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Rural services

by  Nancy Swarbrick

Country people depend on a range of vital services: radio, newspapers and the internet for information; roads and railways for transport; and mail and telephones for communication. But isolation has often limited rural people’s access to services.


Overview

The importance of rural services

European settlement of the countryside took place over a long period of time – from before the start of large-scale immigration in 1840 until well into the 20th century.

From early on it was clear that farming would be central to New Zealand’s economy, and the development of the frozen meat and dairy export industries from the 1880s confirmed this. Extending services to rural areas became critical for a number of reasons.

Settling the land

Transport routes were essential for settling remote areas. They made it possible to bring in machinery, building materials and other supplies to develop farms. When roads and railways were built they attracted more settlers to an area.

Time and motion

H. C. D. Somerset explained how life in a Canterbury rural community was easier by the 1930s. ‘The first settlers … were a long day’s journey by bullock wagon from the capital of the province. Horse-drawn vehicles across the scrublands made the journey only slightly less …The coming of the railways and the telephone brought the Great Society nearer. To-day the city capital can be reached by motor bus in two hours and the radio has brought the once isolated settlement into continuous touch with the world.’ 1

Boosting the farming economy

Road and rail links were needed to take farm produce to factories or abattoirs for processing, and to markets. They also increased the value of nearby land. The demand for more or better roads and railways often came from farmers, but was echoed by other locals, who would benefit from the prosperity of an area.

Overcoming distance

Post and telephone helped rural people stay in touch with other parts of New Zealand and the world. Newspapers, books, radio and television allowed them to keep up with current events and ideas, and overcome the barrier of distance.

Combatting isolation

The isolation of farm life could be difficult in times of trouble or sickness. Local community support, and a range of health and welfare services, helped farming families in need.

Lobbying for better services

From 1901 the New Zealand Farmers’ Union lobbied for better services for country people. One of the union’s first objectives was ‘to encourage the formation and improvement of the means of communication’. 2 The Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union focused on improving medical and welfare services. Their primary aim was ‘to better the conditions of women and children living on the land, and to improve the conditions of rural life generally’. 3

In the 2000s, the successors of these organisations, Federated Farmers of New Zealand and Rural Women New Zealand, continue to argue for improved rural services.

Footnotes
  1. H. C. D. Somerset, Littledene: a New Zealand rural community. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1938, p. 62. › Back
  2. The New Zealand Farmers’ Union: a brilliant record. Wellington: New Zealand Farmers’ Union, 1921, pp. 4–5. › Back
  3. And so we grew: the story of the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers of New Zealand, 1925–1950. Wellington: Women’s Division, Federated Farmers of New Zealand, 1950, p. 12. › Back

Roads

Early roads

From the 1840s roads were needed to connect townships, provide access to ports, and settle inland areas. Early dirt roads became very muddy after heavy rain but could be used by packhorses or by bullock teams pulling sleds. Horse-drawn wheeled transport – two-wheeled drays, carts, and later coaches and buggies – required roads with a hard (gravelled or shingled) surface.

Funding roads

Cash-strapped settlers put pressure on regional and central government to pay for roads. In 1858–59 roads absorbed 58% of the Hawke’s Bay Provincial Council’s budget, and a third of the Otago Provincial Council’s funds. Often, however, governments did not have enough money to meet roading demands.

In many country areas, road boards took on the responsibility. Elected board members collected rates from landowners in the area to fund roads. Road boards were the earliest type of local government. By 1875 there were 314, but after 1876 many were replaced by county councils. Meanwhile, central government maintained some major roads.

Under the Land Act 1885, people buying Crown land had to pay one-third of the purchase price to the local authority for roading. From 1896, those leasing Crown land had to pay one-third of their rental (or one-quarter for small grazing runs) towards roads.

Building roads

New Zealand’s mountainous, swampy and forested landscape made road-building hard work. Before motorised graders, roads were formed using picks and shovels. Some farmers supplemented their income by building roads.

