The 1920s

Page 6 – 1923 - key events

The Newlands baby farmers

Daniel Cooper was convicted and hanged for murder after a sensational trial that recalled the infamous Minnie Dean baby-farming case of 1895. After being under police surveillance for some time, Cooper was arrested on 30 December 1922 and charged with performing an abortion. Following the discovery of a female baby’s body at the Coopers’ property in Newlands, near Wellington, on 3 January, he and his wife Martha were charged with four counts of illegally detaining children and one of murder. Before the start of the murder trial on 14 May, two more babies’ bodies were unearthed at Newlands.

After months of feverish press coverage, the Wellington Supreme Court was jam-packed for the trial. The jury cleared Martha of murder, but Dan Cooper – dubbed ‘Herod the Horrible’ by NZ Truth – was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged at the Terrace Gaol, Wellington, on 16 June.

Katherine Mansfield dies in France

One of the few New Zealand writers to achieve international acclaim, Mansfield revolutionised 20th-century English short-story writing. Born and raised in Wellington, she left ‘provincial’ New Zealand for the centre of the English literary world, London, in 1908 and never returned. She died from tuberculosis in France on 9 January, aged 34. Mansfield’s work has been translated into more than 25 languages. The house in Thorndon where she was born has been restored and is one of New Zealand’s most popular heritage sites.

Rails through the Alps

The opening of the 8.5-km Ōtira tunnel on 4 August completed the transalpine railway between Christchurch and Greymouth. At the time it was the longest tunnel outside the Alps and the seventh-longest in the world. Tunnelling work had begun in 1908, but the project was plagued by engineering problems and labour shortages. Due to the tunnel’s length and steep gradient, electric locomotives were used to haul trains through it.

From the 1920s to the 1960s popular Sunday excursions were run from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass and Ōtira. Today, the line is a vital route for carrying West Coast coal to Lyttelton for export, while the TranzAlpine passenger train has become a thriving tourist operation, conveying 200,000 passengers a year across the Southern Alps.

Cowan’s New Zealand Wars published

The second volume of James Cowan’s two-volume The New Zealand Wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period (1922–23) was published. The work was funded by the Department of Internal Affairs, which paid him a salary from 1918 to 1922. A pioneer of oral history, Cowan talked to both Māori and Pākehā war veterans and visited many of the battle sites. Although his work was rather uncritical of the imperial cause and largely ignored the origins of the conflict, The New Zealand Wars was the definitive account of the wars until the 1980s. It remains a classic of New Zealand history and literature.

Other events in 1923:

  • The Dairy Produce Control Board was established as a counterpart to the Meat Producers’ Board.
  • Social campaigner Ettie Rout’s book Safe marriage, which discussed contraception, was banned for indecency.
  • Henry Wigram’s Canterbury Aviation Company was taken over by the government as the base for the New Zealand Permanent Air Force.
  • On 1 July New Zealand Breweries was established following the merger of 10 breweries, including the country’s largest, Speight’s of Dunedin.
  • Industrial disputes involving freezing workers and West Coast coalminers ended in defeats for the unionists.
  • In the early hours of 6 July an Auckland−Wellington express train crashed into a huge landslip that had slumped across the tracks at Ōngarue, north of Taumarunui in King Country. Seventeen people were killed and 28 injured. This remains New Zealand’s third worst train disaster.
  • A Board of Maori Ethnological Research was formed.
  • On 1 October Seacliff of Otago beat Wellington YMCA in the final of the first Chatham Cup knockout football tournament. The competition was named after the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Chatham, whose crew had gifted the impressive trophy – a replica of the English FA Cup.
  • The Native Bird Protection Society (later the Royal Forest and Bird Society) was established.
  • Britain declared sovereignty over Antarctica’s Ross Dependency, with administration allocated to New Zealand. 
How to cite this page

'1923 - key events', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 9-Oct-2023

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