First Rotary club in New Zealand founded

7 June 1921

Posed photograph of members dining in large hall.
Wellington Rotary Club, 1921 (ATL, PAColl-D-0540)

A local Rotary club was established at a luncheon in Wellington’s YMCA, with Alexander Roberts elected as the first president. An Auckland branch was formed six days later, with former Liberal Cabinet minister George Fowlds as president.

Fowlds had provided the impetus for Rotary’s introduction in New Zealand. The Rotary movement (so named because early meetings were held in the offices of members in rotation) was founded in Chicago in 1905. Fowlds attended Rotary meetings during a postwar visit to North America. At his suggestion, Canadian representatives of the International Association of Rotary Clubs toured Australia and New Zealand in 1921, initially setting up clubs in Melbourne and Sydney. By this time there were 800 clubs with 80,000 members in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.

Initially, each club could have only one member from each line of business or profession, ensuring that none became dominant. Advocates described Rotary as ‘a form of business and professional freemasonry, which has for its aims the welfare of the whole town or community, rather than that of the individual.’ Another goal was the promotion of better relations between the United States and the British Empire. New branches had to be authorised by the international association, and prospective members were invited to join by a local ‘secret committee’.

Early addresses to the weekly meetings of the New Zealand clubs covered such topics as the importance of science, reform of the school curriculum, the need to spruce up Wellington’s many ‘dirty and dilapidated houses’, and ‘the national influence of hydro-electric power’. The ‘social side of Rotary’ was not overlooked.

By 1930 there were more than a thousand members of New Zealand’s 23 Rotary clubs.

David Green

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