Bridges

At first, people used fords and ferries to cross rivers. Bridges were safer, but the North Island’s steep gorges and the South Island’s wide riverbeds made them difficult to build. Earthquake risk and different types of foundation rock had to be considered. Many wooden and iron bridges were built from the 1870s as part of a public works programme initiated by Premier Julius Vogel. From the 1960s pre-stressed concrete bridges that could carry heavier loads replaced many of these early structures.

Taking a heavy toll

Money for road and bridge maintenance was sometimes raised by collecting tolls. This was unpopular, and toll booths and gates were occasionally vandalised. In Taranaki in the late 19th century, settlers ripped the toll gates off the Kāpuni bridge and threw them into the ravine below.

Roads in the motor age

From around 1900 horse-drawn vehicles were gradually replaced by cars and trucks, which were numerous by the 1920s. Many existing roads could not withstand the wear of motor traffic, which needed hard, preferably sealed, surfaces. From 1922 the state defined and maintained major highways. Local authorities continued to look after rural roads, with subsidies from a national fund.

Cars

Motor cars were popular with farmers for both business and pleasure. By the late 1920s, some rural areas had a much higher rate of car ownership than towns. From that decade, school and public bus services also gave rural people more transport options.

The car had a profound effect on rural society. It gave country people access to amenities like shops and picture theatres, previously available only to town dwellers. Some businesses became centralised in larger towns.

Close to the edge

In the 1990s, George Gillingham described a spectacular journey by rail and road ‘over the hill’ between the West Coast and Canterbury when he was a child. Before the early 1920s, a horse-drawn coach transported passengers between Ōtira and Arthur’s Pass. The route was very steep, with some sheer drops beside the road: ‘How those outside horses really pushed on to the inside horses to get away from the edge of the hill I will never forget.’ 1

Road freighting

From the 1920s trucks were used to collect milk and cream cans from farms and deliver them to dairy factories. They also carried farming supplies and produce further afield. Until then, most long-distance freight was carried by New Zealand Railways, which charged low rates for farming equipment, stock and produce, subsidised by high rates for general goods and imports. Road freight companies could now compete by undercutting prices and providing a door-to-door service.

In 1931 the Transport Licensing Act strictly regulated road freighting, and a 30-mile (48-kilometre) limit was imposed on road freight in 1936. However, this did not apply to privately owned trucks, and many farmers transported goods in their own vehicles until the mid-1950s. Gradually restrictions on road carriers were lifted, and the industry flourished from the 1970s.

Roads in the 2000s

In the early 2000s there were road user charges for diesel vehicles and all vehicles over 3.5 tonnes – mostly freight trucks. This income went into the National Land Transport Fund and was allocated to the New Zealand Transport Authority (the national roading authority, formerly Transit New Zealand), and local authorities. Most funding was spent on heavily used urban roads and state highways; in country areas road maintenance was largely covered by local rates. Charges on road freight companies and allocation of road funding remain hot issues for rural people.

Footnotes
  1. George Gillingham, ‘Travel to Canterbury in “good old days” long and adventurous.’Greymouth Evening Star, c. mid–late 1990s. › Back

Railways

From the early 1860s, railways promised a quick, cost-effective way of transporting people and goods. They could carry large quantities of produce, and take perishable goods such as fruit to distant markets.

Lobbying for a line

In 1875 people living south of the Rangitīkei River asked the superintendent of Wellington province to fund a railway between Sanson and Palmerston North. They pointed out that a railway would ‘open up to the Manawatu & Rangitikei farmers a reliable market for their produce which would give such an impetus to agricultural pursuits as would soon render this one of the most productive settlements in New Zealand’. 1

Railways spread

In the 1870s, more railways were built by the government as part of a major public works programme. They helped more people move into the backblocks. The first railway lines connected Christchurch with its farming hinterland. By 1880 they had spread throughout Canterbury and Otago. In the North Island they extended through Waikato, Taranaki, Whanganui, Manawatū, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa, linking farming regions with their nearest port.

