The Big Smoke – putting New Zealand’s cities centre-stage 

by Ben Schrader

I wrote The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 because I’d long felt that New Zealand history, as taught and written, did not resonate with me. The history I learnt at school and university had emphasised the ‘rural myth’. This asserted that Pākehā had come to New Zealand to settle land alienated from Māori. Settlers would buy a parcel of forest or grassland, and then clear, fence and farm it. Alternatively, they could reside in towns, and provide goods and services – grocery, blacksmithing, stock and station supplies – to those on encircling farms. Cities only functioned, in these accounts, as markets and ports. ‘Real’ New Zealanders, it seemed, lived on the land.


The inferior position of cities was emphasised in New Zealand’s cultural production. I grew up reading Barry Crump’s ‘Good Keen Men’ books and thinking his ‘Man Alone’ protagonists were archetypal Kiwi blokes.  At secondary school I joined the tramping club and during the holidays headed into the bush with others. I looked forward to the physical challenges these trips provided, but for me the attraction of tramping was less the scenery and more the sociability: there is nothing like putting the world to rights around a campfire.  The prospect of going into the bush by myself held no appeal. I could never be a Good Keen Man. This was confirmed to me at the end of every tramp by the elation I felt on returning to Wellington and the trappings of civilisation, not least a hot shower.

On examining my family history I realised I was not the first Schrader to have an urban sensibility. My great, great grandfather, James, was born in 1834 in London. In 1862 he sought a new life in New Zealand. He landed in Dunedin and soon found work as a post office clerk. Ever since then the Schraders down my line of the family have lived in large towns or cities and pursued urban occupations: as clerks, tailors, grocers, restaurateurs and writers. Their homes have not looked out upon pasture or bush but the street and their neighbour’s fences. All have lived with the sights, sounds and smells of the people about them.

Whereas many historians have situated Pākehā identities in the land, I have always had a much stronger affinity with cities. I can appreciate the beauty of the snow-clad Southern Alps glistening in the sun, but the vistas that enthral me are city ones: the gradual revealing of Wellington as the motorway leaves the Ngāūranga Gorge; Auckland’s towering skyline from Waitematā Harbour’s undulating surface, or the ornate Victorian buildings lining Dunedin’s Princes Street. In other words, my social identity is grounded more in the streets and lanes of the cities where my forebears and I have lived than in the forests and farms that surround them.


Of course I knew my family were not the only ones to prefer city life; the rapid growth of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin underlines this. But the rise of these cities and those who built them has been underplayed in New Zealand history writing. This is surprising, considering that since the 1910s most New Zealanders have been urban dwellers – 86 per cent in 2014. Yet we know surprisingly little about these people and the spaces in which they lived. New Zealand generally lacks the substantial studies of urban life that are standard in national histories overseas.

So why hasn’t urban history captured the imagination of New Zealand historians? I proffer three suggestions. The first is that many adopted the anti-city bias of mid-twentieth-century nationalist literary culture. Writers like Rex (A.R.D.) Fairburn endlessly celebrated the naturalness of country life over the artificiality of city life – even though he lived in Devonport. The two most influential histories of Pākehā society, Jock Phillips’s A Man’s Country? (1987) and Miles Fairburn’s The Ideal Society and its Enemies (1989), are both rural-centric. The bias has carried to the present, most notably in environmental history. Overseas the sub-field has a strong urban strain, but in a new edition of Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2013), just two of the eighteen essays consider city environments.

A second possibility is that many historians avoid spatial analysis. It is not surprising that disciplines with a spatial bent, such as urban design and geography, have long been at the forefront of city research. Since the 1950s, scholars like Kenneth Cumberland, Eric Pawson, and Garth Falconer have employed spatial analysis to chart New Zealand’s urban development. Conversely, historians have generally seen cities as places where events happen, rarely considering how space – buildings, streets, landscapes – frame and shape these events.

The third reason is that in a small history community like New Zealand’s, there is less room for the diversity of sub-fields that characterise the profession overseas. The research interests of most historians have simply lain elsewhere.

If urban history has been in the wings of scholarship, The Big Smoke is an attempt to bring them centre-stage.  It examines what cities looked like and how they changed. It considers why women especially lived in cities and how Māori experienced and shaped them. It explores the ways the street was a living room and stage for city life. And it explains why New Zealand so quickly became a nation of townspeople.street-people-2

I hope the book will appeal particularly to those who, like me, do not identify with the ‘Good Keen Man’ stereotype. Certainly, there is growing evidence that New Zealand’s rural iconography no longer resonates with how most New Zealanders see themselves. Symptomatic of this shift was the ending of the long-running Speight’s ‘Southern Man’ advertising campaign in 2012. A Speight’s executive explained that New Zealand’s urbanisation meant the relevance of the great outdoors had changed. Future campaigns would be city-based, he said.

