Between the two world wars, there were some significant changes in country towns and townships.
Cars and trucks
As cars and trucks became more common, horses were less important. Blacksmiths and saddlers were replaced by garages and petrol stations. Cars also allowed people to travel further, to larger towns with better facilities – so smaller townships suffered while regional centres grew. In Canterbury, the larger centres of Cheviot, Darfield and Geraldine expanded, while the smaller Leeston did not.
People also found it easier to get to the city, so some businesses, such as clothes or furnishing shops, did not prosper in country towns.
New town attractions
Cars made it easier for farmers and their families to reach the country town – and they had new reasons for going. With the arrival of moving pictures, many small towns either gained a cinema or showed movies in the local hall on Saturday nights. There was a steady increase in the demand for education, and district high schools became important in larger country towns. The school bus brought kids to town every weekday.
However, some other developments made it less likely that rural people would visit town. Radio tended to keep people in their homes, and rural mail delivery expanded in the 1920s.
When farming couples retired, they often moved into country towns, where they were close to shops and health services. But young adults often left for a time of learning and excitement in the city. Country towns’ populations largely consisted of older people, and middle-aged parents and their children, but few young adults.
The social institutions which had been established before the First World War remained central to the country town. When Crawford Somerset investigated Oxford (which he dubbed Littledene) in the 1930s he discovered that many adults in the community went out to a meeting six nights a week. 75% of the town’s adult males belonged to a lodge, and 60% were members of the working men’s club. Many played sports, and if they did not they would attend the weekly games of ‘footie’ (rugby). Women were active in church groups, and in new women’s groups such as the Country Women’s Institute. Three-quarters of families attended church every Sunday.
Voluntary groups often worked to raise money for community projects such as a swimming pool or an improvement to the sports field. The money would come almost entirely from the local community, as people believed in ‘keeping money in the district’.
There were many card evenings and dances in the local country hall, attended by about half the unmarried adults in the surrounding district. But dances were not an excuse for ‘letting go’. Young men would huddle around the door, and sneak outside to indulge in sly drinking. ‘Littledene,’ Somerset concluded, ‘is pertinaciously moral; dancing appears to be a serious business, and one notices much evidence of inhibition that is missing in larger communities.’ 1
When he examined the country towns of Manawatū and Wairarapa in the 1950s, the geographer Harvey Franklin was struck by the silence about ‘coarser pleasures’, except for this comment in the local paper: ‘The village settlers have got rid of a nuisance at last. A woman who has been living in the Short Road left yesterday morning by coach.’ 2
For some New Zealand writers and intellectuals from the 1930s on, the moral repressiveness of the country town came to be a significant symbol of the wider repression of New Zealand society. In novels like Ian Cross’s The god boy, or Frank Sargeson’s Memoirs of a peon, and in short stories such as A. P. Gaskell’s ‘The big game’, the claustrophobia of the country town is gently mocked.
Much later, New Zealand films such as Skin deep, a 1978 production about what happens when a masseuse moves to a small North Island town, also explored this theme. By then, however, the country town was changing and the image was more myth than reality.