By the 1890s connections had been made between some regional lines, and the North Island main trunk line was being built. Completed in 1908, it opened up the King Country and other inland regions to Pākehā settlement. Between the world wars, many key rail links were completed. In the South Island, Christchurch was connected with the West Coast and Picton. In the North Island, Auckland was linked with Northland, Taranaki and the Bay of Plenty. In the 1950s lines were built across the Volcanic Plateau.

Construction challenges

Railway construction had similar problems to road building. Tracks had to be built on gentle gradients, so tunnels were needed in hilly areas. Railways also needed permanent bridges, so often the first bridge across a river was for the railway. Combined road and rail bridges provided dual access for road traffic and trains.

Trains

The first trains were steam-powered. Although they were gradually replaced by diesel and electric trains, steam locomotives were in use until the early 1970s. In the mid-1890s insulated wagons were designed and built at the Addington railway workshops in Christchurch, to transport meat carcasses from freezing works to ports.

Benefits for farming

Railways provided country districts with more convenient transport for goods and passengers, including school children. They also made some types of farming economically viable. In drier areas, rail transport encouraged grain growing and mixed arable and pastoral farming. Land that was once suitable only for large stock or sheep runs could be divided into smaller holdings for raising fat lambs, and this type of farming increased once freezing works were built near railway lines. Where it was possible to get milk and cream to central dairy factories by rail, dairy farms spread. Railway networks helped dairying develop in the Waikato.

Trains were the main way of transporting livestock until the 1960s, when restrictions on trucking were lifted.

Concessions

In the late 19th century, farmers lobbied for and obtained reduced charges for transporting farm produce and fertiliser. They also got special rates for taking stock, produce, machinery and other exhibits to and from A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows, and for travelling to other rural events such as ploughing competitions.

The fall and rise of rail

Rail transport peaked in the early 1950s, and then declined – trucks were more flexible for transporting farm and other goods. Tracks needed to be upgraded for modern trains, and some branch lines closed – particularly from 1960 to the mid-1980s, as road freighting expanded. However, increased road user costs saw rail freight tonnages grow again in the 2000s.

Footnotes
  1. Quoted in James Watson, Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996, pp. vi–vii. › Back

Electricity

Before powered machinery, farming was heavy, time-consuming manual labour. Fields were tilled using horse or bullock-drawn ploughs. Cows were milked, sheep shorn, and crops planted and harvested using human or animal power. The introduction of steam engines and later internal combustion engines improved efficiency. But it was electricity that transformed life on the farm.

Electricity and dairy farming

Hydro-electricity generation began on a small scale in the late 19th century, and the benefits were soon obvious. Electricity was clean, reliable and instant. It could provide heat and light, and power machines.

Electricity was particularly useful on dairy farms, where it could be used to run milking machines, light milking sheds, and heat water for cleaning and sterilising. Small power companies in Taranaki built their own hydro-electric plants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and began to supply local towns and farms. In the first decade of the 20th century small electricity-generating stations were mainly found in dairying regions like Taranaki, Waikato and Southland.

Distribution to farms, 1918–36

In 1908 the government took control of the generation, supply and sale of electricity. From 1918 it gave priority to extending electricity lines to farms, to help develop agriculture. Power boards were set up, and had to ensure that the network reached the countryside. Until mains power became available, many farmers had their own water wheels or diesel generators. By 1936, 80% of farms had access to electricity. It was used for a wide range of farming equipment, including shearing machines, pumps and milking machines.

Women and electricity

The arrival of electricity was impatiently awaited in Cheviot county, Canterbury, in the late 1930s. At a Country Women’s Institute meeting one woman was overheard saying, ‘When are we going to get this electricity? No wonder women won’t live in the country, wet wood, a coal range and breakfast at quarter to seven. WHAT A LIFE!’ 1

Domestic use

Electricity was first used for farming and industrial purposes, and street lighting. In the 1920s, even in towns, its use in the home was confined to lighting, and ironing from a special ‘ironing point’. To have electric water-heating and an electric stove, a house needed extensive additional wiring. Only the homes of the wealthy were powered entirely by electricity – most houses had stoves and water heaters fuelled by wood, coal or gas.

