920s Freemans Bay (a working-class district of Auckland) rivalry between children from the three primary schools was intense. Enmity between the children was often played out on the streets or sports grounds. After defeating Napier Street school basketball team, Beresford Street student Flo White recalled returning home ‘very bruised and sore’.1 Her team had been stoned out of the Napier Street playground.

Sectarian divide

To a lesser extent religion also divided city children. Catholic children were a minority in all cities, and were often taunted and teased by their Protestant peers. The difference was more marked when they attended church schools; fights between students from state and Catholic schools became legendary. In the 2000s growing secularism and the state integration of Catholic schools had diminished sectarian division in cities.

Ethnic differences

In the first half of the 20th century people in cities were predominantly Pākehā. Māori urbanisation from the 1950s and Pacific Island migration from the 1960s changed this. Ethnicity became another element of difference and, sometimes, friction. The occasional street robbery of Pākehā teens – of clothes and skateboards – by beefier Māori and Pacific youth in city streets unnerved some in the 1980s. Ethnically-based youth gangs re-emerged in Auckland in the 1990s; fights over territory have led to serious injuries, even death.

Clothing identities

In 1988 an Auckland journalist divided the city’s adolescents into six fashion sub-cultures: ‘mods (who wear serge army jackets, loafers and stovepipe jeans); trendies (Lacoste T-shirts, stonewashed Levis, genuine Chuck Taylor shoes); skaters (board shorts and singlets bearing legends like “100 per cent Mambo”); grommets/waxheads (teen surfers in board shorts with zinc noses, bleached hair, $500-plus surfboards); greasers (“individualists” with slicked-back hair, crepe-soled shoes, black stovepipe trousers); gothics/punks (spiky hair, black everything, Doc Marten boots, stovepipes).’2

Clothing and sub-cultures

Over time, clothing has become a more important signifier of difference. In the 19th century poor children often went barefoot or wore more ragged clothes than richer children. By the late 20th century clothing still spoke of class – designer labels were coveted by wealthy, image-conscious kids – but also identified city sub-cultures. For example, the loose-fitting trousers, hooded sweat-tops, skate shoes and bling (accessories) of rap culture were widely worn by its followers.

In the early 2000s neighbourhood and class still divided children and teenagers – the rich lived in leafy suburbs, the poor on barren city peripheries – but perhaps less than before. Cars had weakened territorial boundaries, with many travelling beyond their neighbourhoods for activities. Youth sub-cultures, such as South Auckland hip hop, traversed class and ethnic divides. The internet and mobile phones made it easier for the young to socialise and stay in touch, wherever they lived.

  1. Quoted in Diana Morrow and Jenny Carolyn, Urban village: the story of Ponsonby, Freemans Bay and St Mary’s Bay. Auckland: Random House, 2008, pp. 112–113. Back
  2. Carroll du Chateau, ‘Kids are different today I hear every mother say.’ Metro, April 1988, p. 72. Back

City, suburbs and recreation

City as playground

Children made colonial cities their own. City streets were playgrounds: places to play ball games, to chase, run, and race steel hoops made by local blacksmiths. Youngsters would fish from city wharves, or head into town to watch and participate in city life. Building sites and back lanes were exciting places of exploration and discovery. Children also colonised the beaches, bush and pastures of city hinterlands. Wildlife was fair game for home-crafted shanghais and bows and arrows. In summer, rivers – like Christchurch’s Avon – were used for swimming; children built makeshift rafts to float downstream.

Worrying cows


One 1860s observer noted that on any day on Dunedin’s town belt one might see ‘dozens of boys, each hanging onto a calf’s tail, being dragged up hill and down dale.’1


No place for children

From the early 1900s there was a growing consensus that the city was no place for children. As middle-class families left the city for the outer suburbs, their former homes were rented to working people, the poor and transient. Within these groups were prostitutes, criminals and political agitators. To the well-to-do their presence suggested moral decline.

Alongside this was physical decline. Few landlords maintained their properties, and houses rotted. Bedraggled children playing on decaying streets became a powerful symbol of the need for reform. In 1905 the government began a suburban state (public) housing programme; workers would be housed away from the pollutants of the inner city. While this scheme failed to fire – the rents were too high – it cemented the idea that suburbs were the best place for children.

