A country town is a place in which the economic and social life of the community depends largely on the needs of the surrounding farms.
Country towns are not the same as small towns. There have always been some small New Zealand towns which have had no relationship to farming. Some were port towns, like Lyttelton, which owed its population and economic activities to the ships which called and the seamen and dockworkers who lived there. Others were primarily mining towns, like Denniston on the West Coast or Waihī in the Coromandel.
Clarence Beeby remembered Christchurch in the early 20th century as having ‘something of the character of a market town, of a Feilding or a Waimate, with cathedral and university added. Wednesday was Sale Day, when the country came to town. Farmers and their sturdy wives invaded the streets, and it was not until late afternoon when they departed by train or gig, Model-T or capacious Sunbeam, that we others emerged to re-take our city.’ 1
Some country centres have been townships (in census terms under 1,000 residents) rather than towns – little more than a wide street with a church, a general store, a pub, a petrol station and a hall. Others have been large, with city status (over 20,000 residents) – but they continued to have a close relationship with their farming hinterland. Christchurch is an example – in the 19th century, landowners would go there to visit the bank manager, buy supplies, and perhaps go to the races or the A & P (agricultural and pastoral) show. At least until the Second World War, Christchurch continued to function like a country town in many respects.
Farm or town – which came first?
In Britain, villages were often the centre of the farm. Labourers would live in the village and go out to the fields during the day. In non-Māori New Zealand this was rarely the case. Often settlement on the land came before townships. On the pastoral east coast of the South Island, farm workers lived on the sheep runs in men’s quarters or around the homestead. Only later did independent farm contractors such as shearers or blacksmiths begin to settle in townships – so some early Canterbury and Otago townships consisted largely of men.
In Taranaki too the first settlers lived in clearings in the bush. The township of Kaponga was simply the word ‘Kaponga’ scrawled in charcoal on a pukatea tree. In other North Island bush settlements, such as Dannevirke in the Seventy Mile Bush, the township's inhabitants were responsible for opening up the country. The first inhabitants worked as sawmillers cutting trees or as navvies on public roads. Only after they had done their work was farming possible.
Many townships were conceived first on paper. Some were founded by governments, both national and provincial. Others were founded by private companies or individuals. Timaru had one part laid out by the Rhodes brothers, and then the government surveyed a second town further south.
When promoters sold off blocks of farmland in a new area, they also usually surveyed townships and auctioned town sections alongside farm sections. Sometimes people bought them for purely speculative reasons; but often the town sections remained unsold. The very wide streets and chequerboard street arrangement of many rural towns was the long-term legacy of these speculative founding aspirations.
Many townships grew because of transport needs. Settlements would spring up where travellers had to wait for a ferry, or where coaches stopped on a long journey. An accommodation house at the river crossing preceded the township of Waiau in North Canterbury. The country’s rugged topography accounted for the proliferation of small townships, which in the 19th century were some hours’ travelling time apart.
Railway lines explain the existence of many places. At railheads, where the lines stopped, a settlement would emerge. In Canterbury, Culverden was born when the line stopped there in 1886. Saleyards followed two years later. Amberley, Leithfield and Methven also became significant country towns because of the railway. Mangaweka began as a base for building two railway viaducts, and only later became a rural servicing centre. Tīrau took off because it was the junction of two highways. Country towns were often processing points for farm goods going to ports or larger markets.
Later country towns
Many townships came to serve the surrounding country only after they had been born for other reasons. Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula was originally a wharf town for loading timber; Geraldine and Oxford in Canterbury were sawmilling settlements. Hāwera and Te Awamutu were military bases in the New Zealand wars. All became country towns.