In 19th-century Europe, cities were often represented as the pinnacle of Western civilisation. So although colonising companies imagined New Zealand as a society of small farms and villages, they also knew the importance of towns and cities as providers of civilisation. Town founders and leaders encouraged the growth of clubs and societies based on those in urban Britain. Publicists used these to reassure immigrants that New Zealand was not a barbaric backwater.
What is a borough?
The government could proclaim a township a borough if the settlement covered a continuous area and most residents (at least 100) wanted the change, sometimes resulting in small boroughs. From 1926 the definition of an urban area for census purposes was changed to settlements with populations over 1,000.
An urbanising tide
The policy proved a double-edged sword for colonisers. While most immigrants continued to settle in the countryside, an increasing number were attracted to life in towns. By 1878 nearly 40% of the population lived in boroughs (urban areas) and the proportion was rising.
The trend worried those who believed New Zealand’s agricultural economy was reliant on maintaining a strong rural workforce. But getting townsfolk to move to the country could be a thankless task. As early as the 1840s, the fresh-faced gentlemen of Wellington were castigated for spending more time in Lambton Quay bars than developing their country acres. In 1908 a government official conceded that even men used to British farm work ‘seem to have a dislike to country life as soon as they arrive in New Zealand’.1 The government tried to coax townsfolk out to the country with generous closer settlement schemes, but with mixed success. The pull of urban life seemed to grow stronger, not weaker.
No clerks please
By the 1870s there was a strong sense New Zealand was attracting the wrong type of immigrant. In 1878 the Otago Witness complained: ‘Most of our late arrivals are more suited for city life than country: this is a mistake.’2 For a farming nation there were too many clerks and not enough ploughmen.
Work was one reason for the trend. Many workers preferred urban factory work to agricultural work, with its long hours and seasonal routine. Wages and conditions were often better in cities, and shorter work hours provided more time for leisure activities. The unskilled also had a greater chance to learn a trade. Between 1881 and 1891 the number of factories increased 72%, from 1,642 to 2,268. Professionals – bankers, lawyers and doctors – were drawn to cities because they offered wider business and specialisation opportunities.
Just as important were social factors. Urban life encouraged social interaction, the meeting of like minds, and the formation of groups and societies. As one Dunedin writer recognised: ‘Man is a social being. Nature has its charms, but man craves fellowship with man … and the city supplies this in the largest degree.’3 Such engagement prevented the sense of isolation that country dwellers sometimes felt. And while it was possible to feel lost in the city crowd, for some this was an advantage, allowing them to forge new identities and evade social surveillance.
Something for everyone
Towns and cities could support a more diverse range of clubs and societies than country districts. In 1900 Auckland boasted a flying club with homing pigeons, a cycling club, 56 friendly societies and orders, a camera club, a choral society, numerous arts societies, a Caledonian Society – whose objectives included ‘perpetuation of Caledonian games … and the relief of distressed Scotsmen’4 – a hunt club, and more.
Towns and cities were also cultural hubs: places to debate politics and ideas, attend concerts, or watch the theatre of the street. Whereas country life provided food for the table, city life provided food for thought. New Zealand’s first four university colleges were all in cities.
The social and cultural diversity of cities is a large part of their appeal. As one city promoter explained: ‘Even when there is no work to be had in a city, a workman will not leave it if he can help it. There is a fascination about the city that the country cannot offer.’5
Because large towns and cities offered a greater range of jobs and social and cultural attractions, they benefited most from the urbanising tide. In 1911 the four main cities – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – accounted for 63% of the urban population. In that year New Zealand officially moved from being a rural to an urban society, with just over 50% of the population living in boroughs and cities.