The same goes for our history writing. In a modern age of mega-cities we can no longer think of ourselves only as people of the land. If we are better to understand what is happening in our society in the present, more historians need to enter the city streets, lanes and cul-de-sacs of its past.

The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 by Ben Schrader is published by Bridget Williams Books and out now (

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  1. Thanks Ben. Your book aŕrived last week and I have yet to read it cover to cover but I have already learnt new things. For instance that a rural vote was worth 28% more than a city vote up to 1945. It could be argued that city residents were the last group to be fully emancipated. To get one person one vote. I wonder if this is still a “ghost in the system” of our social networks our culture.

    1. A rural ECan vote was worth more than an urban one in the recent elections. Got to make sure the interests of farmers stay ascendant until the water rights are safely locked up for the next few decades.

      1. Yes + 1 Sacha. As I said ‘ghosts in the system’. The pro ‘country quota’ cult thing we have going in NZ is like the undead. You think it has been been killed off and yet it doesn’t die.

  2. Interesting post – thank you. Good to see more of our history – looks like the book will be a good read.
    I do however object to the use/overuse of the word “Pākehā”. Many consider it to be a derogatory word. Historically it might have been an acceptable term considering most non-Maori were not born in NZ, however for the past century at least most have been born in NZ. We don’t call Asians G**ks anymore, nor are African-Americans called the N-word. French aren’t formally called Frogs except as a joke/derogatory term. New Zealand European/New Zealander or Non-Maori are more appropriate and acceptable to most people.

    1. “Many consider it to be a derogatory word.”

      Well, they’re wrong, and most likely coming from a point of view which has an allergic reaction to anything Maori.

      1. Agree AKL, that’s a nonsense. I am a proud Pakeha. There is no other word for me, I am not a european; I’ve been there; they’re different, and anyway I have no legal right to live there, nor the islands of Brexitia.

      2. Daphne, I assumed that if I found a word describing me to be unacceptable (as AKL has laid out) then it needs to be considered, not dismissed. Accusing people of being anti-Maori reactionaries because they have a simple opinion is pretty tiresome and shallow. Anyway back to discussing a good book.

        1. No, you don’t get to choose. The fact you don’t like it isn’t society’s problem.

          A word is unacceptable if it is used to perpetuate real, damaging racial discrimination or oppression. Pakeha isn’t. Pakeha haven’t been oppressed. It’s fine.

    2. Comparing ‘Pakeha’ to racial slurs is a false equivalency – it has no similar history of use in the context of racial oppression. Nor does anything about ‘Pakeha’ imply ‘not born in NZ’. ‘New Zealander’ accurately describes my citizenship but has nothing to say about my ethnicity, and using it as an equivalent of ‘Pakeha’ elides the existence of New Zealanders of other ethnicities.

      As a fifth generation New Zealander of European extraction, I am (like Patrick) happy to call myself Pakeha, and it describes me far better than ‘NZ European’.

      1. Without the word Pakeha there is no shorthand to describe the specific culture that developed, and still develops here as a result of the colonial experience. Of course you can still criticise tithe value or deficiencies of this culture but to make some kind assumption about the word being insulting is very odd. And it is important that the word to sum up this experience is Maori as, right there, it shows both what it is not but also what it is defined against…. of this land, but not in the same way as Maori.

        Also it might pay to read the scholarship on the matter, especially Michael King’s great book Being Pakeha.

        1. Agree with the reference to Michael King’s work. Being Pakeha is a book that gives legitimacy and permission to all that needed it to refer to themselves as Pakeha New Zealanders. As a fourth generation kiwi superannuitant I like it…

        2. Agree with the reference to Michael King’s work. Being Pakeha is a book that gives legitimacy and permission to all that needed it to refer to themselves as Pakeha New Zealanders. As art fourth generation kiwi superannuitant I like it…

    3. I can’t believe with all the interesting stuff and questions of NZ identity in that article, this is what you are focusing on.

      Is it really that big a deal?

          1. Maybe people will label me but I don’t have to accept it – just like lots of groups don’t accept labels of what others call them.

    4. The book looks interesting. I will try and give it a look some time.

      As for the totally unrelated discussion on the word pakeha, I’ve lived my whole life in south auckland and I’m a NZ born polynesian. I just refer to myself as a kiwi. I have plenty of Maori friends and most of the time with them (not always), pakeha is used in a negative connotation. I can understand why they do this because there is an ingrained sense of grievance in Maori culture. Understandable of course given their history and pakeha don’t really try hard to understand the Maori point of view. But I can also understand why many kiwis don’t like the word. I know it just means non-maori and was originally not derogatory, but in my experience it is often used as derogatory by Maori. Why would I want to refer to myself using a word I know is often used as derogatory, but I don’t mind if someone calls me that. It’s their choice and I won’t judge them because I may not understand their perspective. Personally I think the term is archaic from a bi-cultural age. We are multicultural nation and I so I use kiwi as an all encompassing term that doesn’t have all the historical baggage that goes along with it.