Suburban life and play

By the 1950s most city children and teenagers lived in suburban environments. For most, their suburb was their world, the place where they socialised and played with family and friends. As in the city, the street was a playground. Street cricket and football brought local children together. In hilly suburbs, trolley and bicycle races were popular. From the 1970s skateboards became the thrill seeker’s choice. Suburban parks were places not just to play, but also to boast and gossip, or puff an illicit cigarette.

Trolley terror


In 1951 a resident of Wellington’s steep Liardet Street officially complained about it being used ‘as a runway for trolleys’. The ‘ramshackle carts with noisy iron wheels ... [create] a continuous din’. Sometimes the racers ‘even ride backwards ... One does not want to spoil children’s play, but this is a senseless activity.’2 Obviously the complainant had never raced a trolley.


‘Cotton-wool kids’

From the 1980s, safety concerns about traffic and strangers led parents to place restrictions on unsupervised cycling, walking and other street activities. Together with the rise of (indoor) electronic games, the number of children playing unsupervised in streets and parks fell. This trend raised fears about a new generation of inactive children, dubbed ‘cotton-wool kids’, growing fat in front of computer screens and lacking the skills to navigate their neighbourhood.


Organised sport loomed large in many boys’ and girls’ lives. Saturdays were spent playing a range of codes: rugby union, rugby league, football, hockey and netball in winter, and cricket, swimming and tennis in summer.

Meeting places

For bookish children, suburban libraries were a haven. In the early 2000s they were equally popular for providing internet access and a safe place to meet friends. Suburban swimming pools were also places to meet, as well as show off and flirt.

Until the 1970s, Sunday schools and Bible classes drew large numbers. A major attraction was the opportunity to socialise and play. As society became more secular, community-based youth groups picked up the role.

City visits

While the suburbs dominated young people’s lives, the city was not totally off-limits. In the 1940s and 1950s there was the (often) weekly trek to ‘the pictures’. Some cinemas provided child-focused matinées, which included games as well as films. Shopping trips with parents were another reason to go into town. This meant scrubbed faces and best clothes, a dash through department-store aisles, and soft drink and cake in a cafeteria or tea room. From the 1980s the city became a destination for bored suburban teenagers, and some children, particularly at weekends. The bright lights, video parlours and vibrant street life made the city a dynamic place to hang out with friends.

Movie make-out


As historian Keith Sinclair recalled, cinema was not only about movies. ‘By the time I was fourteen [in 1934] … matinees had acquired new meanings. The older boys and girls occupied the back rows. A girl of my age, skilled at passionate glances, was eager to permit great intimacies, above the waist. There was much to be said for hands and breasts. However, one day the manager told me off and made me move. The girls and I had already discovered, however, that it was fine if I sat in the row behind her.’3


Return to the city

Since the 1990s there has been a small but significant rise in families with children living in city apartments. With few child-focused amenities at hand, these children (as in the past) treat the city as a playground, a place to explore, discover and observe.

    • Quoted in Brian Sutton-Smith, A history of children’s play: New Zealand, 1840–1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981, p. 45. Back
    • Letter from P. Birch to C. Hewitt, Progressive Association, 12 April 1951, 00001:2141:60/1533, WCC Archives, Wellington. Back
    • Keith Sinclair, Halfway round the harbour: an autobiography. Auckland: Penguin, 1993, p. 31. Back

Bad behaviour

Smaller communities kept child and adolescent behaviour in check through constant surveillance. In cities, due to their size and diversity, such close policing was impossible. It was easier for the young to engage in anti-social and delinquent behaviour – widely known as larrikinism. According to one 1880 critic, larrikinism was born in the ‘narrow lanes ... crowded alleys and reeking habitations’ of cities, ‘where ignorance and crime have their headquarters’.1 In other words, it was a product of city life.

Larrikin behaviour

Larrikinism and street life were closely aligned; there were few other immediate places for children to play. Much larrikin behaviour was harmless fun. It included playing street cricket or football, often accompanied by howling and screaming, annoying some adults. Games played on a Sunday (a religious day of rest) further offended the righteous.

