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.
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.
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.
In the 1870s the New Zealand government sponsored a major immigration drive. Many newcomers settled on the land, especially in the North Island. Family farmers began to prosper from the late 1890s as refrigerated shipping opened up export markets for frozen meat, butter and cheese. Country villages and towns grew fast throughout New Zealand, and on the eve of the Great War New Zealand was to a large degree a nation of small country towns or villages. The 1916 census claimed: ‘In a country such as New Zealand … villages and townships occupy a comparatively much more important position than is the case in older countries.’ 1
In 1874 there were 19 localities with over 1,000 inhabitants. By 1911 there were 96, but few were large; 73 had populations of less than 5,000. There were also 68 settlements with 200 to 1,000 people. Cambridge’s population had grown from 259 to 1,463, Hāwera’s from 257 to 2,685, and Waipawa’s from 492 to 1,083. Feilding, which was not even settled in 1874, had a population of 3,161, and Ashburton had grown from 1,206 to 2,671. These were prosperous country towns, whose success was marked by grandiose buildings on the main street.
Growth in country towns was driven by the economic links between farm and town. Most places began with a country store. This supplied farmers with essential goods which they did not produce on the farm, such as sugar, salt, tea and clothing. Many country stores established packhorse delivery rounds to surrounding stations.
Farmers and their families also came to town regularly, especially to pick up the mail. At Woodbury in Canterbury, Francis Bennett recalled that Saturday night at the store was farmers’ night, when the farmhands would ride in to collect the mail and yarn with their mates. The store also usually functioned as the post office, polling place and registrar of births, deaths and marriages. Local storekeepers were often important town promoters who organised the planting of trees in the domain, chaired school committees, or organised sports clubs.
When James McIlraith bought a farm in the Ellesmere district in Canterbury in 1863, Southbridge did not exist. Ten years later, he wrote:’[T]his Southbridge is a nice little town, with one English church and one Scotch or Presbyterian … There is a blacksmith’s – that employs 12 men … A carpenter’s shop, a bakery, a saddler’s shop, a shoemaker, three large stores … one hotel, one boarding house, a milliner’s shop, a butcher’s shop … and a large town hall … I feel a certain amount of pride to watch the progress of this once waste spot.’ 2
As communities grew, other businesses took over some of the store’s functions. The coming of the post office was always a symbolically important moment in the growth of a township. Over the next half-century the post office would do much more than deal with mail. It would pay out pensions, and later become the registrar of radios and vehicles, and a savings bank.
The store’s role in supplying farm goods would usually be taken over by stock and station agents. As well as selling farm clothing like gumboots and parkas, or farm products like seeds and fertilisers, the agency provided farmers with advice and finance. The first agency in Hāwera, Nolan and Tonks, appeared within 10 years of the township being surveyed.
The coming of the bank was another important milestone, and the bank buildings on street corners were often the most imposing structures in country towns. Banks were important in financing farm mortgages and development, so a visit to the bank was often on the farmer’s to-do list when in town.
The saleyards were usually close to the railway station. Sales of lambs or dairy cows were important social occasions attracting carriers and stock and station agents as well as farmers. Sometimes they were just local markets, held weekly or fortnightly; sometimes they were larger annual or bi-annual fairs. Kaponga’s weekly market was held on Friday, when farmers and their livestock came to town, along with a banker and a doctor. It was also the main shopping day. The Farmer noted that many stayed on at the sales ‘until their horses went lame and their saddles became worn.’ 3
In the 19th century farmers used horse power, so country towns had to service horse transport. Blacksmiths were among the earliest shops where farmers would meet their mates while waiting for horses to be shod. Saddlers were another outlet which emerged early in country towns, and larger places had wheelwrights and small engineering firms to make carts or ploughs, as well as carriers.
The town provided a place to live for some men who worked on short-term contracts on the farms. Shearers were the most obvious group, while others who went out to the rural districts by day included harvesters and builders.
Country towns in dairying areas became centres for making butter and cheese. At first they hosted creameries, and then dairy factories developed. Other places spawned other industries serving farmers, such as the manufacture of concrete fence-posts.
One of the earliest facilities in country towns was the school. School grounds were normally set aside in the surveyors’ plans, and a school usually opened within the first years of settlement. In Dannevirke the schoolhouse was opened when the town had no more than a general store and 20 roughly built houses.
The school committee was often the first community leadership group. School buildings became a useful venue for community activities and meetings.
The other centre of social life in the early country town was the church. As there was no single established church, and many non-conformist sects, there were often several church buildings – Rongotea in the Manawatū, not a big place, had six. Weekly services were followed by a session outside the church when local gossip and family news were exchanged.
It was usually some time before a township had a doctor in residence – more often, a doctor would visit on market day. But as the population grew, doctors arrived, and a small country hospital might eventually be set up.
Lawyers too would set up shop. By the 1920s and 1930s in Oxford, Canterbury, one-seventh of the workforce were professional people – teachers, clergy, doctors, lawyers and bankers. Towns that were lucky and large enough also had a newspaper editor.
From the beginning, farmers and their families joined the locals in leisure activities. Hotels were established quickly to provide accommodation for visitors, and also became social centres for the community – drinking establishments for the men of the surrounding districts, and places where club meetings or events such as farewell banquets could be held.
Prosperous towns were able to raise funds for a town hall. Sefton in Canterbury opened one in 1879 at a cost of £250. It seated 300 people. Other places, such as Culverden, had drill halls built by volunteers, which were used by the wider community. Halls offered the chance of balls and dances, card evenings, gatherings for clubs, and public meetings.
Lodges were common at the start of the 20th century. They too sometimes built halls, and offered the community help in tough times and regular gatherings.
The opening of a new public building or amenity was usually an occasion when the town made a great fuss and exuded pride. When the small Manawatū township of Āpiti opened a bridge across the Ōroua River on the main route to Feilding in 1896, 400 people turned out to hear Premier Richard Seddon, followed by a banquet with music from the Āpiti brass band.
Other common public buildings included public libraries, mechanics’ institutes and working men’s clubs. The last two were seen as alternatives to the pub.
Most country towns set aside land for a domain or playground – most often initially used for rugby in winter and cricket in summer. The teams helped create loyalty to the township. From the end of the 19th century most country towns had a regular weekly half-day holiday, usually Wednesday or Saturday, which encouraged both players and spectators. Later, larger towns had more specialised grounds, such as tennis courts, bowling greens, croquet lawns and, from the 1920s, golf clubs. A swimming pool was a rarer luxury. Larger towns set aside grounds for horse races and for the annual summer A & P show.
Although country towns initially served the surrounding farm community, they normally developed a degree of independence.
Specialised shops emerged which served the townsfolk rather than the rural dwellers. At first there were shops such as bakers, butchers, fruiterers and greengrocers, who sold items which the farming community would have provided for themselves. The first butchers were sometimes men who had learnt their skills on the farm.
It took some time for small towns to develop individuality. In 1912 the Wellington Evening Post remarked: ‘The machine-made houses, garishly painted, the flaring signs, the verandahs, the shops are common to nearly all small towns. There is not time for architecture in the first ten years of a town’s existence … There is really not much to detain a traveller in the average back-blocks town. There is too much of a family likeness about them.’ 1
The next stage was the arrival of shops selling fashionable items, or services such as hairdressers, dressmakers and tailors, jewellers, cabinetmakers and stationers. Within 20 years of its founding Kaponga had all of these. It also possessed a coffee palace.
A third stage in some places was the emergence of industries which primarily served a more distant market, provincial or even national, rather than providing for locals or neighbouring farmers. These businesses could include breweries, soft-drink makers or potteries. At this point the settlement was becoming more than a country town.
In the mid-19th century road boards were set up. Some larger places also had a court for hearing local cases. From 1876 county councils were established, and the county town received a boost of visitors and officials. Often meetings of the county council, the road board and the local court were held on the same day, and farmers took the opportunity to discuss issues such as the latest scab ordinance or a boundary dispute.
Under 1881 legislation, any place with more than 50 residences could establish a town board if two-thirds of the residents supported it. The board would deal with matters like sanitation, wandering stock, roading or lighting. A crisis commonly sparked the formation of a board. In Kaponga’s case, it followed a typhoid outbreak in 1905, which led to the demand for a drainage system.
After a board was set up and the population reached 500, a community could become a legally constituted town district independent of the county. If it grew to 1,000, then full municipal powers could be obtained with a council presided over by a mayor. Places such as Dannevirke, Te Awamutu and Masterton achieved this before the First World War. This political independence represented a status that went beyond the centre’s initial function serving the farming community. It signalled a growing differentiation between town and country.
Between the two world wars, there were some significant changes in country towns and townships.
As cars and trucks became more common, horses were less important. Blacksmiths and saddlers were replaced by garages and petrol stations. Cars also allowed people to travel further, to larger towns with better facilities – so smaller townships suffered while regional centres grew. In Canterbury, the larger centres of Cheviot, Darfield and Geraldine expanded, while the smaller Leeston did not.
People also found it easier to get to the city, so some businesses, such as clothes or furnishing shops, did not prosper in country towns.
Cars made it easier for farmers and their families to reach the country town – and they had new reasons for going. With the arrival of moving pictures, many small towns either gained a cinema or showed movies in the local hall on Saturday nights. There was a steady increase in the demand for education, and district high schools became important in larger country towns. The school bus brought kids to town every weekday.
However, some other developments made it less likely that rural people would visit town. Radio tended to keep people in their homes, and rural mail delivery expanded in the 1920s.
When farming couples retired, they often moved into country towns, where they were close to shops and health services. But young adults often left for a time of learning and excitement in the city. Country towns’ populations largely consisted of older people, and middle-aged parents and their children, but few young adults.
The social institutions which had been established before the First World War remained central to the country town. When Crawford Somerset investigated Oxford (which he dubbed Littledene) in the 1930s he discovered that many adults in the community went out to a meeting six nights a week. 75% of the town’s adult males belonged to a lodge, and 60% were members of the working men’s club. Many played sports, and if they did not they would attend the weekly games of ‘footie’ (rugby). Women were active in church groups, and in new women’s groups such as the Country Women’s Institute. Three-quarters of families attended church every Sunday.
Voluntary groups often worked to raise money for community projects such as a swimming pool or an improvement to the sports field. The money would come almost entirely from the local community, as people believed in ‘keeping money in the district’.
There were many card evenings and dances in the local country hall, attended by about half the unmarried adults in the surrounding district. But dances were not an excuse for ‘letting go’. Young men would huddle around the door, and sneak outside to indulge in sly drinking. ‘Littledene,’ Somerset concluded, ‘is pertinaciously moral; dancing appears to be a serious business, and one notices much evidence of inhibition that is missing in larger communities.’ 1
When he examined the country towns of Manawatū and Wairarapa in the 1950s, the geographer Harvey Franklin was struck by the silence about ‘coarser pleasures’, except for this comment in the local paper: ‘The village settlers have got rid of a nuisance at last. A woman who has been living in the Short Road left yesterday morning by coach.’ 2
For some New Zealand writers and intellectuals from the 1930s on, the moral repressiveness of the country town came to be a significant symbol of the wider repression of New Zealand society. In novels like Ian Cross’s The god boy, or Frank Sargeson’s Memoirs of a peon, and in short stories such as A. P. Gaskell’s ‘The big game’, the claustrophobia of the country town is gently mocked.
Much later, New Zealand films such as Skin deep, a 1978 production about what happens when a masseuse moves to a small North Island town, also explored this theme. By then, however, the country town was changing and the image was more myth than reality.
The 1950s were years of agricultural prosperity for New Zealand, and country towns, although not the smaller townships, generally prospered. Some factors might have hurt them – increasing farm mechanisation reduced the need for casual or contract farm labour to be based in towns, and kept farmers on the land consistently. Many branch railway lines closed, affecting some towns – and increased car ownership, and improved country roads, may have encouraged more people to go shopping in the city.
But it appears these effects were minimal. Most farmers and residents of country towns did not visit the city more than once a month, and continued to buy most goods and services locally.
Perhaps the most visible change in country towns between 1930 and 1960 was that householders cut down their hedges and displayed their suburban gardens for all to see. Hedges had served to shield houses from road dust, but after roads were sealed this was no longer necessary.
Country towns also benefited from the post-war baby boom and the 1944 introduction of compulsory education to the age of 15. School buildings and teacher numbers boomed. In addition, government subsidies for community centres as war memorials often led to new public facilities like halls.
In the 1950s and 1960s, voluntary groups such as sports teams flourished in small towns.
From the late 1960s, and especially after Britain joined the European Economic Community, farmers suffered from stagnant prices and tougher trading conditions. Growing numbers of younger people moved to the city for work, and most stayed. As conditions grew harder, married women looked for jobs to supplement the declining family income. They often had to commute or even move to the city.
Country towns saw population numbers falling, and shops boarded up. Post offices and banks closed. Country hospitals and small schools disappeared as services were ‘rationalised’. Most local dairy factories were closed, replaced by large factories serving a huge area. Some shops, such as hardware outlets and stock and station agents, suffered as large nationwide chains set up business in country towns. Television reduced the need for local entertainment, and many sports teams, lodges and clubs fell into abeyance. The only new voluntary group was the Lions which harnessed voluntary activity in many small towns in the three decades after the 1960s.
The years after 1984 when farm subsidies were removed were especially testing for New Zealand’s country towns.
