New Zealand was a more egalitarian sporting society than Britain. Distinctions between amateurs and professionals were not as rigorously adhered to and new settlers were less inclined to accept an inferior status in sport. But the idea of New Zealand as a sporting paradise for all during the 19th century has limits. New Zealand geography, working conditions, access to education, and ideas about gender and race all restricted the sporting opportunities available to colonial New Zealanders.
Open to all
New Zealand settlers often pointed to public land use as evidence of their society’s less class-ridden nature. Strict game laws restricted access to hunting and fishing in Britain. But the newcomers to New Zealand insisted they should all hunt freely, and public land should be open to all for recreation. For example, the 1854 Canterbury Reserves Ordinance stated that, ‘The land commonly known as Hagley Park ... shall be reserved for ever as a public park, and shall be open for the recreation and enjoyment of the public’.
The urban advantage
From the 1870s the concentration of population, resources and finance in the four main cities – and the larger provincial towns – allowed regular inter-club competitions in many sports to develop. But most New Zealanders were rural people and this made sporting participation more difficult for many. Even in 1911 only 34.2% of Pākehā lived in the four main centres and their surrounding suburbs, while well over two-fifths lived on farms or in towns of less than 1,000. The Māori population was almost entirely rural.
There was no shortage of sporting enthusiasm in the early years of most small country settlements, but many of their clubs, and especially their attempts to establish inter-community competitions, were undermined by small population, isolation and difficult travel.
After enthusiastic public support during the 1870s and 1880s Manawatū rugby went into decline during the 1890s. The Manawatu Rugby Football Union did not function during the period from 1899 to 1902. After its revival there was not sufficient strength for any more than four senior teams, and in 1913 the union’s senior competition was abandoned with three rounds remaining – due to the dominance of the Feilding club over the other three.
Now you play, now you don’t
The Patea Football Club provides a good example of the barriers to sporting growth in many small towns. The club was founded in 1876, and in 1885 it played six matches against other clubs in Taranaki. But by 1887 Pātea was unable to field a full team, and local interest in rugby remained low throughout the 1890s. The club was in recess from 1898 to 1903. It revived from 1906 to 1909, but was again in decline by 1910, due to a lack of players.
Working hours and conditions
Working hours and conditions restricted opportunities to play sport for many ordinary people. Until the 20th century many were engaged in seasonal work in rural areas and moved from job to job. This was especially true of young, single males, who made up the largest part of the sporting community. Therefore many sports clubs and community competitions struggled to maintain regular participants.
Many workers, especially rural labourers, did not have a half-day holiday during the week until well into the 20th century. Those people who did have a holiday often used it for washing and other chores, in order to keep Sunday free for rest and recreation. Prevailing religious beliefs meant that organised sport was generally not allowed on Sunday until at least the late 1960s.
Legislation such as the Shops and Shop-assistants Act 1894 and the Shops and Offices Act Amendment Act 1905 (allowing a weekly half holiday beginning at 1 p.m., and requiring all commercial offices to close no later than 5 p.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on Saturdays) increased recreational opportunities for some workers, especially those in towns. But the benefits to sporting participation from a Saturday afternoon holiday and an eight-hour working day did not become widespread until after the First World War.
Education and sport
The elite were important in starting sporting codes and competitions because they had the time and money to travel for games. The elite boys’ schools such as Christ’s College and Auckland Grammar School devoted time to organised sport, imitating their English public-school counterparts.
These schools were strongly committed to amateurism. Auckland Grammar alone provided at least one-third of all Auckland provincial representative cricketers before 1914. At least a quarter of the All Black team members selected before 1914 attended secondary school.
However, in 1900 there were only 25 secondary schools in New Zealand and they were attended by about 3% of the eligible age group. This increased to 25% by 1939. Most pupils left after six years of primary school, and before the First World War the primary schools focused on military-style physical drill and physical education rather than organised sport.