Skip to main content

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:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated