“The New Zealand Dream”

When Edward Gibbon Wakefield developed his theory of colonisation in c.1827 (while imprisoned for abducting a young woman) he envisioned for New Zealand the formation of an idealised English rural society, in which all hard-working labourers could aspire to rural land ownership on a modest scale. Within this society the ideal form of ‘landownership’ was to be owning a small self-sufficient farm, while urban properties were to be viewed as simply embarkation points for the countryside. This aspiration for land ownership would eventually become known as “The New Zealand Dream” (Ferguson, 1994: 8, 14; McAloon, 2008). With property values in Christchurch having recently achieved their strongest  monthly growth rate in 17 years, making the possibility of achieving this dream difficult for many first home buyers, we thought it might be opportune to take a look at the theory of Christchurch property value and ownership at the time of the founding of the Canterbury settlement in 1850, and how changing views of landownership during the 19th century altered the “Dream”, from rural aspirations to today’s suburban utopia.

Wakefield theorised that one of the key factors to achieving the ideal colonial settlement was the price at which land was to be sold to settlers. He believed that where land was given for free or sold too cheaply (such as was the case in the Australian colonies) there resulted in too many self-sufficient landowners and not enough labourers to work for wages. But if the price was too high, then only the wealthy would be able to afford land and labourers could never aspire to become landowners. To achieve his goal of a society of small independent rural landowners, Wakefield proposed that the price of land should be fixed at a value that was high enough to provide sufficient revenue to fund the emigration of labourers to a colony, but low enough that industrious labourers could aspire to become landowners after four or fives years work (Webb, 1965: 143).

It was upon the principals of Wakefield’s theory of colonisation that the Canterbury Association founded the Canterbury settlement in 1850. When the Canterbury Association announced their terms of purchase for land in the new settlement in April 1850, their proposal reflected Wakefield’s vision for modest land prices. Land prices were set at £3 per acre for rural allotments (which began at 50 acres) and £12 per quarter-acre for town allotments in Christchurch or Lyttelton. However, the Association’s selected immigrants were entitled to select a 50-acre allotment of rural land and an urban allotment in either of the townships for the combined price of £150. On the eve of the departure of the first Canterbury settlers to New Zealand in September 1850, 143 people had purchased land orders in the new settlement. Together these 143 land purchasers had bought 13,150 acres of rural land, 132 acres of town land, and had obtained the right to lease an additional 65,750 acres of pasturage. Although this was less land than the Association had projected selling, they actively congratulated themselves on the belief that the majority of the land that had been sold was purchased by those intending to settle in the colony, and not by land speculators who were intending to only make a profit off it (Webb, 1965: 168-169).

The Canterbury Association’s advertisement for working-class emigration to Canterbury in 1849

The first four Association ships arrived at Lyttelton between the 16th and 27th December 1850, bringing with them about 800 settlers to the new colony. The process of selecting the rural and town land that they had already paid for was not scheduled to take place until the colonists had been in the new settlement for three months. This provision was intended to allow the colonists time to survey the topography and farming possibilities of the Canterbury plains before making their selection. The downside of this provision was that the colonists could not begin the process of building their new permanent homes until they had made their selection of land. In the meantime, a few of the settlers chose to stay in their cabins on board the Association’s ships (which remained in port for three weeks while unloading their cargo), while others were forced to build temporary accommodation, such as tents, V huts, or other makeshift shelters in the townships. In preparation for the arrival of the colonists however, the Association did construct immigration barracks in Lyttelton, which could temporarily house between 300-400 immigrants (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 4; Schrader, 2012).

For many of the Canterbury pilgrims, the inability to take possession of their land and build permanent dwellings proved difficult, as they did not want to waste their limited resources and capital on temporary arrangements. At the first meeting of the Canterbury Land Purchasers (held on 20th December 1850 before the fourth Association ship, The Cressy, had even arrived in port) the settlers informed the Association’s representative, John Godley, of their desire to immediately begin the land selection process. Godley consented to a compromised outcome, in which the settlers could immediately begin selecting their town allotments, but still had to wait until the allocated time to select their rural allotments. The settlers agreed, and the selection of town allotments began quickly to allow the settlers to leave their temporary accommodations and begin developing their own properties (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 6).

Lithograph of J. Durey’s 1851 painting of the bricks landing site on the Avon River showing the first settlement within Christchurch city.

Unlike Wakefield’s vision of a rural society, it was therefore the town sections and not the rural properties that were first eagerly developed for occupation by the Canterbury pilgrims. Although the selection of town sections in Lyttelton appears to have been initially favored, by mid-January there was a shift in preference to the selection of town sections located in the settlement’s capital, Christchurch. The Lyttelton Times noted that “there can be no doubt but that the capital of the district will be rapidly peopled, and the town land acquire a considerable value” (Lyttelton Times, 18/1/1851: 5). Right from the beginning of the settlement, Canterbury town land was seen as a valuable and desired commodity.

