As rural communities became more established, they began to organise formal entertainments.
People came to community picnics at local beauty spots, on foot, or more often by horse, dressed in their finery and bringing food hampers. The people of Cheviot, Canterbury, gathered at Gore Bay; those in Kaponga, Taranaki, had a monster picnic at the mouth of the Inaha Stream. Folks in Oxford, Canterbury, had a New Year’s Day picnic at Ashley Gorge. At most picnics a bullock was roasted and there were informal competitions, such as tugs of war.
Picnics were a summer affair, usually held on holidays, such as Easter Monday, Boxing Day, or New Year’s Day. The latter was a Scottish, not English, holiday, but spread rapidly through the country in the 19th century. Some places celebrated other days, such as St Patrick’s Day or St Andrew’s Day. Canterbury sawmillers appear to have had a day off on St Andrew’s Day.
Other events held on holidays included concerts, races and athletic sports. In Manaia, Taranaki, horse races were run on Boxing Day and athletic sports on Easter Monday. By the turn of the 20th century special occasions – such as the relief of Mafeking in the South African War – were sometimes celebrated with fireworks and feasts.
Horse races began early in colonial New Zealand. There was a race meeting in the Bay of Islands in 1835, and races became an instant feature of the provincial anniversary celebrations in the main centres. In rural areas racing began informally, especially in the sheep-farming areas on the east coast, to celebrate the end of shearing. Station hands, shearers and squatters brought along their hacks for racing, followed by a feed supplied by the station owner. At Woodthorpe, in inland Hawke’s Bay, races began in the early 1860s as a Christmas festival. The landowners put on a spread, and by the 1870s the races were interspersed with sports like jumping, or throwing and catching a greasy pig.
Racing soon became institutionalised in small settlements, and racing clubs, courses and regular meetings were set up. Often these were held on holidays such as New Year’s Day, and were followed by concerts or a dance. By the 1880s in North Canterbury, there were racing clubs at Waiau, Hurunui, Hanmer and Culverden, and steeplechasing began at Willowbridge in South Canterbury in 1873. In the North Island, Māori were active participants in early horse races.
Racing to ruin
By 1888 the newspaper in the rural community of Waipawa, Hawke’s Bay, was not happy that the local people ‘have gone racing mad’, and asked: ‘What will happen, ultimately, if things go on for any length of time as they are now? Will it not mean the undermining of trade, the wreck of our hopes for the future – the bankruptcy of our people? … if the disease be not checked at once, it will involve our children in misery and our country in ruin.’ 1
Some traditional sports of British rural workers, such as cockfighting and bull-baiting, were seldom practised in New Zealand. But sports like athletics and cycling did emerge in the last part of the 19th century. Often sports days were held in association with horse races. In the 1870s and 1880s, Caledonian societies began sports days, often on New Year’s Day, or Boxing Day. These events involved running races, cycling, wood chopping, jumping, tugs of war, wrestling, and, in areas with Scottish settlers, Highland dancing.
A & P shows
Race and sports days were usually annual events. So were A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows, which spread through rural areas from the 1870s. Initially intended to improve farming, the shows became primarily a rural entertainment. Whether the day was spent watching the grand parade of animals or cruising the sideshows, the show was the recreational high point of the year, and was usually followed by a dance or a social in the evening. In the far north, rural Māori played an active role in the early A & P shows.