  3. Interestingly, a Wellington based website The Eye of the Fish has also just posted a short review of The Big Smoke as well, and picked up on your article in the Dom Post yesterday. Its really good to see a book like this come out, well done.

  4. Cities were used to be undesirable to live compare to suburbs.

    The old cities were used to be highly polluted due to old factories.
    With poor lighting, at night the city would have drunken people and crime issues.
    Due to many new random sailors, miners, soldiers travelling in for short stay, it will has more crime compare to small community, where everyone knows each other.
    Sewage and water system hundred year ago were basic, therefor there will be hygienic and issues, compare to water from rural river.
    There is potential risk of disease, and air strikes.

    1. Yes, and none of these factors apply anymore which is why people are no rediscovering the pleasure of a living in a city.

      Did you mean to write “air strikes”? I will take my chances in 99.9999% of cities that I will not experience an air strike.

      1. “none of those factors apply any more”?
        Higher crime – check
        Drunken people – check
        Polluted – check
        Higher disease risk – check – but different from historically
        Dangerous water – not check

        Also add in
        Terrorist activity – check
        Harder disaster recovery – check

        1. One of these modern amenities which makes life in cities a lot better now compared to then is electricity. And better sewers. When was the last time you read about a big cholera epidemic in the Herald?

          But another modern amenity is affordable cars, which, while quite convenient, causes massive amounts of nuisance and pollution in cities.

          Clean rural rivers? Not anymore, there’s this thing called agriculture on the countryside. Port Waikato is the centre of a large maritime dead zone.

  5. Look forward to reading your book, Ben. Sounds like a fantastic contribution to the debate.

    You only have to look at the population statistics to understand that New Zealand was born urban, stayed urban, and tried to deny it the entire way. James Belich is quite good on this point, although he highlights the underlying economic dynamics (immigration boom – immigration bust – export rescue) rather than the urban history.

    The numbers I’ve seen suggest that around 40% of NZ’s population lived in towns and cities in the late 1800s. This was a similar rate to the Netherlands, and ahead of most European countries. Australia was very similar – and they have their own rural mythology.

  6. Thanks for all your comments. I like the term Pakeha, not least because it locates me firmly in Aotearoa/NZ, which is where I feel I most belong. I guess one thing ‘The Big Smoke’ shows that has particular relevance to transportblog readers is that it illustrates how our colonial cities were dynamic spaces and people-centric. This was largely lost as the motorcar took over city streets from the 1910s and public transport gave way to motorways in the 1950s. The recent recognition that cars deaden cities as well as the necessity to build sustainable cities has led reformers – like those amazing people who post on this site – to lobby for the return of people-centric cities. We’ve had them before. We can have them again!

    1. Thanks Ben for the photo of people centric Christchurch from a century ago. Back then I think and someone may correct me, Christchurch had the largest tram network. Now, unlike Auckland and Wellington, public transport has been deciminated, which along with the earthquakes and bulldozer Brownlee means we have very little people centric city left : (

  7. Recommended reading also is the internationally renowned New Zealand historian, the late David Hamer of Wellington whose “Urban History” is a comparative history of an urban frontier in the countries of the New World. It does a good job of debunking myths about rural settlement and agriculture being at the forefront of nation building. The intense rivalry of new cities to achieve dominance in new countries drove much of the innovation for these settler states.

    1. I may have given the name of this book incorrectly. It was a text from Victoria University. Perhaps “URBAN FRONTIER” is correct. Mr. Schrader might put me right.

  8. I am a proud European as that is where my ancestors came from generations ago. Unfortunately the exact countries are lost in the mist. Will never describe myself as a non-Maori which is PC hogwash.

    Don’t even start on the fantasy that Maoris lived in a country called Aotearoa when they were colonised. They were so busy eating those from other tribes that national identity never raised its head. Maoris didn’t even have a unified language until colonisation. .

    1. Normally, people who are confident in their own heritage don’t feel the need to complain about “PC hogwash”, denigrate other languages, and characterise other people as descendants of cannibals.

    2. Normally people who are confident in their own heritage don’t act like dildos to people with different heritage. From your comment I would conclude that you’re both insecure and ignorant.

      P.s. The Swiss still don’t have a unified language. Nothing but barbarians with skiis and fancy watches eh?

      P.P.s Europe was wracked with war for millenia. And genocide.

  9. I think the David Hamer book that has been referred to above is the one called ‘New Towns in the New World: Images and Perceptions of the Nineteenth Century Urban Frontier’. Auckland Public Library holds at least one copy. Came out at the beginning of the 1990s.

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