Armistice Day

Page 7 – New Zealand in 1918

It is hard to imagine what New Zealand was like in 1918. The First World War was finally over, leaving more than 16,000 New Zealanders dead and tens of thousands more wounded – over 5300 soldiers died in 1918 alone. Between October and December another 9000 people (including 2500 Māori) died during the influenza pandemic.


The New Zealand population on 31 December 1918 was about 1,150,000 (so multiply the above figures by four to get an idea of the relative impact today). Of this total about 50,000 were Māori, most living in rural areas. About 60% of the population lived in the North Island. Auckland was the region with the most people (308,766), followed by Wellington (232,114) and Canterbury (181,869).

Just over half the European population lived in urban centres. Influenza historian Geoffrey Rice tells us, 'Boroughs varied greatly in size in 1918, ranging from the typical small country town of up to 2,000 people, like Temuka, to the regional centres, which were often twice the size of the next largest town in the region. Only six of these regional centres topped the 10,000 mark in the 1916 census. Wanganui was the largest, with a population of 14,380. There were another six smaller regional centres, while twelve more boroughs would qualify as larger towns or ports; these included places like Hastings and Oamaru. The rest (more than eighty per cent) were small market towns, mining or timber settlements, with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants'. [Black November, 2005 edn, p. 207]


William Massey had been Prime Minister since 1912 (and would remain so until 1925). Although he was leader of the Reform Party, Massey's ministry from 1915 until 1919 – referred to as the 'National Government' – was an uneasy wartime coalition with the opposition Liberal Party. Sir Joseph Ward, the leader of the Liberal Party, served as deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.

Labour politicians Peter Fraser, Harry Holland and Bob Semple were all first elected in 1918 via by-elections.

The King's (and British government's) representative in New Zealand was Lord Liverpool. His title had been upgraded from governor to governor-general in 1917, a move which did not change anything in practice.


Almost half the population said they were Anglicans, while a quarter were Presbyterians. The other two main religious denominations were the Catholics (about 15%) and the Methodists (about 10%). Less than 0.4% of the population said they had no religion. In November 1918 Tahupōtiki Rātana began his Māori religious movement after experiencing a vision of the Holy Spirit, which had come to him in the form of a strange whirlwind-like cloud. Earlier in the year the Māori prophet Rua Kēnana had been released from jail after been arrested and convicted for sedition in 1916.


A massive prohibition petition with 242,001 signatures was presented to Parliament in 1918. Six o'clock closing in pubs, which had initially been imposed as a wartime measure, was made permanent (it was to remain in force until 1967). Women other than those related to or employed by the licensee were not allowed to be in or 'loiter about the entrance' of any licensed premises after 6 p.m.


Only one person was convicted for murder and one for manslaughter in 1918; the punishment for murder was execution by hanging.

Victor Spencer from Invercargill (Otago Regiment) was executed for desertion in February 1918, despite suggestions that he was severely traumatised by shellshock, having fought in and survived several campaigns. He was the last New Zealand soldier to be executed during the First World War.

There were only 54 convictions for offences against property (including theft and burglary). There were 78 convictions for ‘sly-grogging’ (selling alcohol without a licence).


Of the 380 petitions for divorce filed in 1918, 194 cited adultery and 146 desertion; the others were mainly a combination of these two and/or drunkenness and cruelty. Of this total, 279 (73.4%) were granted.


The unemployment rate was only about 1.5%, although 83% of women were classified as 'dependents'. The biggest single employment sector was agriculture, mining and other primary production, with 22% of the male population. Just 3% of women and 4.5% of men were listed as being in 'Professional' employment.


There were 238,000 houses, with an average of 4.52 occupants (a number that had been declining for the past five censuses). Of these houses, 92% were built of wood, 3% were brick and 1% (2391) were canvas. Two-thirds (160,000) of these houses had four to six rooms.


About 85% of New Zealand's exports came from the pastoral sector (wool, frozen meat, butter and cheese). The bulk of these exports still went to the United Kingdom (£18.2 million out of a total of £28.5 million), although in 1918 a much higher proportion than previously went to the United States, Canada and other countries.

The main imports were clothing and textiles, and metals and machinery. Imports of automobiles had increased steadily since 1911, though only the better-off could afford them. Most country people relied on horses to get around, while urban dwellers rode bicycles.


New Zealanders sent more than 12 million telegrams in 1918. Only 6.5% of the population had telephones. Electricity generation and domestic usage was increasing steadily, and in December the first power boards were created to control electricity distribution.


More than 83% of the population could read and write. Public schools were free and ‘purely secular’. It was compulsory for children aged from 7 to 14 to attend a registered school. There were 2280 tertiary students. The School Journal, then in its 12th year, included special numbers for Empire Day and Arbor Day. Nearly 171,000 copies of the three-part November 1918 issue were printed.

Most of the information on this page is taken from the 1919 New Zealand Official Year-book. Feel free to add other 1918 information to the Community Contributions area at the bottom of this page.

How to cite this page

'New Zealand in 1918', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29-Apr-2020

Community contributions

6 comments have been posted about New Zealand in 1918

What do you know?


Posted: 06 Nov 2010

Hi Adele - we have a feature on the 1918 influenza pandemic, including this page about Featherston


Posted: 06 Nov 2010

What saddens me greatly, is the loss of soldiers who returned home, to die of Influenza at Featherston Camp.. 150 graves there of the ones who died. Some served Gallipoli. Egypt. Western Front, died of influenza. I am researching the back ground of each soldier buried there.

Jamie M

Posted: 14 Nov 2008

The closure of public places during the 1918 influenza pandemic gives an idea of some of the popular entertainment options at the time: theatres, dance halls, billiard rooms, shooting galleries. In some parts of the country it was requested that places used for race meetings were closed but in Christchurch Carnival Week, with race meetings at Riccarton and Addington, went ahead. It a popular event that attracted people from all over the country - so popular that hotels and guest houses in the city were always full. Agricultural Shows were also cancelled in other parts of the country but one of the largest of these went ahead in Christchurch during Carnival Week. For many country families the annual show of the Canterbury Agricultural & Pastoral Association was their annual holiday away from the farm. It was also requested that church services be reduced - most people attended church services on Sundays. Information from Geoffrey Rice, Black November, 2005


Posted: 14 Nov 2008

Some more odds and bobs.... In March 1918, massive forest fires destroyed pasture, stock, sawmills and property, and caused three deaths near Raetihi. There were record snowfalls in Christchurch in 1918 (only equalled in 1945). In 1918, New Zealand’s (and the world’s) worst recorded stranding occurred when around 1,000 pilot whales came ashore at Long Beach, Chatham Islands.

Allison Ooster,an

Posted: 11 Nov 2008

Am currently sitting in Lille having spent the last three days visiting WWI memorials on the Western Front, not just the NZ ones but Australian, French, Canadian and many others. I sttarted at Le Quesnoy and attended the three day conference organised to celebrate the 90 years since the NZ troops liberated the town on Nov 4. The mayor and deputy mayor of the sister town in NZ, Cambridge, were there, as were members of the Averill, Barrowclough and Blyth famimies. About 140 people attened over the three days which culminated in a tour of the terrain leading the troops up to the town. We visited the grave of VC winner Nicholas. Everywhere we travelled on the front were hundreds of visitors, most notably hordes of French school children learning about the war. The memorials are magnificent but no more so than the sacrifice made by so many.


Posted: 10 Nov 2008

In 1918 Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) finished writing 'Bliss', had her first tubercular haemorrhage diagnosed, returned from France to England, divorced George Bowden and married the love of her life, John Middleton Murry.