From the late 1920s the extension of the power network, and a drop in the price of electrical appliances, changed this situation. In 1936, 80% of farms had electricity; all of these had electric lighting and an electric iron. About one-third had a vacuum cleaner, electric range and electric hot-water cylinder. Electrical appliances began to relieve some of the burden of domestic work for farming women.

Extending lines, 1945–65

After Second World War restrictions were lifted, there was a huge increase in demand for electricity for both industrial and domestic use. A further effort by power boards to construct new lines to rural districts took place, and between 1948 and 1965 another 12,766 households were connected.

Industry changes, 1980s–2000s

Changes in the structure of the electricity industry in the 1980s, and privatisation of some of the state’s interests in 1999, led to an increased emphasis on electricity as a commercial commodity. In the early 2000s power companies were obliged by law to supply ‘uneconomic’ consumers such as farmers. This requirement was due to expire in 2013, but farmers saw its extension as a necessity.

Footnotes
  1. John Wilson, Cheviot: kingdom to county. Cheviot: Cheviot Historical Records Society, 1993, p. 229. › Back

Communications

Post

Early postal services

The New Zealand Post Office was set up in the 1840s, but until the 1860s services were infrequent because poor roads made it difficult to carry mail between settlements.

Horses and horse-drawn coaches transported mail until the 1920s. Pigeon post was used in some rural regions. From the 1860s the number of post offices began to increase, and by 1900 there were around 1,700 branches throughout the country.

Popular postie

In 1868 William Baines had the contract to carry mail fortnightly between Christchurch and Timaru. A small man with a neat beard and a limitless fund of gossip, he was a welcome caller at homesteads on his route, as he delivered not just mail but also the latest news.

Rural delivery

Before 1905 country people had to collect their mail from the nearest post office, but when a rural delivery service began, farmers could both receive and send mail through a special rural delivery post box or bag at the farm gate. Rural delivery was extended in the 1920s, when motorcycles were used to carry the mail. This was a daily service in some places, just once or twice a week in others. Essentials such as newspapers, groceries and animal feed were also dropped off.

Mail and other goods were often delivered on the school bus as it took children to and from the district school. Correspondence school lessons and assignments were received and sent through the rural delivery service, which was still being operated by New Zealand Post in 2008.

Rural post offices

In small country towns, the post office had many functions aside from delivering mail and newspapers. People went there to receive pensions and allowances, open savings accounts, enrol to vote, and pay car registrations and other fees. The postmaster was often the registrar of births, deaths and marriages, a witness for statutory declarations and an adviser on government services.

There was strong protest from rural dwellers when many country post offices were closed between 1981 and 1991. This occurred because of economic changes – a farming downturn led to depopulation of country towns, and the government restructured the Post Office and sold its banking and telephone functions.

Telecommunications

Telegraph

Electric telegraph messaging using Morse code was introduced to New Zealand in 1862, connecting provincial towns with ports. In 1863 the Electric Telegraph Department began; it merged with the Post Office in 1881. Telegraph lines were erected throughout the country, and by 1891 extended to many small rural towns.

Radio

Wireless telegraphy – sending messages by radio – was seen as a possible means of communication for rural people in the early 20th century. However, under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1903, only the government could receive and transmit radio messages. It was illegal for citizens to do this until 1921, by which time the telephone was becoming established. Radio telephones were later used on some farms – in the late 1940s, a system linked homesteads along the Rakaia River in Canterbury with the Methven post office.

Telephone innovation

The first telephone line into the Conway Flat area in North Canterbury was built in the 1930s. The line was insulated using glass bottles with their bottoms knocked out, which were jammed into mānuka poles.

Telephone

The telephone was introduced in 1881, but was not widely used until after 1890. Some country districts had telephones earlier than others; there were lines in rural Canterbury by 1904. Many farmers erected their own lines before the Post and Telegraph Department reached outlying areas.

The telephone became essential for running a farm business. It allowed farmers to check prices, order goods and contact neighbours. It also saved time; for instance, farmers could ring the railway station instead of making fruitless trips to check for incoming goods. The phone was a social lifeline, especially for farmers’ wives.