Some behaviour was designed to annoy adults: smoking and drinking on streets, insulting girls and women, spitting on footpaths, throwing stones, and knocking on doors then running away. Targets for these latter pursuits – which were more thrilling if the victim gave chase – were often elderly bachelors and spinsters, and drunks.

At the criminal end of the scale was vandalism and assault. In 1877 seats and fencing at Dunedin’s cricket oval were smashed by a horde of youthful hoodlums. In 1908 a Christchurch street speaker was pelted with mud by a ‘mob of larrikins’.2


Closely aligned with larrikinism were youth gangs. Gang initiation ceremonies – such as urinating into caps – were common, and many developed their own secret languages. Territory was staunchly defended against ‘invaders’.

The emphasis on fighting and physicality meant boys dominated gangs. Girls were expected to uphold higher standards and not lark about, but still occasionally fought each other.

Bodgies and widgies

Larrikinism found new expression in the 1950s bodgie (male) and widgie (female) sub-culture. Influenced by Hollywood movies of teenage revolt, they wore unconventional clothing and listened to rock and roll music, often in American-styled milk bars. Many rode noisy motorcycles. Boy and girl racers – adolescents who illegally race cars on streets – are their 21st-century successors.

Milk-bar cowboy

Merv Griffith was a milk-bar cowboy (bodgie with a motorbike), who hung out at Elbe’s Milk Bar in Lower Hutt: ‘You would roar down there on a Friday night and sit round and comb your hair and try and look beautiful on your bikes. Then you would go in and have a milkshake and … try and pick up the birds [girls]. If you managed to pick up a bird, the main aim was to go like hell and the louder the screams from the pillion seat, the more successful the mission.’3

Moral panics

Larrikinism suggested a breakdown of urban family life – seemingly confirmed by occasional panics about juvenile delinquency in cities. When John Clareburt was tried in a Napier court in 1894 for having sex with five girls under the age of 14, public debate focused mostly on lax parenting and the girls’ depravity, rather than Clareburt’s abusive behaviour. Another panic occurred 60 years later when groups of Lower Hutt adolescents were discovered having sex while under the age of consent. A government inquiry (the Mazengarb report) laid the blame on teenage temptresses, working mothers and modern city life.

Supervising play

The solution, authorities agreed, lay in greater adult control and supervision of the activities of children and teenagers. Municipal playgrounds – with swings, roundabouts, and seesaws – became popular from the 1910s as a way of encouraging more structured play.

Policing play

In 1933 a Wellington bylaw was introduced to control children’s play. It declared that anyone who ‘flies any kite, uses any bow or arrow or other projectile, bowls any hoop, casts, throws or projects any stone, or other missile by hand, catapult, shanghai, or otherwise, or plays football, cricket or any other game, to the annoyance, danger, inconvenience or obstruction of any person in or on any streets, private street or public space’ was committing an offence.4 It proved impossible to police.

School cadets, who were given military-style training, and the growth of organised sport was another response. By taking young people off the streets and teaching discipline and new skills, they could be shaped into morally and physically fit young adults. Scouting and Girl Guides, which emphasised outdoor games, camping and survival skills, also proved popular. Sunday schools, Bible classes and youth groups such as the YMCA and YWCA offered morally improving games and activities.

Modern larrikinism

Despite such initiatives, larrikinism remains an aspect of city life. In the 2000s tagging (graffiti) was the latest adolescent pastime to annoy the adult world. In the late 1990s, Los Angeles-styled youth gangs emerged in South Auckland, then spread elsewhere. Gangs are defined by differently coloured bandanas and coded hand signals. Territory is marked through tagging; crossing into a rival gang’s territory can provoke bitter clashes.

  1. West Coast Times, 31 August 1880. Back
  2. Evening Post, 1 June 1908, p. 7. Back
  3. Quoted in Redmer Yska, All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties. Auckland: Penguin, 1993, p. 66. Back
  4. Wellington City Council Consolidated Bylaw, no. 1, 1933. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'City children and youth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010