The agricultural labourers that had immigrated to Canterbury in the hope of working their way into land ownership, were in a particularly difficult position during the first months of the settlement, as there were no agricultural labouring positions available for them until the selection of rural land took place. While those settlers with land purchase orders made their selection of town lands and moved onto their new properties, those settlers who did not initially have the capital to invest in land remained in the immigration barracks or their temporary makeshift shelters. However, for those non-landed settlers who did not want to stay in the makeshift accommodations for a prolonged period of time, there soon emerged an attractive alternative in the form of leasehold properties. In the second issue of the Lyttelton Times (issued on the 18th January 1851 just one month after the arrival of the first Association ship) there were already advertisements announcing town sections in Christchurch available for lease (Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 1). These leasehold sections offered the non-landed settler an opportunity to construct for themselves more permanent dwellings/commercial buildings (like their landed counterparts) without having to outlay the cost of purchasing a town section. The Lyttelton Times indicates that leasehold sections in Lyttelton were particularly popular, noting that “tenants at good rents still continue to come forward for the town lands of Lyttelton”, with sections along the commercial hub of Norwich Quay letting for 15 shillings per foot frontage (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 4; 18/1/1851: 5). Alternative rented accommodation was also soon to be found in the form of hotels, which began to be constructed in Lyttelton in early January and in Christchurch in early March (Lyttelton Times, 11/1/1851: 4; 8/3/1851: 5).

Advertisement in the Lyttelton Times 18/1/1851: 1 announcing town sections in Christchurch available for lease.

Until farmhand positions were available, some of the agricultural labourers joined their urban wage-earning counterparts in looking to the towns to obtain a source of income (particularly those who needed to pay for their newly rented accommodations). For many, this meant working on the Canterbury Association’s public works or helping their fellow settlers to construct their new homes. The towns therefore became the main center for both employment and residential activities.

Advertisement in the Lyttelton Times 25/1/1851: 1 from a labourer seeking contracts to help build settler houses in Christchurch and Lyttelton.

The selection of rural land had finally begun by early February 1851 (Lyttleton Times, 1/2/1851: 3). This gave the opportunity for the landowning setters to depart Christchurch and Lyttelton for their new country estates and begin turning their fields into production. As the land selection process progressed, Godley noted that “Each purchaser seems convinced that he himself had secured the best allotment of all; but the most satisfactory feature is that nearly the whole body have selected their land within a circle of four or five miles in diameter” (Webb, 1965: 177-178). This suggests that while some of the settlers may have looked forward to removing from the two townships to the country, the location of their selections being in such close proximity to the towns indicates that they were still intimately connection with the development of the towns. It is also not true that all of the rural sections selected by the first body of colonists were intended for rural development, as the very first rural section selected, Rural Section No. 1 (located on the northern boundary of the town of Lyttelton),  was taken up by the trustees of Christ’s College and  almost immediately opened up for residential development.  The Lyttelton Times noted in early February 1851 that “almost the whole of which has been applied for at high rents for building purpose” (Lyttelton Times, 1/2/1851: 3).

Although Wakefield had envisioned for New Zealand the formation of an idealised English rural society, his theory faltered on economic reality (McAloon, 2008). Life in the country was hard and the cost of bringing land into production was high. Although the large pastoral farms managed to make good profits, the profits of the smaller agricultural farms proved less lucrative. For agricultural labourers, work was generally seasonal with long periods of unemployment. This proved most difficult during the periods of economic downturn in the 1870s and 1880s, when periods of unemployment brought widespread distress. During this time, the landless gravitated to the towns where there was a greater variety of housing options and at least some hope of relief in the form of charitable aid. The population of the towns grew rapidly during the 1870s and 1880s, with the population of Christchurch growing from 7,931 in 1871, to 13,425 in 1878 (Ferguson, 1994: 15, 19). This population growth is evident in the comparison of maps of the city of Christchurch drawn in 1862 and 1877, which shows a significant increase in the number and density of buildings constructed in the township over this fifteen-year period.

Detail from Fooks’ 1862 map of Christchurch showing just two buildings present on the town block bound by Armagh, Gloucester, Barbadoes, and Madras Streets.

Detail from Strouts’ 1877 map of Christchurch showing a significant increase in the number of buildings present on the town block bound by Armagh, Gloucester, Barbadoes, and Madras Streets.

