Wellington cafe culture

Page 3 – Immigration and Society

Coffee houses in Wellington from the 1940s

From the mid to late 1940s an affinity for coffee, and the places that dispensed it, spread through Wellington and continued into the 1960s. From the mid 1970s until the late 1980s, though, the café scene all but disappeared.

The rise of coffee houses in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was not a phenomenon confined to Wellington. The impact of global war and the subsequent crumbling of colonial empires led to worldwide waves of immigration which broke down the boundaries of national cuisines. In addition, the post-war economic boom, the rise of youth culture, and increasing affluence and leisure influenced the global proliferation of coffee houses.

The role of immigrants

The history of Wellington café culture, especially in the 1950s, suggests a close connection between immigration and the rise of coffee houses. But the links between immigration, cafés and social identity may be overstated. The decline of cafés in the 1970s and 1980s in fact coincided with an increase in immigrants.

Greek chain migration to New Zealand began after the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, and resumed in earnest between the two world wars. By 1966 the Greeks were the most highly concentrated ethnic group in the Wellington-Hutt urban area. Stanley Nicholas Garland was one Greek immigrant who set up several successful restaurants in Wellington during the 1930s.

Another key international influence was the stationing of American troops in Wellington from 1942 to 1944. While special service clubs catered for these soldiers' cravings for familiar foods, local outlets also emerged to serve the need. In Wellington, a number of coffee shops and milk bars sprung up along Willis Street and Lambton Quay.

Post-war immigration brought larger numbers of European migrants to New Zealand, keen to recreate the ambience of the café in their new land. Assisted immigration from the Netherlands ensured that the Dutch were especially influential from the 1950s.

Changes in New Zealand society

The novelty of these new cafés was appealing. New Zealanders were by this time more open to trying other types of food and drink, partly because of the weakening of links with the British food tradition. The pervasiveness of American films and fashions may also have encouraged young people to adopt American customs. Moreover, New Zealand writers, musicians, artists and scholars - as well as the educated middle classes - welcomed European immigrants and the culture they brought with them.

The story of Wellington's café society fits into a wider pattern, reflecting both national and international trends. But it has also been shaped by key local features - including climate and geography, the city's status as centre of government and a major port, patronage from the large student and arts communities, and the eccentric personalities of some of the owners and habitués.

Decline and resurgence

The decline of coffee houses in the late 1960s and 1970s occurred in many countries. In Britain it was attributed to 'a ruinous combination of urban economics and social agoraphobia.' But in the 1980s and 90s coffee bars made a remarkable comeback. The reasons for this revival include the increase in international travel, the breaking down of communication and trade barriers, and the impact of global fashions.