After the Second World War, small automatic telephone exchanges were set up in rural areas, mostly with small party (shared) lines with up to 10 customers. Because it was possible to listen to other people’s conversations, party lines were a rich source of local gossip. They were common until the 1960s, but few remained in the early 2000s.

Subsidising rural services

In 1987 the telecommunications division of the New Zealand Post Office became a corporation, Telecom. In 1990 it was privatised, and began competing with other telecommunications companies. The Telecommunications Service Obligations (TSO) contract between Telecom and government ensured that rural telephone services were subsidised, but in 2008 some country areas still did not have adequate land-line or cellular services.


Getting news and information

Informal networks

From the early days in country districts, news was passed on by word of mouth whenever people gathered at churches, country halls, sports clubs, stockyards or A & P (agricultural and pastoral) association meetings. Small towns were important places to meet and exchange information.

Newspapers

The telegraph encouraged the growth of small local newspapers, because it allowed them to quickly get news from distant places, and compete with metropolitan papers. By the 1890s, many country towns had newspaper publishers. As railways spread, making it possible to deliver city newspapers to outlying areas, numbers of local papers fell. City newspapers, often dropped off by the rural delivery post, remain an important source of information for rural people.

Library services

Many country dwellers had limited access to books or libraries until the 1930s. Some wealthy sheep farmers had private libraries, and societies and clubs in small towns sometimes had collections of books. For many farming people, however, books were a luxury. Even if people could join a town public library, most charged subscription fees until the Second World War.

In 1927 the Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union began a book club for country people, which ran during the 1930s from a base at Marton. Subscribers received a regular parcel containing two books, magazines and children’s books – carried free by New Zealand Railways. After Geoffrey Alley ran experimental mobile library services in rural Canterbury and Taranaki, a Country Library Service was set up in 1937. This service sent book vans to country areas, and made regular bulk loans of books to rural libraries. From 1942 the Country Library Service had a schools section which eventually extended to all New Zealand schools.

Keeping in touch

For many rural people, radio was a means of contact with the rest of New Zealand. Veteran broadcaster Jim Henderson recalled his mother saying, as she first switched on the radio in their home on Tākaka hill, ‘We’ll never be isolated again.’ 1

Broadcasting

Radio

Radio broadcasts were an important source of news and entertainment for people in the backblocks – serials and song request programmes were particularly popular. However, there were often problems in receiving a signal. From the 1930s, the New Zealand Broadcasting Board attempted to improve the service for country listeners. Transmitters were replaced or moved to different sites, and small local radio stations were subsidised.

Television

When television was introduced in 1960, rural reception again became an issue. Television signals had to travel along a line of sight, and areas surrounded by mountains could not receive broadcasts. At first seven transmitters were built the length of the country, with plans to erect more regional transmitters as resources became available. People in affected areas, irritated by the delay, set up low-powered translators to relay transmitter signals to television sets in the district. Parts of Central Otago, the West Coast and the central North Island did not have TV reception until 1972.

More choices

The introduction of a second television channel in 1975, and FM radio and pay television in the 1980s, required new transmitters. The question of access for rural people arose again. Deregulation of broadcasting in 1989 led to the establishment of the Broadcasting Commission, which was responsible for extending coverage to low-population areas that were not considered commercially viable. In 2008 this was still an issue for commercial radio, but Radio New Zealand and the two main television channels were available to all of New Zealand via the Sky Digital satellite platform. In future, free-to-air digital television transmitted through a hybrid satellite and terrestrial platform may provide more choices for rural viewers.

Internet

Using the internet was common by the mid-1990s, and by 2007 over 65% of rural households had a connection. Fast internet was seen as a tool for improving farm productivity. Many rural customers wanted broadband internet services, but the infrastructure cost was an obstacle. Although wireless and fibre technologies were becoming available, the Telecom fixed-access network was the main way of providing broadband to most rural areas, and it required upgrading. The government was considering extending the Telecommunications Service Obligations – which require Telecom to service rural areas – to include broadband internet access.

Footnotes
  1. Patrick Day, The radio years. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Broadcasting History Trust, 1994, p. 247. › Back

Health

People living in country areas are at risk of farming accidents and diseases spread by animals as well as the usual range of health problems. Isolation has always made access to health services difficult.

Rural doctors and nurses

The mainstay of the rural health system has always been the country GP. In the 19th century, these doctors regularly travelled long distances on foot or horseback to visit patients – as did midwives and nurses. Health Department district nurses included backblocks areas in their rounds from 1909.

It has always been difficult to attract doctors to rural districts because of the long hours, limited support, poor pay, and travel requirements. In 1941 government measures to provide more country doctors included paying mileage for patient visits, and appointing a doctor to rural areas too small to fully fund a medical practitioner.

Since 2001 the government has allocated more funding to recruit and retain rural GPs. In the early 2000s the New Zealand General Practice Network provided support for GPs and doctors working at rural hospitals. There was also a Remote Rural Midwives Support Scheme.

Rural hospitals

The first New Zealand hospitals were in the main towns, so country people needing urgent surgery could face a long, painful journey. Gradually more hospitals and maternity homes were set up in the regions, often part-funded by local contributions or rates. In 1885 the country was divided into hospital districts, each controlled by a board. These districts multiplied, and at one stage there were 47. In the 1960s the number was reduced, and some smaller general and maternity hospitals closed.

Health reforms in the 1980s and 1990s also led to the demise of some small rural hospitals, and surgical services were cut at others. In 2001, 21 district health boards were set up, and the smallest rural hospital board districts disappeared. In 2008 there were 36 rural hospitals in New Zealand.

Paying a visit

In Littledene (1938), H. C. D. Somerset described how the women’s toilets in the country town of Oxford incorporated Plunket rooms for the visiting nurse. Women and children went there on market day, while the men were at the stock sales. The nurse’s salary was subsidised by a fundraising luncheon on ewe-fair day.

Rural health initiatives

Plunket

The Plunket Society was established in 1907 to provide baby-care advice and support for new mothers. It soon became widespread throughout New Zealand, and branches were set up in rural districts. Local people paid the visiting Plunket nurse’s salary through subscriptions and fundraising. In the early 2000s, Plunket was still active in country areas.

Dental services

From the 1920s country children were bussed to city clinics for free dental care. Dental clinics were also attached to some country schools, and a dental nurse travelled between them. There were mobile clinics, and in some areas the nurse treated adults as well as children.

Public health programmes

Diseases passed from animals to humans were a special threat to farming people. Bovine tuberculosis and hydatids were major problems in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Public Health Department and local authorities ran campaigns to raise awareness of these diseases. The Hydatids Act 1959 established a regime for inspection and treatment of dogs, and in the 1960s the Dairy Board, Meat Producers’ Board and Wool Board gave money towards hydatids research.

By the early 2000s, both diseases were well controlled in animals and no longer a risk to human health in New Zealand. But leptospirosis was a serious concern, and Rural Women New Zealand was fundraising for further research into the disease.

Too late

In 1918 Dr Doris Gordon was locum for a medical practice at Stratford in Taranaki, and was called to an emergency at Whangamōmona. The trip – now an hour’s drive – took her half a day by car and then horse-drawn gig over treacherously muddy roads. Despite the doctor’s best efforts her patient, a two-year-old child, died.

Recent innovations

Air ambulance services

From the 1960s, aircraft helped transfer critically ill people from isolated areas to hospital. Helicopter services provided a more flexible air ambulance service from the 1970s.

Mobile surgical bus

In 2002 a surgical bus began visiting small rural hospitals, so local people could have day surgery without travelling long distances to larger hospitals. The bus carries the latest medical equipment, and doctors can contact colleagues elsewhere for advice during operations through an interactive video link.


Welfare and emergency services

In the 19th century, farming families depended on neighbours to help them in times of trouble. The spirit of mutual aid still exists, but there are also services to call on.

