The 1950s

Page 2 – Overview

Population

The post-war ‘baby boom’ was the main contributor to a population increase of nearly 400,000 during the 1950s. But it was an immigrant on the Captain Hobson who in September 1952 officially took New Zealand’s population past the two million mark. More than 125,000 migrants settled here during the decade, the vast majority of them British. Approximately 50,000 came as assisted migrants, including 5000 ‘displaced persons’ from Europe and 1100 Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet repression after the 1956 uprising. By December 1959, 2.3 million people called New Zealand home.

There were still significant differences in the life expectancy of Māori and non-Māori New Zealanders. Life expectancy at birth for non-Māori was 69 years for men and 74 for women. For Māori the figures were 54 and 58 respectively. A major cause was the dramatic difference in death rates during the first year of life. The non-Māori infant mortality rate was 20 per 1000 live births; for Māori it was 54 per 1000.

Economy

A continuing role as ‘Britain’s farmyard’ underpinned New Zealand’s prosperity. While Britain began to contemplate closer economic ties with continental Europe, for most New Zealanders an economy without the certainty of the British market seemed unthinkable. At the end of the decade the UK received more than half our exports and provided nearly half our imports. Just 4% of exports made the much shorter trip ‘across the ditch’ to Australia.

For most of the fifties, more than 90% of our export earnings came from products grown on our pastures: wool, meat and dairy. Sheep numbers rose by 40% during the decade.

Most years New Zealand earned more from its exports than it paid for imports. But a decline in wool and butter prices in 1957–58 highlighted the vulnerability of an export economy dependent on a narrow range of products and markets.

During the 1950s Kiwis spent pounds, shillings and pence (£ s d). Imperial currency was complex: pounds were divided into 20 shillings, and there were 12 pence to the shilling. Children were well-schooled in the fractions.

The big-ticket household items in the fifties were washing machines and refrigerators. Yet even by 1959 only 54% of dwellings had the sole or shared use of a refrigerator, while 57% had the sole or shared use of a washing machine. Those without such mod cons relied on ‘boiling the copper’ to do their laundry and stored perishables like meat in a food safe, a box with a netting side through which fresh air circulated. At the end of the decade 14% of New Zealand dwellings still lacked piped water and 19% did not have a flush toilet.

Popular culture

While television was transforming life in the United States and Britain, regular broadcasts would not start here until 1960. Radio was pre-eminent, and Maud Basham (Aunt Daisy) and Selwyn Toogood ruled the airwaves. For 30 years Aunt Daisy’s cheery trademark ‘Good morning, everyone!’ greeted housewives and the elderly at 9 a.m. on weekdays. Toogood’s quiz show It’s in the bag became one of the most popular evening radio programmes following its debut in 1954 (and later made a successful transition to television). Catchphrases such as ‘By hokey!’ and ‘What should she do, New Zealand?’ (choose a known sum of money or the unknown contents of ‘the bag’, which could be whiteware or a booby prize) became part of the Kiwi vernacular.

The McCarthy years

Radio was vital for New Zealand sports fans unable to attend events. Winston McCarthy was the voice of rugby during the 1950s. His trademark phrase, ‘Listen, listen … it’s a goal’, helped create vivid images for thousands of enthusiastic listeners. As well as calling 38 All Black tests, McCarthy commentated on other sports, including cricket and boxing, and at the 1950 and 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games and the 1956 Olympics.

Radio was under state control and listeners paid the Post Office an annual licence fee of just over £1. In 1956 a new Pye radio, Model 77 with ‘the luxury of BANDSPREADING’, would set consumers back £35 17s 6d – about four weeks’ pay for the average worker, and a hefty $1800 in today’s money.

In All shook up, historian Redmer Yska examined ‘the rise of the New Zealand teenager’. Ron Palenski described the impact of rock ‘n’ roll as the arrival of change at ‘78 revolutions a minute’. New subcultures such as ‘Bodgies’ and ‘Widgies’ emerged. Young men with slicked-back hair dressed in stovepipe pants and winkle-picker shoes hung out in milk-bars and cafes – much to the concern of older New Zealanders. In 1954 a Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents, chaired by lawyer Oswald Mazengarb, blamed the rise in ‘juvenile delinquency’ on the absence from home of working mothers, the easy availability of contraceptives, and on young women who enticed men into having sex.

Those convinced the nation’s youth were out of control pointed to high-profile murders such as the 1954 killing of Honora Parker and the 1955 ‘Jukebox murder’ of Alan Jacques by Albert ‘Paddy’ Black. The emergence of rock ‘n’ roll was supposedly central to this deterioration of values and behaviour. The prime local example in the 1950s was Johnny Devlin, New Zealand’s answer to Elvis Presley.

New Zealanders were among the most regular cinemagoers in the world. The ‘pictures’, as they were popularly known, were an essential part of life. The West Coast had the highest attendance per head of population.

Politics

National leaders

Prime Ministers

Governors-General:

Since 1854 there had been an appointed upper house of Parliament, the Legislative Council. This upper house was abolished from 1 January 1951. 

New Zealanders elected their members of Parliament (MPs) under the first-past-the-post (FPP) system. The party that won a majority of the electorates got to govern almost unfettered. During the 1950s, all 80 MPs belonged to either the centre-right National or centre-left Labour party.

 

Sidney Holland led National to victory in 1949, ending the first Labour government’s 14-year rule. He called an early election in 1951 in the wake of the  waterfront dispute. In what was essentially a referendum on the government’s handling of the bitter conflict, National increased its parliamentary majority by eight seats. National remained in power until 1957, when 75-year-old Walter Nash led Labour back into office.

The search for security in the nuclear age

The Japanese advance across the Pacific during the Second World War had shown New Zealanders that they could no longer rely on Mother England to come to their defence. While ties with Britain remained strong, New Zealand turned increasingly to the United States for peace of mind in the post-war nuclear age.

In 1950 New Zealand demonstrated its support for the principles of collective security by contributing to a Commonwealth force in the United Nations’ action in Korea. Commonwealth security was more directly at stake during the Malayan Emergency, which was sparked by a communist attempt to overthrow the British colonial administration of Malaya.

New Zealand entered into new regional alliances such as ANZUS and SEATO. Having clearly aligned itself with the United States and its struggle against communism, New Zealand placed itself firmly under America's ‘nuclear umbrella’.

Sport

As was the case for much of the 20th century, rugby was a powerful sporting and cultural force. Its place was largely unchallenged on and off the field. The Ranfurly Shield was the ultimate symbol of provincial supremacy. Canterbury and Taranaki were the most successful teams of the 1950s but unions considered minnows in today’s professional era, such as Wairarapa and South Canterbury, enjoyed their moments of fame by winning the coveted log o’ wood.

The All Blacks were central to the nation’s well-being in the minds of many New Zealanders. By today’s standards test matches were rare: during the 1950s the All Blacks played only 30. The decade’s high point was the 1956 series victory, the first over the old foe, South Africa.

Earlier that year, after 26 years of trying, the New Zealand men’s cricket team had won its first test victory, defeating the West Indies at Eden Park. This restored some pride to a team that had been dismissed for just 26 runs by England the year before – still the lowest score by any team in a completed test innings. 

Motor racing attracted huge crowds in the 1950s. By the end of the decade New Zealand had its own star of the racetrack. Bruce McLaren became the youngest ever Grand Prix winner when he won the 1959 United States GP in Florida.

Communications

The 1950s was dominated by what we today call ‘snail-mail’. By the end of the decade New Zealanders were posting over 200 million letters and postcards per year – 87 for every man, woman and child. People kept in touch with family and friends overseas via 24.5 million airmail letters. In addition, 8 million telegrams were sent. There were 1440 post offices to handle this business.

In the 1950s there was approximately one (landline) telephone for every five people. Many country districts were served by party lines, with up to 10 customers each. Users could listen in on other people’s conversations. International toll calls were booked in advance and organised through a toll operator.

Getting about

New Zealand’s rail network reached its peak route length in 1953, with 5689 km of track. New Zealanders made around 25 million train trips a year – an average of more than 10 each. But the automobile was becoming the prime people mover. During the decade the number of cars more than doubled. By 1960, 500,000 were registered – one for every 4.5 New Zealanders.

In their Jowett Javelins, FJ Holdens, Vanguard Spacemasters and Morris Minors, drivers encountered pretty rough roads outside the urban centres and the main highway network. In 1950, less than 20% of the more than 80,000 km of formed roads was sealed. By 1959 there were 96,000 km of formed roads, but less than a quarter of this distance was sealed. The Sunday drive or summer holiday trip often involved a dusty ‘metal’ (gravel) road.

Increasing car ownership encouraged migration to new suburbs on the fringes of the main centres. Some local authorities responded quickly to the rise of commuting by introducing parking meters.

Road toll

New Zealand’s roads have improved markedly since the 1950s, as have the safety features considered standard. Safety belts weren’t compulsory in the fifties and ABS brakes were for aircraft, not cars. With 348 deaths, the road toll in 1959 was comparable to that of 2009 (349) – and there were only a quarter as many cars on the road.

Flying was still a novelty. By 1959 there were three return flights a day between Auckland and Christchurch via Wellington. Like many things, aviation was heavily regulated. The New Zealand National Airways Act 1945 was based on an assumption that only one airline could profitably serve the main trunk route. The surpluses generated by this service subsidised secondary routes to provincial towns. A single domestic airline, the National Airways Corporation (NAC), was created.

New Zealanders heading to the United Kingdom usually travelled by ship, although an increasing number chose to fly. A flight to London via Sydney took between three and five days.

Eating and drinking

The traditional meal of ‘meat and three veg’ ruled the kitchen: beef or mutton with potatoes, ‘cabbage and greens’ or carrots. Lamb was usually reserved for special occasions such as Christmas. In 1953 each man, woman and child ate on average 107 kg of meat. Of the 335 kg of fruit and veg consumed per person, 94 kg was potatoes, ‘cabbage and greens’ and carrots. The average Kiwis ate just 5 kg of fresh fish and 3 kg of poultry.

New Zealanders certainly enjoyed a nice cuppa, infusing 3 kg of loose-leaf tea per head annually. Many added milk to their tea and the average person downed 154 litres of full-cream milk. Most New Zealand schoolchildren still ‘enjoyed’ a half-pint (284 ml) of free school milk each day. The word cholesterol was rarely heard as we each tucked into 16 kg of butter.

But we liked our beer more. At the end of the decade the ‘average New Zealander’ consumed 81 litres of beer a year, along with 1.5 litres of ‘grape wine’ and 1.4 litres of spirits. With the legal drinking age 21 and many teetotallers, some were clearly drinking more than was good for them. Pubs still stopped serving grog at 6 p.m. and the ‘six o'clock swill’ was an established feature of New Zealand life. Many enjoyed a smoke with their drink, consuming on average 2.3 kg of tobacco each year.

The fifties in retrospect

Some argue that prosperity made 1950s New Zealand a complacent and conservative, even repressive, place. But for those who had lived through the tough times of the Great Depression and the Second World War, this was a small price to pay for contentment. People rarely thought about how later generations would judge them, but instead focused on day-to-day living.

How to cite this page

'Overview', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/the-1950s/overview, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-May-2018