In 1959 a Sydney beauty queen was asked upon her return from a trip across the Tasman, ‘what did you think of New Zealand?’ ‘I don’t know’, she replied. ‘It was closed’. Such jokes were common. New Zealand businesses generally shut at 5 p.m. on weeknights and many main streets resembled a ghost-town come the weekend.
Few Kiwis seemed worried by such impressions. Most enjoyed a standard of living that was the envy of the world. Unemployment was almost non-existent: Kiwis joked that the Minister of Labour was on a first-name basis with those collecting the dole.
This was the decade in which Ed Hillary literally placed New Zealand on top of the world. We beamed with pride at the exploits of sporting heroes such as Yvette Williams, John Reid and the rising star of Formula One, Bruce McLaren. We finally won a cricket test after a generation of trying and in 1956 the All Blacks at last defeated South Africa in a test series.
Three out of every four New Zealanders turned out to greet the young Queen Elizabeth II during her Royal visit in the summer of 1953–54. But a dark shadow was cast over her trip and the decade when 151 lives were lost in the Tangiwai rail disaster on Christmas Eve 1953.
In the 1950s the country felt the impact of the Cold War. New Zealanders served and died in Korea and Malaya. We moved closer to the United States and joined its crusade against the spread of communism in Asia. Cold War tensions surfaced at home during the 1951 waterfront dispute, the biggest industrial confrontation in our history.
Other dark clouds loomed. A perceived rise in ‘juvenile delinquency’ was highlighted by the 1954 Mazengarb report. The emergence of teen culture, epitomised by the new force of rock ‘n’ roll, contributed to a sense that family values were under attack.
In this feature we provide an overview of the decade and a year-by-year breakdown of some of the key events. Unless stated otherwise statistics come from the 1956 census, representing the midpoint of the decade.