For the poorer classes of society, the towns offered a greater variation in the security of rental tenures than what was generally available in the country, with house leases being offered by yearly, monthly, fortnightly, or weekly agreements, or public lodging houses or rooms for board being offered on daily agreements. These short-term rental or lodging agreements offered a great deal more flexibility than living with a mortgage, as those on a daily, weekly or fortnightly tenancy could shift quickly to another location when employment opportunities arose, and could tailor the quality of the housing to fit uncertain incomes. There were, however, very few renting and lodging regulations during this period, and those laws that were in place tended to favour the landlord over the tenant. This meant that tenants were not always completely secure in their tenements, though some protections did come into effect later in the century such as The Lodgers’ Goods Protection Act 1880, which limited the power of landlords to take their tenant’s property in lieu of arrears of rent (Ferguson, 1994: 36, 47). Unfortunately, this system of short-term and informal rental agreements makes it very difficult for historical researchers to ascertain who was occupying certain properties during the 19th century, as the names of tenants were not always formally recorded in the Canterbury Deeds Books – this is particularly frustrating when trying to work out who might be associated with archaeological assemblages.

This burgeoning rental market in the 19th century allowed those landowners with a little capital to invest in housing. Town settlers would buy all or part of a town section and build a house for themselves, and then they could rent out rooms in their homes to lodgers, or if they had enough capital, they could build a second or third house which they could sell or rent to others (Ferguson, 1994: 47). While in Wakefield’s vision of rural utopia the rural property symbolised a reward for labour with the land as a source of income; for town-dwellers it was the house itself that came to be a major source of income (Ferguson, 1994: 35). Unfortunately, there was very little regulation regarding the construction of buildings in Christchurch and Lyttelton. City builders claimed that regulations inhibited growth, and Municipal governments (often the same people) tended to agree and so placed few restrictions on urban land use. Builders placed houses awkwardly on sites, with no guarantee of street access, water supply, or effective sewerage systems. As cities grew and land became scarcer, lanes and alleys were driven through the backs of properties and lined with poorly constructed cottages for workers. These soon became over-crowded and squalid, with rubbish and effluent festering in city streets and a rising death toll from diseases such as typhoid (Schrader, 2007). Some small attempts were made to address these issues, such as the Public Health Act 1872, which set up Local Boards of Health to monitor and improve health in their areas. Although they attempted to control overcrowding and to have filthy houses cleansed and whitewashed, the Act did not set housing standards and did not provide powers of enforcement.

The six terrace houses outlined on the map were constructed by John Ponsford in ca. 1876 as investment properties that were leased out.

While the living conditions of some of the town dwellers devolved into squalid and unsanitary conditions, for others the towns became a source of wealth and advancement and a profitable alternative from the hardships of rural settlement. A wealthy industrial and mercantile class therefore began to develop in the towns. Although traditionally, manufacturers and tradesmen would live next to their businesses in the central city (with their workers living in poorer housing nearby), during the 1880s more and more of the affluent town-dwellers began to move their homes away from the older centres of the town to the periphery. As the city slums continued to grow, many politicians and reformers began to fear that the increasing number of slum-dwellers would have a bad effect on the respectable town workers who ought to be pursuing that rural vision. As a solution, they looked to the example set by the wealthy mercantile class, and they began to rework the rural vision into a new suburban dream, one not just for the affluent but for respectable skilled workers as well. If labourers could not become rural landowners, the next best life they could aspire to was to own a home in a respectable suburb. Speculators began to buy up the rural lands adjoining the townships and promote the subdivision of land into suburban settlements (Ferguson, 1994: 24-25, 29-31; Press, 24/2/1882: 2). In this way the “New Zealand Dream”, which Wakefield originally imagined to be owning one’s own self-sufficient farm, was transformed into the desire for a suburban settlement near-to but not within the city’s main commercial centers. City planners continued to promote the classification of separate commercial and residential areas throughout the 20th century – and for many this idea of the “New Zealand Dream” as owning a slice of suburban utopia persists today.

Lydia Mearns


Ferguson, G., 1994. Building the New Zealand Dream. Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press Limited.

McAloon, J., 2008. ‘Land ownership’. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at: <http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/land-ownership/print> Accessed February 2021.

Schrader, B., 2007. ‘State housing’, New Zealand Geographic. Issue 086 (July-August). [online] Available at: <https://www.nzgeo.com/stories/state-housing> Accessed February 2021.

Schrader, Ben, 2012. Housing. In: Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at: <http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/housing/print> Accessed February 2021.

Webb, L.C., 1965. Section III – The Canterbury Association and its Settlement. In: J. Hight and C.R. Straubel, eds., A History of Canterbury, Volume 1. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs.