The British coat of arms
When New Zealand became a British colony, its coat of arms was the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. Used in both 19th- and 20th-century New Zealand, its most conspicuous features were a lion and a unicorn – creatures wholly symbolic, one seen by most New Zealanders only in zoos, the other not found anywhere at all.
The winning entry in the 1908 competition was designed by James McDonald, a draughtsman in the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. McDonald was an artist, a distinguished photographer of predominantly Māori subjects, and a maker of ethnographic films. He was active in promoting Māori arts and crafts.
A coat of arms for New Zealand
With the evolution of New Zealand self-government, especially the granting of dominion status in 1907, it was considered appropriate for New Zealand to be represented by its own distinctive coat of arms. A competition in 1908 attracted 75 designs, and three entries were sent to Britain for consideration.
1911 coat of arms
In 1911 New Zealand was for the first time granted its own coat of arms, an act recognising the country’s national identity and state institutions distinct from those of Great Britain. The royal warrant authorising the coat of arms was issued on 26 August 1911 and published in the New Zealand Gazette on 11 January 1912.
The 1911 coat of arms was not frequently on display. It was not affixed to the exterior of public buildings, and was even overlooked for official correspondence. By continuing to use Great Britain’s royal coat of arms, cabinet ministers were acting in accordance with the idea that they were, after all, ‘His (or Her) Majesty’s ministers’.
One view – perhaps not altogether serious – of the 1911 coat of arms is that the word ‘ONWARD’ represented then Prime Minister Joseph Ward, a participant in imperial conferences and a strong supporter of New Zealand’s enhanced status as a dominion with its own coat of arms.
Images in civic emblems
The design for New Zealand’s coat of arms drew upon images already in use in the country’s civic emblems. Since 1878, for instance, the city of Wellington’s seal included, on a shield, the lamb’s fleece and the wheat sheaf, as well as a ship. Several cities had insignia presenting a Māori warrior as one of two figures on either side of a shield.
The 1911 coat of arms was the basis for the later coat of arms that replaced it in 1956. Both coats of arms have a shield in the centre, flanked by a Māori warrior on one side and a European woman on the other. While the contemporary shield has a more rounded shape, the items within the shield are identical.