Auckland: The way Aucklanders lived then

By Russell Stone

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

A family relaxes at Shelly Beach, Auckland. File photo / NZ Herald
A family relaxes at Shelly Beach, Auckland. File photo / NZ Herald

I grew up before 1945, years I look back on as a time of crisis: two world wars, a great economic slump, and the beginning of a Cold War. I am also very much aware of how different daily life was then.

Imagine you are back in Queen St in 1930. Two things would immediately strike you. First, how devoid of traffic the city is. Second, how everyone seems to be a member of a white tribe.

In 1930, one New Zealander in seven owned a motor vehicle. Today two in every three do. We are a highly motorised country with a love affair with cars, Aucklanders most of all.

Today just on 400,000 Aucklanders drive to work each day in their private car or by motorcycle. Back in 1930 there was only half that number of motor vehicles in the whole of New Zealand.

This explains why roads in the 1930s were much less dangerous. Almost all teenagers seemed to have a bicycle which they used primarily to take themselves about on, not for exercise.

Until the 1950s, one of the most capacious buildings in secondary school grounds was the bike shed. Only distant students used public transport. For the rest of us walking or biking to school was the norm. That's why people, children and adults at that time, though shorter and lighter than those today, were aerobically fitter. It was this absence of traffic, too, that enabled young people to play safely outside their home.

Between the wars, Auckland's population was overwhelmingly made up of people of British or Irish stock. People continued to refer to the British Isles as "Home", and recent arrivals from there as "Homeys".

Nor were there many Maori in Auckland. Most of the members of the famed Maori battalion gaining battle honours in the Middle East were country lads.

A Maori who came from rural Northland to my high school in the 1930s said his most vivid impression of his first day at school was, "the sea of white faces all about me".

The wholesale migration of the Maori people to town, and to Auckland above all, was a postwar phenomenon. The era was characterised not just by material things and people; there was a particular mindset, what historians speak of as the mentalité of the time.

The 1920s began with a time of grieving. Rolls of Honour put up in most schools reminded us that more than 18,000 had died in the Great War. We had lost a whole generation of young men.

Then the Great Slump in the early 1930s threw thousands out of work, many of them ex-Diggers, as Great War servicemen were called.

Hard times reinforced the pioneer tradition of "make do and mend". You didn't discard old clothes and utensils. Caution and thrift were admired.

With the coming of war in 1939, shortages of another kind came into being. Rationing, beginning in 1941, was later widened to include petrol, sugar, tea, clothing, butter and meat.

Rationing of some commodities went on beyond the war's end, until 1949. Depression and war worked together to make people of that generation frugal and wary of getting into debt.

We were a much less egalitarian society. Before 1945, a full secondary education was not open to all. It had long been the privilege of bright scholarship students and the children of the well-to-do. The fact that
convention and prejudice denied women entry into well-paid jobs and professions also discouraged able girls from taking up higher education.

Women had to work much harder in their homes. Most housework had to be done by hand with no vacuum cleaners, washing machines, refrigerators and few semi-prepared foods.

However, with electricity laid on in the city and most Auckland suburbs by 1930, the day lengthened for women and made life somewhat easier and more enjoyable for them.

By 1940, for the first time, women acquired an expectation of life that equalled that of men. They were living longer, mainly because of the spread of the practice of birth control which relieved them of the burden of constant child-bearing and consequent gynaecological complaints.

I can remember how we relished the entry of radio receiving sets into our homes during the 1930s. "Listening in", as it was known, became a family affair. All clustered around what was called "the wireless", especially during the war when we followed the events of the battlefronts in relayed broadcasts from the BBC.

The great entertainment phenomenon of these years, however, was the cinema; silent movies in the 1920s and then, with the advent of sound in 1930, what were called "the talkies".

"Going to the pictures" was enormously popular. It has been estimated that by 1939 one-third of the adult population of Auckland was in a picture theatre each Saturday night.

Through movies and to a lesser extent 78rpm gramophone records, American popular culture began to colonise our mind. Through those films we learned to admire American technology actualised in such things as skyscrapers and streamlined cars.

The social attitudes depicted by Hollywood seemed to us so very slick and polished. We liked the hard-boiled slang of the action movies and the catchy tunes and memorable lyrics of the musicals.

Movie stars were our first celebrities - before that word was invented. Young men began to light their cigarette with the sophisticated flourish of Humphrey Bogart and women to pluck their eyebrows and tilt their chapeaux just like Jean Harlow or Marlene Dietrich.

Children spent more time outside than they do today, playing in backyards, streets where traffic was of course more sparse, and also in parks and open land. Bikes put us boys living in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn within easy reach of wonderful places to swim between St Mary's Bay and Herne Bay.

By today's standards we ran wild. There was a great deal of unsupervised freedom. Long summer evenings were spent outside with our mothers saying "Yes you can go out and play with your friends but you've got to come home once the street lights are turned on."

Life expectancy was much lower. When you reached 60 you were considered old. The advent of life-saving drugs: sulphonamides in the 1930s and, even more so, penicillin and other antibiotics in the 1940s constituted a great medical revolution.

But as young people we gave such matters no thought. We couldn't imagine we would ever grow old.

It's hard to measure and compare standards of living then with now. But today's material standards are at least twice as high as those of our country say in 1939. And there is now much more variety in food, drink, and entertainment. Yet material things are not all.

They say the best things in life are free. My impression is that
where the necessities of life were met, young people in the 1930s
were, by and large, just as happy as their counterparts today.

Russell Stone is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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