Fire services

In rural areas fire was used to manage tussock grasslands and burn off bush. It could easily get out of control; during a summer drought in 1885–86, houses, businesses, farms and bush were ravaged by fires in Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay. There were also major fires in 1908, 1918 and 1946. On a smaller scale, there were often grass and hay-barn fires, and the only firefighters were locals with buckets of water.

FARTing around

In the mid-1980s a group of Waikato farming people got together to provide an emergency fire service. They were prompted to do so after the nearest fire appliance took a long time to reach a fire at a rural property. Calling themselves the Fire and Rescue Team (FART), they kept a small tanker of water at the Tauwhare home kill. Monthly meetings were generally drinking sessions. After two years without an emergency, FART faded away.

In the 19th century county councils were not responsible for rural fire protection. Volunteer fire brigades in small towns extended their services to the surrounding district, but were hampered by poor communications, slow transport and limited equipment. More rural volunteer fire brigades were formed after the Second World War. A fire services co-ordination scheme in 1954 made it mandatory for fire brigades to attend all fires within 5 miles (8 kilometres) of their station. The Fires Service Act 1975 introduced central government control and support for fire services, including volunteer brigades in rural areas.

In 1947 local authorities became responsible for fires not involving buildings. Under the Forest and Rural Fires Act 1977, forest and vegetation fires became the responsibility of the National Rural Fire Authority. In 2008 it co-ordinated 90 rural fire authorities. The firefighting force consisted of around 3,000 volunteers, with costs covered by the Rural Fire Fighting Fund.

Victim or criminal?

Isolated farmers trying to defend themselves and their property can sometimes get into trouble. In 2002 Kawakawa farmer Paul McIntyre shot and wounded one of three armed men he caught stealing his farm quad bike. It took three years of legal process before he was acquitted of firearm charges.

Police services

The isolation of farms makes their inhabitants particularly vulnerable to crime – and police have to travel long distances to reach the scene. Police are also at risk: in 1941 farmer Stanley Graham killed four policemen who confronted him at his West Coast property. Soldiers, the home guard and volunteers were called out as reinforcements in the subsequent manhunt.

In 2007 rural liaison police officers were introduced to the Rangitīkei region to help deal with the rising crime rate. RAPID (Rural Address Property Identification) numbers are part of a nationwide system to identify properties so they can be found easily by emergency services. The numbers, which are linked to an address and GPS reading, are displayed at the farm gate and given when phoning for police help.

The support of neighbours in combatting crimes such as theft of stock and machinery remains important.

Welfare benefits

Before the introduction of state-funded welfare and health care, friendly societies and other organisations offered health and welfare benefits, and were active in some rural areas. Members paid subscriptions and could get financial help if the family breadwinner died or was incapacitated. They also received subsidised doctors’ visits, medicines and hospital care. There were also local benevolent leagues which gave grants to widows, orphans and sick people.

Such organisations became less prominent after the Social Security Act 1938 and its amendments established free health care and pensions for those unable to work. There have been times when farmers have needed welfare assistance. When state subsidies for farming were reduced in the 1980s, many farming families were hard hit, and some applied for a benefit aimed at low-waged families.

In 2009 there was a nationwide network of Rural Support Trusts, which provided advice and financial assistance to rural communities in times of hardship, such as during droughts.

Women’s welfare

The special hardships experienced by isolated rural women with large families prompted the Women’s Division of the Farmers’ Union to introduce their Bush Nurse and Emergency Housekeeper Scheme in 1927. This provided home help for women when they were sick or had just had a baby. At first funded by the Division’s members, the scheme was eventually subsidised by the government. The Women’s Division also ran four homes where exhausted women could go for a rest, and holiday homes for farming families.

High costs eventually led to the closure of the rest homes, but in the 2000s Rural Women New Zealand still operated a holiday home near Auckland, and bed and breakfast accommodation in Wellington. It also ran a home nursing and help service, Access Homehealth.


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How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Rural services', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/rural-services/print (accessed 17 July 2019)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Nov 2008