A new life developed in some of New Zealand’s country towns when they began to offer enjoyments to city people, who were both numerous and comparatively wealthy. Some places such as Rangiora, in commuting distance of Christchurch, or Featherston, a train journey from Wellington, were able to offer a country lifestyle for city folk. Towns such as Amberley offered retirement homes. The sell was that the small country town provided community and neighbourliness to people tired of the anonymity and dangers of the city.
Southland promoted its rural towns as ‘offering a lifestyle alternative to city living … where it is the norm to know your neighbours’. 1 Ironically this neighbourliness and sense of community was exactly what critics of the country town had rejected a generation before. Now it attracted people who looked nostalgically at the small town, even if they also wanted cafés serving caffè latte.
Other country towns reinvented themselves as major tourist centres. Methven and Ohakune provided for skiers, Kaikōura attracted whale-watchers, and Geraldine exploited the fact that over 100 buses paused there daily for food and a toilet stop en route from Christchurch to Aoraki/Mt Cook. Eating houses, craft shops and tourist ventures sprouted on these towns’ main streets and their populations grew. Some rural areas began producing wine, and the nearby towns, such as Martinborough or Matakana, boomed.
Even towns off the beaten track and without such advantages learnt to appeal to the urban consumer. Āpiti in the Manawatū was once noted for its two dairy factories. In the 2000s it was offering a country lodge, a museum and a hill-country pub.
Of course towns that were far from cities or the tourist trail did not find this transition easy, and continued to lose population. Some newcomers who did settle there were not urban lifestylers, but low-income people hoping that they could afford a house or make their dollars go further.
Some towns deliberately set out to give themselves a new identity. Often, one individual would excite the local community with a slightly bizarre idea which could put their town on the map, and before long the vision became a reality.
In Kaiwaka the locals created ‘the little town of lights,’ with every major shop and facility having a sign made of light bulbs. Bulls decided to exploit its name with endless punning signs such as ‘veget-a-bull’. Ranfurly, in Central Otago, was in deep depression in 1999, with 13 empty shops and about 40 houses for sale. By 2008 the place was inviting jaded urbanites to step back in time to the 1930s in this ‘rural art deco oasis’. The centennial milk bar had become an art deco museum, attracting 20,000 visitors in two years. Many places exploited the desire for a nostalgic trip to ‘old New Zealand’. Katikati in the 1980s had 32 empty shops, and then a bypass took visitors away. So the locals decided to attract them back with a series of murals about the town’s unique history.
Festivals have been another boon to country towns – including Taihape’s gumboot festival, Carterton’s daffodil festival, and Hokitika’s wild foods festival.
The creation of a country-town icon is not always plain sailing. Hunterville decided to promote itself with a statue of a huntaway sheep dog. A Marton sculptor provided one in bronze, but local farmers considered it looked like ‘a curly-coated retriever’. Another dog was ordered. But when it was not placed where the retailers wanted, they formed a ‘sheep committee’, and now a well-endowed ram with two ewes graces the main street.
Some towns erected huge fibreglass icons that proclaimed the world significance of their town, following the lead of a giant pineapple in Queensland. Te Puke became the world’s kiwifruit capital with a giant kiwifruit. Ohakune had a 9-metre carrot, Clinton had Clydesdale horses, and Riverton a pāua (shellfish). Neighbouring Gore, which already had a large Romney sheep and claimed to be New Zealand’s ‘country music capital’, added a large brown trout. Further north Rakaia acquired a salmon, Taupō a rainbow trout, Te Kūiti a shearer, and Paeroa a very large Lemon and Paeroa soft-drink bottle.
No-one pretended that these icons were a long-term solution for New Zealand’s country towns. But they provided a light-hearted sense of identity. They also showed that the country town was refocusing itself, away from the farmers who had first provided the reason for its existence and towards the urban consumers and foreign tourists who were a major source of employment and income in the early 2000s.
Arnold, Rollo. Settler Kaponga, 1881–1914: a frontier fragment of the western world. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1997.
Bell, Claudia, and John Lyall. Putting our town on the map: local claims to fame in New Zealand. Auckland: HarperCollins, 1995.
Cant, Garth, and Russell Kirkpatrick, eds. Rural Canterbury: celebrating its history. Wellington: Daphne Brasell and Lincoln University Press, 2001.
Franklin, Harvey. ‘The village and the bush: the evolution of the village community.’ In Social process in New Zealand: readings in sociology, edited by John Foster. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1969.
Somerset, H. C. D. Littledene: patterns of change. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1974.