Review of The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840-1920

Review by Moira Taylor


The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840-1920

Ben Schrader


Bridget Williams Books

ISBN 978-0-947492-43-4

$NZ 59.99; UK Kindle edition £13.94


This beautifully presented book promotes the idea that since 1911 when official statistics showed a higher proportion of people lived in cities and boroughs than in rural New Zealand, the new society was predominantly an urban not a rural one. Ben Schrader has plundered archives, other written histories and public history surveys to support this idea, lavishly illustrating his case with archival photos, oil paintings, early drawings, posters, advertisements, newspaper articles and plans.

This is a parallel history to the familiar story of colonial settlers taming the land – one of urban settlers from often densely populated urban cities back in Britain settling in towns to shape a new society that reflected and improved upon the one left behind.  He says, ‘It took only seven decades for New Zealand to move from a rural to an urban society – among the fastest transitions of all New World settler colonies. It therefore remains a paradox that some 100 years later after the change New Zealand sees and represents itself as a society rooted in the land. This is evident in the marketing of New Zealand as a green and pure land.’  In 2014, 86 % of New Zealanders were urban dwellers. He devotes a chapter to an anti-urbanism bias held by historians who championed the idea that cities were ‘handmaidens to the shaping of a strongly ruralised society’. In short, the book is devoted to why people were attracted to live in cities, what the cities looked like and how they changed over time. Larger cities meant people could find like-minded friends and social groups such as mechanical institutes, horticultural societies, gentleman’s clubs and, from the 1870s, art galleries, museums, libraries and theatres. Women, especially, were drawn to live in towns.

In a fascinating chapter on ‘Maori and the City’ he begins with the early European model of cities contained within defensive walls or those with a citadel where people could go to escape threat.  Britain’s first American colony, Jamestown, in 1607 was attacked by a Powhatan chief in a bid to reclaim land, resulting in a quarter of the settler population massacred. This event led the British to exclude indigenous people from settler colonies, a policy followed in New South Wales and other Australian colonies. British promotors of New Zealand colonisation had a more cooperative model, allowing Maori into settler society through native reserves. In Wellington, for instance, he claims Maori had a tenth of all land in the new city and, as traders in fresh produce, helped to sustain the townspeople. William Fox, the New Zealand Company agent in 1848, promoted the idea that trade had encouraged Maori to embrace peaceful industrious habits. Some had adopted the commercial practices of the settlers and wanted to compete among them, such as Maori agriculturalists, ship-owners and livestock owners in Wellington. But as settler populations increased Pakeha represented Maori as outsiders in city space and encouraged them to stay away. In 1858, the creation of the Waikato-based Kingitanga, the Maori King Movement, whose aim was to unite Maori under a single sovereign to better exercise political power and stem the sale of Maori land, resulted in settler fears that their access to land would be prevented and was  seen as a direct threat to Crown authority that should be subdued.

Ben Schrader distinguishes New Zealand’s ‘soft racism’ derived from humanist thought from ‘hard racism’ evident in Australia and North American settler colonies. Underlying racism would not concede that Maori were welcome in the city and Maori thus retreated to rural areas, living in traditional whares and huts. This retreat was also partly a result of tribal territory rules – Maori from one territory would have needed permission to live in another.  They visited cities for business and pleasure, often wearing European-style clothes but in maintaining many of their own social practices resisted being fully immersed in civil society. Hostelries and boarding houses would not accept Maori but in Nelson and Auckland their own hostelries were built on reserve land with an adjacent marketplace for the sale of produce and wares.

Other chapters explore towns becoming cities, social and cultural life, city crowds, street people who became the targets of reformers’ zeal, such as hawkers, prostitutes, larrikins and street orators, public health development and backlash against the city when anti-urbanists saw the increasing popularity of cities undermining the image of New Zealand as a primary producer and a nation of farmers. Ben Schrader ends with a plea for more research into the ways in which urbanisation has shaped New Zealand culture and social identities. ‘Although New Zealand still represents itself as rooted in the land, it is a moot point how long this self-representation can be sustained.  There is increasing evidence in the 2010s that the hackneyed images of taciturn and rugged outdoors men, the mustering and shearing of sheep, and romantic backblocks sheds no longer resonate with how most New Zealanders see themselves – if they ever did.’

This well written and engaging book, full of arresting detail and anecdote as well as hard evidence and theory is a welcome addition to a neglected subject. With its large format and helpful chapter conclusions, its beautiful and well researched illustrations, it will surely be used widely as a textbook in schools and universities as well as providing a very good read for both New Zealanders and non-New Zealanders.

Moira Taylor is a New Zealand-born writer and former publishing editor and is currently Review Editor for the New Zealand Studies Network.  Her book, Conspicuous in Their Time: Yorkshire Seafarers and New Zealand Settlers, 1795-1907 will be published by Steele Roberts in late 2017.