Kōrero: City images

Whārangi 2. City versus country, 20th century

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Cities had been viewed as parasitic, sucking the life out of the land. The popular adage that New Zealand ‘lives off the farmer’s back’ derived from this view.

The 20th-century influx of rural people to urban areas did little to reshape entrenched views of city and country. This was underlined when the interests of each side were threatened, as they were during the 1913 waterfront strike.

1913 strike

Trouble arose after Wellington wharfies (wharf workers) were suspended from work. The wharfies went on strike, stormed the wharves and stopped ships being loaded. The conservative government enlisted ‘special constables’, mainly farmers, to reopen the wharves. Following a series of bloody street clashes, a large troop of mounted specials and police charged the strikers and retook the wharves.

Deeply divided

Antagonism between city strikers and country specials ran deep. After boarding the ship Maheno at Auckland, the unionist Charles Reeve was pulled from his cabin, and ‘cast off’ in Queen Street by a group of specials. They had taken exception to his public call for strikers to ‘march into the country, and wreak their vengeance for the capture from them of the port by “cockies” upon the farmers’ wives.’1

The strike highlighted a geo-political split between a liberal, city-based constituency and a conservative, country-based one. Although some city dwellers were hostile, support for the wharfies was strongest in the cities. The division became more entrenched with the founding of the Labour Party in 1916, which received most of its backing from city voters. Conversely, the conservative Reform party and later the National party attracted more country support, with farmers dominating conservative governments until the 1960s.

1981 tour

Perhaps the most divisive city–country rift occurred during the 1981 South African rugby tour of New Zealand, opposed by anti-apartheid protesters. Support for the tour was strongest in country districts, and opposition to it centred in cities. Long-standing prejudices re-surfaced. Pro-tour supporters called anti-tour supporters ‘poofters’; anti-tour activists retaliated with taunts of ‘country bumpkin’, and ‘sheep-shaggers’.

Enduring bonds

But some people recognised that city and country were interdependent. In an economy reliant on international trade, New Zealand lived not only off the farmers’ backs, but also the backs of urban-based freezing workers, shipping agents and wharfies, among others.

Town or country life?

Writing in 1897, 12-year-old Jessie Wilson declared it was ‘so pleasant to leave the dusty, crowded streets and the din and bustle of the town to go into the quiet, peaceful country.’ Equally, she thought there were many country children who wished to live in cities because ‘there a plenty of wonderful sights to see and plenty of shop windows, decorated with beautiful things’.2 On balance, however, this townie thought country life superior.

For the most part there have been strong ties between city and country. In the 19th century many cities had saleyards, and the sight of stock being driven through streets was common. Annual A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows were a feature of most large towns and cities – in Canterbury the first day of the Christchurch show is a public holiday. Until the 1970s many city children had farm holidays and had seen a cow milked or sheep mustered. Country children often went to boarding school in town and were familiar with city ways. Country people labelled any large town or city the ‘big smoke’, and called urban dwellers ‘townies’; townies adopted the country term ‘cocky’ for farmers.


After the 1980s the growth of lifestyle blocks – small rural properties owned by current or former townies – blurred old city–country distinctions, but created new tensions. Lifestylers’ complaints about country noises and smells – including bird-scaring devices and silage – both bemused and incensed local farmers, curbing traditional country hospitality to newcomers. While most areas have not seen the scale of conflict experienced in the Auckland area – where one lifestyler moved a herd of cows from the next-door farm because he was having a barbecue and the smell of cows ruined the ambience – there has been opposition to what some call ‘rural sprawl’. On the other hand, lifestylers have re-energised flagging rural economies by starting wineries and orchards, running home-based businesses, and creating demand for café culture and non-farm employment.

Rural–urban divide

In 2008 the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry commissioned research on the rural–urban divide. It found most urban dwellers appreciated the importance of the rural and primary sectors to New Zealand, but there was a lack of understanding among rural people about the role and importance of urban New Zealand.

Recent challenges

In the early 2000s points of friction between city and country remained. In 2006 urban-based environmentalists criticised farmers for continuing to pollute rural streams and rivers. Farmers lambasted their critics for not recognising New Zealand lived off their exports. Talk of a widening rural–urban divide increased with the scuttling of plans to permit free public passage over farmland. In the end most agreed more was to be gained by building bridges between city and country than tearing them down.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Evening Post, 5 December 1913, p. 3. Back
  2. Otago Witness, 23 December 1897, p. 58. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'City images - City versus country, 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/city-images/page-2 (accessed 22 May 2022)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010