During the 30 years following the Second World War, New Zealand became overwhelmingly an urban society. Work on farms reduced as the use of machinery increased, and white collar and factory work expanded. Both Māori and Pākehā took part in urban drift, and new immigrants settled in the cities. By 1975, although farming still gained much of the country’s export earnings, only about one in eight New Zealanders with jobs were working in farming or mining – previously big employers.
Between 1951 and 1976 the population living in rural areas fell from about 27% of the population to just over 16%. More than half the population lived in communities of over 25,000 people. The main centres achieved big city status: Wellington and Christchurch had over 300,000, while the Auckland urban area was approaching 800,000.
Although people lived in cities, they did not congregate in the city centre. The 1950s and 1960s saw a continued expansion of suburbs, where people could keep alive the myth that they were really farmers at heart by growing their own vegetables in a backyard garden.
Despite the fact that the country was now largely urban, New Zealand’s rural mythology remained alive and well. Although New Zealand’s traditional farm exports had some difficulties from the mid-1960s, governments continued to provide subsidies and tax relief to encourage farm production. There was growing investment in education, but it was still assumed that farming was the backbone of the nation. In politics the long-serving prime ministers in these years, Sid Holland and Keith Holyoake, both claimed to be farmers.
The farming life remained central to the nation’s identity. When in 1953 Queen Elizabeth II visited New Zealand her guidebook told her that ‘the dominion is essentially a farming country’. The pioneers had transformed ‘a waste of fern, bush and swamp’ into ‘the rich productive area it is today’. 1
The old idea that New Zealand was a rural paradise was picked up by the British press during the royal tour of 1953. Patrick O’Donovan of the Observer wrote that New Zealand was ‘like one of those fat and promised lands that restless men have always believed to lie on the other side of the hills. It is green and seamed with ranks of trees.’ 2
Her itinerary took her by train past the productive farms of Hawke’s Bay and Taranaki; she twice saw champion shearer Godfrey Bowen shearing sheep; she visited two agricultural shows, a dairy factory and Wattie’s cannery, but not a single museum or art gallery. Urban culture was seen as not worth showing off.
The continued success of the nation’s rugby team was explained by the players’ rural origins. There was frequent use of a ‘land-to-man’ metaphor, which suggested that the All Black forwards were like the tough country they farmed. The most famous All Black of the age, Colin Meads, was described by his biographer ‘as an ordinary bloke with a farm to work, sheep to shear, land to be cleared, a cow to milk.’ 3 For a nation that was rapidly becoming urban, the All Blacks were a reassurance about the nation’s rural identity.
In the cultural sphere, rural myths flourished. Peter McIntyre and Colin Wheeler produced well-received paintings and books about sheep stations. The New Zealand publisher A. H. & A. W. Reed reported that two of their three best-selling authors in the 1960s wrote about rural settings. Mona Anderson’s A river rules my life described the experiences of a farmer’s wife on a Canterbury high country station. Peter Newton’s Wayleggo, about mustering, was also set in the Canterbury high country.
In the New Zealand Listener, Oliver Duff’s regular column ‘Shepherd’s calendar’, which told of his daily encounters with rural people and animals, proved popular. Also popular were rural-focused radio programmes by John Gordon and Jim Henderson (Open country). Frank Anthony’s Me and Gus tales, ignored in the 1920s, were read to acclaim on the radio and reprinted as a book. The long-running television show Country calendar began in 1966.
The popularity of comically exaggerated versions of rural life suggests that the rural myth was becoming more a literary image for urban people than a social reality.